History of Institutional Racism Against British Sikhs

“There was a time when the British insisted that Sikhs joining the colonial British Army must be Amritdhari (fully initiated), practising Sikhs wearing all their articles of faith. During the two World Wars, some 1.5 million Amritdhari Sikhs fought for the freedom of the United Kingdom, Europe and humankind. 83,000 Sikhs gave their lives, whilst 110,000 were wounded. Many gallant Sikhs were awarded Victoria Crosses (or equivalent awards) for their bravery. Sikhs have been living in some Western countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and America as a significant visible community for well over half a century. Before that, during the British colonial period, they were encouraged to migrate to countries in East Africa and South East Asia as soldiers, policemen and skilled workers. In recent years Sikhs have migrated to Australia and even to South American countries. Yet, direct and indirect challenges to visible Sikh identity have increased, especially since 9/11; so that their sense of belonging in the Western countries they live in as hardworking and law abiding citizens, has been “put in jeopardy“.

(Gurmukh Singh OBE, Challenges to Sikh Identity in the West)

Institutional racism” was first defined by Sir William Macpherson in the UK’s Lawrence report (1999) as: “The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Institutional racism in the government and agencies, legislative assemblies, the courts, the health and educational systems and other public and private sector bodies is directed against a people like the Sikhs because they are seen to be “different”. They are different not just because of their visible identity in case of Amritdhari (initiated) Sikhs and Sikhs who keep turbans and beards but also due to their association with a way of life based on creed, culture and customs.

The Jewish people are not visibly different from the white majority but there is institutional discrimination against them. This clear understanding for the basis of “them and us” discrimination because “they” are “different” is important, for “different” does not refer to difference in physical appearance only as some Sikhs who claim to represent Sikhs, believe. Those same Sikhs have also misled the policy makers and those who collect statistics about communities like the Office for National Statistics in the UK to count and monitor their treatment. Miri-Piri (politico-spiritual) Sikhi is much more than a “religion” in the traditional sense. It is a whole-life temporal-spiritual paradigm which gave birth to a distinct people, a qaum or a nation.

Sikhs are victims of institutional discrimination because of their qaumi ethos; their Sikh way of life, values, behaviour and characteristics, of which, varying degrees of religious observance is one aspect. Sikhs leading Panthic “morchas” are not always very “religious”. For example, the recent farmers protest against unjust and oppressive Indian farm laws is led by Sikhs fired mainly by liberating Sikh values. The Sikhs range from Amritdhari, Naam Abhiyasi (fully practising) GurSikhs to Sikhs who hardly observe Sikh Reht but have deep-rooted qaumi sentiments expressed along the line, “We are the proud Sikhs of Guru Nanak- Guru Gobind Singh”. For them the Gurus are their qaumi Miri-Piri heroes. These are Sikhs from all over India and not just Sikhs from what is left of Panjab. That is in response to those who misleadingly argue the “Panjabi qaum” case in the context of Sikh “ethnicity” as defined by the Lords in the Mandla case 1983.)

One important aspect of preserving the history and heritage of UK Sikhs is to keep a record of institutional racism against the community by keeping a digital library of old court cases, reports and images. This would be a historical record of the challenges faced by the community in settling down while trying to preserve own religio-cultural identity. Otherwise, “The Sikhs are a role model community and provide an exceptionally interesting example of successful integration whilst maintaining a very visible and distinctive religious identity.” (The Sikh Manifesto 2015-2020). In fact, it has been suggested that all Sikh diaspora countries should keep and maintain such a record for next generations.

There can be parallel projects like Sikh museums of early settlers where actual old photos, artefacts and documents are displayed for the benefit of next generations. To some extent such initiatives have been ongoing through Anglo-Sikh heritage and other projects undertaken by organisations and dedicated individuals.

Recent findings of the prolonged Daniel Morgan murder investigation into Scotland Yard remind UK Sikhs of their own experience in dealing with public servants and ministers. Civil servants work across departments and any form of institutional weaknesses and biases in the State system are unlikely to be isolated. The Sikh interest is in evidence which shows institutional bias against them because they are “different”.

As a lawyer noted, “The State and political powers prefer to deal with a uniform set of rules, values and ideas and tend to conspire against diverse cultures, religions and traditions.” (Sikh lawyer Sukhvinder Thandi). So, is there evidence that State political powers – ministers and civil servants – actually “conspire against diversity” represented by the distinct Sikh community? There is need to collate such evidence through a process like an inquiry e.g. British Sikh Inquiry into institutional racism in the UK.

