British army mulls raising Sikh regiment

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Feb 25, 2015 01:27 IST

Some called it an election gimmick, while others welcomed it, even though they were taken aback by the timing of an announcement in the House of Commons on Monday that the British army was considering raising a Sikh regiment, an idea that was abandoned in 2007.

During a debate on diversity in Britain's armed forces, minister of state for armed forces Mark Francois said several MPs had raised the issue, adding: "We have passed the proposal on to the chief of the general staff, who is now considering the issue. The idea might well have merit." In 2007, the proposal was abandoned after the Commission for Racial Equality had argued that a separate Sikh regiment would be divisive and amounting to "segregation".

By some estimates, Sikhs will have an influential vote in some constituencies, in the west Midlands particularly, during the May elections. Harbinder Singh, a representative of the 1914 Sikh Campaign group, told HT that Sikhs had made a stellar contribution to the British campaign during World War 1 and other conflicts, and a Sikh regiment remained "an aspiration of the community".

"We welcome it (the announcement), but we were taken aback by the timing of the new proposal. We were told in 2007 that the same was not possible because it would contravene race laws," said Singh. British Sikh Consultative Forum general secretary Jasdev Rai said it was an interesting development, as there had been cuts in the British armed forces. "It will reinforce the Sikh identity and offer Sikh soldiers a unit where they will be better understood. However, it is too early to say whether this will be taken to its conclusion. Most young Sikhs now go into good civil jobs. Not enough may wish to join the army, although (raising) a unit should not be difficult," he added.

Responding to Nicholas Soames, a Conservative, and other MPs, Francois told the House: "I said earlier that the idea might have merit, and we are considering as one specific option the possibility of a reserve company that would inherit many of the proud traditions of Sikh regiments in the British army going back many years."

Nearly 160 Sikhs serve in Britain's armed forces. A British Armed Forces Sikh Association was formed last year.
When contacted about the proposal, former Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh said, "It was an idea conceptualised by Prince Charles and had been discussed for a long time. But when he met me, Charles said he did not think it would ever be accepted. But if a Sikh regiment is being raised, it is a great thing. The Gorkha regiment, too, has been there since Independence. I hope the Sikh regiment in the UK is affiliated to our regiment in India."

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