Here’s Why Sikh Youth in UK Are Protesting Inter-Faith Marriages

The latest incident of Sikhs protesting an marriage in UK has opened up a pandora’s box of the Sikh code of conduct.

6 min read
Sikhs praying in a Gurudwara. Photo used for representational purpose. (Photo: AP)

In the already charged atmosphere of the 9/11 anniversary, the Sikh community in the UK was rattled with the news of 55 arrests in a gurudwara in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England.

Shock waves were felt across communities when phrases such as ‘blade gang storms temple’, ‘sword wielding mob’, gurudwara occupied by armed protesters’, etc. made national headlines.

Those arrested were mostly young Sikh men, who had gathered to protest against an inter-faith wedding, where a Sikh girl was marrying a non-Sikh boy, who has been identified as a Muslim in some media and a Hindu in some others.

The gurdwara in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href="">Gurudwara Babe Ke</a>)
The gurdwara in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/Gurudwara Babe Ke)

Sikh Faith, Radical Puritanism, Tolerance and Integration

The latest incident has opened a pandora’s box for the Sikh community in the UK. Out in the open are questions about egalitarian values of the Sikh faith, radical puritanism, tolerance and integration.

Sikhs are considered one of the most integrated ethnic minority communities in the country and the Leamington Spa protest has given a “hard-working and tolerant community” a very negative publicity in the UK.

Mr Sukhwinder Singh, president of International Khalsa Organisation and a member of Federation of Sikh Organisations (FSO) said:

These are a series of intertwined complex issues and untangling them needs wisdom and perseverance. Practices, traditions, doctrines and rules give a faith its identity. Sikhism is egalitarian because of its own set of values and tenets. The Anand Karaj ceremony is for Sikhs who have chosen Sikhi as their spiritual path.

He added:

The new arrangement – for allowing non-Sikhs to marry Sikhs in the UK gurdwaras after they learn the basic values over a period of time – is a reasonable allowance. This allowance has, in fact, opened up the faith to others because according to the Sikh Rehat Maryada, only a Sikh can marry a Sikh. It has made acceptance and integration possible at a deeper level so egalitarian value hasn’t been compromised.
A Sikh couple getting married in the UK. (Photo Courtesy: YouTube screengrab)
A Sikh couple getting married in the UK. (Photo Courtesy: YouTube screengrab)

Rehat Maryada: The Sikh Code of Conduct

Men and women of Sikh faith marrying a non-Sikh in a sacred Anand Karaj ceremony in UK gurdwaras has been a contentious issue within the community for the last many years, as it is seen as a violation of the Sikh code of conduct, Rehat Maryada.

As more and more Sikh children are marrying outside their faith and these protests were causing a discord within the community, Sikh Council UK and representatives of all main gurdwaras in the country agreed on a special guidance for inter-faith weddings last year. Apparently, the gurdwara in question didn’t give two hoots to the guidance.

Mrs Sidhu from Middlesex knows how the system works in some gurdwaras. One of her daughters has married into a Hindu family.

My daughter married her Gujarati colleague in a Gurdwara. Gurdwara committees book the weddings and if you know the organisers, as we did, the “inter-faith” issue is down-played, and wedding arranged on a weekday to avoid controversy,” she explains with a wink, adding, “Don’t write my first name, I have two yet-to-marry children.”

Mr Gurdev Singh Chauhan, president, Shiromani Akali Dal UK, believes the most respectful way for inter-faith couples – who do not follow the Sikh way of life but do wish to be blessed in a gurdwara – is to have a civil wedding followed by special thanksgiving prayer(s) where all can be part of the blessings without causing any conflict.

It is this ‘conflict’, or the fear of it, which has marred many a happy occasions in the last few years.

Benita Sandhu, a Gujarati girl who married into a Sikh family, not-so-long-ago, says,

I was very anxious when I was told that there could be issues around getting married in a gurdwara. I was going into a Sikh family and therefore wanted a Sikh wedding. I had always loved the simplicity and sanctity of Anand Karaj. It was after a lot of persuasion and heartache and the fact that I was coming into a Sikh family, that a go-ahead was given. But I couldn’t relax until the ceremony was over, dreading the worst. Fear ruined the most special day of my life.

