Students praised for stand over kirpan
Three Sikh students in the UK who sacrificed examinations rather than betray their faith have been praised for their “exemplary strength of character” by a leading officer of a Sikh civil rights organisation.
Mejindarpal Kaur, legal director of Sikhs United, said it had called in the prominent human rights law firm, Bindmans LLP of London, to speak for the youngsters, and also the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The stand-off developed in Leicester, home to up to 14,000 Sikhs, when 16-year-old sixth form college student Parminder Kaur refused to remove her kirpan, an article of faith, so that she could take her AS (pre-university) sociology exam.
In a show of solidarity two male students refused to remove their kirpans – small ceremonial swords – and were told they could not sit A level exams.
Two days later, in the face of representations from lawyers and angry Sikh community leaders from Leicester and nearby Nottingham, the college adjusted its position.
Principal Ian Wilson said college policy on the carrying of the kirpan would be reviewed within a few weeks. In the meantime, he said, every effort would be made to ensure the students could take their examinations.
Parminder Kaur, recently initiated as an Amritdhari Sikh, a symbol of her devoutness, had herself telephoned United Sikhs to tell them of her setback at the exam hall at the Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth 1 College.
She said had been severely stressed and upset after being removed from her exam in front of other students.
Mejindarpal Kaur said as a result of college assurances there was hope of a speedy and amicable resolution that would ensure that no further injury was done to the students.
She said: “We applaud the three students, who, in the midst of their exams, displayed a positive attitude and exemplary strength of character to stand up for their belief and rights. We are very grateful for the assistance provided by the management of the Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara, the SCYS of Nottingham, Davinder Singh, Kuljit Singh, Sukhvinder Singh and Gurjeet Singh.”
Mann: Sub heading here
Less confusion soon?
Adverse reactions to the wearing of the kirpan have been recorded in a number of public settings in the UK over the years – a theme park and a court house being two recent examples.
The sword, which usually has a 3ins blade, symbolises the spiritual struggle over evil and is one of five articles of faith which baptised Sikhs are expected to wear at all times.
Sometimes called the five k’s the articles are kesh (unshorn hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (comb) and kacha (special underwear). The kirpan is often worn inconspicuously in a small sheath under clothes.
The UK’s Sikh communities hope that there will be helpful official direction on the religious importance of the kirpan soon.
The Department of Communities and Local Government is working on guidelines for officials and employers on the right of Sikhs to wear the sword. The new guidance should be announced later this year, although on past evidence on turban wearing it is unlikely to provide an instant end to misguided objections.
Mejindarpal Kaur says concerns about the safety aspects of the kirpan are misplaced and that the law is on the side of the Sikhs.
However, a Law Lords ruling in 1983 that Sikhs in the UK were entitled to wear a turban over uncut hair on religious grounds has not stopped incidents where Sikhs are discriminated against in education and employment because of their turbans.
In 1983 Sewa Singh Mandla and his son Gurinder Singh Mandla complained to the Commission for Racial Equality that they had been discriminated against when Gurinder was refused admission to a Birmingham school.
The claim was dismissed on the grounds that the Sikhs were not a racial group for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976 and this was upheld in the Court of Appeal. But the Law Lords overturned the ruling, declaring that the Sikhs were a racial group defined by reference to ethnic origins.
Twenty-six years on Gurinder Singh Mandla is still experiencing problems, notwithstanding the protection offered on turban wearing under the law – this time over the kirpan.
Interviewed by the BBC, he recalled being challenged at Wolverhampton Crown Court and flanked by police officers until guidance came from the Lord Chancellor’s office.
The Courts Service says Sikhs are now given special dispensation to wear the knife because of their religion.
Sikh communities will breath a sigh of relief if new government guidelines confirm its acceptability in other public places.
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