LONDON — Britain’s Ministry of Defense says a Sikh soldier has become the first guardsman to parade outside Buckingham Palace while wearing his traditional turban.
Fifty family members were on hand Tuesday as Guardsman Jatinderpal Singh Bhullar as he took part in the changing of the guard at the London home of Queen Elizabeth II.
Bhullar, a 25-year-old soldier with the Scots Guards regiment, was quoted by Britain’s Press Association as saying: “Conducting public duties while being a practicing Sikh and wearing my turban is a great honor for me.”
Other Sikhs have taken part in guarding the queen’s palace, but they wore traditional bearskin hats rather than turbans.
Jatinderpal Singh’s case echoes similar cases in the United States and Canada, and evokes some historical irony.
Despite a widely recognized military tradition, Sikhs around the world (largely in western countries) have faced resistance in modern times in being allowed to serve in military or law enforcement, largely due to uniform codes that do not accommodate uncut hair and/or the turban.
In 1991, Baltej Singh Dhillon, a Canadian Sikh, became the first turban-wearing Sikh to serve as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Similar to Jatinderpal Singh’s case, Baltej Singh’s desire to serve with his article of faith was strongly opposed by many in the Canadian public who objected to a modification of the traditional RCMP uniform that included the stetson hat.
Baltej Singh, as a practicing Sikh, sought to be allowed to wear his turban instead. The public objection from certain quarters of the Canadian public was so vociferous that there was an almost xenophobic tone (and, as an interesting footnote, among the objecting voices at that time was that of Stephen Harper, who today is Canada’s Prime Minister and has since dropped his objection).
In the United States, Sikhs are still campaigning to be allowed to serve in the US military with their articles of faith intact beyond requiring a special per-case exemption to be able to do so. In 2010, we saw three Sikhs receive such exemptions: Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Simran Singh Lamba each otherwise satisfied all requirements to serve but required special permission to be able to do so with their articles of faith intact. And, while this has been a civil rights achievement, the right to serve as a practicing Sikh is still not guaranteed to all Sikhs.
Interestingly, the image of a Sikh standing in front of Buckingham Palace compels me to reflect on Sikh history, and particularly that of the interaction of the British empire with Sikhs through history. It is notable that near the end of the 19th century, it was the British monarch of the time, Queen Victoria, who was responsible for the conversion of the last surviving heir to the Sikh kingdom, Maharaja Duleep Singh, to Christianity and annexation of the Sikh kingdom into the British Raj. As Sikhs in British-ruled India would come to serve the British monarch in civic and military life, there was also a vehement independence movement against British rule in India in which Sikhs became heavily involved. And, when the British were to finally leave India and grant independence in 1947, it was the Sikh homeland that was partitioned to create what is now India and Pakistan, resulting in the separation of Sikhs from many places of historic and religious significance, and most importantly, a displacement that cost millions of lives.
Today, no heir nor descendent from the Sikh royal family of Maharaja Duleep Singh is recognized to exist.
Thus, the juxtaposition with history of an image of a Sikh now being allowed to guard the Queen of England is an interesting and ironic comparison. However, I would offer the proposition that regardless of the tragedy of imperial and colonial history that involves the Sikhs and the British Monarchy, we must also look at the civil rights aspect separately.
This aspect is what also confounds the issue of Sikhs serving in the US military. When we have seen debate within the general public about Sikhs serving in the military with an accommodated uniform, we also have seen internal debate about whether Sikhs should be serving in military campaigns that are seen not to be in line with Sikh values — particularly where it relates to human rights (for example, Guantanamo Bay), deaths of innocent civilians from drone strikes, or use of torture. At the same time, we also must address the civil rights aspect of the issue, whereby a Sikh should not be discriminated against based on the practice of their faith, as freedom of religion is a right enshrined in the US Constitution.
On this front, the conversation becomes nuanced, but it is necessary to separate the issues. The human rights issues related to recent military campaigns requires to be addressed, but none can deny that a citizen of the United States has the right to practice his or her faith freely. It is on this basis that a Sikh should be allowed to serve in the military with their articles of faith intact, as long as the candidate satisfies all other requirements and is able to perform his or her duties. Anything less is discriminatory, and we should not allow our rights to be denied for matters that, while related, would seek to prevent Sikhs from being able to fully participate in American society.
As we are seeing in this country and abroad, the recognition of our civil rights as it pertains to military service has increased, and even as Jatinderpal Singh is guarding a palace in a foreign country to protect a monarch to which we are not subjects, Sikhs in the Unites States who wish to serve still take inspiration from his precedent.