Due to long-standing Anglo-Sikh relations, Sikhs expected full legal safeguards for their visible Sikh identity and culture including religious practice. It was precisely the distinctive Sikh identity and what it stood for, which was valued and promoted by colonial Britain. Yet, when Sikhs arrived in the UK after the 1947 partition, they were compelled by economic circumstances to discard their proud Sikh identity. That suggests a failure on the part of UK policy makers to accommodate diversity. The community is unlikely to recover from that early identity loss passed on as negative heritage to next generations. Numerous court battles had to be fought by the more resilient and determined Sikhs to secure even basic rights.

The evidence produced before panels and courts is there because some who stood up to prejudice and racism are still around. All that evidence should be collated and preserved. It takes a prolonged, determined and expensive public inquiry like the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel investigation into police handling of the murder case to expose any wrong doing by public servants. It is important to collate documented evidence of institutional racism, corruption and cronyism over the changing race relation period in the UK over the last 60 years when Sikhs started settling in significant numbers.

For example, in recent years, over half a million British Sikhs have been denied their legal right to be counted and monitored as a distinct ethnic group under the current system. Despite taking the matter to the courts, they have not been allocated own ethnicity (qaumi) tick box in the Census. Leaving aside ignorance about Sikhi Miri-Piri tradition, objections based on trade relations with Indian have been used by some. Unless there is a public investigation into the consultation and decision-making processes in the Office for National Statistics (ONS), British Sikhs will remain totally confused about this issue which seriously affects their rights as a distinct community. That is a wrong perpetrated against a whole community. That is a conspiracy against diversity referred to by Sikh lawyer Sukhvinder Thandi quoted above.

To save and remember qaumi heritage and history is to save qaumi existence and identity. In itself it is a process of self-identification in a multi-cultural society. To respect and to have pride in own identity and way of life while respecting that of others in a spirit of unity in diversity. That is the true spirit of democratic multi-culturalism. That is “Anekta meh ekta” principle preached by Guru Gobind Singh.

Evidence of institutional racism requires case histories including documentation relating to cases taken to the courts and tribunals. The process would be in the nature of an inquiry by the community. Anyone arriving in the UK in late 1950’s and early 1960’s was compelled to cut his hair and discard his turban. I have seen first generation Sikhs looking at own images in mirrors after discarding their proud Sikh identity and crying aloud in anguish. What would their parents and families think of them back home?

Sikhs became more organised and took matters to the courts to secure their basic religious rights. It was an uphill struggle and some rights were won in the courts but most grudgingly conceded by the public and private sectors. The obstructive challenges came from the policy makers, the senior civil servants and ministers. As is the Sikh experience in the case of Sikh ethnic (qaumi) tick box in the Census, such challenges continue. Regrettably, there are those within the community who claim to be “leaders” or “representatives” and oblige the establishment by making compromises from which the community cannot recover for many generations.

As questions are being raised in the West about the damage done by colonial attitudes and institutional racism, the Sikhs too need to take timely steps to record their own experience.

Gurmukh Singh OBE, UK

Documents will be uploaded regarding the history of institutional racism against British Sikhs -

A delegation of Sikhs leaving Downing Street, London, 8th August 1947.
A delegation of Sikhs leaving Downing Street, London, after presenting a petition calling for the whole of the Punjab region to be included in the state of India, in the Partition of British India, 8th August 1947.
(Photo and caption taken from Getty Images)

Partition of India - Hansard links to speeches in the UK Parliament


Partition of India - Hansard links to speeches in the UK Parliament

The debate in the UK Parliament around the India Independence Bill has mentioned the plight of Sikhs and other minority communities such as Dalits in India. There are also references to the possibility of the two dominions, India and Pakistan, coming together in future.

Raghbir Singh

Raghbir Singh, 1963, Bristol, first Sikh bus conductor


How the Western Daily Press reported Raghbir Singh becoming a bus conductor, the first BME employee after the 'colour bar' was scrapped, in 1963.

Why the bus station has been named top place of UK historical importance - Bristol Post

Amar Singh

Turban Victory London Underground 1964, Right to wear Holy Turban. Amar Singh.


Amar Singh came from India, and started working as a train guard on board Central line trains in 1962.

At the time, he lived in Hambrough Road, just off Southall Broadway at a time the Ealing town was becoming known as "Little India".

Train guards used to operate doors, patrol trains and could be called on in case the driver fell ill or could not continue his route. A clean-shaven Amar Singh wore his flat-peaked cap to work from the Acton depot for two years.

