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  • Dr. Narjeet Kaur

‘Obliviousness and Xenophobia’: NSW School Kirpan Ban Kindles Uproar Among the Sikhs

A very unfortunate incident took place in Australia almost two weeks ago wherein a 14-year-old was accused of stabbing a 16-year-old with a Kirpan. Members of Sydney’s Sikh community have claimed bullying as the reason behind the teenager’s act. An online petition, which has gathered 20,000 signatures in two weeks, says there have been racially-motivated attacks, such as a student having his turban taken off and so, they are strongly defending their children’s right to bring ceremonial daggers to school.

School systems across the world have writhed with ‘kirpans.’ In Britain, most schools ask students to bring small, symbolic daggers: that are fully hemmed in and stashed in a way they can’t be drawn. In Canada, the Supreme Court overturned a court of appeals ruling that it was reasonable to ban them in schools. The judges decided a ban sent students the message that “some religious practices do not merit the same protection as others.”

But outlining the polemic situation as whether or not students should be allowed to take knives to school overgeneralizes a multifaceted issue. The question is not just about knives in schools. It is about what it means to be a secular school in a multi-ethnic Australia. The whole controversy is about how ill-informed the government is about the belief of their own people, who have been living peacefully in Australia as responsible citizens.

In response to the issue The Sikh parliament, or the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in Amritsar in northwestern India, has written to the country’s external affairs minister and the Indian High Commissioner to Australia, probing them to interfere with the NSW government. The Sikh Federation of the United Kingdom has also expressed its anger. Its criticism came as 56 Australian Sikh organizations wrote a joint letter to the NSW government, asking for consultation rather than a ban. They have termed the ban as unfair and unjust The World Sikh Organization of Canada also has written to NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell, accusing the government of making a unthinking, irresponsible and thoughtless decision based on a misunderstanding of a symbol.

Sydney- Australia – UNITED SIKHS wrote to the New South Wales Government on 23rd June 2021 to oppose conditions being proposed on the wearing of the Kirpan in schools. Mejindarpal Kaur, International Legal Director of UNITED SIKHS, in her letter that was addressed to Ms. Georgina Harrison, the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, welcomed the decision to lift the temporary ban on kirpan and has ensured to work out alternate ways to ensure the safety of all.

The ASA Gurdwara Working Group has come out with many proposals as well for NSW but the proposals have been met with a pinch of salt by Sydney - Australia – UNITED SIKHS and other Sikh organizations fighting for the cause. ASA Gurdwara Working Group has though proposed well intentioned changes, but without any consultations with other Sikh groups and proposals offered by them, paints a picture of having succumbed to the decision of ban. The Sikh beliefs have taken objection to the word ceremonial because a Kirpan is not ceremonial as it is worn at all times and not only for ceremonies. I also feel that attaching a chain to a Kirpan would require the Kirpan to be physically modified, which is highly inappropriate. To wear a Kirpan is a matter of religious piety and dedication. Requiring it to be ‘concealed’ tarnishes the same. Also, offering a blunt blade to Kirpan is really something offensive and objectionable to all the Sikhs alike.

A Kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, is one of five things a baptized Sikh is required to carry on their body and what better day to talk about its place in the Sikh history than today as we celebrate the ‘Prakash Purab,’ Birth anniversary of Guru Hargobind Sahib who, emphasized the need to develop a warrior spirit in the Sikh community because it was then undergoing persecution from the Mughal rulers. In light of this threat, he mobilized an army and named it Sant Sipahi (saint soldiers) .Guru Hargobind regularly carried two swords, symbolic of a Sikhs spiritual as well as temporal obligations, a Sword of “Shakti” (Power) and a sword of “Bhakti” (Meditation). Thus Guru Hargobind Ji combined in himself “Piri” (renunciation) and “Miri” (royalty). Unlike other Sikh gurus who are fondly remembered for their spiritual insights, Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, is additionally credited for spearheading the militarization of the religion. He initiated the concept of Kirpan for Sikhs as an article of faith that baptized Sikhs are supposed to wear at all times.

The word Kirpan comes from two words which translate as mercy and bless. The Kirpan is supposed to be a weapon of defense only. The Sikh faith stipulates that from the time of baptism or initiation. Wearing of Kirpan by Sikhs sometimes rears questions or anxieties among people who are unaware of the religion or its doctrines - even in diverse and multi-ethnic countries like Canada and now Australia.

The Kirpan is a deep-seated part of the Sikh religion and in many ways its religious symbolism is similar to the cross in Christianity. Just as a cross is worn by devout Christians, baptized Sikhs are required to wear the Kirpan. The Kirpan is symbolic rather than functional, and is a reminder to Sikhs of their duty to fight injustice and maintain independence of spirit.

To suggest that the Kirpan is a weapon is both incorrect and misleading. We see that the modern armies and soldiers carry swords on ceremonial occasions. It is because the sword here is a symbol of their military tradition and heritage. In the same way, Sikhs carry the Kirpan at all times because it is symbolic of their religious tradition and heritage. To suggest that it is a `dagger,' or a `weapon' or merely a cultural symbol is both misleading and offensive to Sikhs.

The hasty and uneducated decision of imposing the ban is an assault on Sikh religion and culture. There needs to be a thorough process of discussions and dialogues before some concrete decisions can be arrived at, else this decision will go down in history as one which shook the entire faith of a peace loving community, a community that continues to distribute free food, grocery hampers, setting up free hospitals, and providing free oxygen to those in need in India and elsewhere- be it during the Covid situation or any other natural calamity. We hope that the decision will be reconsidered and the Australian government will think deeply before imposing the ban.



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