In April 2018 the Sikh Press Association contacted the Times twice within three weeks regarding inaccurate captions which stated Vaisakhi marked ‘the Sikh new year’.
Sikh PA reacted to the first mistake on April 9th by simply asking for the statement to be amended to correctly address Vaisakhi as a celebration of the creation of the Khalsa. Instead, the Times ignored Sikh PA and simply removed the statement altogether, rather than correcting it. The second time (April 30th), upon contacting the Times about the second mistake, the newspaper staff reacted dismissively to our attempts to have the statement publicly acknowledged as mistaken, something pushed for only due to the regularity of the mistake which would have gone out to potentially millions of readers.
Sikh PA consequently decided to take up the issue with IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation), which prompted a Times response to the complaint. Sikh PA felt the response was both condescending and disparaging to Sikh community efforts to have Sikhi covered accurately in the media. The response essentially stated that because references to Vaisakhi as the ‘Sikh new year’ were so wide spread, that their captions were justified, whilst also suggesting the Sikh PA were acting individually to enforce an orthodox narrative that Vaisakhi is a celebration of the creation of the Khalsa, which other Sikhs would not advocate. As such, the report below was sent to the Times to outline why they were wrong to stand by their statement that Vaisakhi can be called ‘the Sikh new year’.
The Sikh Press Association shares this to highlight the lengths that were gone to in an attempt to highlight how inaccurate it is for the Times to suggest Vaisakhi is ‘the Sikh new year’, a position which IPSO disappointingly validated by rejecting the complaint against the captions.
NOTE – For legal reasons, Sikh PA are unable to divulge verbatim quotes from our interactions with both IPSO and the Times made during the course of the complaint investigation. Those mentioned in the report have been blanked out (REDACTED).
Comments from the Sikh Press Association regarding correspondence from Ian Brunskill
(The Times) to John Buckingham (IPSO) of 17th May 2018
1.The complaint from the Sikh Press Association to IPSO concerned the use of the phrase ‘Sikh new year’ in two separate photo captions of Sikhs celebrating Vaisakhi, in The Times’ print edition of 9th April and 30th April.
2. It is with regret that the Sikh Press Association notes the surprisingly intransigent position of The Times regarding a clear factual error. Brunskill’s emails of 17th May 2018 to IPSO contained several irrelevant points, opening several obfuscating and meaningless avenues, which the Sikh Press Association feels compelled to address fully here.
3. The phrase ‘Sikh new year’ directly implies all of the following:
i) the existence of a calendar
ii) according to which Vaisakhi is the first day of the year
iii) that is adopted by the Sikh faith
4. The Times, in its correspondence to IPSO, did not provide a calendar according to which Vaisakhi is the ‘Sikh new year’. No such calendar exists. Vaisakhi can in no way be understood to be the Sikh new year. Hence, it is wholly incorrect to refer to Vaisakhi as the ‘Sikh new year.’
5. Both of Sukvinder Singh Sodhi’s complaints to The Times stated: ‘Vaisakhi in fact marks the creation of the Khalsa, and the second month of the Sikh calendar. The Sikh year begins with the month of Chet.’ The second month of the Sikh calendar is called Vaisakh [ਵੈਸਾਖ], the start of which is the (appropriately named) day of Vaisakhi [ਵੈਸਾਖੀ]. How can the first day of the second month of a calendar also be its new year?
6. As was said earlier, the first month of the Sikh calendar is the month of Chet [ਚੇਤ]. There is indisputable theological justification for this. Guru Granth Sahib is the Sikh scriptural Guru. It contains two compositions called ‘Barah Maha’ which translates literally to ‘Twelve Months’. These can be found on Angs (out of respect Sikhs do not refer to the Guru Granth Sahib as having pages) 133(1) and 1107(2) . Both compositions go through the 12 months of the year in order. In both, the first month is Chet and the second month is Vaisakh. IPSO is welcome to consult anybody learned in Sikh scripture on this point. One organisation which specialises in the education of Sikh scripture in the UK, Nihung Santhiya, says the following on this matter: ‘The Gregorian Calendar which is most widely used globally runs from January – December, however, the Sikh Calendar runs from the month of Cheth (mid-March) to Phalgun (mid-February). This system was accepted by Guru Sahib which is evident in the Banis of Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (Barahmaha Raag Tukhari), Sri GuruArjan Dev Ji (Barahmaha Raag Maanjh) and Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji (Barahmaha from Krishna Avtar) […] many Sikhs are unaware that the New Year for Sikhs starts on 1st Cheth.’(3)
7. If IPSO would like confirmation from other major UK Sikh organisations that Vaisakhi
is in no way the Sikh new year, the Sikh Press Association suggests contacting any of
Sikh Council UK
Basics of Sikhi
Sikh 2 Inspire
Sikh Federation UK
National Sikh Youth Federation
Cases of the inaccuracy
8. It should be noted that both occurrences of the inaccuracy were regarding pictures that specifically represented Vaisakhi as the birth of the Khalsa, and events which in no way celebrated a ‘Sikh new year’.