But when Amar decided he wanted to be more in touch with his religion and started wearing his turban in 1964, transport officials suspended him without pay. Amar Singh went to work wearing a black turban with a London Transport badge. He was sent home for violating company dress code.

What was Amar Singh to do? In those days there were no effective campaigning Sikh organisations, Sikh Gurdwaras were not well organised, and many could not speak the english language well. The Indian Workers Association had infiltrated Sikh Gurdwaras, used Sikh funds, but were of communist ideology and acted against Sikh religion.

Across England, prayer meetings were held in Sikh communities for Amar to get his job back. The story made the national and local newspapers at the time, bringing awareness of the issue to more communities than ever before.

He told the Mirror during the battle: "I wore a peaked cap for more than two years. I had my hair cut and I shaved like an Englishman.

"But I could not go on - my conscience was tormenting me. I decided to let my hair and beard grow again.

"When my hair looked like a Beatle's I put it in a turban. But at work I was told this was not allowed."

Amar Singh trusted that WaheGuru would help him.

For the next three weeks, he showed up to work every day, and he was sent back home every day. Day by day, the company managers started to be affected by Amar Singh turning up each day. Finally the company relented on 3 September 1964 and allowed him to work wearing his turban as part of his uniform. He lost £30 in pay, equivalent to about £500 in 2021 monies.

The links below give a background to Amar Singh’s courage.

And now, Amar's heroic story is among the stories being celebrated across multiple Tube stations in a Transport for London campaign to celebrate Asian heritage.

Portraits of South Asian staff have been installed in Victoria, Hounslow West, Limehouse DLR and West Croydon stations.

Train driver Anne whose image also features in the campaign said: “The story of Amar Singh was recounted to me in the summer of 2011, when I was a new driver on the Piccadilly line. It’s so cool to see part of that story recounted in a public space 10 years later, but I remember at the time I was told the story, it seemed so bittersweet.

Amar Singh
Tarsem Singh Sandhu

The turban-wearing British bus driver who changed the law


"It followed a long-running dispute during which one Sikh man threatened to set himself on fire.
It was a time when racial tensions there were high, with the city's most famous MP Enoch Powell saying the country was "heaping up its own funeral pyre" by permitting mass immigration.
The Express and Star newspaper reported the turban dispute "could bring chaos to the town's bus services", but it was not just public transport that faced upheaval.
Refusing to remove his turban or shave his beard, Tarsem Singh Sandhu sparked a row that spread across the world and saw the nation's racial tensions and identity politics played out on Black Country double-deckers."

The turban-wearing British bus driver who changed the law - BBC News

Pension Pot

Sikh widow wins DSS court fight for pension


The government's attempt to refuse a pension to a widow because her 37-year Sikh marriage was invalid has been dismissed by the court of appeal.

In a landmark ruling the court yesterday ordered that Kirpal Bath receive £20,000 in back payments.


Kirpans are allowed in Court for Sikhs - Lord Chancellor


Lord Chancellor’s Letter, dated 23 Nov 1999, replying to earlier British Sikh Federation letter of 27 Sep 1999, saying that Sikhs can wear their Kirpans in court.

Sir (Judge) Mota Singh

Kirpan wearing should be allowed in schools (Judge Mota Singh)


Britain's first Sikh judge Sir Mota Singh called for Sikh children to be allowed to wear their Kirpans to school.

The comments came after a number of cases of Sikhs being banned from wearing the kirpans and other Kakaar (articles of Sikh faith) in schools or workplaces.

Let Sikh pupils wear ceremonial daggers, judge says - The Guardian

Sarbat Khalsa 26/January/1986

Self-Determination as a Human Right and its applicability to the Sikhs (Paper by Panjabis In Britain All Party Parliamentary Group)


This paper identifies that self-determination claims are not just founded in international law but that self-determination is in fact a basic human right on which other human rights depend and whose implementation is a duty of the international community.

Importance of Self-Determination; its inter-relationship with ‘individual’ Human Rights (Paper by Panjabis In Britain All Party Parliamentary Group)

Sarika Singh

Sarika Singh Wins her Religio-Cultural (Qaumi) Right to Wear the Kada


Sarika Watkins-Singh argued that her bangle was one of the five symbols of Sikh identity.

This case was based on the fact that the Sikhs are a recognised ethnic group (a qaum) and were thus protected under the Race Relations Act / legislation and under the Equality Act 2006 (race and religion).


