Following the incident involving Boris Johnson promoting the whiskey trade at the Shri Guru Nanak Prakash Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Bristol, Sikh PA have been sharing various reactions from within the Sikh community.
This includes a statement from Wolverhampton South-West MP candidate Jagmeet Singh and a reaction from the Sikh Tories, as well as many of the comments we have received via social media.
Here we share some thoughts from Harwinder Singh, editor of news and opinion website www.naujawani.com. Harwinder is one of the UK Sikh community’s most respected social commentators, as well as a writer, broadcaster and film-maker.
Issues arising following footage of Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Secretary, speaking at a Bristol Gurdwara:
- Mr Johnson is in the Gurdwara being given time to speak on stage before the congregation. The opportunity to speak on a Gurdwara stage to the Sikh sangat (congregation) in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptural Guru) is a privilege that should not be afforded so lightly, particularly to a politician who is canvassing for votes in an upcoming general election. Not only have other candidates standing in the same constituency not been afforded this platform, presumably because of the political allegiance of members of the Gurdwara’s management committee, but neither the candidate himself nor his party have been endorsed more generally by the Sikh community such that they should be given this privilege (as have none of the standing political parties). This makes a mockery of the Guru’s Darbar (Guru’s court) and is entirely the responsibility of the Gurdwara committee. They are not alone in committing such an indiscretion, but the high profile nature of this incident offers us the opportunity to reconsider how our Gurdwara stages are run. I would strongly urge every Gurdwara to refrain from inviting political candidates to address the Sikh sangat before the upcoming General election; Gurdwaras wanting to engage in the political process through hustings or other such events are advised to do so away from the Darbar. Until such a time that the Sikh community has addressed the fallacies in how our Gurdwaras operate, which presently contradict Sikh ideology and practice in many ways, we would do well to refuse all who request to use the House of Guru Nanak as a backdrop in their campaign.
- Mr Johnson is adorning a kesri-coloured dastar. Whilst turban-tying events have become popular in recent years for Sikhs to engage with other communities, the wearing of a dastar (turban/crown) by a non-Sikh whilst speaking on a Gurdwara stage promoting the political agenda of his party is incredibly disrespectful. The dastar has a political significance to Sikhs and to wear it in this specific context is an all too obvious attempt to curry favour to garner more votes. The dastar is not a costume accessory that one can dress up in to make the Sikh community more at ease – in fact his doing so has quite the opposite effect for thinking Sikhs. Our community should not be used to promote the ‘down with diversity’ appeal of any political party, least of all one originating in a country that has used and abused our community to further their own imperialist agenda for over a century. I would like to say to Mr Johnson that the era in which the transgressions of he and his ilk go unnoticed because of a more unsubtle gaffe (alcohol, in this instance) are over, and whether or not members of the Sikh community vote for him or indeed any other candidate of any of the political parties will be based on more than their ability to play dress-up. Any Sikhs advising political candidates would do well to urge them to focus on the issues of importance to their constituents rather than make weak attempts to say ‘Fateh’, ‘Sat Sri Akal’ or other such greetings when speaking to the Sikh community, amongst other things.
- Mr Johnson has been given a kesri-coloured siropa – an honorific sash draped around the neck. It may have become commonplace for Gurdwaras in the UK to present any and every person that visits the Darbar with a siropa (honourary dressing place around the neck), but this custom must be brought to an end so that the meaning attributed to the gifting of a siropa once again has value. This was an act outside of the control of Mr Johnson or his team, but I would advise them and all politicians to employ Sikh advisors on their campaign teams who can explain the sensitivities of the wide-ranging customs of the Guru’s Darbar. Every Sikh Gurdwara and organisation should consider the history, significance and value of gifting a person with a siropa, and use this incident as an opportunity to set a precedent in the Sikh World of today by rethinking when and why we engage in this act. Only if we consider this practice fully and properly, can we make a decision about how to implement it in the future.
- Free trade with India. That the topic of greater free trade with India was raised at all represents how far removed from the political process Sikhs are, less so in my opinion about the education of Mr Johnson. There are far too many Sikh organisations that serve alcohol at their events for he or others to understand why intoxicants including alcohol are absent from the Gurdwara and banned for consumption by the Khalsa. It is of greater significance that his comments about cheaper whiskey have taken all of the headlines, and whilst being irrelevant and inappropriate to utter in the Guru’s Darbar, the greater issue in this regard is that a politician might still think that the Sikh community can be bought off for votes so easily as using cheaper import of spirits. This is something that we need to discuss as a community and going further I would appeal to thinkers and organisers of all political persuasions to engage one another in public discourse so that we can better appreciate why we find ourselves in this position. (Social media and online debates is not that space.)
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