9. In the 9th April edition, the phrase ‘Sikh new year’ was used in the caption: ‘Street
Party: Thousands of Sikhs paraded through Glasgow on a route taking in the city’s four temples to mark Vaisakhi, the Sikh new year.’ The parade in question refers to the Sikh procession known as a Nagar Kirtan. This can be literally translated to ‘neighbourhood hymn singing’. The most important thing to note about a Nagar Kirtan is that it is led by five individuals referred to as the Panj Pyare – who represent the first five members of the Khalsa, which was formed on Vaisakhi. There are no ‘new year’ connotations of a Nagar Kirtan of any sort. The event was specifically to mark the creation of the Khalsa.
10. In the 30th April edition, the phrase appeared on the front page in the following caption: ‘Brothers in arms: Jasdeep Singh, of the National Army Museum, with volunteers in First World War uniforms at a celebration of the Sikh new year in Trafalgar Square.’ The Vaisakhi celebration in Trafalgar Square was not at all to celebrate a new year, let alone a Sikh new year. The event’s own website page confirmed the fact that it was a commemoration of the Khalsa. It said: ‘Head down to Trafalgar Square to enjoy our Vaisakhi festival, a celebration of Sikh and Punjabi tradition, heritage and culture, in commemoration the birth of the Khalsa (the inner core of the Sikh faith) over 300 years ago.’(4) The Sikh Press Association worked closely with the Sikh steering group for the event, and invites IPSO to confirm with any members of the steering group that both Vaisakhi and the event in Trafalgar Square on Saturday 28th April were in no way related to the ‘Sikh new year’.
(4) https://www.london.gov.uk/events/2018-04-28/vaisakhi-2018# ; screenshot of page
included in Appendix A
11. THREE SENTENCES REDACTED.
The Sikh Press Association fully appreciates that picture captions are subject to space constraints. However, this does not justify filling the space with an inaccuracy. This explanation from Brunskill is baffling. If The Times could not fit an explanation of Valentine’s Day into a caption from February 14th would they instead just refer to another, unrelated, Christian event such as the birth of Christ in it?
References to the ‘Sikh new year’ provided by The Times
12. THREE SENTENCES REDACTED.
13. WORDS REDACTED the Vaisakhi page on the BBC website.(5) The Sikh Press Association is aware that it incorrectly describes Vaisakhi as the Sikh new year festival. The Sikh Press Association has through a variety of means tried to have the page corrected but it has been archived. This has created the dual problem of no department at the BBC being responsible for it any longer, and the fact that something which has been archived cannot be amended. This is a struggle that the Sikh Press Association has been open about, as proved by this tweet specifically referring to the page in question that predates the second occurrence of the inaccuracy in The Times on 30th April and the IPSO complaint.(6)
14. It is not unreasonable to suppose that many of the occurrences of this mistake have come from a single source of misinformation, such as the BBC page referred to above. In discussions with journalists who have made this mistake in the past, they admit to simply searching ‘Vaisakhi’ on Google and using information from the links on the first page. Thus, the presence of the inaccuracy on a few pages has, over the years, snowballed unchecked into being replicated across many one-off articles about Vaisakhi each year. This gives the impression that there are a lot more authors and publications supporting the idea that Vaisakhi is the Sikh new year, when in actual fact, they have taken the inaccuracy at face value – albeit in good faith – from elsewhere.
15. SIX SENTENCES REDACTED. There is no reference here to Vaisakhi being the start of a Sikh calendar. There is, however, a reference to the formation of the Khalsa.
