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Sikhs and Sacrifices: In Pursuit of Human Rights


Text of address by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P. (Edmonton Southeast) and 

Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific)

World Sikh Organization (Canada) Annual Dinner

Room 200, West Block, Parliament Hill


June 10, 2002

Wahe guru ji ka Khalsa,

Wahe guru ji key fateh!  

I’m honored to be addressing this very important issue with you. As you have evidently seen and heard over the last two hours or so, while MPs were voting, when it comes to human rights issues, no country is immune. I understand that the WSO remains very concerned with the situation in India and that you are particularly anxious for answers as to the disappearance of human rights activist, Jaswant Singh Khalra. Apparently, the police officer suspected of being involved was arrested but has since allegedly committed suicide. The Indian government, I’m told, has said that the issue surrounding Jaswant Singh Khalra has been referred for further study and investigation, but your quest for answers is understandable. Jaswant Singh Khalra was a very courageous person and he remains dear to your hearts. You deserve to know what happened.

Treatment of Sikhs Since September 11

You also deserve to be treated as the peaceful, equality-minded people you are. Instead, your community today is suffering a public backlash in the wake of September 11. Since the attacks on the United States, members of the Sikh community have found themselves the victims of prejudice and discrimination by paranoid persons. When some people see you, they see only your turban. Some wrongly assume that anyone who wears a turban is somehow associated with the terrorists responsible for the horrific attacks.

While the situation has been particularly difficult in the United States, Sikhs in the Canadian community have found themselves painted by the same brush. Members of the Sikh community – here and abroad - have been subjected to contempt, suspicion, harassment and verbal abuse. Some have been targeted in hate crimes, including unprovoked assault. One Sikh has even been killed.

For a snapshot of what is happening, we don’t need to look further than some news headlines in the months after the attacks. Last September, for example:

·        “Tide of hate crimes rising in Canada” (Globe and Mail)

·        “Victims of Mistaken Identity, Sikhs Pay a Price for Turbans” (New York Times)

·        “Sikh community asks for tolerance” (NBC 30)

 In October:

·        “Sikhs encountering backlash” (Fayetteville Observer)

·        “Two Sikh men attacked near Seattle” (New York Times)


·        “Canadian Sikh forced to remove turban at LaGuardia” (

·        “Kicked off flight, Sikh man blames new racist hysteria” (Canadian Press)

·        “Canadian Sikh charged in N.Y. for carrying ceremonial dagger” (Vancouver Sun)

That’s probably enough of mostly U.S. headlines. We all hope that the situation in multicultural and inclusive Canada is better than in our neighbor. < I am told by Minister Herb Dhaliwal that he raised the plight of American Sikhs in November or December with American ambassador Paul Cellucci.

But, equality is under attack not only in the United States, but in Canada and other countries around the world. As a community that espouses equality for all - along with peace, justice, freedom, love, tolerance and respect - these last nine months have been a particularly difficult time, but as Sikhs you are no strangers to adversity and struggle.  Through the centuries, your ancestors have faced adversity, including historical revisionism, educational misinformation, cultural assimilation and stereotypes. Through it all, the Sikh community has persevered and the Sikh identity has flourished, earning much respect from non-Sikhs.  


Perhaps I might say a few words here about Punjab after recently reading Lawrence James’ The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. The Sikh army in Punjab was a disciplined and well-equipped modern force. One British general found its rapidity of fire and accuracy of the Sikh gunners to be equal to their French counterparts. It took two very hard-fought campaigns (1845-46 and 1848-49) before Punjab was defeated and annexed by the British.

In 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer imposed martial law in Amritsar. As everyone here knows, he then ordered his soldiers to fire into an unarmed and peaceful demonstrating crowd, in ten minutes killing 379 of Punjab’s civilians and wounding hundreds more. He later expressed regret that he’d been unable to use his machine guns. Afterwards, he had real and suspected instigators flogged. The incident, says James, proved that the British Raj ultimately depended upon force. Dyer was later effectively dismissed from the army.

Edwin Montagu, who was appointed the UK Secretary of State for India in 1917, later denounced Dyer’s allies in Britain as racist:

“An Indian is a person who is tolerable so long as he follows your orders, but if he thinks for himself, if once he takes advantage of the educational facilities which you have provided for him, if once he imbibes the ideas of individual liberty which are dear to the British people, why then you class him as an educated Indian and an agitator.

Even Winston Churchill, no friend then of India’s independence, termed the Amritsar massacre as “a monstrous act.” Others, including Rudyard Kipling, donated to Dyer’s fund.

In the three months before independence on 15 August 1947, fear was of course greatest in the Punjab – then home to 5.5 million or so Sikhs – which was split between India and Pakistan. As the summer of 1947 approached, Punjab became a sea, as James puts it, of “massacres, counter-massacres, looting and arson.”

