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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 January, 2004, 08:52 GMT
French Sikhs defend the turban
By Ranvir Nayar in Paris

"Ultimately, if I have to choose between further studies or my turban, I will keep the turban."

Sikhs prepare for protest
Young Sikhs preparing for street protest
Fourteen-year-old Vikramjit Singh, who lives in suburban Paris, says giving up his studies would perhaps ruin his material life.

"But if I have to give up my turban, I am sacrificing my spiritual life. And that is totally unacceptable to me," he told BBC News Online.

For his age, Vikramjit, the son of a Sikh businessman, sounds extremely philosophical.

Yet, he has summarised the dilemma facing the estimated 15,000 Sikhs who live in and around Paris.

They are warily watching developments in France as Education Minister Luc Ferry prepares to introduce a law that will prohibit display of any religious symbols in state-run schools.

For Sikhs, wearing the turban is crucial to their religious identity.

Flat refusal

The law will be applicable from the new academic year that begins in September.

However, for many Sikhs, their problems have already begun.

Karamvir Singh, 19, is one of those who have already been affected.

I am a French citizen and I have the same rights to education and prosperity in life as any other French citizen
Karamvir Singh

He has been trying to get into a vocational institute.

"I went to five different institutes here. I was called for tests in each and everywhere I passed," he says.

"However, each time, the principals added a condition - that I have to take my turban off. And I flatly refused. So, here I am, unable to study, a victim of the law even before it is passed by the French parliament."

Vikramjit and Karamvir are just two of nearly 3,000 young Sikhs who will be hit by the new law.

They have joined their parents wholeheartedly in the battle against the proposed legislation.

"The Sikhs don't want any special treatment. We just want our basic rights honoured in this country that gave the charter of human rights to the rest of the world," says Chain Singh.

He is a leader of the Sikh community in France and president of the Gurdwara Singh Sabha, a Sikh temple located in the north-eastern Parisian suburb of Bobigny.

'Not rich enough'

Students such as 19-year-old Manprit Singh say they have little option but to give up studies altogether if the law is applied to the Sikhs.

Chain Singh
Chain Singh says Sikhs' grievances must be resolved now

"Our parents are not rich enough to send us to private schools [which will be exempt from the law], neither can we go and study in other European countries," Manprit complains.

"So it basically means that from next year, all of us will have to give up studies and be at home."

Karamvir Singh is adamant that he will not seek education in another country.

"I am a French citizen and I have the same rights to education and prosperity in life as any other French citizen. So I am not going to give up my rights like that. I will stay on here and fight on for as long as it takes," he says.

Chain Singh says that the Sikhs are prepared for a long drawn-out battle on the issue.

The law, if passed, will threaten the existence of Sikhism in France
Chain Singh

"It is not the question of a few students or a few years. It is a problem that will continue to affect all our generations to come and that is why we need to resolve it now rather than let our grandchildren or their descendants suffer," Chain Singh argues.

"The law, if passed, will threaten the existence of Sikhism in France."

World support

Hectic preparations are being made every day at the Gurdwara for chalking out a battle plan.

Everyday, after school, students gather at the gurdwara to make banners for street demonstrations.

Young Sikhs with banner
Sikhs are up in arms

One banner reads: "Notre foi est non negotiable" (Our faith is non-negotiable).

Another says "Turban, Voile, Kippa ou Croix, laissez nous le choix" ("Turban, Scarf, Kippa or Cross, leave the choice to us").

Chain Singh and other Sikh leaders are also trying to have meetings with President Jacques Chirac and government ministers.

And at the end of January, the Sikhs community here is holding a rally to which they hope Sikhs from all around the world will come.


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