At approximately 7am on the morning of the 11th of September, a protest led by community group Sikh Youth UK commenced at Leamington Gurdwara.
The protesters were demonstrating against an inter-faith Anand Karaj taking place at the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) later on the same day. An Anand Karaj is the Sikh matrimonial ceremony, which according to the highest governing authority of the Sikhs, the Sri Akal Takht Sahib in Amritsar, should only be conducted between two Sikhs. This opinion is shared by most Sikh scholars and academics.
SIKH PA NOTE: Contrary to some media reports, the protest was categorically not about mixed-race marriages. Many Sikh couples of different race have gotten married without any question of it being against any religious rulings. Also, weddings where two Indians of different faiths were to have an Anand Karaj have been protested at.
Most of the protesters were Amritdhari, meaning they are initiated into the collective body of Sikhs known as the Khalsa. Part of being an initiated Sikh means wearing the five K’s which includes the Kirpan, which is a small sword worn by men and women. This is taught as part of the national curriculum in every school in the UK.
SIKH PA NOTE: There are no laws on the Kirpan which state it must be any particular size or style. However, only a certain size will be accepted for entry in certain public places or government buildings. Therefore it is very common for Sikhs to wear a small discreet Kirpan day-to-day, but for visits to the Gurdwara to adorn something bigger and more aligned with the martial origins of the Kirpan. With police reporting weapons other than Kirpans were also seized, it must be noted that many different types of weapons can usually be found in or brought to a Gurdwara; from spears to throwing blades.
In a statement shared by Sikh P.A (linked here – http://sikhpa.com/sikh-youth-uk-statement-on-leamington-gurdwara-protest/), Sikh Youth UK have stated they entered peacefully and protested by sitting in the the Darbar Sahib, the main hall of the Gurdwara where the ceremony was due to take place hours later. When the sit-down protest began – during which the protesters do nothing more than ignore pleas to move and recite Sikh prayer – the committee called the police, complaining about armed-men occupying the Gurdwara. Supporters continued to join the protest through the day.
No evidence or witness accounts have reported anything to the contrary, despite headlines of “sword wielding” depicting connotations of something more salacious. Police did not charge anyone with threatening behaviour or violence at the incident. One local woman on Twitter also commented on Facebook about how media reports exaggerated the drama of the incident.
The understanding so far, including thoughts based on police statements, is that it was a protest conducted by Amritdhari Sikhs no different to around a dozen others conducted similarly all over the UK over the last few years, where previously there had never been a single arrest, nor the presence of armed police, despite many of the protesters being Amritdhari and therefore carrying swords.
SIKH PA NOTE: Protesters do not object to an inter-faith court marriage taking place in a Gurdwara, nor do they object to non-Sikhs receiving blessings and holding other sacred ceremonies, such as readings of the Sikh holy scriptures. It is only the Anand-Karaj ceremony which is solely for Sikhs. All Gurdwaras are always open to people, regardless of race, religion, gender or status.
Sikh Youth UK have said Gurdwara Sahib Leamington Spa are a “rogue” group, who have decided to break with an agreement made between over 300 representatives at a meeting led by the Sikh Council UK last year, after a series of protests on the issue. This can be seen here – http://sikhcounciluk.org/press-release-scuk-1215-gurdwaras-agree-on-anand-karaj-23-08-2015/
Many believe such decisions to forego the rulings which state Anand Karaj’s are just for Sikhs are made solely for financial gain, as weddings are a major source of income for Gurdwaras. This is something that protesters believe, based on placards being carried, one of which read “stop violating Sikh principles for money!!”.
The committee calling the police led to an armed unit responding to the call, which has subsequently resulted in the arrest of 55 people for aggravated trespass, according to Sky News reports. In a video made by Sikh Council UK, it is said police are holding onto confiscated Kirpans are they were told they were used to threaten people.
Gurmail Singh of the Sikh Council stated, “There was no violence, so it doesn’t make sense why Kirpans were confiscated and have to remain in police custody. We feel the police should not be holding onto the Kirpans. We also raised the issue of the media coverage and they said the only thing they released is what is on their website. As such, we are not sure where the media has picked up their distorted narrative which damages the reputation of the Sikhs.”
After protests last year, many Sikhs spoke out about the media portrayal received in the press, with words like “thugs”, “militants” and “extremists” being objected to, for a series of protests which resulted in not a single arrest. The London Metropolitan police also issued a statement of apology after their heavy-handed approach in dealing with a Sikh protest last year. The Sikh Federation stated on social media they believe the presence of armed-police “totally unnecessary” and based on “false claims” of the “corrupt” Leamington Gurdwara management.
In response to the arrest of protesters and the description in the media of them as “armed-men” and “sword wielding”, the educational YouTube channel group Basics of Sikhi, appealed for Amritdhari Sikhs to participate in a country wide protest outside police stations today, whilst all calling for more training on the Sikh faith for police.
Jagraj Singh, Sikh educator and founder of Basics of Sikhi said “The media have defamed members of the Sikh community in this instance. The police have given the impression to the media they were dealing with armed people, but these people were not armed in the sense that they were not carrying anything different from what they would usually be carrying. The media are meant to question the police narrative but have instead bought it, hook-line-and-sinker.”
See Jagraj Singh speak to the Chief Inspector of Southall Police station on the incident here.
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