Sunak praises UK Sikhs as they celebrate Vaisakhi

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By Hardeep Singh

Sikhs are celebrating one of the most important festivals in their calendar. Vaisakhi, a celebration of the spring harvest, is known for colourful street processions called nagar kirtans, the distribution of langar (free food) and displays of gatka (a martial art).

Vaisakhi also marks the founding by Sikhism’s 10th guru — Guru Gobind Singh — in 1699 of the Khalsa, a group of individuals prepared to stand up to injustice, to protect innocent people from religious persecution, uphold freedom, foster spiritual observance, promote honesty and equality, and ensure all people could access basic needs such as food and health.

This year, on 14 April, Vaisakhi was marked by political leaders around the world who issued messages to mark the 324th anniversary of the Khalsa.

Many nagar kirtans have been held across the country, including in parts of London and the Midlands. In Southall, in the London Borough of Ealing, between 20,000 and 50,000 people attend each year.

Vaisakhi is a time when Sikhs remember the courage of the five Sikhs, the Panj Pyare, who, in response to Guru Gobind Singh’s call, showed their readiness to give their lives for the gurus’ inspiring and egalitarian teachings.

The formation of the Khalsa coincided with the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who persecuted other faiths. Sikhism’s ninth Guru — Guru Tegh Bahadur — was beheaded in 1675 for defending freedom of religious expression for Hindus in Kashmir, and Aurangzeb demolished many Hindu temples.

Today, the story of Vaisakhi is a reminder to Sikhs about the importance of standing up for the principles of equality, tolerance, freedom, and egalitarianism.

Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a press statement on behalf of Rishi Sunak: “I want to wish Sikhs across the UK and around the world a very happy Vaisakhi. You make an incredible contribution to national life.

“From the heroes of both world wars to those working in the modern-day National Health Service, Sikhs have played a huge role in making Britain what it is today. As your prime minister I thank you for everything you do, and whether celebrating this auspicious occasion at your local gurdwara or at home with loved ones, I hope you have a wonderful day.”

On Monday, Mr Sunak hosted a Vaisakhi reception at Downing Street where children performed kirtan, or devotional hymns, from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures. The Conservative Party chairman Greg Hands welcomed guests and Mr Sunak met some of the attendees. Sikh members of the armed forces, councillors, civil servants, and MPs and an MSP also attended.

Professor Jagbir Jhutti-Johal from Birmingham University, who was at No10, told me: “After a three-year absence due to Covid-19, it was lovely to see Downing Street marking Vaisakhi. To hear young children from Khalsa Jatha Kids performing kirtan in Downing Street was truly special.

“Wherever we may celebrate Vaisakhi it is important that we remember the core values of service and equality, especially at this time, so that we create a society in which everyone can flourish.”

Another attendee, Sukhvinder Kaur, who chairs the trustees at Sikh Women’s Aid, said the Downing Street function, “sends a powerful message that recognises the significance of Vaisakhi”.

Britain is home to one of the largest Sikh communities outside India. According to the 2021 Census, there are 524,000 Sikhs in England and Wales, just under 1 per cent of the population. There are significant Sikh communities across the country, including Wolverhampton, where 12 per cent of the population is Sikh, and in Birmingham, Sandwell, Ealing, Hillingdon and Hounslow. Sandwell, a metropolitan borough in the West Midlands, is home to just under 40,000 Sikhs. The average age of those who identified themselves as Sikh in the 2021 Census is 37, the same as those who identified as Hindu. Of those who identified as Christian, the average age is now 51.

There are reported to be more than 300 gurdwaras in the UK, mainly in the Midlands and London. The Sri Guru Singh Sabha gurdwara in Havelock Road, Southall, has a 3,000 capacity and cost £17.5 million to build with donations from the community. The Guru Nanak Marg gurdwara, in Gravesend, Kent, has a capacity of 1,200 and cost £12 million to build over eight years.

In Southall, Ealing council named a section of Havelock Road near the gurdwara Guru Nanak Road, to commemorate the founder of Sikhism. A number of Sikh faith schools or academies teach the national curriculum, along with Sikh religious education prescribed by their trust.

Sikh heritage parliamentarians represent parties from across the political spectrum. In 2011, Lord Singh of Wimbledon (a crossbencher) was the first turbaned Sikh to enter parliament. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi the Labour MP for Slough was the first turban-wearing Sikh MP.

Preet Kaur Gill, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, made history becoming the first woman of Sikh heritage to sit in the UK parliament. Lord Suri, Baroness Verma and Lord Ranger are Conservative peers, and Lord Sahota, a former leader of Telford council, recently entered parliament as a Labour peer.

As with other faith groups, Sikh representative groups act as advocates for the British Sikh community on a variety of social and political matters. These organisations include the Network of Sikh Organisations, City Sikhs, and the Sikh Assembly.

Wembley held its first Vaisakhi celebration earlier this week and it will also be marked in Trafalgar Square this Saturday supported by the mayor of London.


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