Hijab Ban: Why the Sikhs as a Minority Must Stand Up for Everyone's Religious Freedom

One of the strongest tenets of the Sikh faith is for the community to stand with the oppressed.

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New Delhi: If there is any community from among the religious minorities of India not being brazenly assaulted at present by the radicalised and unruly squads of Hindutva forces, it is the Sikhs. 

Muslims and Christians have been suffering incidents such as the vandalism of churches, the harassment and exclusion of women who wear the hijab and the lynching of Muslim men. But the Sikhs, so far, do not appear to have been targeted. 

Even so, the Sikhs, as well as other minorities that remain safe for now, not to mention the majority community, must cut across all their religious and cultural identities to unite and democratically resist the communal forces infesting the country. 

Hindu rashtra vs UCC

In September 2004, when France announced and subsequently passed legislation banning Sikh turbans, Christian crosses, Muslim hijabs and burqas and the religious symbols of the Jews in all government-run educational institutions, there were loud protests by the global Sikh community. Sikh bodies in India, including the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) which manages Sikh religious shrines and certain other institutions, even submitted a memorandum to the then prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, asking him to take up the matter with the then-president of France, Jacques Chirac. 

Now, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government remains criminally silent over the issue of Muslim women being physically confronted by cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for wearing the hijab, a headscarf that is a cultural and religious symbol of the Muslim community much like the turban worn by Sikh men and many baptised Sikh women, the same Sikh lobbies are quiet.

It is important to be clear on the comparison between the situation in France in 2004 and the situation in India now. France made its statutory move in 2004 as part of its secular ideals. The present situation in India, in which reprehensible forces harass Muslim women in hijabs, intensified after a notification by the Karnataka government that banned ‘religious symbols’, specifically the hijab, in schools and other educational institutions. 

The stated goal of the RSS is to convert our country into a ‘Hindu rashtra’. At the same time, the organisation speaks of a uniform civil code (UCC). When France banned religious symbols in its government-run educational institutions, the ban included the crosses worn by Christians, the majority religious group in the country. However, in India, the ruling BJP has not so far come up with a single statement on uniformity in educational institutions in keeping with the secular character of the country. In fact, many states with a BJP government promote the practice of Hindu rituals at educational institutions, such as recitations of the Gayatri mantra. On at least one occasion, there was a yagya on the premises of a government school. A private school in Delhi conducts yagyas every Monday.

This lack of secular uniformity is visible in almost all our public and administrative institutions. A glaring example is the police stations in the national capital territory of Delhi, which fly Hindu flags and have Hanuman temples on the premises; some uniformed cops wear tilaks on their foreheads. Imagine the emotions of members of minority communities, specifically Muslims and Christians at this time, when they approach the police for help and justice. There is no hiding the lack of secularity in the Delhi police force: the way they dealt with the complaints of the victims of the February 2020 riots in the northeast of Delhi is a major case in point.

The onus of what is right and what is wrong in the maintenance of the country’s secular character in government-run or even private educational institutions is on the respective state governments, because education is a state subject according to the constitution of India. This means the Karnataka government is responsible for clarifying its notification on religious symbols which is being used as an excuse by lumpen elements to attack Muslim girls at the gates of schools and colleges.

Muslim women in hijab participate in a candle light march during a protest rally over the ‘hijab’ ban in Karnataka, in Kolkata, February 11, 2022. Photo: PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

The standards of the faith

Sikhs have also been targeted for their headgear since the Karnataka government issued the notification banning religious symbols in educational institutions. In separate incidents in Karnataka, a Sikh girl and a Sikh boy were singled out for their turbans. After the news of these two incidents went viral, quick damage control measures were taken. The authorities of Mount Carmel College where the Sikh girl studies stated that the girl is now allowed to wear her turban on the premises. The college authorities said in a statement that the Sikh girl was given permission because they understood “her circumstances”

On February 24, the SGPC wrote a letter to Basavaraj Bommai, the chief minister of Karnataka. The letter focuses solely on the religious symbols of the Sikh community. The second last paragraph of this letter states: “The Karnataka high court interim order dated February 10, 2022, barring religious symbols in colleges is being misinterpreted as the order did not bar ‘Sikh turban’ and neither does the government order say anything about the turbans (sic)”.  

