Move to list Sikhism as separate ethnicity sparks uproar in the UK

Vidya Ram London | Updated on July 26, 2018

A heated debate has broken out within the Sikh diaspora in Britain, as also the wider South-Asian community, amid calls from some for Sikhism to be listed as a separate ethnicity in the national Census due in 2021. However, its proponents have been accused by some of running a divisive and unrepresentative campaign.

Last year, over 110 MPs wrote to the head of Britain’s UK Statistics Authority (which oversees the Office for National Statistics) arguing that a separate Sikh ethnic category would help improve understanding, and consequently access to public services for the community, and acknowledge the challenges faced by them. In the 2011 Census, over 80,000 Sikhs rejected existing ethnic categories (including Indian), writing “Sikh” in the space for “other ethnic groups.” The current categories for Asians include Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and ‘other’. The Office for National Statistics, which conducts the census, is considering making the change but has said that no decision has yet been taken. Its recommendations for the 2021 Census will be included in a government white paper to be published later this year

Strong support

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs — chaired by Britain’s first woman Sikh MP, Preet Kaur Gill — which is campaigning for the Census change, argues that there is strong support within the community, pointing to a survey of 112 Gurdwaras in the UK (250 were approached but 112 responded) that unanimously favoured a separate Sikh ethnic tick box.

Earlier this week, the APPG said it urged the chief statistician to recommend the change, arguing that without it he would have “serious explaining” to do to MPs, Ministers and others. It also raised the possibility of legal action, with discussions on a potential £500,000 fund to support legal action if necessary.

Men within the Sikh community have expressed reservation around the initiative and the campaign for the new category, arguing it would be an unnecessary and a divisive move that does not represent the whole community.

Lord Indarjit Singh, Director of the charity the Network of Sikh Organisations, described the initiative as “ill-conceived”, explaining that a 1982 case on racial discrimination that the supporters of the Census alluded to in support of their case was no longer relevant given the changing demographics of the community, and 2010 equality legislation.

“Their arguments just don’t stack up: there is no evidence from those campaigning that an ethnic tick-box would benefit the community,” he said adding that attempting to define Sikhism as an ethnic identity went against its fundamental tenants as a religion of tolerance and respect. “There are Sikhs from different parts of the world and share none of the ethnicity aspects”.

More concerns

He also raised concerns about the close link between the APPG and the Khalistan-supporting campaign group Sikh Federation (UK). The Sikh Federation (UK) lists on its mission statement its work on making the case for the “Sikhs right to self-determination” and lobbying politicians for “the establishment of an independent sovereign Sikh homeland.”

“The Sikh Federation (UK) and the APPG are one and the same thing,” said Lord indrajit Singh. APPG Chair Gill’s office confirmed that the Sikh Federation (UK) was APPG’s secretariat.

Concerns around the campaign were also expressed more widely. Jagbir Jhutti-Johal a senior lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham and a former commissioner on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, accused a “vocal minority” of exploiting religious illiteracy to advocate something it wanted. “Debate has been hijacked, and when people say there has been a wide ranging consultation — utter nonsense. Lobbying dominated by the vocal minority.”

Sunder Katwala, Director of thinktank British Future, said that while he could understand the concerns of some within the Sikh community about the gathering and use of data on communities, it wasn’t clear that a separate Sikh ethnic tick box was the way to go about it.

“Policy makers have to step back and say how do we categorise accurately and how will it be of use to policy makers. It can’t simply be about what is most popular.”

The more relevant issue, he argued, that ought to be looked at was how data on religious groups already being gathered, could be better used for public policy purposes, and whether a wider review and debate was needed. “The Sikh issue cannot be looked at in isolation.”

Published on July 26, 2018

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