Select Committee on Selection Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 501-519)




  501. Dr Indarjit Singh, we know you, either from listening to you or reading your works or from general knowledge and we are very, very pleased to have you here and thank you for coming.

  (Dr Singh) My Lord Chairman, it is a pleasure to be here.

  502. You have sitting beside you one of the most eminent members of the world Sikh community and I wonder if you would like to introduce him.
  (Dr Singh) This is Joginder Singh Vedanti. He is a chief priest or Jathedar of the Golden Temple which gives him the status of perhaps the most senior figure in the Sikh community in India and perhaps throughout the world.

  503. May I say that we have given you a list of questions which I hope you will answer if you have the time, but if you, Sir, would like to come in on any of the answers you are very welcome to do so. We would like to hear from you, we would like to get you on the transcript.
  (Dr Singh) He says he wants to be just an observer.

  504. I will leave it to you how you deal with it but there is a very warm welcome for any interventions. You have a list of the questions that we have asked and it is fairly short. We understand all about the decision in Mander so we know there has been protection already under aggravated racial discrimination but nevertheless we have given you an indication of what it is we are talking about. Would you like to address yourselves to whichever of the questions you think are most important and on which you can enlighten us most clearly? Do it in whatever order you think fit.
  (Dr Singh) On the question of the blasphemy law, the Sikh view, we have consulted with others, is that it should be abolished altogether. To extend it to other communities would put, from the Sikh point of view, constraints on dialogue as well. There is something here where the beliefs cannot be challenged if the law is strictly applied. We feel that we are now in a time where real discussion and dialogue should lead to understanding and we should be free to pursue that. There should not be constraints on that. It is the unnecessary hatred or smearing of religion that we are concerned about.

  505. Would you say that there was any method or device whereby reasonable controversy, discussion and debate could be exempted from prosecution?
  (Dr Singh) If it could be, but then the things that we are concerned about is religious hatred, religious discrimination. So the blasphemy aspect really we feel is now outdated.

  506. They are not the same.
  (Dr Singh) No.

  507. Blasphemy is not the same as incitement and religious hatred. It is the faith rather than the people.
  (Dr Singh) That is right.

  508. Supposing you had the faith, can you see any way in which you could amalgamate the sort of concepts that we have with sensible temperate discussion and debate?
  (Dr Singh) I would like to say we could, but I am concerned that if you read the Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak carried out a debate at that time, he pointed out to things that he saw wrong in the Hindu practices and in the Muslim practices. At the time, he criticised the caste system. In the atmosphere in the world today, I think that sort of thing is difficult. It is a pity that 500 years on we seem to be less tolerant.

  509. Yes, I think that is right. All right, that is your view on blasphemy. Go on to incitement and religious hatred. We have got a number of points here in our list, would you like to address any of them of that you think fit? Particularly, have you got examples of the sort of thing, although it would fall under racial hatred, that you find totally unacceptable?
  (Dr Singh) We do, but it is the sort of aspect of group hatred or incitement or prejudice against a group. Just to take an example, there was an article in the Sunday Telegraph three or four years ago, it was entitled "Madness under a turban" and it smeared the whole Sikh community. It says that these people seem to be very decent and ordinary, but in circumstances they can go crazy and go round killing people. There was nothing we could do about that article. At other times, in schools, things have been said. In one school, the Head sent a boy home who was wearing a turban for the first time and the Head said "This is grotesque. Like something out of a pantomime". Just imagine what that did to the self esteem of the boy. So there are examples like that and I think it is essential that the law does constrain that sort of debate. There is unnecessary identification of individuals; "A Sikh was involved in this". It is not necessary. That is also a problem.

  510. Have there been occasions when incitement, in some shape or form, against your community could have been prosecuted, in your view, under the 1986 Act as incitement to racial hatred, but for one reason or another you have been disappointed? Either there has been an acquittal, a failure to prosecute or anything like that?
  (Dr Singh) The Race Relations Act has not always been implemented properly. People, for some reason—we are talking about the Race Relations Act?

  511. I am talking about the Public Order Act 1986 which is incitement to racial hatred which, of course, covers your community as a result of Land v Ali (?).
  (Dr Singh) It does, but in that particular case the community was covered under ethnicity. Strictly it is not covered under religion. Religious practices, worship would not be protected. Other aspects of the religion would not be protected. It was a fudge at the time because what was said that Sikhs fitted into this box of ethnicity. I was the person who gave the main evidence in that case. I was not happy with it. It was a compromise that we were not happy with. We are not happy with the definition of Sikhs being an ethnic group. It is a world religion.

  512. No, but the fact remains that in criminal law you have been protected ever since 1986 against incitement to racial hatred as a Sikh community. What I am asking you is whether you can give us examples of where this particular approach to the criminal law failed.
  (Dr Singh) There are laws peripheral to the practices of the Sikh community like, for example, the building of Gurudwaras, where unnecessary objections have been put into the way. They should be tested; are they necessary objections? We are always told there is no planning, there is no car parking space, we do not like the idea of a dome in this locality because we do not have domes in this locality. That sort of thing is constantly being done and it is very difficult to prosecute or to defend or do anything about that under the Race Relations Act.

