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Helmets and Surnames: Hard (For) Kaur

Helmets and Surnames: Hard (For) Kaur
A still from the web series, Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone
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Above: A still from the web series, Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone

Sikh clerics wish to deny actress Sunny Leone the right to use her name for her biopic even as they take on the Chandigarh administration for insisting that turbanned women use safety helmets

~By Vipin Pubby

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, considered the parliament of the Sikhs, is up in arms these days on issues related to Sikh women. While it is worked up against the use of the word Kaur by porn star Sunny Leone in the title of her web series, the organisation has also crossed swords with the Chandigarh administration on the issue of making wearing of helmets compulsory for Sikh women riding two-wheelers, except those using turbans.

The SGPC, which is tasked with upholding and spreading the tenets of Sikhism, has asked Essel Entertainment Company, which has produced a biopic on the porn-star-turned-Bollywood actress, to immediately remove the word Kaur from the title. The company is yet to respond to the demand.

Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, the web series, is based on the life and times of by-far-the-most-internet-searched woman in India. It is common knowledge that she was born to a Sikh family in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab and had migrated to the United States as a child. Her emergence as a porn star and foray into Bollywood, which initially raised the hackles of a section of society, is now well-known.

Sikh clerics point out that as per Article XVII of the SGPC’s Sikh Rehat Maryada (code of religious conduct), the name of a newborn should start with the first letter of a hymn picked by a granthi (Sikh priest) from the holy book, and it should be followed by the word Singh for boys and the word Kaur for girls. Thus, the surname has a religious connotation.

A spokesman of the SGPC, Daljit Singh Bedi, said that “Kaur is a very respectable and exalted name given to Sikh women by the gurus” and any person who does not follow the tenets of Sikhism should not use the name as it hurts the community’s feelings. He demanded a public apology from Leone.

The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), too, supported the demand to remove the word Kaur from the biopic. DSGMC General Secretary Manjinder Singh Sirsa said that as the surname was bestowed by Sikh gurus, it should not be used in depicting the life of a porn artiste. Istri Akali Dal chief Bibi Jagir Kaur also said that the use of “Kaur” by Leone was denigrating to Sikhs. Leone and Essel are yet to react to the demand, and the web series has already started airing.

Also, though possibly there is little that Sikh organisations and leaders can do about it at this stage, they now have a new axe to grind. There is widespread objection among their rank and file to a rule under the Motor Vehicles Act which earlier exempted women from wearing helmets while driving or riding pillion on two-wheelers inside the Union Territory of Chandigarh.

The decision to exempt all women from wearing helmets in Chandigarh was taken in 1998 when certain Sikh organisations and activists led protests against a directive of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The directive to make helmets compulsory for all women, including Sikh women, was part of a slew of directives that were not made binding on the administration. The organisations representing Sikhs opposed the use of helmets on grounds that Sikh religious tenets do not allow heads of Sikh women to be covered by anything other than the dupatta and the pagri (turban). Since it was felt that to enforce the rule by checking the identity of all women two-wheeler drivers was too humongous a job, the adminis­tration decided to exempt all women from the purview of the rule. While several women riders voluntarily used the safety device, others were content to keep only their coiffure in place.

The issue came up again earlier this year when a division bench of the same High Court suo motu took up the question of traffic management in the wake of reports of a rise in the number of accidents. Statistics also revealed that a substantial percentage of road accident victims were women without helmets. While 20 women two-wheeler riders were killed and 79 seriously injured on Chandigarh roads in 2016, 18 lost their lives the following year and 78 sustained injuries during the same period. The High Court observed: “Is there any difference between the skull of a male and a female?”

The High Court issued notice to the administration, seeking a status report. The administration responded by saying that it was considering making helmets compulsory for all except Sikh women who wear turbans. It subsequently proposed an amendment to the Chandigarh Motor Vehicles Rules, 1990, to pave the way for helmets becoming compulsory for women.

The words, “a Sikh woman wearing a turban”, instead of the words, “or a woman”, are proposed to be substituted in Rule 193 of the Chandigarh Motor Vehicles Rules. The administration had invited objections from the general public but has so far refrained from issuing a formal notification.

The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has taken strong objection to the proposal and has said that the administration is attempting to change the definition of a Sikh woman to mean “only a woman wearing a turban”. Its spokesperson, Dr Daljit Singh Cheema, said that the decision was “absolutely dictatorial, ill-conceived and thoughtless”. “How can the UT administration assume the right to change the definition of a Sikh woman which has been well laid out in the Sikh Rehat Maryada? It is not the UT’s business to change the Rehat Maryada,” he said, and added that the Sikh organisations will meet the prime minister and the National Commission of Minorities to restrain the administration from notifying the new rules.

Dr Cheema has also pointed out a ruling of the Supreme Court in civil appeal No. 3700 of 1999 on September 27, 2004, which said, “If any exemption is granted to any person including Sikh women from any of the Motor Vehicle Rules relating to different states or areas or under any statutory rule, the same shall operate, notwithstanding even the directions of the High Court that all persons including women shall wear helmets.”

Sikh organisations are likely to launch a protest and approach the Supreme Court if the Chandigarh administration notifies the proposed amendments. The issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon, with Bibi Jagir Kaur quoted as saying, “When death comes even helmets cannot save us.”

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