Sukhmeet Grewal: Australian Sikhs Denounce Proposed NSW Kirpan School Policy
Protect Sikh Rights campaign launched to provide critical input during NSW Department of Education public consultation period on proposed Kirpan modifications open until Friday, June 25
June 23, 2021 | 5 min. read | Original Reporting
On June 18, 2021, the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education released a set of now widely denounced proposed policy amendments that would place serious limitations on Sikh students practicing their religion.
The amendments specifically focus on the wearing of a Kirpan while attending school and require it to be blunt and secured through soldered chains amongst other unprecedented modifications.
These changes come after an alleged incident involving a 14-year-old Sikh student, in which a Kirpan was used causing injury to another student, and are now open to public consultation and input until June 25 via a special NSW Department email.
While the NSW Department of Education shared with Baaz that the policy was drafted after working “closely with community representatives, including representatives from the Australian Sikh Association and the NSW Gurdwara Group, as well as other government agencies”, the proposed modifications have been met with condemnation from both the Australian and global Sikh population.
The NSW government suggests that the “draft requirements were developed after considering the approach taken in a variety of jurisdictions”, however, the World Sikh Organization, amongst other Sikh advocacy groups, have shown that the NSW proposal falls far outside what is found in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.
Ravinderjit Singh, Chairperson for the Australian Sikh Association (ASA), told Baaz that the Association was initially given the mandate to challenge the issue by the Sangat after an “emergency community meeting was conducted at Glenwood Gurudwara”.
“A 10 person working group was formed, inclusive of five Amritdhari Sikhs, with representation from all the Gurudwaras in NSW,” Ravinderjit adds.
He says that the working group contacted stakeholders in the community, including “the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, Damdami Taksal, Sikh Youth Groups, Gatka groups, United Sikhs and Sikh Federation” in order to see “what accommodations, if any, were going to be feasible”.
After a series of meetings, Ravinderjit shares that “these final proposals put forth by the NSW Government have been made in consultation with the NSW Gurudwara working group”. He sees the relationship with the working group as an encouraging sight, especially as “[the Government] has the power to change the law without consultation, and could have banned Kirpans outright”.
Ultimately, Ravinderjit believes that the new department proposals and compromises from the working group are welcomed by the community, claiming “the Sydney Sikh youth and wider Sikh community we have spoken to, they had no problems”. He adds that “either we engage with the NSW Government to implement change to policy to ensure everyone's safety or face an extended Kirpan ban and a lengthy legal battle to follow.”
The NSW Department also believes that “the draft requirements for carrying Kirpans at school, as set out on the [public] consultation page, will provide for the safe carrying of knives worn for a religious purpose.”
However, a quickly growing chorus of the NSW Sangat see the proposed Kirpan modifications and school policy as completely unacceptable and have been sending their concerns to the NSW Department’s public consultation email on the matter via a Protect Sikh Rights grassroots campaign portal.
Inderprit Singh, a recent law graduate who has worked extensively within the NSW Sikh youth community, and Sukhdeep Singh, a Sikh hip-hop artist also known as L-FRESH The LION based in NSW, are just two grassroots leaders that have found the government proposals deeply concerning.
Inderprit expressed “disappointment with the proposals” considering that the Sangat and the NSW Sikh youth community were unanimously clear from the get go that “no changes to the Kirpan” would be deemed acceptable. During subsequent conversations with the working group, the NSW Sikh youth community was clear on that position as well.
According to Inderprit, there is growing consensus in the community that the fact that these proposals have been put forward to public consultation after negotiations with the working group points to a “failure in the community leaders’ approach to the situation”.
In discussion with Sukhdeep Singh, he also asserts that “for the Kirpan to be regulated in a way that other items, that hold no significance to any particular community, don’t get regulated speaks of so much disrespect and lack of understanding about the importance of the Kirpan to the Sikh community”.
He adds that for the government “to think that [they] can assume [to have] some authority to modify something that is so sacred, is so deeply insulting”, especially considering all the humanitarian work and crisis aid many Amritdhari Sikhs provide across the continent.
“Any sort of conversation around compromise is a dangerous conversation” explains Sukhdeep, as “it may open the flood gates”. It calls into question, he adds, “who has the authority to regulate the Sikh community” because if Sikhs engage in these compromises then they “give the government that power”. The community should “refuse any sort of compromise” from a government with a long history of oppression, he concludes.
Inderprit expresses admiration for the “power and strength of the Sangat” that has been unleashed in countering the proposals. The NSW Government has no obligation to undertake current public consultations in regard to policy changes, but “due to the collectivisation we’ve seen amongst the Sangat, these consultations have become available to us” he says.
While any legal route that exists to fight these new proposals will be a long and tiresome process, owing to a lack of freedom of religion bills in NSW, the Sangat can still be impactful according to Inderprit.
“If we get enough community members sending emails, then [the government] won’t have any choice but to listen, they’ll see that we are a strong unified community”.
Sukhdeep finds the process of consultation “flawed”.
“It asks for feedback from a community with a divergence of experiences, is intergenerational and speaks multiple languages” as such, “not everyone is going to be able to participate in the process, not all voices are going to be heard”.
Further, Sukhdeep asks, “how are Amritdhari voices weighed against wider Sikh community voices who may feel compromise is okay'', arguing that “if those who carry the Kirpan aren't willing to compromise”, then perhaps it is those voices that should be prioritised.
However, Sukhdeep still does see merit in the public consultation process.
“The Government needs to hear our voices as a collective community” and thus community-driven campaigns such as the Protect Sikh Rights campaign via DoGooder can “provide an opportunity for the community to participate in what is a flawed process”.
Sukhmeet Grewal hails from Melbourne, Australia, and is currently studying to obtain his Masters in Culture and the Creative Industries. He is also the co-founder of “We Sikh Justice”, a Sikh youth collective based in Melbourne focused on education, advocacy, and sewa. You can find him on Twitter at @Sukhmeet_Grewal.
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