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All-clear for Kirpans

All-clear for Kirpans
A traditional procession of Sikhs with kirpans in Birmingham/Photo:

Above: A traditional procession of Sikhs with kirpans in Birmingham/Photo:

Concerted efforts by the Sikh community in the UK have ensured that the UK’s Offensive Weapons Bill does not impact their right to buy, own and even use the kirpans for religious and cultural events

By Sajeda Momin in London

In May 14, 32-year-old John Lewis became the 100th victim of knife crime in Britain since the start of 2019. Two days later, the Offensive Weapons Bill completed its progression through Parliament and received the Royal Assent to make it the law of the land. The new law aimed to tackle the horrific increase in knife crimes and acid attacks, mostly in large cities across the country, and to prevent young people from carrying knives, acid, firearms and other types of offensive weapons in both private and public places.

However, had it not been for a diligent Sikh police officer in Leicester tipping off advisers to the Sikh Federation (UK), under the new law, all Sikh households with a large kirpan would have been criminalised, and those caught in possession of one could have faced up to a year in prison. A group of cross-party MPs belonging to the All-Party Parlia­mentary Group (APPG) for UK Sikhs quickly tabled an amendment to ensure that the new Weapons Bill did not impact the right of the community to possess and supply kirpans, large or small. The UK government passed the amendment and now all kirpans have been exempted from the Offensive Weapons Act, thereby allowing Sikhs to buy, own and use even the larger three-foot-long kirpans for religious and cultural events.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (Section 139), and the Offensive Weapons Act 1996 (Sections 3 and 4), it was legal for Sikhs in the UK to carry a kirpan on their person for religious reasons plainly.

Currently, the law bans children from having knives and kirpans in schools, but there is no bar on Sikhs carrying kirpans to colleges and universities and other public places. The initial draft bill planned on changing this by banning naked blades over 50 cm in public and private places and extending the complete ban to further education institutes.

Without the amendment, it would have meant that adult Sikhs would not have been allowed to carry small kirpans outside or keep large kirpans in their homes.

Knife crimes in England and Wales rose to record levels in 2017-18 with 285 fatalities from stabbing recorded that year—the highest since Home Office records began in 1946. The fact that 100 deaths have already occurred due to knife crimes till date in 2019 means that if killings continue at the same rate for the rest of the year, then the total would be just slightly lower than 285. The majority of the victims this year are also under 30, with the youngest being a 14-year-old boy.

The government has been under pressure from civil society to bring knife crimes under control for some time. Britain’s police force has been demanding stricter laws to help them tackle the menace which has particularly gripped the youth in inner cities. The Offensive Weapons Act is aimed at doing just this by strengthening existing legislative measures and covering new offences around possession of certain knifes in public and enforcing new restrictions on the online sale of bladed articles and corrosive products.

“These new laws will give police extra powers to seize dangerous weapons and ensure knives are less likely to make their way onto the streets in the first place. The Act will also see the introduction of Knife Crime Prevention Orders— a power the police called for,” said Sajid Javid, UK Home Secretary.

However, Sikhs argue that the kirpan is not an offensive weapon but part of their religious uniform as prescribed by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru. They say the “kirpan” literally means “weapon of defence”—“kirpa” means “mercy” and “aan” means “honour” and “encapsulates an initiated Sikh’s solemn obligation of courage and self-defence”.

The Sikh Federation (UK) complained to the government that the changes in the law were being introduced without consulting the community, even though it impacted Sikhs directly. Despite the fact that the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government hold regular round table meetings with Sikhs, they neglected to communicate to or consult them on the unintended consequences of banning the possession of large kirpans that are kept in virtually all Sikh homes.

Dabinderjit Singh, principal adviser to the Sikh Federation (UK), was alerted to the dangers of the new law just prior to the Third Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons. Within 48 hours, a group of MPs led by Preet Kaur Gill, MP and Chair of the APPG for UK Sikhs, tabled an amendment to change the wording in the Bill from “religious ceremonies” to “religious reasons”. The Bill had presumed that by using the words “religious ceremonies”, the large kirpan was exempted from the ban as it was displayed only during festivals and weddings. This narrow term would not have protected Sikh families from having the three-foot 3ft kirpan in their homes. Accepting the argument, Javid instructed officials to use the broader term of “religious reasons” in the bill as large kirpans are kept in Sikh homes for a variety of reasons, including placing before the Guru Granth Sahib.

“We have engaged closely with the Sikh community on the issue of kirpans. As a result, we have amended the Bill to ensure that the possession and supply of large kirpans for religious reasons can continue,” clarified a UK Home Office spokesperson.

Just to make sure that the amendment was carried in Parliament, the Sikh Federation (UK) asked constituents to write and lobby with over 250 MPs before the Third Reading of the Bill.

The government amendment was approved by the House of Commons on November 28, 2018, and the word kirpan was included in the Explanatory Note for the first time.

The changes in the legislation now mean that the broader “religious reasons” term specifically applies to the Sikh kirpan, and apart from allowing possession of the three-foot sword, it affords additional protection in law for carrying the smaller kirpan too.

“I am delighted that the Sikh community has the legal protections to purchase and possess the larger kirpan which most Sikh households have. The Sikh community effectively lobbied with their MPs and this victory is a collective one,” said Gill, the first female Sikh MP in the House of Commons.

Her fellow Sikh MP, Tan Dhesi, also made an intervention during the Offensive Weapons Bill debate in the Commons to seek “assurances about the kirpan, given the Sikh community’s serious concerns”.

Bhai Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK), blamed uninformed officials for the misunderstanding in the first place and added: “Common sense has prevailed and what has emerged is the need for proper community consultation, a greater understanding of the kirpan and an outcome that is far more than the status quo.”

Britain is now a multi-cultural, multi-faith society and it has till date afforded all its minorities the legal right and freedom to practise their religions and cultures even as far-right parties like the British National Party have been ratcheting up the tempo of their religious bigotry—a lesson that other countries can certainly learn.