How Sikh issues are easy pickings for British media sensationalism

Once considered the darlings of Britain’s immigrant community, it seems Sikhs are losing this status.

Whereas the great British public were once told – by none other than the most revered Brit of all Winston Churchill – they were highly indebted to Sikhs, modern media is now telling them they should be wary of the same group.

The disciples of Guru Nanak Dev Ji have often been hailed as the UK’s best example of integration, having embedded themselves into the culture and society since first coming to these shores en masse around the 1960s. In recent years though, Sikhs have received the kind of media coverage usually reserved for more commonly maligned communities.

Currently, this is based around an “inter-faith marriage” protest that took place on September 11, in the quiet Midlands town of Leamington Spa. However, these protests have been occurring for years and have been covered in the same manner by mainstream press since 2012.



“It really must be questioned what any self-respecting journalist or media outlet is doing in consciously aligning Sikh protesters with likes of jihadists.”



According to most reports, the protesters were armed men, extremists hell-bent on causing racial and religious division, oppressing women and enforcing their will on others by threatening them with bladed-weapons.

This depiction is based on a sensationalist, surface level analysis of the protests, unfitting of something which has been in mainstream media for four years. In the modern day context of religious fundamentalism, it really must be questioned what any self-respecting journalist or media outlet is doing in consciously aligning Sikh protesters with likes of jihadists.

This is not to say that protest itself – which saw 55 men arrested –, or those involved in it, are whiter-than-white. Nor is it an attempt to deflect attention from other issues within the Sikh community.

But it must be understood that the manner of the coverage of the recent Leamington incident is more of a hindrance than a help in the pursuit for a resolution. Headlines of “sword wielding” Sikhs obscured the real issues at hand. Many feel such blatant hyperbole is due to the attention any story about religious militancy gains nowadays. News seems to now be just another commodity in an increasingly extremist capitalist society.



“Many British-born Sikhs who feel as at home in the UK as any native, are reaffirming themselves with their religion.”



The fact is that prior to this Sunday past, there had not been a single arrest at any previous protest, despite numerous allegations of violence and intimidation. At Sunday’s protest, even with “sword-wielding” conjuring up images of gladiatorial warfare, not one of the 55 arrests was for violent or threatening behaviour, only for aggravated-trespass. It must also be noted, Sikh Youth UK, the group most linked with the protest, are a community group who have received awards for their efforts in tackling addiction and other domestic problems within the British-Punjabi community.

The protests stem from a huge divide between a passionate Sikh youth and an apathetic older generation. The elders came to Britain with the aim of simply settling in and surviving, to the point of sacrifice. Now, many British-born Sikhs who feel as at home in the UK as any native, are reaffirming themselves with their religion. Led by organisations such as Basics of Sikhi and Sikh 2 Inspire who teach Sikh history and scripture in English, many are now aware of what they should expect of their Gurdwaras (Sikh temples). As such, many feel completely let down by these institutions.

The first thing expected of a Gurdwara is treating the Sikh scriptural Guru – Guru Granth Sahib Ji – in as much reverence as the 10 Sikh Gurus who led the faith from the 15th-18th century. Therefore, knowing Guru Granth Sahib Ji is at the centre of a showcase wedding, where His vows are not heeded or even understood, is paining to many. During the Sikh matrimonial ceremony, known as the Anand Karaj, a couple actually makes vows to the Guru, not to each other.

Without further getting into nuances which are better explained on the respective YouTube channels of the aforementioned educational organisations, the Anand Karaj can only be meaningful to a Sikh that loves their Guru. This is not a fringe opinion. It is backed by a massive majority of Sikh scholars and academics, who all agree with the decrees on the topic stated in the Sikh code of conduct (Rehat Maryada) published in 1950 and by the Akal Takht (the supreme governing body of the Sikhs).

The protesters and their supporters encourage mixed-faith couples to do anything but the Anand Karaj, such as have the civil ceremony in a Gurdwara, followed by a blessing ceremony. However, the thought is that no one should be entitled to the Anand Karaj ceremony simply because they can pay for it, not even those born into a Sikh family. It is something which should only be available to those who have love for the Guru.

How can this be established? Whilst it can possibly lead into the deepest of rabbit-holes, in essence, it is actually fairly simple. Couples should be asked why they want an Anand Karaj. Answers based on tradition or for the sake of a spouse should not suffice. There are also provisions being made for some kind of course to go on prior to having an Anand Karaj, to understand all it encompasses before making the decision to have such a ceremony. Simply, something so sacred to so many should not be made available to anyone at the behest of a cheque, no matter who writes it.

The protests are an attempt to force Gurdwaras to adhere to Sikh protocol. The generally held belief for Gurdwaras going against these rulings is for the financial gain, with the UK Asian wedding industry estimated at being worth around £3billion a year.



“Writers become overnight experts on something based usually only on an ancestral geographic connection to those entwined in the issue.”



