London Despatch | International

Reaching out to Britain’s Sikh community

The attempted assassination of Lt. General (retired) Kuldeep Singh Brar in London in October 2012 by Sikh terrorists brought into sharp focus Indian concerns about U.K.-based extremism. India has long had a bumpy relationship with segments of Britain’s sizeable Sikh community, estimated at around 4,32,000 (or 0.7% of Britain’s population).

In 2015, a ‘Sikh Lives Matter’ demonstration (a global movement that sought to highlight issues faced by Sikhs in Punjab) that was attended by hundreds, outside the Indian High Commission in central London, turned violent. In Britain, controversial groups such as the International Sikh Youth Federation continue to operate. Though banned in several countries, the group was removed from the British government’s list of banned organisations last year.

More widely, some groups have suggested that many in the community don’t necessarily identify with India. The Sikh Federation U.K., a campaign body, has been pushing in recent years for Sikhs to be treated as a separate category within the U.K. census, highlighting that many did not feel that existing categories (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese etc.) represented who they were. Their campaign has won support from a large number of MPs.

Other controversies have maintained tensions, such as over British involvement in Operation Blue Star, which remains in dispute despite a previous government inquiry that concluded the assistance was limited. The Labour Party, in its manifesto for the recent election, had pledged an inquiry. The Sikh Federation is due to release a report, “Sacrificing the Sikhs”, on declassified U.K. government documents, and push further for a public inquiry in November.

In the past year, however, relations with the U.K. Sikh community may have take a turn for the better, amid wider efforts by the Indian High Commission to engage with the Indian diaspora.

High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha, who has been in his post since late last year, insists that there is no specific strategy of engaging with the Sikh community in Britain, but there is more of a wider initiative to work across communities to strengthen bilateral relations. A number of significant steps have been taken, beginning with his visit to Europe’s oldest gurdwara in Shepherds Bush in West London.

In a first for an official High Commission event, 13 gurdwaras from across the political spectrum and communities in London were brought together this Baisakhi. Last week, the High Commissioner visited a gurdwara in Birmingham, the first ever by an Indian High Commissioner to a gurudwara in the city, home to a large Sikh community.

Close community ties

“For a long time, particularly during the 1980s, the British population were seen as supporters of Sikh militants. Even after militancy died down, there was a hangover and not much engagement,” says Gareth Price of think tank Chatham House. The Indian engagement efforts fit into a wider attempt by the current High Commissioner to work with the diaspora and reflect his interest in fostering close community ties while at the same time urging for a tough U.K. stance on those groups still seen as militant, he adds.

“The aim is to try to get everyone together, including Sikhs. They are a very important segment of the diaspora,” says High Commissioner Sinha. He acknowledges that there were some who would never be convinced. But things were moving forward, he adds. “We are trying to reach out to as many people as we can to see how we can work together on a common platform...”

Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 11:02:13 PM |

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