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Turban Trouble


Time, Aug. 29, 1960

In the endless war between bureaucracy and the individual, a new skirmish was being fought last week in industrial Manchester. A 6-ft., nobly bearded Sikh named Gyani Sundar Singh Sagar, 43, having passed the examination to become a conductor on Manchester's municipal buses, was eager to don the navy-blue uniform of his chosen calling. But since the Sikh Holy Book, the Adi Granth. says that 'a Sikh is never to wear a cap or shave his beard or head,' Singh Sagar asked permission to keep his shoulder-length hair under a smoothly coiled turban rather than top it incongruously with the customary conductor's cap.

Permission was refused. For as Laborite Charles Morris, chairman of Manchester's Transport Committee, testily explained, 'If turbans are permitted, there is nothing to prevent a whole string of religious beliefs turning up to work with all sorts of badges and devices.' With a true bureaucratic horror of the unusual and unexpected, he said, 'What do we do if an orthodox Jew comes along? They don't work on Saturdays.' He offered Singh Sagar, a graduate in languages and literature from an Indian university, other work in the bus terminal where he could wear his turban. But Singh Sagar stubbornly insisted on being a bus conductor or nothing. 'I am a man of merit,' he said. 'I passed their tests for the job. It would not be meritorious to take another job.'

Rallying to Singh Sagar's side, his 700 fellow Sikhs in Manchester drew up a document pointing out that in two world wars 82,000 turbaned Sikhs had been killed in battle, and Sikhs had won more than half of the Victoria Crosses awarded to the Indian army. If they could die for Britain in their turbans, asked the Sikhs, could they not be allowed to work in them? Support also came from Manchester's mighty Guardian: an editorial suggested that, with or without caps, no one looked tackier than the average Manchester bus conductor. Asked an indignant letter writer: 'If a man is clean, polite and has a sense of duty, what difference does a hat make? Unless, of course, he is on the Transport Committee and requires a hole in it to talk through.'

Last week, even more dismayed by public outcry than by private eccentricity, harried bureaucrat Morris hurriedly put the case of Singh Sagar back on the agenda for next month's Transport Committee meeting. 'Perhaps,' said stubborn, turbaned Singh Sagar, 'I will be the first Sikh to ring a Manchester Corporation bus bell.'