The Sikhs of northwestern India have for centuries cherished their rich military history. Wearing long beards and turbans into combat, they have battled Mughals in Punjab, Afghans near the Khyber Pass and Germans in the bloody trenches of the Somme.
But when Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, an American Sikh raised in New Jersey, signed up for the US Army, that tradition counted for nothing. Before sending him to officer basic training, the army told him that he would have to give up the basic symbols of his religion: his beard, knee-length hair and turban.
In good Sikh tradition, he resisted. Armed with petitions and Congressional letters, he waged a two-year campaign that in 2009 resulted in the army granting him a special exception for his unshorn hair, the first such accommodation to a policy established in the 1980s.
Since then, two other Sikhs have won accommodations from the army. But many others have failed. And so now, as he prepares to leave active duty, Major Kalsi, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, is waging a new campaign: to rescind those strict rules that he believes have blocked hundreds of Sikhs from joining the military.
"Folks say, ‘If you really want to serve, why don’t you cut your beard?' " said Major Kalsi, a doctor who is the medical director of emergency medical services at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “But asking a person to choose between religion and country, that’s not who we are as a nation. We’re better than that. We can be Sikhs and soldiers at the same time.”
At stake for the military is the uniformity in appearance that it deems necessary for good order and discipline.
But to Sikh advocates and their supporters in Congress, the policies governing appearance are as fundamentally discriminatory to them as racially segregated units were to blacks, combat prohibitions were to women and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was to gay men and lesbians.
The more Sikhs wear military, police or firefighter uniforms, Major Kalsi reasoned, the less often Americans will see them as threatening outsiders.
A more nuanced challenge for Sikh recruits is overcoming the argument that uniformity of appearance is essential for “unit cohesion,” the military’s shared sense of purpose and tradition. But Sikhs point to the British, Canadian and Indian militaries, where Sikhs are allowed to wear unshorn hair and beards, as evidence that their articles of faith do not undermine esprit de corps.