Nov 3, 2016

'I never thought I'd be terrorised by my fellow Sikhs at a wedding'

When interfaith marriages take place, UK temples now often hire security guards to protect weddings from demonstrators



The Guardian

Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

Thursday 3 November 2016 

The ceremony in Leamington Spa is a lot smaller than the newlyweds had hoped. Just close family and friends – those they can really trust. The marriage takes place in secret, on a Friday afternoon.

It’s a beautiful, bright day at the town’s Gurdwara Sahib temple, but there is an anxiety in the air that is more than typical pre-wedding jitters: the young couple have been forced to marry under “oppressive circumstances” after previous weddings were disrupted by protesting religious men who do not want Sikhs to marry out of the faith.

The protesters dress in hoods, cover their faces and intimidate guests at the temple. Yet they are Sikhs – a religion readily associated with peace and inclusivity.

“I have got through the days of being called a Paki and a nig-nog,” the registrar Bhopinder Singh tells the Guardian. “I never thought that the day would come when I would be frightened and terrorised by people of my own faith.”

The most recent incident at the Sikh temple was on 11 September when women, children and committee members feared for their safety after 55 men with their faces covered in black cloth flooded into the temple. The temple was held under siege and the couple who were due to marry were forced to cancel their nuptials. 

Among those trying to keep the peace that day was the 79-year-old Green party councillor Janet Alty, who was questioned under caution for allegedly calling one protester a terrorist. No further action was taken against Alty. Those who run the temple say protests have become an unfortunate recurrence during the wedding season.

Eventually the disrupted wedding did take place under a shroud of secrecy the following Monday, but the protest has sent shockwaves through the close-knit community.

When an interfaith marriage now takes place, the temple is forced to hire security guards to protect couples and their families. To avoid trouble, some couples are choosing to get married on weekdays, which are less likely to be disrupted.

Five weeks after that last protest, the Guardian was invited along to the temple for Friday’s secret wedding.

The bride is a follower of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion similar to Buddhism, and her groom is a Sikh. The couple do not want to be identified for fear of repercussions.

At the temple, volunteers cook sabzi and chapattis in the kitchen, preparing to feed the forty or so people of every faith who will walk through its doors to attend the wedding.

Upstairs, in one of the prayer rooms, the couple – both 29-year-old professionals - and their relatives are anxious.

The bride says she received a phone call that morning and was told her wedding would have to be a day sooner than planned, for her own safety.

“We have been educated here and are moderate and should be free to marry whomever we wish,” she says. “I had to rush up from London – this is no way to be. There is a fundamental problem with the way [the protesters] are behaving and it will not be accepted.”

Her new husband says: “We have had to get married under oppressive circumstances. We were forced into this. The other option was to have a bigger wedding but hire security and we didn’t want to do that.

“These guys have a wicked PR machine and they post videos of supposed ‘peaceful protests’ online all the time. But they are not peaceful – they are threatening. They come with hoods on, with larger than normal kirpans [Sikh daggers] and act in an abusive manner.”

One relative, Simon Gronow, a Christian solicitor from London, married into the groom’s family 12 years ago. “This temple has decided to welcome interfaith marriage, but there is a group who want their way to prevail and there is an inevitable conflict,” he says.

“I have always found Sikhism a welcoming religion and I am still Christian but also take part in Sikh traditions. It has never been an issue before and this is a new thing for all of us to come to terms with.”

Mota Singh, a councillor and former mayor of Leamington Spa, calls the protesters “fundamentalists”. Singh, 77, says because of his moderate outlook he has received repeated threats from the group online and in person and has even had a brick thrown through his window.

He was present at the temple on the morning of the protest on 11 September. He said the protesters arrived at the temple at 6.30am, forcing their way past hired security guards into the main atrium. The couple were warned and did not attend. Armed police eventually cleared the protesters, all of whom were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass.

Warwickshire police said no further action would be taken against 50 of the 55 people arrested. A 28-year-old man from Coventry was given a caution for religiously aggravated criminal damage. A 39-year-old from Birmingham and two men aged 33 and 36 from Coventry have been re-bailed until the end of November. No further action was taken against a 31-year-old from Oldbury.

The protests had been organised by a group called Sikh Youth UK and were part of an increasingly active youth movement within the community.

Deepa Singh, who describes himself as a Sikh Youth UK co-ordinator, said the group had thousands of members including teachers, barristers and accountants. Others estimate membership to be in the low hundreds. 

Another member, Shamsher Singh, previously told the Guardian: “More and more young people are becoming interested in the true interpretation of what it means to be Sikh.

“The elder generation arrived [in the UK] and fitted their faith round the need to assimilate, survive and to get work. This led to a stripping back of the spiritual nature of what it means to be a Sikh to a series of symbols.

“Now younger people want to reclaim Sikhism as a deeply spiritual, peaceful and encompassing religion and this is why we are seeing these protests.”

Mota Singh, the councillor, said he first became aware of two Birmingham-based groups who have been involved in protesting, Sikh Youth UK and the Sikh Federation, around six years ago. He claims that they have strong links to the Sikh Council, an organisation set up in 2010 to deal with issues affecting the Sikh community in Britain and Europe. The council denies any affiliation with the group, and say they have no involvement in the organisation of protests.

Shortly after the Sikh Council was formed, it issued an edict saying weddings between Sikhs and non-Sikhs could not take place in temples, arguing that the Sikh wedding ceremony, Anand Karaj, should be reserved only for Sikhs.

Marrying people of other faiths is acceptable, they say, but conducting that marriage in a Sikh temple is not. Non-Sikhs can only be involved if they accept the Sikh faith and change their name to include Singh or Kaur, the council insists.

Around 10 of the estimated 360 Sikh temples in the UK are thought to be affiliated to the council. However, many in the Sikh community are wholly opposed to these rules, saying Sikhism is a faith of acceptance and equality.

Mota Singh believes there has been a “cultural change” where young British-born Sikhs are “attracted by fundamentalism … They stick together and they want their own societies which exclude other groups.

“They are different to their parents – the first generation immigrants – who wanted to integrate. They want the religion to remain ‘pure’.

“They have been born in Britain, have had a British education yet they don’t believe in democracy and free will and allow mixed marriages to take place. It has staggered some of the older generation. They are shunning the moderate way. Their fathers were clean-shaven and wanted to integrate. This is a whole new breed of Sikhs.”

The temple’s registrar, Bhopinder Singh, said he was pleased the wedding season was almost over for the year. “I have been in this country since the age of nine and have lived through the football hooliganism of the 1970s. These guys were far more scary than football hooligans,” he said. “They were foul-mouthed and intimidating and I have never experienced anything like this.”

Other temples across the country have been less robust under pressure from the protests groups and no longer hold interfaith marriages. But the temple committee in Leamington is adamant that they will continue. “On the face of it what they are protesting is against mixed marriage – but it is deeper than that,” said the temple trustee Jaswant Singh Virdee. “They want to control the temple with their own people and with their own extremist views.

“It is seems these protests apply only to England. Throughout the rest of the world this is not happening. Ultimately, it is a way to gain power.”

Balraj Singh Dhesi, the first Asian mayor of Leamington, said the protests were a British phenomenon. “Interfaith marriages have been taking place since the birth of Sikhism hundreds of years ago. These prejudices, which are growing and are very concerning, will cause damage to British society. They are indigenous to this country but yet have an obvious disregard for integration.”

Friday’s wedding passed off without incident, but there is a grim irony in a couple spending the biggest day of their lives praying for it to be totally uneventful.




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