INTERNATIONAL

French school imposes curbs on Sikh pupils

PARIS, OCT. 21. Three Sikh boys from the Parisian suburb of Bobigny have moved the courts in France calling for their immediate reintegration into classes. The boys, Bikramjit, Jasbir and Ranjit Singh have been excluded from classes since schools re-opened in France in early September.

The three have been excluded from classes because they continue to wear the keski, described by the school authorities as "conspicuous headgear" which has been banned under a new law against the wearing of such religious symbols in French public schools. The law came into effect in September this year.

Verdict today

The court is expected to deliver its judgment on Friday.

"This is a most important school year for me. I am in the final for the Baccalaureate or school leaving exam and my whole future depends on it. We have made concessions already, giving up the seven-metre turban for the much-reduced keski that leaves the ears and forehead completely bare. The school does not deem this enough. We are being treated most shabbily," 18-year-old Bikramjit told The Hindu.

Every morning the boys are closeted in the school canteen where teachers give them exercises to fill in the time. They cannot go to the school library or to the playground and are kept out of classes. The boys say they should either be reintegrated or the school should call the disciplinary council and expel them. "At least then we can think of other ways of tackling this problem. Right now, we are neither here nor there — in a state of limbo. This situation cannot go on eternally," Gurdial Singh, the father of one of the boys told The Hindu. Much younger Sikh children are being allowed into classes wearing handkerchiefs on their heads, a solution that becomes awkward for older boys who have sprouted beards, Mr Gurdial Singh explained.

Assurance to India

Earlier this year, Dominique de Villepin, then French Foreign Minister, had assured India that France would find "a satisfactory solution" to the problem of the Sikhs, who many believe, have become victims of crossfire by the French state and Muslim girls insisting upon wearing the hijab or headscarf to school.

Officials at the French Foreign Ministry have been unhappy at the wide coverage the Sikh turban question in France has received in the Indian press. Recently, a Ministry official told The Hindu the Indian press had "grossly exaggerated" the problem.

Ten days ago, Jagdish Tytler, Minister for NRIs, was in Paris for a three-day visit. Although the Indian embassy invited the Sikh leadership in France to discuss this problem with him, the Sikhs decided to boycott his visit because of his alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination.

So far this week, at least six schoolgirls have been expelled, and the Education Ministry says around 70 others are flouting the ban.

Controversial law

The law's passage was controversial, with many in the President, Jacques Chirac's conservative ruling party disagreeing with it, and Muslim groups claiming that it is a form of discrimination against them.

Five Muslim schoolgirls were expelled from schools in eastern France on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to headmasters and reports, while one was expelled from a school in the north of the country.

Jews unaffected

France's 650,000 Jews have been largely unaffected because boys insisting on wearing a kippa, or skullcap, can go to private Jewish schools.

The Muslim community, in comparison, has only one school, in the northern city of Lille.

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