16. SIX SENTENCES REDACTED.
17. The Sikh Press Association does not dispute the widespread use of the phrase ‘Sikh new year’ to Vaisakhi, and the worldwide magnitude of this inaccuracy. This does not make it correct however. On 18 th April 2018, the Sikh Press Association hosted its annual review, where it reported its activities for the preceding year to members of the Sikh community. In it, the Sikh Press Association’s Junior Press Officer Sukvinder Singh Sodhi said the following: ‘For the Sikh Press Association, we have a few aims when it comes to Vaisakhi as a whole, that we carry out each year. The first is to get the narrative correct. The last few years, even the last few days in fact, the press will constantly say, the press will constantly assume, that Vaisakhi is the start of the Sikh new year. And yet anybody that’s read any Gurbani, or knows anything about calendars, will know that the Sikhnew year does not start with the month of Vaisakh: Vaisakh is the second month of the year. ITV made that mistake yesterday, The Times made that mistake two [sic] days ago in the newspaper as well. These are mistakes that mainstream media outlets, ones that… if you polled people on the street and said: ‘Could you trust The Times to give you correct information?’ they would say yes. And The Times is telling you that Vaisakhi is the Sikh new year, and it’s not. So saying that Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year is the first thing [for the Sikh Press Association].’(8)
18. The Sikh Press Association would like to note that the remarks quoted in paragraph 17 were made on 18th April 2018, which was prior to The Times’ second caption error (30th April print edition) and the Sikh Press Association’s complaint to IPSO (13th May).
19. The Times’ correspondence to IPSO conveys a clear sense of the notion ‘if everybody else is doing it, how can it be inaccurate?’ This however does not take into account all of the inaccurate references that have been both corrected and prevented by the Sikh Press Association since its founding relatively recently in 2015. SENTENCE REDACTED. One of the reasons for the founding of the Sikh Press Association was to combat the sheer deluge of inaccuracies regarding the Sikh faith in the media, including online.
20. Brunskill’s second email of 17 th May, in reference to the Sikh Press Association, said:
SENTENCE REDACTED. The description of the Sikh Press Association as a WORDS REDACTED. is inaccurate. The Sikh Press Association works with every major Sikh organisation in the United Kingdom, and without their support, it would not be able to operate. Since its founding in 2015, the Sikh Press Association has campaigned openly and with the support of other Sikh organisations every year to clarify that Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year. Never has a UK Sikh organisation challenged this, nor has the Sikh Press Association ever been criticised by any Sikh organisation in the United Kingdom upon this insistence. The Sikh Press Association is supported because it works directly with the educational organisations and charitable groups that represent the Sikh community publicly. The Sikh Press Association takes its positions from them. It is a shame that The Times have not done the research to learn about the Sikh Press Association. Many of the inaccuracies that
have been corrected by the Sikh Press Association have actually been brought to its attention by ordinary members of the Sikh community. That Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year is not just a REDACTED but a fact, as paragraphs 3 – 6 of this submission explain. As has been said previously in these comments, IPSO is welcome to confirm this with any major UK Sikh organisation. There is a difference between something being contested and something being misunderstood. Vaisakhi is indeed misunderstood in the press, and even by Sikhs, but there is no argument from any Sikh group (in the UK or elsewhere) that it does mark the Sikh new year. Thus, clarifying that Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year in no way qualifies as dictating WORDS REDACTED. It would be like accusing somebody who made the obvious mistake of saying that Jesus was born on 14th February of dictating the terms under which Valentine’s Day may be discussed.
WORDS REDACTED Lord Singh’s article of 25th March 2006
21. Lord Singh’s article of 25th March 2006 WORDS REDACTED did not refer to a ‘Sikh new year’ at all. It instead referred to the ‘Indian new year’. The two are not the same. Lord Singh himself emphasised the fact that the ‘Indian new year’ is a geopolitical reference, not a religious one, by referring specifically to ‘Northern India’ and not to any religious group. Moreover, Lord Singh explicitly distinguishes Vaisakhi for Sikhs from the significance of that time of year generally for Northern India by referring specifically to ‘the Sikh story of Vaisakhi’ and narrating the foundation of the Khalsa. As Winston Churchill famously said: ‘India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator.’ The heterogeneity of the Indian nation has always meant it is not equivalent to a single religion, language, or culture. If The Times derived ‘Sikh new year’ from the phrase ‘Indian new year’ the newspaper needs to be reminded that Sikhs make up less than 2% of India’s population and are concentrated in one of 36 states and union territories.
22. The Sikh Press Association regularly works with Lord Singh in his parliamentary role, and with the Network of Sikh Organisations, of which Lord Singh is the director. We are happy to invite Lord Singh to clarify the fact that Vaisakhi is not the Sikh new year directly. However, this would mean going public with the stance of The Times on this case and any position IPSO takes on this too, which could be damaging to the reputations of said organisations. If IPSO wish to clarify this point privately with Lord Singh, it would have the encouragement of the Sikh Press Association.
