When does a religion become an ethnic group? You may consider the premise of this question absurd – after all ethnicity is immutable, faith a choice. Bizarrely however, this has become the subject of a major dispute amongst British Sikhs. It hinges on whether or not a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick-box should be included by the ONS in the 2021 Census. A voluntary question – ‘what is your religion?’ already exists, with ‘Sikh’ an option which 423,000 readily chose back in 2011. Back then a campaign resulted in 83,000 Sikhs refusing to select the available ethnicity tick boxes (eschewing Indian because of the Indian government’s betrayal of Sikhs in the 1980s), opting instead to write in ‘Sikh’ in the space for ‘other ethnic group.’ Campaigners like the Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) say that the absence of an ethnic option disadvantages Sikhs in service provision, in areas like healthcare and hate crime – but evidence for this is thin on the ground.
How did one of Britain’s most integrated religious minorities get to this extraordinary juncture? It stems from the 1983 ruling in Mandla v Dowell Lee. The case involved a Sikh boy barred from attending school in his turban. His religious rights were protected by a decision by the Law Lords, who ruled Sikhs could loosely fit into an ‘ethnic’ group for the purposes of the then Race Relations Act 1976. The Act has since been replaced by The Equalities Act 2010, which grants equal protection to all faiths. Moreover the tests applied by the Law Lords – like a common geography, language and culture to define ‘ethnicity’ – no longer necessarily apply. In modern Britain, most Sikhs are British born (not Indian), speak English as a first language (not Punjabi), and enjoy a synthesis of British and Punjabi cultural norms. In any case, the precedent set by Mandla didn’t alter ‘ethnicity’ from a biological sense.
Nevertheless, a cursory look on Twitter or Facebook reveals an increasingly polarised debate. It has drawn in British Sikh journalists, academics, politicians and lawyers, including an obscure retired Ugandan judge. The split in opinion is no longer the size of a small crack in the ceiling of a gurdwara (Sikh temple), but more akin to the Grand-Canyon size gulf between the most ardent of Remainers and Brexiteers. It has, on occasion, been ugly and unpleasant. Last week, a brave academic tweeted, the ‘debate has been hijacked’ and ‘lobbying [is] dominated by the vocal minority’. Another observer told me she felt the tone of some exchanges had become ‘extremely troubling.’
A longstanding opponent to the proposed Census change is Lord Singh of Wimbledon, the Director of the Network of Sikh Organisations (I declare an interest). In a letter to the Times last week, the crossbench peer said: ‘Guru Nanak was the founder of global world religion, not an ethnic group. Sikhs can be of multiple ethnicities but share a belief in Sikhism.’ Lord Singh was expert witness in Mandla, so his words will provide food for thought. It’s a no brainer that a Caucasian convert to Sikhism (not that we proselytise) will ultimately retain his or her biological ethnicity. From a theological perspective, the tenth Guru Gobind Singh’s clear edict – ‘recognise the human race as one’ – transcends all man made labels in favour of the universal nature of humanity. The stretching of ‘ethnicity’ to protect Sikhs against religious discrimination was understandable in the early 1980s. To use it now, when all religions are equally protected, is seeking special status, and goes against basic Sikh teachings.
On the other side is the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs, chaired by Preet Gill MP, a member of the shadow cabinet. Last month, both Ms Gill’s office and the secretariat to the APPG – which happens to be SFUK – issued an identical press release. It outlined efforts by the APPG in lobbying the ONS for a Sikh ‘ethnic’ tick box, while maintaining the existing religion option. They have been industrious, enlisting the support of 140 cross party MPs and 112 gurdwaras – the latter an attempt to satisfy ‘public acceptability’ requirements.
To her credit, Ms Gill rightly says alcoholism amongst some Punjabi Sikhs is going unaddressed – the suggestion being that a census change will influence allocation of healthcare services. But last time I checked Sikhism prohibited drinking. So isn’t this related to Punjabi and pub drinking culture, as well as glorification of consuming copious amounts of booze in bhangra lyrics? A ‘Punjabi’ tick box makes more sense.
Others suggest a census change will tackle hate crime, but again this is questionable. Sikhs are already flagged as victims of both ‘racist and religious’ hate. Disaggregation and transparency of different groups recorded by police within specific categories such as ‘Islamophobic hate crime’ is a far more pertinent issue. It’s true Sikhs and other non-Muslims are often recorded in this category, due to ‘perception’ based reporting.
Last year, the ONS commissioned research on methodology for the ethnic group question, both in Wolverhampton, home of celebrated football fans the ‘Punjabi Wolves’, and Hounslow, a location in the film ‘Bend It Like Beckham’. Both have significant Sikh communities. 40,000 random households were selected for an online survey (20,000 in each town), where individual householders were asked to respond. Reflecting on the outcome the ONS said, ‘There is no indication from the findings that the religious affiliation and ethnic group questions are capturing different Sikh populations. All respondents who stated they were ethnically Sikh also stated their religious affiliation was Sikh. This is in line with findings from the 2011 Census data.’ What to make of this? Simples: the proposed tick box would tell us nothing new. Meanwhile, the ONS are also considering Roma, Somali and Jew as ethnic options.
Despite the research findings, it’s clear that the APPG for British Sikhs won’t be taking rejection lightly. There is talk of establishing a legal fund worth half a million pounds, and Ms Gill (in her APPG capacity) is clear on where things may end up when she says, ‘The National Statistician’s decision could result in the UK Statistics Authority and the ONS standing accused of racial discrimination against the Sikh community and facing embarrassing and expensive legal action.’ In other words, ‘Do what we say, or see you in court.’
The ONS are scheduled to soon make recommendations to inform a government white paper that will set out particulars for the 2021 Census. Let’s hope they resist being stampeded into any action that affronts common sense and is contrary to basic Sikh teachings.