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New airport turban checks upset Sikhs

Sikh organisations in US received complaints from members saying they were asked to remove their turbans.

india Updated: Aug 31, 2007 02:40 IST

Sikh organisations in the US have received dozens of complaints from community members saying they were told to remove their turbans at airports for security checks in the wake of a new rule that subjects air travellers wearing head covering to additional screening.

"The federal government has equated our most precious article of faith with terrorism," said Amardeep Singh, the executive director of the Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group for Sikhs.

"To send a message that the turban is dangerous sends the wrong message to society," Singh told the New York Times.

The Sikh Coalition also alleged that the new policy was put into effect without consulting Sikhs, whose population in the country is close to 280,000.

Already, 2,000 Sikhs have signed a petition protesting the new security check.

The new Homeland Security Department policy came into force Aug 4.

A Sikh businessman, Prabhjit Singh, said he was made to leave the screening line before an early flight on Aug 17 from Baltimore/Washington International Airport. He had not been told of the new policy until after his turban was inspected by hand in a private room.

"The supervisor made me feel like I had done something wrong," said Singh, 27, a motivational speaker from Maryland. "I felt for the first time in America that I had been targeted, and it was because of the way I looked."

Meanwhile, the transportation security administration, which adopted and is enforcing the policy, said that it was aimed not just at turbans but at any headgear and was one of the periodic adjustments made to address changing threats. It addresses non-metallic threats including some explosives.

"In the last three weeks, we've heard dozens of complaints, people being asked to remove their turbans in public and denied the use of a mirror or space to re-tie them," said Kavneet Singh, East Bay resident and director of the Sikh American Legal Defence and Education Fund (SALDEF).

"For a Sikh man, that's like being strip-searched," Singh was quoted as saying by Mercury News.

"It's like asking a woman to take off her blouse in public," he said. "It's that bad," said J.P Singh, president of the Sikh Centre of the San Francisco Bay Area in El Sobrante.

On Aug 12, at San Francisco International Airport, security officials ordered aside three Sikh men. One of them was Kuldip Singh, managing director of United Sikhs.

"The metal detector did not go off," he said. "I asked the guy why they were asking me to step aside. He said they have a new no-hat policy, and we have to pat down your turban."

At Kuldip Singh's request, the screener agreed to move to an enclosed area.

"What was very strange to us is they are saying it's totally up to the screener," he said. "It's the perception of the screener. And that person could be biased."

Sikhs have often been confused as Muslims and its members often suffer from anti-Muslim sentiment. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.