Britain’s largest Sikh organisation has called on Warwickshire Police to apologise for arresting 55 protesters during a wedding at a Sikh temple on Sunday. The organisation said the arrests constituted a “disproportionate” response.
The protestors, members of Sikh Youth UK, occupied the foyer of the ‘gurdwara’, or temple, for around eight hours in what they claim was a peaceful protest in response to a Sikh bride marrying a Hindu groom in a Sikh religious ceremony.
After attempts at a peaceful resolution with officers and temple officials, 55 intruders were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass. Officers reported that a substantial number of “bladed weapons” were seized during the operation.
A trustee at the temple who declined to be named, described the group at the time of the incident as “fanatical extremists”, adding: “They pushed around a couple of people, grabbed a tie, grabbed someone’s phone and they were trying to threaten people.”
But the Sikh Federation UK, the largest political group representing Sikhs in the UK, is standing by the protesters and has called on Warwickshire Police to apologise for what it called a “disproportionate” response. It suggested that the police had been misinformed about the situation by temple officials.
“We stand with those who peacefully protested against the actions of the management committee at Leamington gurdwara,” said a spokesman.
“It now materialises the police were told masked men forced their way into the gurdwara carrying a range of bladed items other than kirpans, that are worn at all times by initiated Sikhs, and it may have been suggested they were holding hostages.
“This was a small group of young protesters who justifiably objected to an interfaith marriage that was to be carried out as a Sikh religious ceremony.”
Another group, Sikh 2 Inspire, has also lent support to the protestors. In a statement posted on their Facebook page they claimed the Sikh faith was being “victimised” and that sending armed officers to “peaceful protestors” showed a lack of cultural understanding surrounding kirpans.
“They don’t have an appropriate understanding of the Sikh community and have not found appropriate representatives from the Sikh community to balance the malicious viewpoints presented,” they said.
Shamsher Singh, of Sikh Youth UK, the group who staged the intrusion of the wedding on Sunday, has also defended the group’s actions, saying they were merely trying to uphold true Sikhism.
“More and more young people are becoming interested in the true interpretation of what it means to be Sikh,” Singh told The Guardian.
“The elder generation arrived [in the UK] and fitted their faith around the need to assimilate, survive and to get work. This led to a stripping back of the spiritual nature of what it means to be a Sikh to a series of symbols.
“Now younger people want to reclaim Sikhism as a deeply spiritual, peaceful and encompassing religion and this is why we are seeing these protests.”
The youngsters’ fundamentalism is creating a schism within the community. Leamington gurdwara trustee Jaswant Virdee said the protestors were “absolutely wrong” to think that interfaith marriage is prohibited within Sikhism. “Scripture doesn’t discriminate between anyone,” he said. “The Guru Granth [the Sikh holy book] says every citizen in the world is equal.”
In a statement, Sikh Youth UK has insisted that the protest was peaceful, arguing that the group was not protesting interfaith marriages themselves, but the use of a Sikh ceremony to celebrate an interfaith marriage.
“We welcome newly married people of other faiths with open arms at gurdwaras. They can be married elsewhere and we will celebrate with them and shower them with love and welcome them to our community. But the ceremony itself is reserved for Sikhs,” they said.
Shamit Saggar, a specialist in British Asian Politics at the University of Essex, said there was a generational element to the growing disputes within British Sikhism.
“We are seeing a rise in Sikh essentialism among some of the youth groups. Whether it is about marrying outside the religion or issues of the theological interpretation, there are growing tensions between the generations.”
Explaining that the growing divide was more pronounced in the Midlands than elsewhere in the country, he added: “It is partly explained by education. The more education someone has, the more they are likely to integrate. Conversely, the less educated they are, the greater is the attraction of Sikh essentialism – trying to prove they are more Sikh than others within the community.”