In February last year, a turbaned Sikh had his turban pulled by a stranger who shouted abuse outside the Houses of Parliament. This appalling incident led me to submit an early day motion last year calling for Parliament to recognise April, the month of Vaisakhi, as National Sikh Awareness and History Month. Taking inspiration from the success of National Sikh Awareness Months established in Canada and California, the motion also recognised education as an effective method of combating hate. This motion gained the support of 100 MPs from across party lines and national borders.
To turn this motion into a reality, we formed a cross-party Parliamentary Steering Committee which I chaired and which included Rt Hon Pat McFadden MP, Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP, Preet Kaur Gill, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, Rt Hon Vince Cable MP, Virendra Sharma, Alison Thewliss and Rt Hon John McDonnell MP.
There have already been campaigns and events surrounding Sikhism in Parliament including an annual Parliamentary Vaisakhi reception for over a decade, and the British Sikh Report has been launched in Parliament every year since 2012. However, this month has been the first prolonged Parliamentary initiative supporting Sikh awareness, and it would not have been possible without assistance in its early days from the Sikh community across the country.
The programme of events our Parliamentary Steering Committee have developed has been inspiring and engaging. We launched National Sikh Awareness and History Month in UK Parliament at Pat McFadden’s annual Vaisakhi reception, where representatives from across the Sikh community and politicians spoke, including messages of support from both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. A simultaneous launch event took place at Scottish Parliament’s first ever Vaisakhi reception.
On 23rd April we saw the launch of the authoritative British Sikh Report 2019, which surveys Sikhs on issues of importance for both the community and the nation. The next day, Dr Opinderjit Takhar, the director of Wolverhampton University’s Centre for Sikh and Punjabi Studies, gave a lecture in Parliament on Guru Nanak Dev Ji and feminism alongside a lecture that evening from Anita Anand about her new book, The Patient Assassin. Her book confronts the Jallianwala Bagh massacre beyond the massacre itself and follows General Dyer and the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab at the time of the massacre, as well as Udham Singh, the revolutionary who devoted his life to revenge for the massacre.
MPs also got a chance to experience turban tying for themselves at Parliament's second annual Turban Awareness Day. The first Turban Awareness Day was held last year in response to the incident outside Parliament. This year’s Turban Awareness Day, which was held with the support of the Sikh Channel built on the success of the first, with over forty MPs attending the event and getting their turban tied, including the Shadow Equalities Secretary, Dawn Butler, and the Minister for Immigration, Rt Hon Caroline Noakes MP.
I co-led a Westminster Hall debate (30th April) on the contribution of Sikhs to the UK. This debate was far-reaching and insightful, with speakers covering topics as different as the suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, plans for a Sikh War Memorial in London, an apology for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the possibility of direct flights from London to Amritsar.
But through the month much activity also went on in communities with local Gurdwaras hosting LangarwithyourMP or VisitMyGurdwara days. All too often, whether a temple or a Gurdwara, people don’t walk through the door of a place they feel they might not know the rules or the right thing to do. These events gave people who had never visited a Gurdwara the chance to do so with friends and other members of the community – and to see the range of activities from well being to that is so often supported. On Vaisakhi I visited three Gurdwaras and my local Jalaram temple to also mark Ram Naumi which fell on the same day. It is not uncommon in our interfaith community for events and celebrations to be shared. With these foundations in place we look forward to expanding the programme next year with the input of community members and groups from across the country.
With rising hate crime, truly the course of action we must take is to build stronger bridges between our communities and to build understanding of history, faith and culture. We live in a peaceful and respectful society because we choose to make it so. The structures that we build between us as a society help to nurture those vital links that make us a safe place for all communities and a place in which we can be sure that future generations will also be safe and will understand and respect one another. The respect that we hold and the understanding that we nurture are part of a statement about how we as a nation recognise that we have more in common than that which divides us.