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Unabated discrimination against Sikhs Call for campaigns to nurture diversity in the EU

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    16 September 2007
    Sikh officers with the crest of the United Nations pinned onto their blue turbans as the Indian 8th Sikh Infantry Battalion groupprepares to participate ina United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission
    What is the fault of three Sikh boys, Jasvir Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Ranjit Singh, aged between 15 and 18 years, who have been unable to attend school in the European Union since 2004?

    What is the fault of Shingara Singh Mann for not having a driver’s license in the European Union issued after it was lost in a theft in 2004?

    The only fault of theirs for being kicked out of schools in Europe and being denied a legitimate driving licence is that they are Sikhs and wear turbans to cover their uncut hair.

    Instead of receiving an education, the three boys are waiting for a decision of the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative court of France, while Shingara Singh Mann has appealed to the European judicial system in Strasbourg after exhausting his options in French legal corridors.

    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 interviewedwere prevented from wearing head coverings of their choice to school. The survey also revealed that five boyshad been expelled from schools in France alone for refusing to remove their turban, and many more suffered from alienation by their peers. There are similar confirmed reports in Belgium and Germany.
    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.

    Similar instances of discrimination have been documented across Europe.

    “Not only we are deprived of the benefit of our relative victory in court, but we have been deprived of the right to democratic debate,” said Kudrat Singh, Director of United Sikhs in France, and spokesman for many in the Sikh community. “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, this was a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which provides for right to freedom of religion.

    Asked to comment, Neena Gill, a member of the European Parliament 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.”

    “Next year it’s going to be the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. I am wondering what kind of intercultural dialogue it will be when appearances of all participants will be exactly the same as the indigenous population, and how can you have an intercultural dialogue when one of the big states of EU does not accept different appearances and different cultures?” Gill asked.

    But there are solutions aimed atnurturing “unity in diversity,” which is reiterated at every opportunity in the European Union, 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 said, “If you look at the United Kingdom, you can wear a turban not only in the 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.”
    These visible discriminatory incidents became prominent as a fallout 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 appearances.

    But the US is making the effort to remove any misunderstanding and give Sikhs their legitimate place in society, while in some member states of the European Union the flow is in the reverse gear.

    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 said, “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 added.

    The latest in these efforts is the organisation of “Sikh Heritage Week” (September 22-28) in New York to celebrate the rich diversity, history and culture of the Sikh people across the US. With the active participation of New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg, the US society is throwing its lot to bring awareness across the wide spectrum about the appearance of Sikhs and their religious and cultural heritage.

    T P S Bindra, president of the Sikh Art & Film Foundation, New York, N.Y. said, “We need to promote awareness for a better understanding of the Sikh religion.Sikhs wear turbans and support beards as articles of faith and Sikhs should be given the freedom to follow their faith. Sikhs, as our fellow Americans take the security of our country to heart, but wearing turbans does not compromise or cause a breach in securingour country.”

    Ten years ago in 1997 Europe observed the European Year against Racism and two major Directives of the Treaty of Amsterdam stress these points. Directive 2000/43, also known as Race Directive, advocates equal treatment of people irrespective of racial or ethnic origin, while Directive 2000/98 or Employment Directive outlaws distortion in employment or occupation on grounds of religion or belief.

    Moreover, on its related website, the European Commission declares, “The 2007 European Year of Equal Opportunities for All seeks to make people in the European Union more aware of their rights to equal treatment and to a life free of discrimination. These are two of the basic principles underpinning the EU.”

    Promising that the year will also launch a major debate on the benefits of diversity both for European societies and individuals, it adds, “The activities undertaken during the Year intend to remedy the discrimination from which some individuals suffer because of their gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation. These are grounds for discrimination that may be addressed at European level.”

    At the launch of the year, nine months ago, Vladimir Spidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities argued, “The European Union’s anti-discrimination legislation is one of the most ambitious and far-reaching in the world but the laws have to be widely known, understood and fully applied in order for them to have a real impact.”

    But the Commissioner also admitted, “Calling for equal rights and adopting laws to try and guarantee this is not enough to ensure equal opportunities are available for everyone in practice. Of course, the EU’s action programmes to combat discrimination can continue to provide support and help ensure that Member States are complying with the Directives and generally challenge discriminatory attitudes and behaviours.”

    Spidla had promised, “The European Year in 2007 will seek to make people in the EU more aware of their rights to enjoy equal treatment and a life free of discrimination. These are two of the basic principles underpinning the Union. I would say the main objective of the Year is to raise the awareness of the benefits of a fair and cohesive society where we all have equal chances whatever our sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.”

    Now, with the European Year of Equal Opportunities nearing its end, the time is running out for the EU to channel its efforts to bring awareness in the EU against discrimination of Sikhs. The EU, a bastion of equality and non-discrimination since its inception in 1957, with its efforts in the present year will be able to provide a possibility in the coming European Year of Intercultural Dialogue to have one visibly different culture to participate and integrate fully.

    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 said, “I feel that ignorance and fear are the primary factors that fuel this discrimination and believe thateducation and awareness will help people better understand what the turbanmeans to the Sikhs.”

    By: Tejinder Singh
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