23. SENTENCE REDACTED. The fact that an article was commissioned 12 years ago is irrelevant to the fact that two inaccurate captions were published in April 2018. Nor it is clear how Lord Singh’s article fits the description of ‘scholarly’. The article does not cite primary evidence of any nature (e.g. original sources), contains no academic references, with there being no evidence of it having been peer-reviewed, which are all the general hallmarks of scholarly work. The Sikh Press Association notes here that Lord Singh’s title ‘Dr’ is by virtue of an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Leicester in 2004.
24. A more recent piece from Lord Singh regarding Vaisakhi is his speech titled ‘Implications of Vaisakhi for Sikhs today’ given at the Ministry of Defence on 19th April 2017.(9) Nowhere in the speech is ‘Sikh new year’ referred to. However, 45% of this speech (579 out of 1280 words), is devoted to the formation of the Khalsa, which is what both of Sukvinder Singh Sodhi’s emails to The Times (on 9th April and 30th April) stated Vaisakhi to be for Sikhs.
(9)http://nsouk.co.uk/implications-of-vaisakhi-for-sikhs-today/ -Text reproduced in Appendix B.
The Times’ Tone
25. Brunskill’s assertion that the Sikh Press Association’s complaint to IPSO WORDS REDACTED is outright patronising and offensive. It directly implies that the Sikh community should tolerate factual inaccuracies about this festival, and that if it does not do so, the whole spirit of the festival is compromised. If The Times is so concerned with the maintenance of joy, celebration and inclusivity, the Sikh Press Association notes that Vaisakhi would be much more joyful, celebratory and inclusive for all if The Times reported it accurately.
26. SENTENCE REDACTED. Given that the Sikh Press Association’s complaint all along has been one regarding accuracy of the Sikh faith, the Sikh Press Association would appreciate greater attention to detail. It is indicative of the ridiculousness of The Times’ position and arguments that WORDS REDACTED to explain the meaning of a Sikh festival to a Sikh organisation contains such a basic spelling error.
27. The IPSO complaint was not made because of the inaccuracy per se. As has been outlined above, many other organisations have made the inaccuracy this year including ITV and the Guardian newspaper. The difference is however, in almost all of these cases, the publication understood the explanation provided by the Sikh Press Association and corrected it. An inaccuracy was swiftly corrected by ITV(10) and another one was corrected within one hour by the Guardian. Furthermore, as far as the Sikh Press Association is aware, only The Times has made the same inaccuracy twice this year. The Sikh Press Association generally enjoys a harmonious and constructive relationship with media outlets. However, it is evident from the correspondence between Sukvinder Singh Sodhi and Rose Wild at The Times, the publication has twice now been unwilling to even admit it made an error. Sukvinder Singh Sodhi’s email to Rose Wild of 12th April was not replied to. Nor was his email of 9th May to Rose Wild replied to. This has only been compounded by The Times’ attempts to explain the meaning and significance of a Sikh festival to a Sikh organisation, which the Sikh Press Association considers rude. There was no need for such a patronising tone from Ian Brunskill about a topic he is clearly personally unaware about. Copying and pasting links from a Google search is no substitute for an informed explanation, which is what the Sikh Press Association has been compelled to provide to IPSO in this lengthy and regretful submission.
(10)https://twitter.com/SikhPA/status/990987293971353601– Appendix A: Mayor of London Vaisakhi 2018 web page
Appendix B: Speech by Lord Singh ‘Implications of Vaisakhi for Sikhs Today’ at the Ministry of Defence on 19 April 2017
I would first like to thank the MoD for hosting this second Vaisakhi Conference, and
Secretary of State for Defence Rt. Hon Michael Fallon and other guests for their kindness on joining us to celebrate one of the most important days in the Sikh calendar.
Vaisakhi, marks the first day of spring in northern India. It’s a time of new hopes and new beginnings; celebrated with colourful processions, fairs and sporting contests.
For Sikhs, Vaisakhi has an added and deeper significance. It was the day chosen by our 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, to give Sikhs a distinct identity, symbolised by the turban and symbols of our faith. The question arises, why did the Guru, who taught the equality of all human beings, deliberately choose to make Sikhs distinctive and recognisable?
For the answer, we have to go back to a cold winter’s day in 1675, when the 9th Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadhur, was publicly beheaded in Delhi by the Mughal rulers, for defending the right of the Hindu community, not his own religion, but that of others, to worship in the manner of its choice. It was a unique martyrdom for the cause of religious freedom for all. It was Voltaire who said, ‘I may not believe in what you say; but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Nearly a century earlier Guru Teg Bahadhur gave that noble sentiment brave and practical utterance.
