Taking a serious note of the ban imposed on wearing kirpan by Sikh students in government schools of New South Wales (NSW), a province of Australia, as many as 56 Sikh organizations of the country have penned a joint letter to the state government seeking lifting of the ban and stopping the bullying of the Sikh students.
Earlier, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) had also condemned the ban and asked the school body to discuss the issue with local Sikh organizations. The SGPC is the apex Sikh body that manages the affairs of Gurdwaras across Punjab and neighbouring states in India.
The content of this letter by the 56 Sikh organizations is as follows:
“Remove the ban on carrying of the Kirpan in NSW schools, 19 May 2021
The Sikh community has been hit hard by the knee-jerk reaction of the NSW government in the blanket banning of the Kirpan in NSW schools. The NSW Government’s decision to impose a ban contravenes a statutory right to wear a Kirpan for religious reasons. The right is not due to a ‘loophole’ in the law, as referred to by the Education Minister, Sarah Mitchell. The ban has been imposed without taking the Sikh community into confidence, or consultation, in response to an alleged incident involving a 14-year-old Sikh student, who is believed to have been bullied in school. He is alleged to have used his Kirpan that, regrettably, resulted in injury to another student at a Sydney school. The Sikh community unanimously condemns bullying and the consequences that follow, if bullying is left unchecked. We also offer any support required to both the students involved in this incident, and to their families. We call upon the state government to withdraw the ban and work with the Sikh community to arrive at a workable solution that guarantees the safety of all Australians while maintaining the right to practice our religion. We also strongly urge the state government to address issues related to bullying of Sikh students that might go unreported by establishing a task force.
We the Sikhs of Australia are devastated by the recent ban by the NSW government on the wearing of the Kirpan in NSW public schools in response to an alleged incident involving a Kirpan that caused injury to another student. This ‘knee-jerk’ reaction, sans consultation, of banning an article of faith intrinsic to the practice of the Sikh faith is an attack on religious freedom which should be protected within the Australian Commonwealth and State Laws. We call upon all people of faith and no faith to stand against this ban, and support the Sikh community which feels ‘othered’ and ‘isolated’ due to this unilateral and populist action by our state government.
Significance of the Kirpan in the Sikh faith
The Sikh faith is the sixth-largest religion with over 30 million followers worldwide. World leaders have acknowledged the charitable efforts of Sikhs during the bush fires, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, including the Covid-19 pandemic, within Australia and globally. During the pandemic, the Sikh community has continued to distribute free cooked food, grocery hampers, setting up free hospitals, and providing free oxygen to those in need in India and elsewhere. We are seen by many as saviours in society and not violators. An initiated Sikh takes an oath to wear the five articles of faith, called Kakaar or 5Ks, at all times. The Kirpan is one of these articles. The 5Ks are considered an integral part of the body of an initiated Sikh and are neither adornments nor optional. During initiation, Sikhs are reminded of their duties and responsibilities towards society ensuring each of the 5 Ks is dutifully respected, carried and honoured. The Kirpan is no more offensive than a surgical knife in the hands of a surgeon. Additionally, an initiated Sikh wear it respectfully and responsibly, mindful of its spiritual significance. It is for this reason why the NSW Summary Offences Act allows the wearing of the Kirpan.
The incident in question was unfortunate, lone and rare. We believe the Sikh student had suffered a history of bullying and harassment due to his faith and religious identity over a number of years. The Kirpan is a combination of two words: ‘Kirpa’ which means “Grace” and ‘Aan’ which means “Honour”. Sikhs wear this as a reminder of their commitment to the tenets of their faith to uphold justice, charity, morality, humility, and equality. It also serves as a symbol of sovereignty and dignity. It is sacrilege to refer to a Kirpan as a knife or dagger. The Kirpan, instead, provides a sense of humility and morality to followers of the Sikh faith. A Kirpan is sheathed in a scabbard and secured in a cloth strap that is usually worn across the torso. Initiated Sikhs wear the Kirpan all the time, even whilst sleeping and bathing. Removing the Kirpan from its scabbard is a serious step for an initiated Sikh.
Other countries and the Kirpan
The Kirpan is worn freely in the UK, USA, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia etc and in India there is a constitutional right to wear the Kirpan.
Background on the recent Kirpan incident
Since the 1890s Sikhs have been living in Australia peacefully, as responsible citizens, and there have not been any known incidents involving the Kirpan in schools. We deeply regret the recent incident and the position the two youths are in and we empathise with them and offer all possible assistance to them and their families. Those who have spoken to the Sikh student’s family say that they believe the incident precipitated due to issues related to bullying and harassment. Due to ongoing criminal proceedings that involve minors we are unable to comment further on the incident.
We can however say that it is the duty of parents, teachers and school management that bullying due to a child’s religious identity and physical appearance must be dealt with swiftly and decisively and not left to fester. Sikh students are often bullied because of their unique appearance especially due to their turban or head covering that covers their unshorn hair. In our experience, teachers often ask the bullied Sikh student to stay away from the bully without addressing the root causes, let alone by taking any action against the bully. An attack by a bully on another student’s physical appearance and religious identity is an attack that can traumatise a student.
A student should never be left to respond to a bully on his own as the consequences can be dire and regrettable. Bullying continues to be a real issue across all schools in NSW with varying levels of success in combating this menace. It is frequently seen that bullying and harassment lead to depression, anxiety and fear in the victim which in some cases may include retribution and escalation to violence from and/or to the bully, which should never be allowed to happen. Often Sikh children and parents are under tremendous pressure to ‘fit-in’ and ‘avoid rocking the boat’ as complaining may make our children feel marginalised. Increased communication between a minority community, parents and children can help our school authorities build trust. No action should be taken, including a blanket ban on wearing an article of faith, which destroys the core of our religious beliefs.
Withdraw the ban and consult with us
We call upon the decision-makers and influencers of the NSW state government to protect our freedom of religion, which has given us solace and support when we immigrated to this lovely country that we have made our home and raised families in. We beseech the government to not undertake a decision without exploring alternatives that we can work with, to arrive at a solution that, while protecting the safety of school students and other members of the community, will also help us protect our religious rights. The recent ban has had an unfavourable effect on our minority community. The test of a democracy is in the treatment of minorities.
The Sikh community, like all migrant communities that have made Australia their home since hundreds of years ago, should have equal access to religious freedom, before the law and in practice. The Sikh community is always available and open to working with the government, at all levels, to provide further awareness of the community, to find solutions that are meaningful. The consultation process will ensure the safety of all residents of Australia whilst safeguarding religious freedom. This will ensure Sikh children who constantly face social and religious discrimination and isolation in schools, can start feeling that they are valued nationals of this country.
In a mature democracy, it should not be necessary for its minorities to take legal action to challenge the violation of their rights by the State. We call upon the New South Wales Government to withdraw this ban immediately and commence consultations with the law-abiding Sikh community so that a meaningful resolution may be obtained amicably and responsibly.
We also strongly urge the state government to address issues related to bullying of Sikh students that might go unreported by establishing an anti-bullying task force.”
Earlier, representatives of the Sikhs also met the Education Minister Sarah Mitchell who issued the ban order following the incident that happened in the school, through a zoom meeting on Wednesday night. They raised the concern with her and presented their side. The Sikh leaders have expressed hope of resolution of this issue.