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Posted at: Jul 9, 2017, 1:01 AM; last updated: Jul 9, 2017, 1:01 AM (IST)BRITAIN’S FIRST WOMAN SIKH MP

Faith and Preet

Rohit Mahajan in Chandigarh
Preet Kaur Gill, the new Labour Party MP from Edgbaston in Birmingham, is truly her father’s daughter. She talks about her roots and Sikhism, her religion, and also, how her father inspired her
One Friday, Daljit Singh Shergill, the strapping six-foot-four-inch tall factory worker who dreamt of becoming an MP in Britain, faced his moment of truth in Smethwick, near Birmingham. Friday was payday, when the workers got an envelope with their weekly pay. They’d all line up to receive their envelopes, then troop out. At the exit would be the white workers. They wanted a bit of every Asian worker’s pay, and they got it with threat of violence — for years. 

That Friday, Shergill decided that this must stop. 

The eyes of Preet Kaur Gill glow with pride when she recounts this story. “So one Friday, my dad said: ‘That’s it. We’re not doing this’.”

A fight broke out between the workers — Asian vs White. There was trouble. Shergill, an immigrant, had stood up to the white workers in England. He thought he was going to be sacked, even though he stood up for justice. That’s what he told the foreman — that he had been attacked after he stood up for justice after suffering for years. “He told the foreman this, and he actually got a promotion,” says Preet Kaur Gill. “People in the factory respected the fact that he was the one to stand up.”

Last month, Gill became the first Sikh woman Member of Parliament in Britain. It’s an extraordinary diverse Parliament, with a record number of women MPs, 208. Initially, the focus on her religion and gender bothered Gill a bit. “Yeah, initially I was getting a bit worried, thinking that my god, am I going to be known for just that!” says Gill, the new Labour Party MP from Edgbaston in Birmingham.

“It’s incredible that in 2017, we’re talking about having the first Sikh female MP! Clearly, something has gone wrong somewhere,” says Gill. “We had no Sikh MPs prior to this election. So, Sikhs had no representation, and we had no female Sikh representation. Parliament must reflect the people it serves.”

Keep Left

Gill has quite an inheritance: Her parents — one-time factory worker, one-time driver father, seamstress mother — were deeply rooted in religion, and also in the labour movement. 

Having moved to England in 1962, in 1979 Shergill went back to India and became amritdhari. He later became the president of Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick, the first and biggest gurdwara of Britain and, probably, Europe. “For 18 years, he was the president of the Smethwick gurdwara,” says Gill.

Shergill, a remarkable man by all accounts, passed away in 2014, but he continues to command respect and love in the community, and there are good reasons for that. He was a habitual do-gooder. “Sometimes we’d not see our father for days --- he’d be out helping people,” says Gill. “I remember that in the eighties, he was off to Romania, doing relief work. I remember him coming home, filling boxes with food and taping them up, and telling us that he was going to help people.”

“Then there was a recession in Smethwick... And he would purchase cheese and distribute it free in the whole of Smethwick, for I don’t know how long!” exclaims Gill. “I remember eating cheese on toast, or cheese with something or the other, for a long time!”

Shergill did something else that was remarkably progressive --- in the Smethwick gurdwara, he set up an organization to help the young women who had come to live in England after marriage. It was called Samaj Sudhar, and its members, all gurdwara committee members, would help the women who were feeling isolated or were victims of mental or physical abuse. “They would land up in the affected girl’s house, talk to her in-laws and find a resolution to the problem,” says Gill. “He took me along once, and I was amazed by the respect people had for him! They’d tell him yes, we’re going to change.”

Gill, naturally, turned Left-ward, following in the footsteps of her father. She graduated with a degree in Sociology and Social Work from University of East London and became a Children Services Manager.

Matter of faith

Having a strong sense of faith, says Gill, has helped her help others, and helped herself remain strong. “That work is emotionally very taxing. You’re constantly dealing with crisis situations, people’s difficulties, experiences of abuse,” Gill says. 

This can leave the social worker scarred. “Yes, of course it scars you,” says Gill. That’s where religion helps her. “You need support, an outlet. You have to have a means of releasing that. For me, it’s faith,” she says.

She became a social worker by training, but Gill had learnt it while growing up too, from her father and her religion. “A lot of the values that Sikhism talks about --- Sarbat da bhala --- are for the betterment of all mankind, not just Sikhs,” says Gill. “I think social work is just that --- it’s about helping everyone, all people from all diverse backgrounds.”

Ties with Punjab

Gill loves to visit her pind, Jamsher, in Jalandhar district. She has childhood memories of the letters from India --- those blue airmail envelopes from Jalandhar, containing letters in Punjabi. This helped her perfect her Punjabi. “My father would sit us down and one of us would read the letter and everybody would listen to news from my father’s village,” Gill grins happily. “And then he would get us to write back.”

Gill says she wants to go back to the fundamentals of Sikhism --- she wants to drop “Gill” and become Preet Kaur. “Look, if Guru Gobind Singh ji talked about eradication of caste, saying we’re all one, then my name should be Preet Kaur Singh,” she says. “I was saying to my husband that if I get a chance now, I’m going to change my name to Preet Kaur!”

She may or may not do it, but she’s already changed much --- the first Sikh woman MP in Britain is living the dream her father dreamt decades ago.


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