Many of the UK’s 300+ Gurdwaras are currently in the hands of business-minded elders, who are uncomfortable passing on the powerful positions they are in to a younger generation with different aims. This is the cause of all the problems. What adds fuel to this fire though, is the media coverage of these issues which is more sensational than informational.

It seems pointing at a bunch of brown men with beards and turbans and shouting extremist is acceptable for the sake of a news story, and Sunday’s reaction is not the only example.

In comparison, when a Jewish group tried to enforce a ban on their women driving they were at worst referred to as “ultra-orthodox”, whilst Christian groups who hold aggressive anti-abortion protests do not get called anything akin.

An example of this unfair coverage is a piece in the Daily Mail, from November 2015, which accused UK Gurdwaras of running terror training camps. This allegation was based on a dossier which was allegedly given to UK authorities via Indian intelligence. Yet, the Sikh Council UK found that British authorities said they never received any such document, and as of yet there have been no police investigations based on it.

Nevertheless, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) did not feel this kind of journalism was a breach of their code of conduct. There are many other examples of British media being quick to associate Sikhs with terrorism/extremism, such as when the Birmingham Mail accused Sikhs of supporting terrorism in April because of the misreading of a flag.

To get away with such blatant disparity, the heads of these media organisations usually invoke a legion of Asian writers to lead the charge at likening the Sikh protesters with the likes of Isis. These writers are given licence to become overnight experts on something based usually only on an ancestral geographic connection to those entwined in the issue. Usually these pieces are simply accusatory, without much depth or analysis. Based on such coverage, the “Sikh extremism” line becomes the simple narrative of a story which is much more complicated.



“It is only fair those speaking of a growth in “Sikh radicalism” also cover the rise in Sikh philanthropy.”



Even when looking back at previous stories on “Sikh militants”, the British media still surpassed themselves with coverage on Sunday’s incident. Nearly every headline that pronounced the Sikhs were “armed”, without being clear that the Sikhs were near entirely armed with the Kirpan. The 5 Ks that Amritdhari (initiated) Sikhs must wear is taught on the national school curriculum, and has been for decades. Therefore, mainstream journalists should – and most likely did – know that thousands of Sikhs are literally always armed. The police said they found one weapon which was not a Kirpan, but until it becomes clear what that one weapon is (as many things Amritdharis wear could be seen as weapons) it is unfair to assume the intention of having it there.

There has never previously been headlines about “armed Sikhs”, even when many Amritdharis were arrested at the #SikhLivesMatter protest in London. This leads many Sikhs to the conclusion that the headlines were wilfully ignorant. Sensationalism does sell after all.

Something that many seem uncomfortable with is the fact that clearly, many British-Sikhs are becoming more adherent to their faith. Mainstream media seem to highlight this growing adherence only through protests or political conflict.

What is not highlighted is the positive impact this is having. There has been a massive growth in street langar feeds, with over 10,000 free meals served a week all over the UK by Sikh organisations. Groups like Khalsa Aid and United Sikhs are doing more international humanitarian work than ever. Last year the Guru Maneyo Granth Gurdwara opened a free multi-million pound education centre, entirely built and paid for by volunteers.

It is only fair those speaking of a growth in “Sikh radicalism” also cover the rise in Sikh philanthropy. The Sikh Press Association are constantly churning out examples of this kind, so a source for such stories is now there.

The internal struggle going on between different generations of Sikhs has definitely exposed many problems within the community. Just as exposed however, is the contempt with which media can treat a minority group. Sikhs simply hope others recognise that one area of conflict based on a single ceremony does not negate the many inclusive, egalitarian facets of the Sikh faith, and therefore warrant the sensationalism which we are now regularly seeing.

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5 Responses to How Sikh issues are easy pickings for British media sensationalism

  1. ksmann65 says:

    I just hope the national media examine their conscience and ask themselves is what we are writing about the truth or is to increase sales, damn the truth.
    The national media should seek the truth instead of relying on so called experts who have a personal agenda. Sadly many media outlets have their own agendas which mean my hope is forlorn.

  2. Priya Atwal says:

    Hi! Could you please cite the academics and scholars who you mention support your reading of this issue? I’d love to read more about the background to this whole debate. Many thanks.

  3. J says: is a good example of integration and how Sikhs are contributing to the UK though entrepreneurship,

  4. harj says:

    If our response to enforcing Hukumnama’s is going to be anarchist protest, then ridicule and baadnami from our detractors is a likely and even inevitable consequence. Most people are OK with interfaith marriage rules but not so happy with the emotionally charged protests. Intelligent, effective and brave protest didn’t die with Bhagat Singh and should be in more evidence. Simply gathering the lads to go and ‘sort it out’ is a let down for the entire community. The fact that people are scared to speak up against it speaks volumes.

    • I can only assume you are unaware of what Bhagat Singh actually did as a protester and what kind of coverage he received (branded an outright terrorist).

      You may have missed the point from the article so just to explain, this isn’t a defence of the manner of protest, it’s an attack on the portrayal they’re given in media. Maybe people are scared or not inclined to reach out to protesters because the media depicts them as mere radicals and extremists.

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