Cyril Radcliffe, a British civil servant, drew the line which divided the Punjab and the consequences haunted him until he died. Had it been done with more time and had the British forces acted as an impartial police force of instead of being evacuated, thousands of lives might have been saved. Instead, as you know, perhaps half a million died, but no one tallied the exact numbers. Military observers said it was “a thousand times more horrible than anything we saw in the war.”

Challenges Today

Today, you are again under attack in the very countries where you or your children were born.  The climate of intolerance engendered by public misinformation and fear is having a profound affect on the psyche of the community. As Harpreet Singh, Director of Community Relations of The Sikh Coalition, has said when speaking out against the treatment of Sikhs at American airports: “This kind of treatment to loyal Americans makes many feel humiliated, naked in public, victimized and most important, unwelcome in the country that many of us were born in.” While I can only imagine, I suspect the same feelings hold true whether it happens in the United States or Canada, and whether the intolerance be in an airport, at home, in your place of worship, on the street, at work, or in your children’s schools.

Yet, as always, you persevere, with the courage of your convictions and your religious beliefs. We need to look no further than 12-year-old Gurbaj Singh Multani from Quebec, who bravely stood up for his right to wear a kirpan to school in the face of public ridicule, outrage, and pressure to conform.  This young boy, asked by his principal to remove his kirpan at school, went home instead, and then courageously challenged the school. That meant staying home, missing months of classes, and weathering a storm of controversy over his rights and his choice. No child should be placed in that kind of position – not a Sikh, not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a Bahai, not anyone.


To quote from a petition that was circulated in Gurbaj’s support last November: “Gurbaj is already segregated from other children and not allowed on school property. His fundamental right of education has been stolen from him by the very body entrusted with ensuring this right to all children regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. This should not happen anywhere.”

The petition went on to point out that: “In over 100 years that the Sikh community has worked, lived and prospered in Canada, as Canadians, the rights of all religious minorities to practice their faith has been continuously upheld as part of our long-standing Canadian heritage and tradition. In fact, Canadian legal and political decisions throughout the years have consistently supported the right of all Sikhs to wear the kirpan as an article of faith of their religion.” In my view, to expect Gurbaj, or any Sikh or any Canadian for that matter, to choose between their faith and their education is unquestionably wrong. As the petition rightly noted: “This is a choice no Canadian, no human being anywhere, should have to make.”

Yet, many of you may have felt like you do have to choose – between complying with various laws, policies, or regulations and your religious beliefs. Time and time again, the Sikh community has taken on these challenges – whether it be the right to carry a kirpan, to wear a turban, to carry your five articles of faith – and across the country, you have succeeded. You are not only changing public opinion; you are helping to shape our country’s laws. 

The problem is: it’s never over. There are always new regulations or policies to fight – policies on hard hats and safety masks, laws on bike helmets, employment discrimination cases. As a community, you have been forced to fight these one case at a time and, in some instances, one province at a time. How many lawyers do you have to hire?  How many challenges to you have to mount? How many times do you have to resort to arguing these issues before our human rights tribunals and our courts before you can finally feel that, here in Canada, you don’t have to choose ¼ between conforming and your faith?

I understand your frustration, and I share your views. The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in our Charter and our human rights laws. In practice, though, sometimes it takes a lot of work and, as in your case, legal battles and exemptions. But if we are to give this constitutionally protected right any meaning, your right to practice your faith can’t be the exception. It must be the norm.

5 K`S

I know that one of this year’s priorities for the World Sikh Organization is to obtain widespread acceptance of the 5 K’s – at work, in public and in schools - and that you believe the government is in the best position to achieve this. I’ll raise these issues and speak to your concerns with my colleagues; your input on what we can do to help is welcome.

We are, after all, talking about issues that come up in many contexts ¼ again, it seems, and again and again. Often, the countervailing consideration is public safety – whether it be the requirement to wear a safety hat or bike helmet or the concern over weapons in our schools. On that note, I’d like to refer to a legal brief on kirpans prepared by the World Sikh Organization in response to Gurbaj Singh Multani’s case in Quebec. The brief dispels the notion that the kirpan is a weapon, even though, to some, it may look like a weapon.  The brief notes that:

“The current use of ‘industry standard’ on safety requirements does not accurately accommodate the needs of a nation with the religious and cultural diversity for which Canada is internationally proud. This ‘industry standard’ must take into consideration the 400,000 people in Canada who have the inherent right, afforded by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to freely express theirreligious convictions, and accordingly possess religious articles of faith. In essence, ‘industry standards’ must inherently take into account the multicultural nature of this great nation, and the varied way that each individual expresses their religion and/or culture.”  



How many of you, for example, have found yourself dreading the prospect of having to clear airport security screening or have actually been targeted for unusually long questioning or apparently random searches? Think back to Surgit Singh Babra, who had boarded a plane flying out of Toronto, only to have the passenger beside him complain that he didn’t want to travel with him. The reason? Surgit Singh Babra was wearing a turban.

