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New school to combat turban ban

A Sikh couple plans to set up an educational campus that will be known as Shere Punjab Complexe in Bobigny.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2008 19:01 IST

For Gurdial Singh and his wife Surjeet Kaur, a Sikh couple from France, life was wonderful in their adopted country till the French government decided to ban the wearing of turbans in schools.

That was in 2004, and the Sikh couple from Bobigny near Paris was forced to withdraw their 14-year-old son Jasbir Singh from the Louis Mission school.

Since then, the couple and others from their community have been fighting for lifting the ban, something that "does not go well with French ethos and values". They are part of United Sikhs, an organisation mobilising public opinion on the issue.

A successful name in the construction business, Singh has drawn up plans to set up an educational campus that would be known as Shere Punjab Complexe (SPC) in Bobigny.

"It would be a huge campus with schools, colleges and a university, imparting both professional and general education without any ban on anybody's religious dress or something that exhibits one's religious affiliation," Singh told IANS.

As the French law prohibits "ostentatious revelation of one's religious affiliation" in state-run schools, Singh was faced with a tough task to get his son admitted to another government school.

"We waited for a year in the hope that the government would reconsider the decision, but in vain. Finally we put our son in a private school," Singh said.

He has not given up, rather he has prepared himself for a longer battle against his government. "I discussed the issue with my wife and decided to carry on the fight till justice was done. The fight will continue," Singh said.

Singh and his wife were in the Indian capital to take up the matter with visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy through Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

"Who will help us if leaders from our country of origin do not come forward? What has been done in France could soon be replicated in other countries. The turban is an essential religious identity of a Sikh," Singh said.

His wife Surjeet Kaur said: "For 28 years, we have been living fully integrated into the socio-political mainstream of France. We have never faced any problems. It is entirely a different kind of society, where the people have complete respect for everybody's religious sensibilities."

She said there are not many turban wearing school going children in Bobigny now. "The number must be not more than 250," she said, adding that the Sikh populace in the city numbers around 1,000.

The turban ban has led to widespread protests from the Sikh community in India and abroad. They claim that growing long hair and wearing a turban is part of the Sikh identity and not merely a religious symbol.

Sikh leaders in Delhi and members of the community from abroad submitted a memorandum to French Ambassador Jerome Bonnafont in New Delhi on Janruary 16. The memorandum was addressed to Sarkozy.

"It is going to be a long drawn battle. Our fight for justice is getting much stronger. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will certainly intervene. It is late, but justice will not be denied to us," Kaur said optimistically.

Manmohan Singh did raise the issue of the ban with Sarkozy during their bilateral talks in New Delhi on Friday and was told that there is no ban on turbans in France, but only restrictions "in certain circumstances" like for a photo for driving licenses, official sources said.

(Rajeev Ranjan Roy can be contacted at rajeev.r@ians.in)