(Top photo from a protest in 2013 unrelated to this piece. Photo: Yui Mok PA Archive/PA Images)
There are over 400,000 Sikhs living in the UK—a pretty sizable number by any stretch. But when it comes to acknowledgement from wider society, some within Britain's Sikh community claim they're next to invisible. Most non-Sikhs couldn't tell you the name of the religion's holy book, they claim, and there's little discussion around anti-Sikh hate crimes, or specific government initiatives to prevent Sikhs from being subjected to religiously-motivated attacks.
However, the government appears to be making its first effort at correcting this. At the end of last month, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid announced that the government would be funding a program aimed at improving "the reporting and prevention of hate crime," with a portion of the £375,000 [$468,000] grant allocated to True Vision—the police's online portal for reporting hate crimes—which aims to "encourage groups that face challenges in reporting hate crime," such as "Sikh and Hindu communities."
The move has been celebrated by Sikh groups, who believe that attacks on Sikhs are frequently ignored or misreported as anti-Islamic hate crimes.
A survey released towards the end of 2016 revealed that 20 percent of Sikhs experienced public discrimination last year. The figure is even higher for turban-wearing Sikhs, at 27 percent. In spite of this, the government's 40-page plan for preventing and dealing with hate crime, released in July of 2016, didn't contain a single reference to offenses committed against Sikhs. It didn't mention crimes against Hindus either, which has led to accusations that governmental efforts to stamp out discrimination are themselves discriminatory, neglecting non-Abrahamic faiths.
"Twenty-eight percent of victims recorded under the 'Islamophobic hate crime' category during 2015 were in fact non-Muslims."
Hardeep Singh, press secretary for the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO), believes the fact that Sikhs and Hindus weren't included in the plan suggests that, until recently, authorities have been unconcerned about victims of anti-Sikh and anti-Hindu hate crimes. "The government has demonstrated an egregious lack of sensitivity to non-Abrahamic faiths," he says. "The taxpayer-funded projects designed to tackle bigotry simply focus on Muslims, Jews, and Christians."
In early 2016 the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) confirmed that, from April of 2017, police forces across England and Wales will have to record religious hate crimes according to religion—which may put to an end to another potential problem: that anti-Sikh hate crimes are perhaps neglected because many of them are wrongly recorded.
A Freedom of Information request submitted by the NSO revealed that 28 percent of victims recorded under the "Islamophobic hate crime" category during 2015 were in fact non-Muslims. "When it has been reported, the suffering of Sikhs and Hindus sadly hasn't even registered," says Hardeep. "The reality is that we face not just the backlash to Islamism, but also an age-old hatred from Muslim extremists themselves—so, if you like, it's a double whammy."
Since 9/11, both individual Sikhs and gurdwaras have regularly been on the receiving end of attacks by people who have mistaken them for Muslims and mosques, respectively. There have been numerous high-profile incidents in the media, notably the attempted beheading of Sikh dentist Dr. Sarandev Bhambra in a Welsh supermarket in 2015. The perpetrator shouted "I did it for Lee Rigby" after hacking at his victim with a machete, suggesting he thought Dr. Bhambra was a Muslim and that he was exacting vengeance for acts of terrorism. The attacker was convicted of Dr. Bhambra's attempted murder and jailed for a minimum of 14 years.
There was also the case of Jagdeesh Singh, who in 2004 was repeatedly punched in the face while walking home with his ten-year-old nephew in Coventry. His assailant bombarded him with Islamophobic abuse during the attack, accusing him of being a terrorist and calling him Bin Laden. Jagdeesh believes that incidents of this nature are partly due to government narratives about British Asians that center upon Islam, and exclude Sikhs and Hindus. He claims that this has led to a situation in which the British public view anyone with brown skin as Muslim.
"We've been placed in the blanket category of 'Asian,' and whenever there's a perceived problem within the Pakistani community or a perceived problem within a particular community, they don't say the specific community; they just use the blanket term 'Asian,'" he says. "What we want is an equal and comprehensive policy and approach to all forms of hate crime, where Sikhs and non-Sikhs are equally protected and safeguarded, and hate crimes against us are recognized. We don't get that, because every time there's a home affairs select committee inquiry, it's never about Sikhs. It's always about other religions."
These sentiments are echoed by Phaldip Singh, another victim of an anti-Sikh hate crime. Towards the end of 2015 he was on the receiving end of an unprovoked attack in Birmingham city centre, in which he was shoved aggressively and verbally abused by a group of up to eight men. The offence took place in the early evening in a crowded area. "I think wherever you go, it's always about the Abrahamic faiths," he says. "It's as if no one else exists in the world."
Phaldip believes that the government's neglect of such crimes might stem from an underestimation of the problem due to so many attacks being mis-recorded. "If they're just labeling things as Islamic hate crimes and not specifically crimes that are targeted towards Sikhs, then there won't be any statistics, and without those statistics, they can't do anything about it," he says.
There is also the theory that the lack of representation of Sikhs in hate crime statistics has its roots in public organizations' failure to acknowledge their status as an ethnic group as well as a religion. In 1983, the Commission for Racial Equality launched a successful racial discrimination case on behalf of the father of a Sikh boy who had been denied entry to a school because of his turban and uncut hair. Sikhs wear turbans to represent piety, spirituality, courage, self-respect, and honor, and allow their hair to grow to symbolize devotion to God. The result of the case cemented Sikhs' legal status as a race as opposed to merely a religion. However, in practice, they're typically simply viewed as Asian, which means there are no official government records of how many Sikhs are the victims of racially-motivated anti-Sikh offenses.
Gurjeet Singh of the Sikh Federation believes that faith-based monitoring is extremely limited compared to the degree to which organizations record the race of those they deal with. He claims that this is to blame for the government's lack of awareness around the extent of attacks against Sikhs.
This new funding program and the changes to how police record religious hate crimes are both positive signs, but relative to the problem it's only a small step in the right direction. A share of £375,000 isn't a huge amount, in the grand scheme of things. And as Phaldip Singh pointed out, it's not until campaigners are armed with statistics that they can properly make a case, and it'll be at least another calendar year after the police's recording changes are implemented in April before an annual report can be drawn up.
"Whether you see Sikhs as a religion or an ethnic group, there's a clear and tragic failure at the highest governmental level to recognize us as a distinct group and recognize that we're vulnerable," says Jagdeesh. "Isn't it time that changed?"
Follow Nick Chester on Twitter.