Page last updated at 03:30 GMT, Saturday, 13 September 2003 04:30 UK

British Sikhs find voice in political party

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Sikhs: Visible but vocal enough?

Thousands of Sikhs are holding a conference in the UK to establish their own political party - but they also want to end the stereotype of the "community leader" which they say stops real voices being heard.

They may form one of the most visible minorities in the UK, but Britain's Sikh community has decided it is time they shouted a little louder.

This weekend thousands of Sikhs are taking part in a three-day conference in Wolverhampton to chart the future course of their community's voice in British politics and society.

The conference comes two years after Sikhs found themselves on the receiving end of racist abuse and official scrutiny in the fallout of 11 September.

Firstly, those looking for someone to attack chose not only Muslims but also Sikhs, because turbans and beards create mistaken associations with the Taleban.

Then the government caused a storm within the community by banning from airports the ceremonial Kirpan dagger, an item worn as a public statement of faith.

Lobbying government

If ever there was a time to think about how to lobby government, this was it.

SIKHS IN THE UK
336,000
40% under 24
Largest communities in West Midlands and London

Britain's 340,000 Sikhs had already launched their "agenda for change" that year which aimed to improve their voice in government, particularly in education and religious rights.

So two years on, what's changed?

"I think for too long Sikhs have been fairly quiet on the issues that matter to them," says Dabinderjit Singh, spokesman for the Sikh Secretariat.

"They're hard working and get on with their lives. When issues come up, they campaign together.

"But as a community we have not been very positive in taking advantage of opportunities to inform policy.

"Now presents the right moment for us to launch a Sikh political party."

The Sikh Federation, being created this weekend in the Midlands, will work both locally and nationally - but it won't put up candidates itself.

"We want the large Sikh communities around the country to use it pressure their local candidates to take our issues seriously and have a proper dialogue," said Mr Singh.

Tactical voting

The federation will not recommend a single party to its community.

Instead Sikhs who have historically voted Labour will be told where candidates stand on the big issues.

Sikhs would then be better placed to vote tactically, said Mr Singh.

Allied to the federation will be a new body representing the 250 plus Gurdwaras (temples) and a Whitehall lobbying machine, the Sikh Advisory Group.

Together, the three organisations aim to take advantage of the prime minister's controversial pledge to bring faith communities closer to policy making.

Questioning

Undoubtedly, British Sikhs have taken a leaf out of another community's book. British Muslims have gone through several attempts at professionalising their political lobbying.

If you ask a teenager who community leaders are, they don't know them - so they conclude change will come when they see it happen
Dabinderjit Singh
But the movement towards a new body also shows Sikhs mirroring another development among British Muslims.

In the two years since the 11 September attacks, Muslims been more cohesive - yet also more questioning of seemingly self-appointed "community leaders".

This movement is strongest among the politically active young who, being British born, expect their rights to be respected as much as the next person.

For some "community leaders" and their contacts with local or national government can be an obstacle because they are in the system rather than challenging it.

So, with the 2001 Census showing 40% of British Sikhs are under 24, it's not surprising that the same challenges are emerging from its community.

"We want to move away from the idea that just a handful of individuals represent a community," said Mr Singh.

"The Sikh community needs collective accountability if it is to bring about change. Civil servants tend to be reluctant to move from the status quo and stick to this idea of 'community leaders'.

"But if you ask a teenager who community leaders are, they don't know them - so they conclude change will come when they see it happen.

"What we want to do is create local ownership of these issues so we can get more Sikhs involved in mainstream politics - so that when the local MP comes to speak at the Gurdwara at election time, they perhaps get a few awkward questions rather than simply rolling out the red carpet."

Both pictures taken at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Hounslow Middlesex.



SEE ALSO
Faith groups get bigger policy role
04 Aug 03 |  UK Politics
Golden Temple at last
30 Jul 03 |  South Asia
Sikh wins right to wear dagger
18 May 02 |  Americas

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