Inter-faith marriages are viewed as a violation of the Sikh Code of Conduct, <i>Rehat Maryada</i>. (Photo: iStock)
Inter-faith marriages are viewed as a violation of the Sikh Code of Conduct, Rehat Maryada. (Photo: iStock)

The recent incident has brought the memories back and she wishes that the couples should have the freedom to marry whoever they want without any fear. “I had heard that a group of young Sikh men come and interrupt the ceremony and now I have seen the videos,” she adds.

Mr Gurmail Singh Kandola, General Secretary of Sikh Council UK said:

The youth may be taking the lead in protesting but they enjoy support from all the key organisations.
“The truth is that the gurdwaras across the community agreed to the guidance last August. These are based on Rehat Maryada and were unanimously agreed following a consultation over an 18-month period. We are in discussion to see how best to prevent some gurdwara committees from acting irresponsibly in relation to hurting religious sentiments by not following the Maryada and the agreed guidance,” he confirmed. He said that police needed diversity training and media too needed to understand and respect Sikh sensitivities as well.
People praying at a gurudwara in India. Photo used for representational purpose. (Photo: AP)
People praying at a gurudwara in India. Photo used for representational purpose. (Photo: AP)

Young Men Attack Nuptials of Women Who Marry ‘Out’

A few Sikh journalists, writing for English media, have mentioned to the effect that a faction of young men ‘defending’ their vision of the culture are seeking to impose their views by attacking the nuptials of women who marry ‘out’.

Jay Bui, known to her friends as JFK (Jay Funny Kaur), agrees.

“My brother was categorical that I wasn’t allowed to date a Muslim or a Black. I ended up marrying my Chinese boyfriend in a civil wedding. Our gurdwara wedding was cancelled a week before it was about to take place. Invites had been given out by both the families. Everyone was looking forward to a Sikh wedding. My husband had even tried on a sherwani and turban. We were told that the person responsible for booking hadn’t realised that it was an inter-faith wedding. Someone had informed the ‘protestors’ about the impending wedding and they had, in turn, told the gurdwara committee in no uncertain terms that violation of the Sikh rules wouldn’t be allowed,” sighs a teary Jay.

“Now, looking at what has happened in Leamington, I feel sorry for the couple, but glad that my wedding went very quiet, a bit too quiet, but it could have been worse.”

A group called the Khalsa Camp has been protesting against inter-faith marriages. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/<a href=""> Khalsa Camp</a>)
A group called the Khalsa Camp has been protesting against inter-faith marriages. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Khalsa Camp)

However, Mr Dabinderjit Singh, principal adviser, Sikh Federation UK, debunked the “growing radical puritanism” theory. He said:

Youth are always more passionate about whatever they believe in. When the Sikhs first arrived in the country, they compromised their identities to tackle racism and fit-in. However, as they grew affluent, they gathered courage and returned to their traditions and roots. My father is one such example. June 1984 was a watershed moment. Today, Sikh youth are educated, confident and assertive, visible and vocal. Just practicing faith better than their fathers and fore-fathers doesn’t make them radical.

Meanwhile, the inter-faith wedding issue is a hotly debated topic within the community circles. Many young people are confused and upset over this new 9/11 episode. During my recent visit to a local gurdwara, I overheard a 60-something lady (doctor), explaining the issue to a group of young men and women. “Anand Karaj ceremony is like a “prescription only medicine”, not available freely for anyone to pick. This doesn’t mean the doctor doesn’t treat everyone equally. Does it?

“Dr explained it all so simply,” exclaimed Dilpreet, who at 18, said was “confused and upset like all of my friends, with everything that has happened.”

Are young Sikhs becoming intolerant then? Dabinderjit says, “Sikhs are more tolerant towards other communities but not to their own. Perhaps, they expect a lot more from one another.” Perhaps.

(Kamal Preet Kaur is a freelance journalist based in London, working with TV, radio, print and digital platforms.)

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