Sikh Community

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Singh of Wimbledon, for initiating this debate. I am close to the Sikh community, and I enjoy good relations with it. In fact, I am patron of two Sikh organisations. Sikhs have played a vital part in the life and history of the United Kingdom. The first Sikhs settled here 160 years ago, in 1854. Since that time, waves of Sikh migrants have come here and successfully integrated into British society. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude for fighting shoulder to shoulder with us in both World Wars. They also played a key role during the post-war expansion of the British economy. They filled many jobs when Britain was experiencing a labour shortage. There are now more than 500,000 Sikhs living in the United Kingdom. The British Sikh Report 2013 found that 95% of British Sikhs are proud to be born or be living in the United Kingdom. They have been successful in every walk of life, including business, the professions, sport, academia and politics. Indeed, we are pleased to see a turbaned Sikh in your Lordships’ House today.

The Sikhs have a reputation for a strong work ethic and are second only to Jews in how financially productive they are as a religious group. At a reception last year to mark the harvest festival of Vaisakhi, the Prime Minister referred to Sikhs as a model community. Their values of hard work, loyalty and service to the community resonate strongly with me as a Muslim. The writings of a Muslim, Sheikh Farid, are in the Sikh holy book, which is called the Guru Granth Sahib.

We have a proud tradition in the UK of accepting and welcoming those from other cultures and of other religions. Nowhere has this been truer than with the Sikh community. The academic Dr Jasjit Singh has noted that British Sikhs are more comfortable wearing turbans than those in other countries. I find that more Sikhs are now wearing turbans, which they did not do before.

Although the Sikhs are well settled and happily integrated into the British community, there is unease within the community relating to Operation Blue Star. The events of June 1984 should never, and will never, be forgotten. The bloodshed and loss of life was, as the Foreign Secretary himself said, an utter tragedy. Estimates of the number of deaths range from the hundreds to the thousands, including innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire. It will for ever be remembered as a horrific point in history, which caused long-lasting suffering and desecrated Sikhism’s holiest place of worship. It was therefore only right that it was revisited when the disclosed documents were published under the 30-year rule.

I acknowledge the swift and proactive way in which our Government dealt with these revelations. The Prime Minister immediately instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an investigation, and I commend him for doing so. The Foreign Secretary has assured us that the investigation was both rigorous and thorough, and I have no reason to doubt this. The report was clear that the UK’s assistance was purely advisory in context and very limited in volume. When the actual military operation took place several months later, it diverged vastly from the original plans. We can therefore be confident that there was little, if any, connection between the British advice and the disastrous events that eventually unfolded. However, the resonance of this investigation with today’s Sikh community cannot be underestimated.

Continued suspicion and a desire for disclosure were inevitable. We must sympathise and deal with this appropriately. As the Prime Minister himself has said, the scars in the Sikh community still run deep. I know from my connection with the community that there are Sikhs asking for further action, namely the holding of an independent inquiry. Under the circumstances, it is of paramount importance that the Government are seen to be reaching out to, and working with, the Sikh community. The role of Sikhs in our country is generally well acknowledged and respected. David Cameron was the first British Prime Minister to visit the Golden Temple. I am aware that the leader of the Opposition is visiting this week, as have a number of other parliamentarians. I have personally visited the Golden Temple on three occasions, where I was received with a great deal of courtesy and respect. It must be borne in mind that the foundation stone of the Golden Temple was in fact laid by a Muslim, whose name was Mian Mir.

The Sikhs of course believe that no-one should interfere with their wearing of turbans, and I am pleased that this Government ended the manual searches of turbans at airports. I know that this move was very welcome.

Our commitment to the Sikh community goes hand in hand with our commitment to uncovering the truth. I ask my noble friend the Minister if she can address the holding of an independent inquiry. As I have said, there are Sikhs in the United Kingdom who are asking for one to take place. In any event, all proceedings must be conducted with the utmost transparency and accountability at their heart.

 

Updated: 12/05/2014 — 11:52 AM