Masked men disrupt an inter-faith marriage at Leamington and Warwick gurdwara, UK. Photo: Independent. All rights reserved.
On Sunday 11th September 2016, as world attention focused on the 15th anniversary of Islamist attacks on the Twin Towers, local press attention momentarily shifted to the arrest of 55 members of Sikh Youth UK at the Leamington and Warwick gurdwara (place of worship for Sikhs). The group claimed that this was a ‘peaceful protest’ against the scheduled Anand Karaj (Sikh wedding ceremony) between a Sikh bride and non-Sikh groom. They also claimed that they are not opposed to interfaith marriage per se – stating that Sikh and non-Sikh couples can have a civil marriage and also receive a gurdwara blessing – but that the Rehat Maryada, a code of conduct developed in the 1930s, reserves the Anand Karaj for Sikhs exclusively. This prohibition was re-iterated in an August 2015 agreement reached by 300 Sikh organisations.
There are problems with these claims. The protest was clearly intended to intimidate. Protestors turned up with heads and faces covered and some were carrying kirpans. Although they claimed that kirpans are ceremonial daggers and that these had been misrepresented by the media as ‘blades’ and ‘weapons’, religious references were used to obfuscate the blindingly obvious. It’s true that kirpans are usually only carried by a small minority of baptised Sikhs but there is also a history in the UK of kirpans, and Sikh martial arts weapons, being used during violent in-fighting within gurdwaras and especially by Sikh fundamentalist factions. Moreover, this particular incident followed other aggressive interventions at gurdwaras in Southall, Birmingham, Coventry and Swindon.
As with these other episodes, the protestors filmed the incident and circulated the film footage in a move to publicly shame families already pushing against deeply conservative proscriptions. The film footage shows protestors referring to interfaith marriage (not just the Anand Karaj) as ‘messed up’, stating that ‘Leamington is finished when we’ve got elders saying it’s alright to marry white people, black people’. Jagraj Singh has been one of the main spokespeople defending the protests. One need look no further than the youtube videos of Basics of Sikhi to see him opposing interfaith relationships. In one such clip, he states ‘relationships or dating are not part of Sikhi, marriage is part of Sikhi’. Relationships outside the conjugal union are presented as uncontrolled lust and marriage is clearly seen as something that only takes place between two Sikhs.
The Rehat is highly gendered and presents a problem for minority Sikhs who do not subscribe to the Khalsa version of the religion. The section on marriage states ‘a Sikh’s daughter must be married to a Sikh’ and tells Sikh women to treat their (Sikh) husbands with ‘deferential solicitude’. Fortunately, more liberal Sikhs have spoken out about the hypocrisy of protestors who selectively focus on one section of a man made code of conduct that has itself been amended three times while turning a blind eye to serious issues like familial sexual abuse. Herpreet Kaur Grewal noted that the focus is always on Sikh girls marrying out while there is relative silence and inaction on caste discrimination and female foeticide. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the prohibition on mixed relationships manifested itself in regular reprisals between Sikh and Muslim gangs for targeting ‘their’ women. The question is, why has this resurfaced now? Why has a rule invented in the 1930s gained renewed significance in the last few years? The Leamington incident has given rise to some intense theological debates but one needs to focus, instead, on the political context of these events to comprehend their dynamics.
Resurgent Sikh fundamentalist forces in the UK
In the past decade, but particularly since the 2012 I Pledge Orange campaign for a stay of execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana (one of four Sikh fundamentalist activists responsible for the suicide bomb that in 1995 killed the Chief Minister of Punjab and 17 other people) there has been an exponential rise in the numbers and confidence of Sikh fundamentalist forces in the UK. This growing momentum is particularly visible at the annual commemoration in London of Operation Bluestar, the name given to the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s assault on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar in June 1984.
Importantly, a number of Sikh fundamentalist activists had fled to the US, Canada and Europe in anticipation of Indira Gandhi’s crackdown on Sikh militancy. Two organisations behind the annual June 1984 commemoration events – Dal Khalsa and Sikh Federation UK – are the main Sikh fundamentalist organisations in England. The Dal Khalsa is a right wing political party that emerged as a cover for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s electoral ambitions so that he could present himself as an orthodox protector of the religion. The group have been implicated in the murder of members of minority sects and its primary objective is to establish a Sikh theocratic state otherwise known as Khalistan.
Sikhs rally in Trafalgar Square, 2011, to mark the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Photo: BBC
The Sikh Federation UK are a large Sikh political party (conventions numbering 10,000 delegates) but it’s leadership are almost entirely former members of the organisation International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF). ISYF was established by Bhindranwale’s nephew Jasbir Singh Rode and others living in Walsall in order to mobilise international support for secession from India. ISYF was banned in Britain in 2001 under anti-terror laws because its members had been responsible for assassinations, bombings and kidnappings. Along with the Babbar Khalsa International, they were implicated in the 1985 bombing of the Air India flight 182 from London to Montreal which killed 329 people and also the attempted bombing of the Air India flight 301. But key members of the ISYF founded the Sikh Federation UK. The ISYF and the Sikh Federation UK have the same objectives but through their seemingly ‘reasonable’ and ‘civilised’ lobbying tactics, Sikh Federation have successfully garnered support among key politicians leading to their success in lifting the UK’s ban on ISYF.
