Group wants Sikhism to be listed as a separate ethnicity

A heated debate has broken out within Britain’s Sikh diaspora and the wider South Asian community, amid calls from some for Sikhism to be listed as a separate ethnicity in the national census, due to take place in 2021. But its proponents have been accused by some of running a divisive and unrepresentative campaign.

Last year, over 113 MPs wrote to the head of the U.K. Statistics Authority, arguing that a separate Sikh ethnic category would help improve understanding, and consequently access to public services for the community.

In the 2011 census, over 80,000 Sikhs rejected existing ethnic categories (including Indian), writing “Sikh” in the space given for “other ethnic groups.” The current categories for Asian backgrounds include Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese and other. The Office for National Statistics, which conducts the census, is considering whether or not to make the change. Its recommendations for the 2021 Census will be included in a government white paper published later this year

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs, chaired by Britain’s first female Sikh MP Preet Kaur Gill, which is campaigning for the census change, argues that there is strong support within the community. They pointed to a survey they conducted of 112 Gurdwaras in the U.K. (250 were initially approached but 112 responded) that unanimously said they were in favour of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box.

The APPG said earlier this week it urged the chief statistician to recommend the change, arguing without it, he would have “serious explaining” to do to MPs, Ministers and others. It also raised the possibility of legal action, with discussions on a potential £500,000 fund to support it.

Many within the Sikh community have expressed their reservations around the initiative and the campaign for the new category, arguing it would be an unnecessary and divisive move.

Lord Indarjit Singh, director of the charity Network of Sikh Organisations, described the initiative as “”ill-conceived”. He explained that a 1982 legal case on racial discrimination that the supporters of the census alluded to in support of their case was no longer relevant, given the changing demographics of the community, and the 2010 equality legislation.

No evidence

“Their arguments just don’t stack up: there is no evidence from those campaigning that an ethnic tick box would benefit the community,” he said. Attempting to define Sikhism as an ethnic identity went against its fundamental tenants as a religion of tolerance and respect that welcomed all people from across ethnic groups, he added. “There are Sikhs from different parts of the world share none of the ethnicity aspects”.

He also raised concerns about the close link between the APPG and the Khalistan-supporting campaign group Sikh Federation (UK). The Sikh Federation (UK) lists on its mission statement its work on making the case for the “Sikhs’ right to self-determination” and lobbying politicians for “the establishment of an independent sovereign Sikh homeland.” “The Sikh Federation (U.K.) and the APPG are one and the same thing,” said Lord Singh. APPG Chair Ms. Gill’s office confirmed that the Sikh Federation (U.K.) was the APPG’s secretariat.

Concerns around the campaign were also expressed more widely. Dr. Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, a senior lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham and a former commissioner on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, accused a “vocal minority” of exploiting religious illiteracy to advocate something it wanted. “Debate has been hijacked, and when people say that there has been a wide ranging consultation — utter nonsense. Lobbying dominated by the vocal minority.”

Sunder Katwala, the director of the think tank British Future, said that while he could understand the concerns of some within the Sikh community about the gathering and use of data on communities, it wasn’t clear that a separate Sikh ethnic tick box was the way to go about it.

“Public policy makers have to step back and say how do we categorise accurately and how will it be of use to policy makers. It can’t simply be about what is most popular.”

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