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Posted at: Sep 20, 2017, 2:54 AM; last updated: Sep 20, 2017, 1:27 PM (IST)

100 UK MPs back non-Indian ethnic identity move for Sikhs

Ashis Ray

London, September 19

More than 100 British MPs cutting across party lines have aligned with an organisation which is a successor to a hitherto banned pro-Khalistan group to demand that Sikhs are ethnically different from Indians.

The MPs, under the banner of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs (APPGBS) and Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) — previously known as the International Sikh Youth Federation (ISYF), which was banned by the British government in 2001 under the UK Terrorism Act — have approached Britain’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) to list Sikhs as an ethnic group separate from Indians.

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There was no comment from the Indian High Commission in London, but New Delhi is unlikely to be amused if the demand is granted; which means such an outcome has the potential of seriously impacting bilateral relations between India and Britain.

The British foreign office, when asked to comment, passed the buck to the ONS. In a carefully worded statement, the ONS indicated to The Tribune: “As we said to the All-Party Parliamentary Group, no decision has been taken on this issue. We will continue to work with the Sikh community on the best way forward. The National Statistician will not be making his recommendations until early 2018.”

The APPGBS was virtually defunct until revived in July, following two Sikhs, Tanmanjit Dhesi and Preet Kaur Gill, being elected to the House of Commons in June. On September 12, its delegation led by its chairperson Gill, together with an “adviser” of the SFUK, said to be Dabinderjit Singh Sidhu (known to be an assiduous Khalistani activist), submitted a letter to the ONS demanding a separate tick box for Sikhs in the future census in the UK.

“We hope,” the letter threatened, “you will positively respond to our request on the inclusion of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box in the Census 2021 and the Sikh community is not forced to take legal action or we are not compelled to make this change when Parliament is asked to approve the Census 2021 questionnaire.”

A spokesman for Gill said the SFUK provided "secretariat services" to the APPGBS. It was only 18 months ago that Theresa May, now prime minister and then home secretary, lifted the proscription on the ISYF/SFUK. Interestingly, Sidhu is an executive at Britain’s National Audit Office – which equates to the C&AG in India – and received the Order of the British Empire (OBE) award in 2000. He was recently filmed at a gurdwara in the city of Leicester advocating violence to establish Khalistan — an independent Sikh state —carved out of India.

However, Khalistan campaigners in Britain are divided over whether Sikhs are ethnically different from Indians. Lord Indarjit Singh, a member of the House of Lords looked upon as an authority on Sikh affairs, maintains they are not.

Singh alleged “the Sikh Federation is always looking for a campaigning issue”. He argued: “Some Sikhs naively believe that calling ourselves an ethnic group (which we are not) will strengthen the case for Khalistan, an emotionally attractive homeland for Sikhs.” He added: “A religious state on the lines of Israel or Pakistan, where Sikhs have more rights than those of other faiths, would be totally against the clear teachings of our Gurus.” He pointed out that no religious community is identified as a distinct ethnic group in the UK census.

A census in Britain takes place every 10 years. The questionnaire in the 2011 form when seeking to know one’s ethnic background provided choices of “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “Bangladeshi”, “Chinese” and “Any other Asian background” under the category of “Asian/Asian British”. In other words, the ONS does not consider Sikhs to be ethnically different from Indians. At the same time, one can tick “any other” and specify if the person so wishes.

In another section in the form, the question is quite clearly: “What is your religion?” Here, the options are “No religion”, “Christian”, “Buddhist”, “Hindu”, “Jewish”, “Muslim”, “Sikh” and “Any other religion”. In effect, the ONS recognises Sikhism as a distinct religion, but not Sikhs as a separate ethnic group.

An APPGBS press release claimed 88,000 people had said they are Sikhs in the ethnic background in the 2011 census. The ONS countered this by revealing 425,000 said their religion was Sikhism. In other words, 80 per cent of Sikhs in the UK had not stated their ethnicity was Sikh.

Next year, a draft questionnaire for the next census in 2021 will be presented to the House of Commons. The number of MPs who supported the petition clearly does not constitute a majority in a chamber of 640 lawmakers. Given the problems that might be created in terms of Britain’s bilateral relations with India if Sikhs are divorced from Indians, the ruling Conservative party is unlikely to support such a move.  On the other hand, the opposition Labour party, heavily dependent on Sikh votes, could be persuaded otherwise, particularly under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who is seen to be soft on the Khalistan issue.

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