The annual commemoration in London of Operation Bluestar has become a space where many of the nodes in the constellation of Sikh fundamentalist networks in the UK become highly visible. Sikh organisations that otherwise pass as moderate welfare providers or civil rights groups reveal their ideological leanings at these events. Moreover, the organisers are actively involved in reconstructing collective memory as the terror instilled by Bhindranwale and his men is overlooked or forgotten and Sikh fundamentalist claims are sanitised. Every major political party now sends an MP to address the rally in Trafalgar Square. These demonstrations have grown from a hundred or so fairly marginal student groups, to tens of thousands of participants of varied ages from around the country. The demand for Khalistan and the pressure to live by the rules of a very narrow version of Sikhism have been intensely invigorated. Sikh fundamentalism now has many foot soldiers who have become a major thorn in the side of gurdwara committees up and down the country, organising talks at gurdwaras and bussing people in to impose their world view.
Policing Sikh mores: women in the firing line
Within the last couple of years, Sikh fundamentalists discovered the political mileage of public policy attention to child sexual exploitation. Following a series of headline cases in which networks of predominantly Pakistani men were convicted of sexually exploiting white British girls, Sikh fundamentalists claimed that girls from their communities had also been targeted by Muslim men. In September 2013, the BBC’s Inside Out documentary series publicly applauded the ‘services’ of Mohan Singh of the Sikh Awareness Society (SAS). Twitter activity after the Inside Out documentary was very telling – while outraged Sikh women said they would never trust Mohan Singh and his men to assist them with any difficulties, Sikh men felt vindicated by a programme that validated their own communal anxieties.
In the last three or four years, Mohan Singh has become something of a celebrity and a regular speaker at gurdwaras and Sikh student societies up and down the country, whipping up anxieties about women’s relationships and the activities of young people. At one of his talks at a gurdwara in east London, which I attended with a friend, there was deafening silence as he told a packed audience – men, women, young people and small children - that their daughters and sisters were being raped by Muslim men. A series of pictures of Asian men convicted of sexual offences against children were referred to as a ‘long list of Muslim perpetrators’. These images ran seamlessly into paintings of Moghul warriors beheading and suffocating Sikh leaders during the 1500s in order to make the argument that Muslims represent an historical threat to the ‘Sikh nation’ or ‘Qaum’. Flagging a crisis among Sikhs, Mohan Singh admonished the liberalism of Sikh parents with respect to alcohol consumption and allowing their children to choose their own partners. No mention was made of the fact that violence and abuse is still far more likely to take place within the home, nor were there words of condemnation for familial sexual abuse perpetrated by Sikhs themselves.
It is no coincidence that inter-faith marriages have become a growing concern during the same period. Nor that the Birmingham based Sikh Awareness Society has grown in popularity, as has the Wolverhampton based Sikh Federation UK. Young men from the Midlands are bussed into areas around the country to stop inter faith marriages from taking place. Indeed Sikh Youth UK, the group claiming responsibility for the incident on 11th September, is also speaking at gurdwaras and Sikh student societies. Their topic of choice is, unsurprisingly, sexual exploitation and proscriptions on drug and alcohol consumption. Mohan Singh called for Sikhs to establish a national network to ‘protect’ their women and children – Sikh Youth UK are just one of a number of groups that appear to have heeded that call.
In 2014, Mohan Sigh’s growing popularity and his tour of the UK’s gurdwaras translated into a new section of a draft Sikh Manifesto- entitled ‘action against perpetrators of grooming and forced conversions’- by the Sikh Federation UK, Sikh Council and Sikh Network. The document was used to lobby MPs in the run up to the 2015 General Election to meet specific ‘Sikh demands’. The document reveals skills among Sikh fundamentalists for working through the spaces of governance and power. The Manifesto was endorsed by all the main political parties, an irony indeed for the Sikh Labour councillors in Leamington Spa who are currently under attack by the same Sikh fundamentalist forces.
Both the Dal Khalsa and Sikh Federation UK were quick to defend the Sikh Youth UK’s protest at Leamington and Warwick gurdwara. While the Dal Khalsa picketed the police station where 55 protestors were held, the Sikh Federation were quick to go on the media offensive. They issued a press release and gained sympathetic press coverage from the tabloids. While claiming to represent ‘the Sikh community’, SFUK defended ‘the justifiable objection’ of Sikhs to interfaith marriage, they applied pressure on the police to apologise for their ‘over reaction’, and demanded a ‘more sensitive’ response to future protests. Moreover, by stating they would raise media coverage of this issue at a government meeting on hate crime they sought to equate opposition to fundamentalist mobilisations and conservative codes of conduct with hate crime! The press release claims that ‘virtually all gurdwaras’ have been implementing an agreement reached in August 2015 but they fail to mention that this agreement was meant to be voluntary but is, in fact, being imposed through force; this so called ‘agreement’ came about after an assault on an inter faith marriage in Southall in August 2015 and after pressure on that gurdwara to heed the most right wing Sikh voices. Surrounded by the rising tide of fundamentalism, Leamington and Warwick gurdwara committee’s defiance on inter-faith marriage must be applauded and supported. It is a much needed breath of fresh air.