On Tuesday 22nd May, the Sikh Press Association hosted its third open forum discussion. The latest in this series asked: ‘Sikhs in Politics: How can it work?’ The panel compromised of prominent members of the Sikh community in Britain who have extensive experience of political and government engagement. The panellists were:
- Indarjit Singh, Lord Singh of Wimbledon: the first turbaned Sikh to sit in the House of Lords and the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations
- Dabinderjit Singh, a director at the National Audit Office and principal adviser to the Sikh Federation UK
- Harsimrat Kaur, a mathematician and co-founder of the group Sikh Tories
- Sukhvinder Kaur, a Labour councillor in the 2018 local elections who works with the charity Sikh Relief
- Inderjeet Singh Nijjar: a managing consultant with decades of experience at the heart of government including the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.
The discussion was hosted by the Sikh Press Association’s Junior Press Officer, Sukh Singh, who has studied British Politics at the University of Oxford and King’s College London. As with previous discussions, it was held at Imperial College London.
The first question asked: What barriers do Sikhs face getting involved in politics?
Watch this question answered in full here – https://youtu.be/5hhlzQ-J3H0.
Sukhvinder Kaur highlighted the problem of abuse, especially from members of the Sikh community and especially to women. ‘It saddens me to say that sometimes it’s our own that place barriers on women,’ adding that in the past she has received threatening phone calls.
Dabinderjit Singh from the Sikh Federation echoed this, citing the election of Preet Kaur Gill as the first female Sikh MP and some within the Sikh community ‘who resent the fact that a Sikh woman is now a politician and is now making decisions that men haven’t been able to do.’ Harsimrat Kaur spoke of how years ago while she was at university, some people found out where she lived and began to stalk her because of her political views as a Sikh.
The panel agreed that racism was still an issue. Dabinderjit Singh ‘To get into the system you will almost certainly experience racism because of that system.’ Lord Singh also spoke of the history of racism he has faced.
The second question asked: Is the sangat given enough opportunity to engage with those involved in making political decisions using the Sikh name?
Harsimrat Kaur outlined how at the previous election she invited political candidates to the gurdwara and subjected them all to the same questioning. Dabinderjit Singh said you could count on probably ‘one or two fingers’ the number of Sikh organisations that regularly engaged with sangat via e.g. gurdwara meetings. He also raised the point that a large number of Sikhs visited the gurdwara infrequently, usually for special occasions. ‘It’s what we do that counts, not the group of followers behind us’ said Lord Singh. ‘We’re being taken for a ride […] there’s superficial engagement.’ said Inderjeet Singh Nijjar, who lamented the lack of Sikh institutions to hold such people to account. He listed projects that were being done in the Sikh name. He agreed with Dabinderjit Singh, saying that the government preferred to work with individuals rather than organisations and especially those that fit the government’s narrative. Sukhvinder Kaur highlighted the difficulty of agreeing on a narrative that suits all Sikhs which involved ‘pulling each other down.’
Sangat asked why Sikhs4Labour did not share or support the event, and why Lord Singh felt it was okay to use his political position to promote his personal views on Sikhi.
You can watch those replies and this question in full here – https://youtu.be/DAuQU1eEaaw.
The third question asked: On issues that impact the entire Sikh community and perception of the faith, how can differences of opinion between Sikh political representatives be discussed or settled?
Sukhvinder Kaur said the problem was how issues become escalated, citing a recent incident where a man’s dastaar was taken off in a gurdwara during a dispute. Inderjeet Singh Nijjar raised the issue of money and how it ties into disputes between Sikhs. We shouldn’t just dismiss differences of opinion, argued Dabinderjit Singh. There are some issues which the Panth is going to have differences over such as the call for an independent public inquiry into 1984. Regarding these, we need to sit around a table re issues in the public domain with ‘some form of protocol’. Harsimrat Kaur gave the example of South Shields gurdwara and how its running is an example for sangat.
You can watch this question answered in full here – https://youtu.be/kA70MKA-J6U.
Question four asked: How useful are politician Gurdwara visits for the entire Sikh community?
Inderjeet Singh shared his acronym of FCSS – ‘foto’, chaa, samosa and siropa – with the audience to encapsulate what he thought of such visits. ‘I would love to see an MP come to a gurdwara outside of elections,’ said Sukhvinder Kaur, arguing that there needs to be greater agenda-setting by gurdwaras when politicians come to visit. Dabinderjit Singh said that while there has been engagement between politicians and gurdwaras, there needs to be a collective effort to stop making the visits into just photo opportunities.
You can watch this question answered in full here – https://youtu.be/Fr3QrUFkCzg.
The last question related to the detention of Jagtar Singh Johal: It’s been 200 days since Jagtar Singh was detained by Punjab Police. Since them, he has been denied private consular access and an independent medical examination. Does this show the limitations of the UK political system in helping on certain Sikh issues?
Regarding dialogue and action with India, Lord Singh cited trade concerns with, recounting similar issues in 1984, but added: ‘We have to keep plugging away determinedly’. Sukhvinder Kaur shared her experience of working with Sikh Relief/SOPW, although noting that they work within Indian’s justice framework. She said that it was sad that she had not been as shocked as some members of sangat when the news of Jaggi broke, saying: ‘We’ve seen cases like this day in and day out.’ Shamsher Singh, a key figure of the #FreeJaggiNow campaign, talked about perpetuation of the status quo and specifically engagement with a system that hasn’t delivered for Sikhs.
You can watch this question answered in full here – https://youtu.be/5ZdgM54_x5A.
The session then ended with a lively question and answer session which saw rigorous debate between panellists and audience members about the role Sikhs can and should play in the British political system. You can watch the final part of the discussion here.