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Sikhs and language of caste discrimination

The post below is from Ik Marg, arguing the case against the prejudicial explanatory notes about Caste Discrimination in the Equality Act 2010. The post outlines why Sikhs should have objections to the wording: 


 

Why Sikhs object to the prejudicial explanatory notes in the Equality Act 2010

Firstly, to avoid any misunderstandings and misconceptions, we strongly agree and actively seek to promote that there should be no discrimination on the basis of ‘caste’. No Sikh organisation is campaigning to prevent or object to any law or other form of redress for those who are discriminated against on the basis of ‘caste’.

The law cannot stop any member of one jaat refusing to marry a member of another jaat. British law does not have the right to interfere in the personal choices of individuals in the field of marriage, religion and social relations except marriage has to be monogamous and is prohibited within family members and marriage partners have to be over the age of 16.

Similarly, no law has the right to interfere in religious matters except in accordance with international norms in the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political rights) article 18.3. This permits the State to mitigate religious practice to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. For instance, it cannot force Christian Churches to ordain females as priests, or Muslim Mosques to permit women to pray alongside men in the name of equality etc. but it can stop Burka in public places if it so wishes.

Legislation cannot stop a Ramgharia Gurdwara or Ravidaas Gurdwara from choosing their names nor can legislation restrict the membership of any religious order, else it would then have to do the same for Scottish Presbyterians, Welsh Protestants, Lutherans, Polish Churches etc.

The law can and should provide guidance and sanctions against discrimination for anyone at the work place, wherever such may be, e.g. employees of a Gurdwara. It can also stop people calling other people discriminatory names and prevent discrimination in the supply of goods to people.

Why are Sikhs objecting to the proposed amendment to the legislation?”

The answer is relatively simple: it is the definition assumed by Parliament to describe ‘caste’ and its association with Sikhs and the Hindu Varna system. The definition says: ‘The term “caste” denotes a hereditary, endogamous (marrying within the group) community associated with a traditional occupation and ranked accordingly on a perceived scale of ritual purity.’http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/notes/division/3/2/1/6

So far as the definition states ‘‘The term “caste” denotes a hereditary, endogamous (marrying within the group) community associated with a traditional occupation’ is generally acceptable. The legislation and therefore its impact includes not only Sikhs and Hindus, but a multitude of other communities, who would also inadvertently be deemed to discriminate against certain sections of the community on the basis of descent and / or past occupations, including perhaps, some indigenous English communities.

However, the UK Parliament has tried to narrow the definition of ‘caste’ to Hindu culture and Hindu cultural influenced societies by inserting the words ‘and ranked accordingly on a perceived scale of ritual purity’.  Rather than use the word ‘or’, the definition uses the word ‘and’ when describing the “perceived scale of ritual purity” thus defining it as an integral part of the definition of ‘caste’. Sikhism does not agree with or preach any kind of ritual purity.

‘Ritual purity’ in the caste/varna system is a practice that was stipulated by Manu, a serial law maker, in ancient India and was historically prevalent in some sects of Hinduism (references listed below). This practice entailed that when a person of ‘upper caste’ met with a person of ‘lower caste’, especially untouchables, that person was compelled to recite a prayer and wash themselves and their clothes. People of ‘lower caste’ and untouchables were not permitted into some mandirs (temples) nor were they allowed to sit and eat with those of an ‘upper caste’.

These sects of Hindus believed in what is called the ‘Varna’ system. This system says that a person of a ‘lower caste’ has to be born again into an ‘upper caste’ before he/she can pray and have any chance of getting ‘moksha’ (salvation). This belief system results in people being ranked according to this man-made hierarchy of birth related access to God. Only ‘upper castes’ had any chance of understanding texts and therefore reaching the ‘Absolute’. In fact, people of ‘lower castes’ were not even permitted to read or write in some sects.

“What about today? Does this still happen?!”

We do not know whether any Hindu groups practice and follow the Varna system of the type based on a perceived rank of ritual purity in the UK today. We do know for certain that no Sikh Gurdwara, Sikh organisation, Sikh family or Sikh jaat preaches or practices ‘ritual purity’ as part of what Sikhism teaches. No one will ask a Granthi (Sikh Priest) their jaat before taking parshad (religious offering) from them. No sewadar (volunteer) in the langar (kitchen) will turn away a person of so called ‘lower caste’. While sitting eating langar in a Gurdwara, no one asks the person sitting next to them what ‘caste’ they are.