  Chairman: I am going to shut up and let some of my colleagues ask questions.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

  513. When the article appeared in the Telegraph that said "Madness under the turban" or whatever the description was, was any action taken to try to bring the author to book?
  (Dr Singh) We did try and take action. We went to the Press Complaints Commission (The Press Council I think it was then) and they advised that this would not be successful. We took legal advice as well. In the end, the best we could do was my writing a reply to the Editor, which the Editor agreed to. A lot of damage is done in that way because people's opinions are misinformed about a community.

  514. What prominence did the Editor give to your letter?
  (Dr Singh) He was rather flippant about it. This was Charles Moore. He was rather flippant to say that "This was not really meant to be too serious", but when you say that the Sikh woman, because we give equality to woman, they say that they take in part in parties and so on, but the way it was put is that they are loose in character.

Baroness Richardson of Calow

  515. I think we have been told that, in the absence of proper education about religions and religious practices in this country, the law is the one thing that restrains people from actually attacking people on a religious basis. Is there any ground in that? That the law has a restraining hand and that although people might not understand the blasphemy law, they think that they might be restrained by it from attacking another religion?
  (Dr Singh) I think law does restrain, but laws cannot make people behave decently. They can curb the worst effects of bad behaviour. In that way laws are good, but with the blasphemy law, it is dated it is written specifically for the Christian Church and I think it is difficult to tamper with it. I think it is best gone.


  516. The incitement side has not restrained people either?
  (Dr Singh) I think the incitement is incitement to religious to racial hatred. That does not seemed to have constrained very much because Sikhs suffered particularly after the September 11 incidents and the incitement, because Bin Laden wore a turban and he had copied the Sikh style for some reason, Sikhs were mistaken for the Taliban in the ignorance that exists in society in this country and in the United States. But the abuse and the incitement was at a level where the police never seemed to take any action. If someone had been killed, they may have taken action. Smashing windows and daubing Gurudwara walls, they did not seem to pursue those things at all.

Bishop of Portsmouth

  517. I do not think there is any doubt that around this table, and certainly speaking for myself, we profoundly regret the incidents which you describe and I could actually give instances, though not of that particular kind, of acts against Christians in this country. I think that one of the difficulties that we have, as a Committee, and your particular evidence is of great importance here, is how to define the difference between acts of racial hatred and acts of religious hatred.
  (Dr Singh) The difference comes back to the Mandler case itself when the head teacher said "Yes, I am discriminating, but there is nothing wrong with that. That is religious discrimination". Now, of course, the subsequent House of Lords decision gave a measure of protection to Sikhs, but Sikhs are Sikhs. We are bound to be concerned about the whole area of religious discrimination, not just for Sikhs, because that is what we are taught in our religion; look to the rights of others. It is totally wrong that one group should have a measure of protection, I still do not feel it is total protection, but another religion, like the Muslims, do not have any. So the law does need to be changed.

  518. I am in great sympathy with what you are saying, believe you me, but it is the definition of the act and the intention towards religious hatred that is—
  (Dr Singh) The whole question of racial hatred and the Race Relations Act, the whole difficulty, is the lack of any real definition of the word "race" and so people discriminate and do nasty things for all sorts of reasons. They do not try and work out is a person a Caucasoid or a Mongoloid or anything like that. It is the difference that leads to hatred and the prejudice that goes with that assumed difference. The end way out of that is through education to show that the essence of different religions is the same and that religions have something positive to contribute to society. That is the aim but, in the meantime, we must have respect for the practices of religion. People must be protected. Muslims must be protected in their prayers, in their other routines. That should be there for everyone.

Lord Avebury

  519. May I ask whether you would agreed that the difficulty that seems to have been experienced in prosecuting acts of incitement to racial hatred is not one of identifying the target groups. That is to say, in cases where the incitement is against Sikhs, to show that the offence has been specifically directed against the Sikhs, but it is in catching the particular offender and finding a connection between him and the alleged offence. You mentioned, for example, attacks on Gurudwaras, the scrolling of nasty graffiti on the walls of Gurudwaras, which might incite to hatred of the worshippers in the Gurudwaras. In those cases, do you think that the police fail to take action because either they were not on the spot when the offence was committed or there were not any eye witnesses who could point to the offender and say that he did scroll these graffiti or he did commit this act with incitement to particular hatred of the Sikhs?
  (Dr Singh) I think both those points are valid that they could not catch the offender. That is true. More than that, it is the mentality of this is just a religion, where people write graffiti everywhere. They would not understand and it needs to be spelt out that this is really hurting a particular community. I think that lies with the police.

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