Long before British Muslims became the new bogeymen, it was the Sikhs who tested the limits of multiculturalism and religious exemptions in public life here. In an interesting article for last month’s Catalyst magazine (by the CRE), Dr Gurharpal Singh briefly reviews their presence here:
At the height of domestic opposition to coloured immigration in the 1960s, there were two typical responses to the settlement of Sikhs in large numbers. The first, using language not too dissimilar from that currently being used in reference to British Muslims, questioned the possibility of Sikhs ever being able to integrate into British society. Writing about the initial Sikh settlement in Gravesend, John Gummer concluded that they were â€˜strangers in a strange land and … intellectually and educationally ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of a modern civilisationâ€™. Gummer subsequently became a cabinet minister and chairman of the Conservative Party.
In their pioneering study of 1969, Colour and Citizenship: a Report on British Race Relations, Rose et al were more optimistic. For them, the trajectory of the Sikh communityâ€™s future development in Britain depended largely on â€˜efforts by government and by local authorities … to help adolescents to remain within their own culture while feeling at home in the culture of their adopted countryâ€™. This analysis eventually informed the policy formation process on â€˜race relationsâ€™ of the then Labour government, and one of its leading figures, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, is credited with formulating the credo of British multiculturalism, not as â€˜a flattening process of uniformity, but cultural diversity coupled with equality of opportunity in an atmosphere of mutual toleranceâ€™.
In the 50 years since Jenkins outlined his vision, British Sikhs have tested, if not expanded, the limits of this framework. Since the 1960s, successive campaigns over the right to wear turbans, beards and kirpans (small daggers carried by orthodox Sikhs) in public places and at work and schools have generated intense debates about the limits of public accommodation of Sikh demands.
The whole article is worth reading, for how the context is similar with British Muslims today and for what Dr Singh sees as the future for British Sikhs based on recent events.
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Filed in: Organisations,Race politics,Religion,Sikh