As mentioned before, Sikhism does not agree with or preach any kind of ritual purity. Throughout the lives of the Sikh Gurus, they preached against the practice of the Varna system and were against there being any discrimination amongst people based on the family they were born into. All were able to read, write and recite prayers to their heart’s content. The langar system was introduced, where everyone sits together with no differentiation, whether they are a cleaner, warrior, king or teacher. There is no concept of being ranked according to ritual purity.

There are countless stories throughout Sikh history and many references to the ‘caste’ / Varna system in Gurbani which prove that we, as Sikhs, do not believe in it and treat all of humanity with respect. If there are some people who follow the path of Sikhism but do not follow these teachings and hold any kind of beliefs or practices in line with manusimriti, then they are a small exception and do not in any way represent Sikhism and the basic principles it has.

We strongly object to associating Sikhs with this practice of ‘ritual purity’, which is strictly a Hindu belief and practice. The Sikh community is offended that some academics and some politicians have wrongly decided that Sikh Gurdwaras wash utensils when touched by members of ‘lower castes’; or that people do not take parshad (religious offering) from ‘lower caste’ Granthis (Sikh Priest); or that people are refused admission into Gurdwaras because they are members of a ‘lower caste’. These views are simply wrong, untrue and deeply offensive!

“But the legislation helps those being discriminated against”

It is the duty of any Sikh who may have observed any discrimination of any form in a Gurdwara, within a Sikh organisation or in Sikh social life, to report it to the Sangat (Sikh congregation) and Sri Akal Takht Sahib (political HQ for Sikhs).

While we support any legislation to combat discrimination, we do not think the justification for that legislation should be based on maligning Sikhism, Sikhs and / or Gurdwaras. That is just unacceptable. No one would like to be maligned simply to make life easier for another’s benefit. Suffering hardship to make life easier for someone else is one thing, but an attack on one’s integrity is another thing. We cannot stand by and see an attack on the integrity of Sikhism or Sikh Gurdwaras.

“The legislation doesn’t affect Sikhism though”

We understand that there are some assurances being given by academics and other civil servants, that the explanatory notes in the 2010 Equality Act will not be used against Sikhs. However, we would like those academics to obtain an unequivocal statement from the Lord Chancellor and Minister of Equalities so that there is no ambiguity. In any event once enshrined in the legislation, it would be difficult and most likely impossible to have any offending legislation removed. It is better not to have such offending wording in the legislation in the first place.

We believe that there is no rush for this legislation to be passed in its current format. It has been delayed for seven years because of objections from the Sikh community as well as other comminutes. Therefore, there is no reason for it not to be delayed further to ensure a better and more suitable definition is agreed, without causing slander to Sikhism and the Sikh community.

“So how do we tackle this issue?”

Our petition, which can be found on www.ikmarg.com, is asking for removal of all references to Sikh and ‘ritual purity’ in the explanatory notes of the Equality Act 2010 and to officially remove the NIESR report. Both the explanatory notes and the NIESR report suggest that Sikhs follow manusmriti. We are not against a legislation to stop any discrimination.

The question then arises as to what can be done to help those who are impacted by discrimination and want this legislation to be approved. As mentioned before, where discrimination has occurred within Sikh institutions, then we believe that such matters should be handled within the Sikh community and addressed to the Sangat and Sri Akal Takht Sahib.

Alongside this, a group of independent members of the Sangat are working together with an aim to tackle any issues swiftly and without causing any further harm to anyone. They have links and contacts around the world to help tackle any issues of discrimination that may arise. This team can be contacted via the following email address: respectallsikhs@gmail.com

If there is a real need for the legislation to go through, it is up to the legislators and the people in government to suggest alternative definitions, without inflicting damage to Sikhs and the Sikh community (or to any other communities or faith). It is unfair to ask the general public who are unlikely to have the adequate knowledge or training to make acceptable alternative suggestions.

More information, in depth definitions and resources that you can download and forward on, as well as a link to our petition, can all be found at www.ikmarg.com

From Sewadaars of Ik Marg

References for the manusmriti stipulated by Manu:

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/manu.htm

Ideology on outcast:

Ch 5, article 85 (bathing after touching outcast)

Ch 11, article 181

Ch 12, article 60 (associating with outcast)

 

Association and position of sudras:

Ch 1, articles 31 & 91

Ch 2, article 172

Ch 3, articles 16, 18, 249 & 92

Ch 4, articles 81 & 140

Ch 5, article 104

Ch 10, article 4

Ch 11, articles 149, 153 & 224

Ch 12, articles 43   60

http://www.duhaime.org/LawMuseum/LawArticle-297/200-BC–Laws-of-Manu.aspx

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/sacredscripts/hinduism/dharma/manusmriti.asp

 

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