Conservative Marginalisation Pushes UK Sikhs To Demand Better From A Future Government
"[With an election looming] British Sikh engagement with prospective politicians and political institutions must now demand more from political representation and parties."
January 25, 2024 | 7 min. read | Opinion
On January 14, 2024, the Federation of Sikh Organisations (FSO) led a national conference, inviting representatives from all UK Gurdwaras, Sikh organisations, and the wider Sikh community, which took place at Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Smethwick, in the West Midlands.
British Sikh representatives gathered to express their deep concern about the recent high-profile examples of transnational repression in Canada, the USA, and the UK by the Indian government, targeting Sikh activists.
Strong condemnation was expressed at the silence of the current UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and his government, the Official Opposition and UK politicians more generally for their reluctance to publicly confront the Indian government's repression of dissent and failure to call for an investigation into what appears to be an Indian state-sponsored global assassination programme.
One of the resolutions passed urged the management committees of over 250 Gurdwaras throughout the UK to not allow any UK politicians to speak from a Gurdwara stage unless they have publicly condemned the targeting and demonisation of Sikh activists by the UK Government in concert with the Indian government's ongoing efforts to silence legitimate dissent.
Resolutions were also passed that envisaged the likely outcome of the upcoming UK General Election and the very likely prospect of a new Labour Government. The next UK Government has been urged to immediately drop the phrase "Pro-Khalistan Extremism" - a term the current Conservative government has been at pains to promote, and to call for the immediate release of British national Jagtar Singh Johal, whose detention was described as arbitrary by the former UK Prime Minister.
A further demand was to seek a concrete commitment from a potential incoming Labour Government to commence, within 100 days of coming to power, a judge-led inquiry into UK involvement in the June 1984 Indian army attack of Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple Complex).
Those gathered recognised the failures of the West Midlands Police and the Senior Coroner in properly investigating the suspicious death of Sikh activist Avtar Singh Khanda in Birmingham on June 15, 2023, and backed the legal challenge by his family for an independent investigation by another police force, as well as an inquest and public inquiry into his death.
So why are these resolutions important for not just the British Sikh community but the entire diaspora as well?
The resolutions passed were not only the product of recent events across the globe impacting Sikhs, but they were also underpinned by a pattern of behaviour on the part of the UK Government that goes back more than a decade and reflects growing sentiments shared by many British Sikhs of being treated as political collateral - of having their most basic rights and freedoms open to negotiation in order to please a foreign government that is intent on crushing political opposition by any means, fair or foul.
Over the course of more than a decade, successive Conservative governments have effectively alienated the British Sikh community. The effect of their actions has been especially damaging to young Sikhs, forcing many to question their previously accepted British Sikh identity. This has negatively affected their engagement with politics and faith in political institutions. It is worth noting that the British Sikhs are, and have always been, among the most well-integrated diaspora communities in the UK.
It was a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who backed the murderous assault on the Sri Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple complex) almost four decades ago. However, more recent attempts at aiding Indian repression of British Sikh activism can be traced back to 2014 and the outcry over documents released under the 30-year rule.
Known as the 'Amritsar papers,' they revealed that an SAS officer was sent to advise Indian military authorities in the run-up to their attack on Sri Harmandir Sahib. The subsequent suppression of this led to the British Sikh community’s suspicion of a whitewash by then Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in his ‘narrow’ review.
The governments of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have continuously stonewalled all attempts to get to the truth about British involvement in the Amritsar massacre (Operation Bluestar as it was named by the Indian army) of June 1984, breaking with British parliamentary convention in providing India with a report into the ‘inadvertent’ release of British papers relating to the massacre prior to publication, so that Indian authorities may assess what information was 'acceptable' for release.
The past 12 months have been a further challenge for Sikhs in Punjab and across the diaspora. Non-violent, democratic, and entirely legal Sikh activism has faced unexpected and unwarranted challenges. However, in the UK, Government funded reports into extremism (Shawcross) and faith engagement (Bloom) have been weaponised to demonise British Sikh activism, attempting to present Sikh activists as extremists for engaging in political activities that are completely legal under British law.
