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Jasdev Singh Rai: Turban Not an Ostensible Symbol

Jasdev Singh Rai is a member of the U.K.-based Sikh Human Rights Group. Sikhs often portray the absence of a strict priestly hierarchy in Sikhism as an advantage. However, in the case of the Sikh response to the banning of religious symbols from French schools, the absence of one clear authority representing the Sikhs seems to have done more harm than good. A coherent approach would have been preferable to the current state of anarchy., Nov. 7, 2004

Photo: Jasdev Singh Rai, delivering the plenary statement at United Nations (U.N.) World Conference Against Racism (W.C.A.R.), August 31 to September 8, 2001, Durban, South Africa.

Jasdev Singh Rai, international adviser to jathedar [head priest] Akal Takht, has given firsthand information about the series of meetings he had with the Government of France to resolve the turban issue.

He alleged that divergent views of Sikh leadership, submitted to France especially from America and India, had complicated this issue.

Dr. Rai alleged that 'continuing interventions from India, stating that 'turban is an unremovable religious item and must be accommodated' made the entire exercise difficult.'

'The Sikhs in the U.S.A. and some of their representatives in France continued to deal with the press without any prior preparations or joint position. Their position was that the Sikhs would die for the turban and that it was holy.'

Interestingly, Bibi Kiranjot Kaur, executive member of the S.G.P.C. and a delegation of Sikhs from France, had accused Dr. Rai of complicating the issue.

Giving chronology of his meetings with representatives of the French Government, Dr. Rai claimed that the matter had almost been resolved due to his efforts, but the decision of certain Sikhs from France to move court complicated the problems.

Dr. Rai alleged that some Sikh groups, especially in the U.S.A., imagined the worst and started a campaign prematurely. They threatened to take France to the European Court, he said.

Dr. Rai further claimed that he had immediately arranged a meeting with the Religious Affairs Head, Mr. Roudaut, at the French Foreign Ministry through the Ambassador for Human Rights. Ambassador Keller was also present at the meeting.

'I reminded them of para 67 achieved at the World Conference Against Racism [W.C.A.R.] in Durban that accepted that the situation of the Sikhs was unique,' he said.

They immediately arranged further meetings with Mr. Sevaistre, Chief of Bureau, Cultural Affairs at the French Interior Ministry.

'Mr. Sevaistre put the French position clearly and diplomatically,' he said.

Dr. Rai said he contended that turban was not an 'ostensible' sign, therefore the law did not apply to the Sikhs.

'I argued that when a member of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish faith adorn an obvious sign, they have taken a conscious decision to be religious, gone through some initiation ceremony and are announcing that fact to the world through their sign. In contrast, the vast majority of Sikhs who wear turbans have not taken amrit, the equivalent of Christian baptism. How can the turban be an ostensible sign then?,' he said.

Dr. Rai claimed that his logic was accepted by the French Government. Mr. Sevaistre and Mr. Jouve were keen to find a solution.

He alleged that when solution was about to be found, problems started arising from the U.S.A. and India. Neither party tried to reach a consensus approach. They continued to push the simplistic principle that the turban was an important religious sign. He claimed that French pointed out the confusion to him.

Dr. Rai alleged that U.S.A. Sikh groups were politicising the issue. They were not willing to listen to anyone.

On his criticism that he had not taken Sikhs from France into confidence and complicated the matter, Dr. Rai claimed that he took Mr. Iqbal Singh from France to the first three meetings. At the meetings, except the last one, French Sikhs had accompanied him, he said.

'We then had further meetings with Mr. Jouve and finally had a meeting with the Minister for Education, Mr. Luc Ferry. The meeting was attended by five representatives from different gurdwaras in France and a representative from the United Sikhs, who had failed to liaise with me before.'

Dr. Rai claimed that the meeting was constructive and the minister promised to find a solution.

The French position began to change as the issue in the press continued to stress turban as an important 'religious' item. This sounded like 'ostensible' to the press, he said.

With the help of the ministry, the majority of students went to school. Problem remained with a mere four students.

The government had offered to put them in private schools at its expense, as long as the arrangement remained discreet. However, a group of Sikhs decided to tell the press, he said.

The government had to retract this arrangement in public when the press accused it of partiality towards the Sikhs. The arrangement broke down.

The legal action taken by certain Sikhs had put a stop to the dialogue.

Dr. Rai, however, denied that he had dubbed turban 'cultural symbol.' 'My position was to show that the law did not apply to the Sikhs, because both the intention of it and the issue of 'ostensibility' did not apply to the Sikhs,' he concluded.