Understanding Sikh activism in Britain

Research sparked by media reports citing Sikh “radicalisation” in Britain has found little evidence of the country's Sikhs being radicalised to join international terrorist groups.

Instead, work led by the University of Leeds found that the most frequently reported examples of violence involving Sikhs in Britain were against other Sikhs, usually caused by doctrinal or personal disputes or disputes relating to how gurdwaras – places of worship for Sikhs – are run.

Media reports surfaced in late 2015 about a dossier on alleged Sikh radicalisation in Britain being shared with the government of then Prime Minister David Cameron by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

Dr Jasjit Singh, from our school, set out to examine the reality of Sikh activism in the UK, amid other, more recent media attention focusing on Sikh protests at gurdwaras and other venues, and growing concerns about Sikh/Muslim tensions and links with the far right.

With funding from the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), Dr Singh interviewed Sikh activists, gathered evidence from historic and contemporary media sources, academic literature, social media, online discussion forums, events, interviews and a series of community consultations.

The resulting report is published today by CREST.
Dr Singh examined how two key events in 1984 fundamentally changed Sikh activism in Britain. In June that year, Operation Bluestar saw Indian forces storming the Harmandir Sahib, often referred to as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar in the Punjab.

In October, Sikh bodyguards assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, triggering a wave of violence against Sikhs across India. These events remain traumatic issues for many Sikhs in Britain.

Dr Singh said: “This research highlights that Sikhs have no conflict with Britain or the West. There is much unresolved trauma in the Sikh community around the events of 1984 which continues to drive many Sikhs to activism. However, in terms of incidents and issues, the most frequently reported incidents of violence involving Sikhs in Britain have taken place against other Sikhs.”

These “Sikh on Sikh” issues were a consequence of the contested nature of religious authority within the Sikh tradition and/or local factional politics which most often related to personal and familial disputes, his report shows.

Dr Singh found that another reason commonly given for activism is a concern about Muslim gangs targeting Sikh girls for grooming or conversion, and these cases not being sufficiently dealt with by the authorities. This narrative feeds on historical tensions between Sikhs and Muslims, but in its contemporary form has led some Sikhs to engage with far right organisations.

“Contrary to the 2015 reports about the radicalisation of British Sikhs, one of the main issues about Sikhs in the UK is actually the individual or group vigilantism resulting from Sikh cultural issues and disputes or from the exploitation of local intra and inter-community tensions,” he explained.

In fact, Dr Singh said much Sikh activism in Britain contributed positively to the integration agenda, particularly in the form of humanitarian relief provided during natural disasters, such as floods in Somerset and Hebden Bridge, and incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire, where members of the public required support.