French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at the concluding press conference of the European Union/India Summit in Marseille, France, stood next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh wearing a light blue turban, as he answered this reporter’s (Tejinder Singh) question about the wearing of turbans by Sikhs in France. Regarding the required Sikh head covering, an integral part of their religious identity, Sarkozy, replied curtly, “Sir, we respect Sikhs. We respect their customs, their traditions. They are most welcome to France.”
Visibly irritated, Sarkozy continued, “But sir, we have rules, rules concerning the neutrality of civil servants, rules concerning secularism, and these rules don't apply only to Sikhs, they apply to Muslims or others. They apply to all on the territory of the French Republic."
The practice by Sikhs of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally is a symbol of respect, the most important of the five outward symbols required of all Sikhs, and the turban is worn to cover the uncut hair. Sarkozy explained that the banning of turbans is not discrimination, that, “These rules apply to everybody, to everybody with no exception. There is no discrimination whatsoever.”
Making it clear to the Sikh community in France that they have no option other than to conform to the rules, Sarkozy made the paradoxical statement, “We respect their traditions and their customs and we are convinced that they too respect the laws, traditions and customs of the French Republic.”
Discrimination begins early in France
In 2004, three Sikh boys, Jasvir Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Ranjit Singh, were expelled from French schools for wearing turbans. These students were the first victims of the ban instituted which prohibits Sikh students from covering their hair at school, a decision that has prompted world-wide protest from the Sikh community.
Commenting on the discrimination and its impact on children, Mejindarpal Kaur, the Director of United Sikhs, a worldwide Sikh organisation, stated in a press release that a preliminary survey of Sikh children affected by the French law found that 84 percent of the students interviewed were prevented from wearing head coverings to school. The survey also revealed that students had been expelled from French schools for refusing to remove their turbans, and many more suffered from alienation by their peers.
Also in 2004, Shingara Singh Mann, a French Sikh, reported he was prohibited from renewing his driver’s license after it was lost in a theft because he was wearing a turban to cover his uncut hair.
On December 5, 2005 the French High Court ruled in favour of Shingara Singh Mann, giving him the right to wear his turban for his driving license identity photo, overturning an earlier decision by the French Ministry of Transport. But within 24 hours of the court decision, the Ministry issued a circular expressly forbidding turbans to be worn in driver’s license photographs.
Kudrat Singh, Director of United Sikhs in France, said, “This is an example of oppression and discrimination which has not been seen in France for decades, and calls into question whether one can be both Sikh and French.” According to legal opinions, the ban is a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which provides for right to freedom of religion.
MEP Gill urges EU action
Asked to comment, Neena Gill, a member of the European Parliament had said, “I am astounded by the level of discrimination that is in fact growing … it is not confined to France … it is in Belgium, in Germany and it really smacks against all these initiatives that the European Commission is constantly launching.”
However, solutions aimed at nurturing “unity in diversity,” the European Union’s frequently appearing slogan, are already working in the United Kingdom, one of the member states of the European Union, and across the Atlantic in the United States.
Highlighting the integration and diversity that prevails across the English Channel, Gill, who was born in Punjab, India, said, “If you look at the United Kingdom, you can wear a turban not only in mainstream jobs but also in the police, the army, the air force or the navy. There is no restriction. In fact, the army has special days when they try and recruit people from the Sikh community and the Dastar (turban) is not a problem for them, so I really think we do need to raise awareness, especially from the European Commission in these particular years of Equality and Intercultural Dialogue. We have to target the resources at these issues to ensure that there is greater awareness across the EU in accepting people of different appearances.”
US efforts to embrace Sikhs
Discriminatory incidents involving Sikhs increased dramatically as a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. There were numerous cases of discriminatory attacks on Sikhs as they were misunderstood as allies of Osama bin Laden due to their appearance.
While the US is making the effort to remove misunderstanding and give Sikhs their legitimate place in society, in some member states of the European Union, comparable progress and acceptance has flowed in reverse.
US lawmaker speaks out
US Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat-California), who represents Silicon Valley and who is involved in this issue in his capacity as Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told this correspondent, “I don’t believe in sacrificing freedom in order to protect freedom. Turbans are part of the religious identity of Sikhs and we must strive to respect their freedom of religious expression. A balance can be struck between national security and religious liberties, but that balance can only be reached by consulting all the parties involved, in this case the Sikh community.”
“It would be ironic that many Sikhs, who fled their homeland seeking religious freedom, would find that America curtailed their religious freedoms when they arrived upon our shores,” Honda had added.
The root cause of the discrimination and a pragmatic solution to root it out was aptly summed up by Jennifer Handshew, a seasoned public relations professional in New York who had told this journalist, “I feel that ignorance and fear are the primary factors that fuel this discrimination and believe that education and awareness will help people better understand what the turban means to the Sikhs.”
What Handshew and others suggest provide a succinct analysis and a solution, but for now, the door to a respectable life in France for Sikhs has been slammed shut by the French President Sarkozy, in the presence of Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, himself a member of the Sikh community.
Tejinder Singh at the EU-India Summit in Marseille, France
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