BBC Radio 4 Report linked Lawful Sikh activism and Islamist extremism


With attention focussed on Islamist extremism, Armadeep Bassey asks whether the authorities are doing enough to counter the activities of UK-based Sikh groups supporting the violent campaign for an independent homeland in the Punjab.

Sadly, some Sikhs themselves help to prolong institutional racism in the UK as we have seen in the Census "Sikh" tick box case.

Panjab Times 1 March 2008 Gurmukh Singh UK

BBC Radio 4: “File On 4: Sikh extremism: Tuesday 26 February 2008, 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday 2 March 2008, 1700 GMT. With attention focussed on Islamist extremism, Armadeep Bassey asks whether the authorities are doing enough to counter the activities of UK-based Sikh groups supporting the violent campaign for an independent homeland in the Punjab. Producer: David Lewis. Editor: David Ross.”

Through a most remarkable feat of “investigative journalism”, Armadeep Bassey attempted to link Sikh “extremism” with al-Qaeda !

Dr Indarjit Singh OBE has a good reputation in the British media and establishment. Surely, he is not an “extremist”; but even he was indignant. On the Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ), he commented, “I saw this programme which portrayed Sikh concern for the families of Sikhs killed by the Indian State as something sinister. Truth was stretched almost beyond recognition to portray a negative image of Sikhs by suggesting links between Sikh and Muslim exremists! The programme lacked balance because questionable comments were made by Indian 'security experts' but Sikhs were given no opportunity to respond.”

Very little doubt was left in the minds of most impartial listeners that there was hardly a shred of solid evidence to substantiate the links with Islamic type of “extremism”, which the presenter was trying to make. To quote from the BBC 4 website report, “Some members of the Sikh community told File On 4 they fear the extremists could use Sikh temples the way radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza radicalised the Finsbury Park Mosque in London.” Linking Gurdwara “politics” for retaining control of Gurdwaras cannot be compared with what is going on in the Islamic world. This sort of journalism is mischievous and damages the image of a law abiding community already suffering from mistaken identity following 9/11 attacks.

In my co-ordinating role for the (open) British Sikh Consultative Forum, I expressed grave concern and wrote to some leading Sikhs, to quote, " This matter does concern the whole Sikh community and its general image in the wider plural society we live in. Sikhs are not "extremists" in the "terrorist" sense, which then links the community with wider terrorism and the "war against terrorism. Programmes such as this, do not give a balanced presentation and it is not clear why Sikhs are being selected for this special treatment."

Sikhs are loyal citizens of UK. They have every right to speak up against such biased and damaging media reporting.

Operation Blue Star 1984: British Sikhs Demand Inquiry Into Thatcher Government Role

Operation Blue Star 1984: British Sikhs Demand Inquiry Into Thatcher Government Role


British Sikhs have called for an independent inquiry into the extent of the involvement of the then Margaret Thatcher led British government in the Operation Blue Star in June 1984.

Charanpreet Singh Lall

Trooping the Colour: Guardsman first to wear turban


A Coldstream Guards soldier has become the first to wear a turban during the Trooping the Colour parade.

Trooping the Colour: Guardsman first to wear turban - BBC News

Extradition Case against three British Sikhs Collapse

Extradition Case against three British Sikhs Collapse


Earlier this morning over a thousand Sikhs from across the UK gathered outside Westminster Magistrates Court to show solidarity with three British Sikhs from the West Midlands facing extradition to India.

At the start of the initial trial to establish if there was a prima facia case against the three British Sikhs Daniel Sternberg, representing the Indian government, admitted to District Judge Michael Snow that the evidence was not sufficient to make a case. He accepted the court should discharge each of the men.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, representing one of the three Sikhs, said the extradition request was "made on the basis of wholly unsubstantiated allegations".

District Judge Michael Snow was far from impressed why the case had come to court nine months later and discharged all three British Sikhs stating they were innocent.

He questioned why the Home Secretary, Priti Patel in December 2020 had certified the extradition request and ordered a judge to issue arrest warrants.

Daniel Sternberg had no answers on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or Priti Patel and simply shrugged his shoulders and sat slumped on the bench with his head bowed.

Kashmir Singh

Kashmir Singh: 50 years in energy and fighting for equality - Long Service Award


In 1971 Kashmir Singh was one of the very first Asian or Black student apprentices to join the UK’s electricity supply industry.

It is a most inspiring story and also part of UK Sikh history due to your lead role over the decades to secure Sikh rights and recognition in the UK.

Here, he talks about his trailblazing career, his fight for equality and how his father showed him the importance of trade unions.