A large section of Britain’s Sikh community is incensed with one of the country’s largest gurdwaras and Warwickshire police for their over-reaction to a protest on Saturday that led to 55 arrests and a day-long armed cordon outside the shrine on Sunday.
The police on Sunday said they have “contained” the situation and released 54 men on bail who were arrested during the clash, while a 30-year-old man remains in the custody as investigations were on the nature of the weapons used during the incident.
At the centre of the row is concern in the community over weddings between Sikh and non-Sikh individuals, and the August 2015 resolution of more than 180 gurdwaras in Britain that the ‘Anand Karaj’ (marriage) ceremony should be conducted only between Sikhs.
According to Sikh groups, anticipating an ‘Anand Karaj’ ceremony between a Sikh and a non-Sikh on Sunday, a group of protestors entered Gurdwara Sahib Leamington Spa and Warwick, about 150 km northwest of London, in the morning. The protestors were carrying the usual ‘kirpan’.
But the management committee of the gurdwara – one of the largest outside India – called Warwickshire police, allegedly informing them that “masked men” had forced their entry, carrying bladed items other than ‘kirpans’. Police mounted an armed response around the gurdwara, including a helicopter.
There was no comment from the committee, but Gurjeet Singh of the Sikh Federation (UK) told Hindustan Times: “We condemn the over-reaction by the police and the disgraceful and inexcusable behaviour by the management committee at Leamington Gurdwara that have unashamedly brought the law-abiding Sikh community into disrepute by fuelling false and sensationalised media reports.”
Warwickshire police admitted on Sunday evening that “blades seized so far have been ceremonial” and that “another non-ceremonial weapon was seized”. The protest was peaceful and most of those arrested were released with bail conditions, which further infuriated the Sikh community.
According to the August 2015 resolution, “only a Sikh in accordance with the Sikh Rehat Maryada definition is allowed to be married in accordance with the Anand Karaj ceremony”. It laid down that “a person of non-Sikh origin who accepts the Sikh faith should demonstrate formal acceptance of this by including Singh or Kaur in their name”.
Jasdev Singh Rai of the British Sikh Consultative Forum said: “The issue of inter-faith marriages is complex. Most of the youth are brought up in UK. They are influenced by British idea of literal interpretation of law.
“These youth tend to legalistically interpret complex aspects of Sikh tradition. There is a need for a wider debate and clarity from institutions such as Akal Takht for appropriate guidance.”
Calling for an apology from the police, Gurjeet Singh said: “The protesters were respectful and peaceful at all times in the gurdwara from video footage from inside the gurdwara. CCTV footage will show they simply walked into the gurdwara in the early hours and none of them were wielding swords.
“This was a small group of young protesters who justifiably objected to an inter-faith marriage that was to be carried out.”
Singh added the Akal Takht or the “throne of the timeless one” in Amritsar, which is the highest seat of Sikh temporal power that exists to address spiritual and temporal concerns of Sikhs, had ruled that the ‘Anand Karaj’ is only appropriate between two Sikhs.
“A Sikh who therefore wishes to marry a non-Sikh and have an inter-faith marriage is free to do so, but an alternative to the Sikh religious ceremony or Anand Karaj that is conducted in a gurdwara is necessary,” Singh said.
The 2015 resolution was accepted by the vast majority of gurdwara committees in Britain but the Sikh Federation (UK) said “there have been consistent reports that the management committee at Leamington Gurdwara were defiantly still booking Anand Karaj ceremonies between Sikhs and non-Sikhs, ignoring the ruling of the Akal Takht that is binding on all Sikhs worldwide”.
Another group, Sikh 2 Inspire, came down heavily on British media for sensationalising the incident, particularly the “total lack of respect and understanding in writing about the sacred Kirpan”. This was adding what it said were growing incidents of racism after Britain voted in June to leave the European Union.
In Amritsar, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), an elected body of Sikhs that manages the affairs of gurdwaras in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, justified the “opposition” by some Sikh groups to the inter-faith marriage at the UK gurdwara.