Attempts by the Indian state to repress its critics in the diaspora have seen a massive increase since the 2020 Farmers Protest, as well as the more recent Khalistan Referendum vote happening across the world.
It would be naive to believe democracy, law, justice, and human rights are not prone to compromise in pursuance of the 'great game.' Some consider minority groups like the Sikhs to be collateral damage and of little to no significance.
It has been said that states do not have friends; they have interests.
2024 will arguably be the most significant election year in recent world history. Over 60 countries representing half the world’s population, around 4 billion people, will hold regional, legislative, and presidential elections that look set to shake up political institutions or ramp up geopolitical tensions.
The UK is also expected to experience a volatile General Election this year, and with that, faith and community institutions will find themselves dragged once more into expressing allegiances and allowing the platforming of candidates and political parties.
UK Gurdwara management committees must, therefore, rise to the challenge and professionalise their approach to visiting politicians, challenge them, and place expectations on them.
In 2024, the Sikh community should no longer allow self-interested politicians the easy photo opportunities they seek. They should refuse to be exploited and demand their fundamental rights as British citizens are publicly confirmed and upheld.
The Sikh Network was formed before the 2015 General Elections to bring together a network of Sikh professionals and talent to re-ignite the flame of Sikh activism and ensure engagement with political institutes that are authentic and current on issues that impact British Sikhs. This led to the drafting of The Sikh Manifesto, which detailed 10 points important to the British Sikh community.
The Sikh Manifesto 2024 is currently being put together so that the community can use it to develop their engagement with local politicians.
British Sikhs continually raise concerns about better monitoring and allocation of public resources and legislation impacting the Sikh identity, human rights violations in India, and the fundamental right to self-determination. The latter is the most politically volatile as it challenges an allied state that the UK Government is at pains not to antagonise - even though it is fully aware of the well-documented situation with respect to the lack of minority rights in that country. That the world's foremost human rights organisations are unable to operate within the world's largest democracy speaks volumes.
British Sikh engagement with prospective politicians and political institutions must now demand more from political representation and parties.
For the past 13 years, the Conservatives have pandered to aloof elites that are unrepresentative of the vast majority. There must be an expectation of the Labour Party to pitch itself as being more in touch with grassroots faith and community organisations.
The Sikh elective should also be expecting Labour to think about ethical foreign policy rather than short-term opportunism, as well as the detrimental effect of the Brexit hangover in relation to the pursuit of trade deals has had on the Sikh community.
In short, a new Labour government should understand how the Indian Government has been able to use the British Government to repress British Sikh citizens and any overt criticism of India.
Sikhs need to demand that a successive government restates the primacy of British citizens' right to free speech over the desires of foreign governments to silence dissent and not kowtow to what is now widely recognised as transnational repression.
Above all, if Labour wishes to differentiate itself from the Conservatives, then greater engagement is key, such as listening to Gurdwaras and grassroots Sikh Organisations and their concerns, as well as not labelling them as ‘extremists’ at the behest of the Indian government for pursuing a peaceful path to self-determination (Khalistan), an enshrined basic human right.
The silver lining in the upcoming UK General Election is that for the first time in British history, we should see a significant increase in UK Parliament Sikh representation, or at least individuals who currently identify themselves as having Sikh heritage.
At this point, the Labour Party has five Sikh candidates that we know of who are in safe seats and, therefore, likely to go on to become MPs. There appear to be no Sikh candidates standing in safe Conservative seats.
The ‘million-dollar question’ of how this impacts advocacy of Sikh issues is another matter. Unfortunately, history has shown us that the aesthetics of Sikh representation do not always result in the amplification of the Sikh voice.
Mankamal Singh is a London-born Sikh who is an advisor to The Sikh Network and is one of the hosts of ‘The Sikh Network Podcast.’ He has served on the Sikh Council UK, local Gurdwara committees as well as several public committees. You can follow Mankamal Singh on Twitter at @MankamalSingh.
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