Following the beheading, the Mughal rulers challenged the followers of the Guru, to come forward to claim their master’s body. But Sikhs, who then had no distinguishing appearance, hesitated to do so. As we celebrate the Christian festival of Easter, we see a striking parallel with a key moment in Christianity with Peter’s denial that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, at the time of Jesus Christ’s martyrdom.
The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, thought long and hard about the momentary lapse of courage at the time of his father’s martyrdom. It was on the spring festival of Vaisakhi in 1699, that he decided to put the community to the test. Amidst all the fun and celebration, the Guru, suddenly emerged from a tent, sword in hand, and asked for volunteers who would be ready to give their lives there and then, for Sikh principles.
The crowed was hushed to silence fearing anyone who came forward might be harmed. A brave Sikh made his way to the Guru’s tent. Others followed.
After the fifth Sikh, had gone into the tent in response to the Guru’s challenge, the Guru
again emerged from the tent, sword in hand. This time however, he was not alone. To the joy and relief of the crowd, the Guru was followed by all five Sikhs, wearing the five symbols of Sikhism, the most prominent of which is neat and uncut hair covered with a smart turban.
The Guru gave the five Sikhs Amrit (blessing and confirmation in the new Khalsa community), and said that in future, all male Sikhs would take the common name Singh, literally lion, as a reminder of the need for courage. At the same time, he declared that all female Sikhs would take the name or title ‘Kaur’, literally ‘princess’, as a reminder of the dignity and complete equality of women first taught by Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind Singh then did an extraordinary thing. He asked the first five members of the Khalsa, now known as the ‘panj piare’, to give him amrit. In a remarkable exercise in humility, master and disciple were now one.
The Guru was now confident that the infant Sikh community could now survive and flourish without a living Guru. He added the writings of his father Guru Teg Bahadhur to the Guru Granth Sahib and declared ‘Guru Manio Granth’. That is that Sikhs should follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib as they would a living Guru.
Today, on this anniversary of that historic Vaisakhi, we need to consider the implications of the Guru’s injunction, Guru Manio Granth to life in the world of the 21st century.
In giving supremacy to the Holy Granth over all living leaders, Guru Gobind Singh warned us against false prophets who would try to distort the teachings of Sikhism to suit their own ends. Sadly, today, many Sikhs are chasing after people who are doing precisely this, and looking to superstitious short cuts to a supposed better afterlife, rather than to ethical living.
Guru Gobind Singh’s injunction, ‘Guru Manio Granth’, that is follow the teachings of the holy Granth as you would the founding Gurus, warns us against this distortion and dilution of Sikhism and the need to be true to the ethical teachings contained in our Holy Scriptures. It reminds us not to be passive in our belief, but be active in living true to the teachings. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must not only believe in the teachings, but also let these infuse into the pores of our very being and influence our action and reaction to the world about us, at all times.
In short it’s not enough to simply believe in teachings on equality, religious tolerance and social and political justice as worthy ideals. The message of Vaisakhi is that we must make the furtherance of these ideals the central goal of our lives. We must work together to ensure that the light of the Guru’s teachings reach the furthest corners of our troubled world.
Sikh teachings on human rights have much to offer to a world that has clearly lost its sense of direction. A world in which greed and profit are put before human rights; a world which daily reports of neglect of vulnerable youngster and the frail elderly; a world in which members of the so-called Security Council supply more than 80% of the means of killing in a world awash with arms; weaponry all too easily available to cruel and arrogant leaders. I could go on.
In the past, in India as well as in Europe, religious leaders often amassed power and wealth for themselves, ignoring the need for fairness and justice in society while telling the poor and suffering about promised rewards in heaven. Secular society has gone the other way, arguing that religion should be a private affair and not be allowed to interfere in a materialistic pursuit of wealth and happiness in its blind pursuit of a better life, not in the hereafter, but here and now; and the result is again, power and wealth for some and suffering and cruel hardship for others.
I’ve spent some time in building and construction, but it doesn’t need a construction
qualification to understand that that a structure build on inadequate foundations will
inevitably suffer damage. Similarly, a blind pursuit of material happiness that ignores the need for the ethical underpinning of society, inevitably results in the cracks in society that we see today. True ethical underpinning means that human rights, gender equality and concern for others must predicate all we do. They should not subservient to trade and the pursuit of power and privilege as they were a century ago and still are in many parts of the world. Vaisakhi reminds us, that it is the duty of us all to demolish this divide between religious teachings and secular living.
At the same time, Sikhs are duty bound to break down the artificial barriers of superiority and exclusiveness between different faiths and show commonalities far greater and more important than supposed differences.
The task of moving society to more responsible living is not an easy one. It requires the
dedication and total commitment inherent in the message of Vaisakhi.