The SGPC played selfishly in this letter, whether knowingly or unknowingly. The organisation avoided the many issues raised by the Karnataka government’s notification, including the problem as a whole and the approach of the state government in terms of uniformity and right to religion. The letter said:

“We would like to bring to your notice that in your state Karnataka, a Sikh girl who wears ‘dastar’ (turban) has been asked by her educational institution Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru, to remove turban to attend the college, which is unacceptable as turban is integral part of the Sikhs practicing their faith. The issue related to turban came up following the ongoing court proceedings over allowing ‘hijab’ in educational institutions in Karnataka. Some girls who wore ‘hijab’ studying in the above-said college demanded that no girls should be allowed to wear their religious symbols and therefore, Sikh girl also should not be allowed to wear the turban (sic).” 

Muslims, as equal citizens of India, have every right to call for a level playing field. Girls forced to remove their headscarves in their classrooms will obviously feel a bias against themselves if they see girls from other faiths, a Sikh in this case, not being challenged for their religious symbols.

Much before the Sikh controversy on the hijab ban issue, the Kendriya Singh Sabha, a group of Sikh intellectuals and activists in Chandigarh, had expressed its reservations over Karnataka’s hijab ban notification. 

“On February 14 itself, much before the two incidents involving Sikh children, we had issued a statement that the Karnataka notification banning the hijab is the equivalent of an attack on the Sikh religious identity. We should have openly sided with our Muslim daughters as any assault on a minority community is a common cause of concern for the Sikhs as well,” said Jaspal Singh Sidhu, a member of the executive committee of the Kendriya Singh Sabha. 

“Sikhs will be able to safeguard their religious identity in the given regime if and only if they resist any move to curb the identities of the other religious minorities,” Sidhu stressed.

He added that the SGPC’s letter to the chief minister of Karnataka was an act of “double standards”. 

“On the one hand, we Sikhs talk of religious freedom and on the other hand, the SGPC has shown double standards by not opposing the Karnataka government’s move to ban the hijab,” Sidhu explained.

Two incidents in the history of the Sikh faith show the importance to Sikhs of standing up for humanity. The first incident concerns Guru Tegh Bahadur Singh. On November 11, 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur, a principled and fearless warrior, stopped the forceful religious conversion of the Kashmiri pundits and was beheaded and thus martyred for the cause of religious freedom.

The other incident concerns the Nawab of Malerkotla, Sher Mohammad Khan. The nawab objected to the orders of Wazir Khan, the ruler of Sirhind, to execute the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh. 

Also Read: In Malerkotla, One Can Find the Vestiges of India’s Forgotten History of Tolerance

These two episodes in Sikh history are iconic. The daily ardars (Sikh prayers), from which the community derives its standards, include phrases that ask that the community might be ‘the honour of the humble, the might of the meek’. 

By not keeping up with this ideal of Sikhism and by failing to stand up for the oppressed, the SGPC has lost its moral ground.

“The approach of the SGPC is myopic,” said my friend Amandeep Singh Sandhu, an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. “We must realise how [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [Union home minister] Amit Shah have been trying to win over the Sikh clergy. There are only about 5,000 families of Sikhs here [Bengaluru], but they keep their faith completely insulated from the Karnataka culture and they can come up aggressively against any attempt by a ‘sanghi’ (RSS member) to harass a Sikh girl for her attire, unlike the Muslims who don’t want to react aggressively for obvious reasons.”  

Quoting a Times of India report with the headline ‘Bengaluru college asks Sikh girl to remove turban’, I had tweeted, “This happens when we don’t raise flag for (the) others’ cause. The Sikhs too eventually face the heat now (sic).