You should not have to endure this type of treatment. Nobody should. So what can be done? A number of things. In this respect, perhaps we can learn from the example being set by the United States. In the U.S., various transportation authorities have issued guidelines for appropriate conduct in airports. The Federal Aviation Administration, for instance, issued a set of directives that try to balance safety with the protection of civil liberties of Sikhs. The directives state that:

  • Selecting a man for additional screening solely because he is wearing a turban is unlawful discrimination.

  • Where a turbaned Sikh passes through a metal detector without setting off the   device, the Sikh may be subjected to additional screening only if the Sikh displays behavior requiring further scrutiny.

  • If a search or inspection involving the removal of clothing is necessary for safety or security reasons, screeners should – whenever possible – offer the choice of a public or private inspection.

The directives recognize that Sikhs’ turbans are religious articles of faith and that a public search will likely create great embarrassment and fear.

From a more general standpoint, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in October that condemned bigotry and violence against Sikhs. The resolution expresses the view that crimes against Sikh-Americans in the wake of September 11 are to be condemned, prevented and prosecuted. The resolution specifically calls upon local and law enforcement authorities to “prosecute to the fullest extent of the law all those who commit crimes” against Sikh-Americans. 


I know that at the WSO meeting in Toronto this past weekend your executive identified kirpan concerns while flying as one of its priorities for this coming year. In addition to travel issues:

·        I understand you will be pursuing general educational programs with respect to the five articles of faith,

·        On the educational front, you are considering enlisting the help of your youth through the sponsorship of youth forums in order to better reach the younger generations and

·        You also remain concerned about the effects of Bill C-36 and have noted that there is a need for getting accurate information about the bill to Canadians, particularly to minorities who may not understand their rights under the law and may fear the worst if we don’t tell them what it really means.

In terms of the government’s role, I welcome your input as to what we can do to help you achieve your goals.

You are also interested in obtaining NGO status for the World Sikh Organization before the United Nations Human Rights Commission so that you can represent the voice of Sikhs on human rights issues internationally. I applaud your initiative and the WSO’s history of achievement, both in Canada and around the globe.

As the video shown indicates, human rights is clearly an international concern. By addressing human rights issues within Canada, we can help set an example for the rest of the world. We can show the rest of the world, for example, that Sikhs are a peace-loving people interested in equality and justice for all, whether that be in Canada, the U.S., India, or anywhere else where human rights issues come to light.

By taking a stand within our own borders, we can help dispel the terrible misconception that everyone who wears a turban is somehow associated with “terrorists.” Similarly, by recognizing your right to carry your articles of faith without fear of reprisals or societal pressure to conform we can demonstrate our conviction on the importance of freedom of religion to any free and democratic society, anywhere in the world.


Allow me to say a few words here about the current crisis between India and Pakistan, as I know this is another issue that is on all of our minds.  The situation continues to be extremely grave, and we all pray that something positive will come this week at the regional summit in Kazakhstan.

It’s hard to pick up a newspaper where the conflict is not prominent. The cover story of last week’s Economist, for example, is headed, “The Weakest Link – Why the World Needs Pakistan’s Dictator to Survive.” Among the points it makes:

·        One of the nuclear-capable missiles Pakistan tested recently is capable of reaching most of India’s largest cities.

·        Even a limited conventional war could have the direst consequences. If Pakistan lost and, in doing so, General Musharraf were toppled, his country could swing towards the Taliban and al-Qaeda; Osama bin Laden could be delighted to exchange Afghanistan for a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

·        On the good news side, Musharraf appears to have given orders for the incursions into India to stop and to dismantle the rebel camps.

·        India must move too if Musharraf is to stop the violence in Kashmir. Some face-saving reward for such moves must come from New Delhi by promising that if “he is seen to be cracking down hard for, say, the next two months, talks on Kashmir will be opened.” Both sides must be willing to negotiate on Kashmir.

You’ll all be aware that we have asked Canadians to leave both countries. As Secretary of State (Asia-Pacific), I met with the High Commissioners of both India and Pakistan and spoke with both of them last week. If you look at my talk to the academics from the Shastri Institute recently, you’ll see some of these concerns, including the nuclear one. (It’s on my website at

Foreign Minister Bill Graham called his counterparts in both New Dehli and Islamabad last week. He and the other G7 Foreign Minister will disscuss the crisis soon in Whistler, B.C.

We all know that Sikhs in Punjab among others would suffer enormously if war breaks out. They have a big stake in securing a durable peace for economic and other reasons.

            A North African diplomat was in Ottawa recently. Listen to a couple of his comments:

·        “War could destroy the sub-continent and Asia might never again be the same.”

·        “No one will ever forgive the two governments if they go to war.”

·        “In wars, only the people suffer – never the leaders.”  



On a final note, allow me to quote several lines of a poem recited by Jaswant Singh Khalra when he visited Canada a number of years ago. The WSO president, Ajit Sahota, carries a copy of that poem in his wallet and has been kind enough to translate it so we could share part of it with you here today. The poem is about freedom:

“I continuously dream of the glow of freedom that Ghandi promised in 1946”

Wahe guru ji ka Khalsa,

Wahe guru ji key fateh!

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