UK Says No to Sikh Regiment, Is Religious Segregation Necessary?
With UK ruling out a Sikh regiment, Kamalpreet Kaur reports whether the move will deter youth from joining the army.
With British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon ruling out a separate Sikh Regiment in the British Army, the UK Sikh community is taking this news with a pinch of salt. Giving his reason, Sir Fallon has said that he is “a little wary” of any military units segregated by religion. He has, however, reiterated that the services should ensure they recruit at least 10 percent of recruits from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background by 2020.
U-Turn by the Conservatives
In February 2015, in the run-up to the general elections, the then Defence Secretary Mark Francois had confirmed they were examining plans for the return of a Sikh regiment and also a reserve company.
Mr Francois had said that the idea “may well have merit” as MPs backed it, with Tory former Defence Minister Sir Nicholas Soames urging ministers to “do away with political correctness” and press ahead with it. It is a well known fact that thousands of Sikhs had fought along with the British and lost their lives during the two World Wars.
The Defence Secretary’s current comment in this regard is being seen as a U-turn by the Conservatives on the issue of Sikh Regiment in the British Army by many within the Sikh diaspora.
‘Sikhs More Than Just A Religion’
Mr Amrik Singh, the Chair of Sikh Federation (UK) said, “We welcomed the announcement of the proposal in Parliament in February 2015. The U-turn by Sir Michael Fallon, at a recent Conservative Party conference fringe event, will disappoint many British Sikhs and Conservative Party supporters.”
The Defence Secretary on one hand states Sikhs “make great soldiers” and yet has decided to go against the proposal. However, we believe his announcement has more to do with the atmosphere of xenophobia in the political world following the Brexit vote.Amrik Singh Gill, Chairman, Sikh Federation (UK)
When asked about Sir Fallon’s comment on segregation on basis of religion, Mr Gill said, “Ironically, hundred years ago tens of thousands of turban-wearing Sikhs were good enough to die for the freedom of Europe. It is also shameful that some politicians today refuse to recognise British law established 50 years ago where the law lords had ruled that Sikhs are more than just a religion.”
He further questioned,“Is Sir Michael seriously suggesting it is wrong for any organisations to set up any groups with an emphasis on a particular religion or is he simply worried about racism in the armed forces?”
Will the Move Deter Sikhs From Joining the Army?
In response to Sir Fallon’s suggestion that he may explore other ways to encourage Sikhs to join armed forces, General Secretary of Sikh Council UK, Mr Gurmail Singh Kandola said, “We will ask to meet with him and discuss other ways he has in mind. The decision to not go ahead with a Sikh Regiment, however, is disappointing.”
The Sikh Regiment would have served the country well. Now it has come out in the open that Sikhs are only being treated as a vote bank so before election statements were only to garner their votes. There’s a need for Sikh Regiment as it would encourage Sikh youth to choose a career in armed forces.Sukhwinder Singh, President IKO and member of Federation of Sikh Organisations UK
Mr Gurmail Singh Malhi, President of Gurdwara Singh Sabha, Southall, where Armed Forces hold regular recruitment drives, said, “The Sikh and other regiments were established by the British acknowledging the fact that their faiths and cultures gave them valour, loyalty and sense of sacrifice. It should be upheld in Britain too. We have always supported this demand of Sikh Regiment in the British Army, and will continue to work for achieving the same.”
“I know a lot of young Sikh men from India, who, like myself, had once considered joining the British Army under the impression that eventually a Sikh regiment will be set up. The very thought gives a sense of identity and pride. The idea is a big pull,” said Manpreet Singh, whose father has served in the IAF.
Mr Randeep Singh, a youth worker and the founder of Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team (SWAT) said, “The decision would deter many Sikhs from considering a career in the Army. It’s a lost opportunity.”
Being Part of One Unified Army
Meanwhile, not everyone disagrees with the Defence Secretary. “We don’t need a Sikh Regiment. We need more Sikhs to join and serve in the mainstream British Army. There was a pre-election talk and some exploration but policy never changed nor any change put forward,” said Jay Singh Sohal, the young author of Saragarhi: The Forgotten Battle.
Jay has also served with the British Army in West Asia as a Public Affairs Officer and campaigned extensively alongside the British Armed Forces Sikh Association to create a permanent memorial in memory of the Sikhs who fought in every arena of the First World War. “There is no question of a U-turn,” he said.
“Sikhs can be part of one unified Army as long as they are not asked to compromise their faith to fit in. If that’s the case, no separate Sikh Regiment is needed,” opined Sonia Kaur, a freelance artist who has worked with National Army Museum on a project related to the Sikh contribution to both the World Wars.
According to the information provided by the MoD, there are currently 180 Sikhs in the British Army and their integral contribution and success is undoubtedly due to the common core values upheld and shared between Sikhism and the Armed Forces: Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty, and Commitment.
(Kamal Preet Kaur is a freelance journalist based in London, working with TV, radio, print and digital platforms. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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