Singh says his entry to the British upper house as an independent MP is a case of “too late”. “There should have been a turbaned Sikh MP in the UK many years ago,” he told ET on Sunday from his home in Wimbledon. Singh’s despondency is not an isolated case.
Due to widespread efforts in Continental Europe to separate religion from state and resultant curbs on religious symbols, Sikhs have been subject to numerous bans on turbans. In 2004, the French government imposed a ban on wearing turbans to state-run institutions. Scores of schoolboys from the community have run into trouble with the authorities for wearing turbans in many parts of the country.
The scene has improved though in recent months. Two schools in France have retracted a ban on Sikh students tying up their unshorn hair in top knots. The Italian government has also eased a security rule, following which Sikhs travelling in Italy will no longer be asked to remove their turbans during security checks. At nearly 70,000, Italy has the second largest Sikh population in Europe after the UK. Viewed in this context, Singh’s recommendation by the House of Lords appointments committee is an important step for the community.
The Sikhs have done very well here and there are members of the community in prominent roles in all walks of life,h he says. Singh, faith leader and director of UKfs network of Sikh organisations, sees his life peerage as a mark of respect for the Sikh community around the world. Still, he says it is still difficult for a Punjabi immigrant who wears a turban to make the cut in UK’s electoral system. Indeed, Conservative MP Paul Uppal, a Sikh, does not wear a turban. The 43-yearold Uppal won the Wolverhampton South West seat in the 2010 elections.
In the US, Dalip Singh Saund, who became the first Indian and Sikh member of Congress from California in 1957, did not sport a turban while in office until 1963. Decades later, Ranjit Singh Gill, a Sikh-American law student, is launching a bid for the US House of Representatives. He too doesn’t wear a turban.
However, Canada is an exception to this rule of elected representatives ditching turbans. A growing number of Sikhs with turbans in Canada have entered parliament and other public positions in recent years. In 1993, Gurbax Malhi became the first Sikh politician to enter parliament wearing a turban. He, however, lost the elections for the first time earlier this year. Tim Uppal of the Conservative party wears a turban to parliament.
In the UK, Singh’s appointment is being seen as a watershed for Sikhs proud of wearing symbols of their faith. In the early 1980s, Singh, 79, is said to have played a central role in a case that established protection for the Sikhs to wear turbans in public. gI feel that all members of the community should be proud of our heritage. In parliament, I hope to draw attention to the Sikh viewpoint.