Kirpan Issue Balpreet Singh

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Balpreet Singh: I was treated like an Al-Qaeda terrorist

Balpreet Singh, an amritdhari Gursikh

Sunday, 30th October, 2005 Source:

Ottawa, Canada (KP) - Balpreet Singh, an amritdhari gursikh who is currently a law student at the University of Ottawa, was removed from a VIA Rail train for the second time in a month. Saying he felt he was treated like a terrorist by rude and offensive VIA Rail representatives, Balpreet Singh is hoping to take this issue to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

On his way to Toronto, Balpreet Singh, 24, said he felt like a second-class citizen. He was angry and humiliated after the incident on Friday afternoon when VIA officials took action after someone complained.

Balpreet Singh tried to explain the significance of the kirpan and its importance to the Sikh way of life but was steadfastly ignored. He was told weapons are banned, and no exceptions are made for religious symbols.

A rising star in the western Sikh intellectual community, Balpreet Singh was on his way to a religious program and teaching assignment, where he teaches recitation of holy scriptures, including meanings, history, and pronunciation. He said he has taken all forms of public transportation—from buses to Toronto’s subways and the GO train—with hundreds of other Sikhs, without incident, until the recent events with VIA, and was even more angry that they made no travel considerations for him to reach Toronto.

Previous Incident

Balpreet Singh said that he was pulled off a train on September 18th in Toronto as well and was told that it would never happen again. In the previous incident, an official took him aside and said someone felt intimidated by his presence and asked him to leave the train.  The VIA station manager in Toronto, Claire La France, apologized for the incident and called her head office—they advised her to let Balpreet Singh get on the next train. He said he was assured that it would be resolved. Le France e-mailed him three days later saying the issue was taken up with senior VIA officials. “I know that our Chief Operating Officer has been made aware of the circumstances. I expect it will be a topic of discussion at the meeting of the upper level executives this week. There has been much interest in your specific case by many parties,” she wrote.

Embarrassed and Pulled Off the Train

Balpreet Singh said he was shocked and distraught on Friday when he was taken off the train for a second time in Ottawa, with other passengers watching. “I was born and raised in Canada, but I don’t feel that I am treated like a Canadian. It was absolutely humiliating... They led me off the train as if they captured some big al-Qaeda terrorist.

Balpreet Singh performing service at the Gurudwara (Sikh Temple)

“Because I don’t look like everybody else, they treat me differently… the superficially concealed hatred and fear in the hearts of a lot of people comes through during these times and we get a real reflection of what some people think of us…

“What happened doesn’t do much for my image, and it reflects horribly on my community. Twice a Sikh is led off the train and the impression people get is these people are dangerous.

“Maybe this will be a good opportunity to secure our rights not just on trains but in courts, planes and other places. I know that's a very optimistic outlook, but who knows?”

“The kirpan is a sign of Sikh freedom and sovereignty.  That people think they can limit or deprive us of our right shows that we need freedom. It is a paradox to think that people that know nothing about our kirpan can try to make us wear small 2" blades that are blunt and sewn in fabric. Sikhs need to be strong and not compromise their principles…”

“What can we do now? The Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Gurbaj Singh case will have a lot of influence on the kirpan in Canada.  If we lose, we are facing dark days.  But regardless of the outcome, we cannot ever compromise on this issue.

Gurbaj Singh Case

Gurbaj Singh (The Ottawa Citizen)

Gurbaj Singh was expelled from his Montreal, Quebec school for refusing to remove his kirpan. The case has since gone all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court where it is still awaiting a decision.

Previously, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision allowing him to return to school. They understood that the ban on kirpans is a limit on the freedom of religion but they said it was a reasonable limit due to public safety concerns.

Increasing Scrutiny

A strict requirement of the religion, Sikhs have worn the kirpan throughout their history as a physical symbol of our duty to defend the weak, fight oppression and always stand for truth, justice, and freedom.

In recent decades, the Sikh kirpan has come under increasing scrutiny. Most governments just throw kirpans into the weapons category and many times it falls under unfair blanket zero-tolerance policies.

Navdeep Singh Bains, a Liberal Member of Parliament, in an exclusive interview with Panthic Weekly, said “I understand post 9/11 there’s been a lot of concern about public safety, and warranted those are genuine concerns that people have, but we cannot let public safety concerns override fundamental [rights] in our charter like…freedom of religion.

A spokeswoman for Transport Canada was quoted as saying that after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Canadian government banned the carrying of knives and “knife-like objects,” which includes kirpans, from airplanes—there is no policy on trains.

VIA Rail Crossed the Line

Navdeep Singh told us, “There’s always two sides to a story and I’ve been able to now speak with Balpreet and get his side of the story and ask him how he was treated and based on what he had told me, and based on his description of the story, I felt that the behavior of VIA Rail seemed to be unacceptable. “And I said that based on the premise that VIA Rail is a crown corporation, therefore it’s accountable to the public—and because it’s accountable to the public, the standards are much higher for VIA Rail in terms of how they implement public policy. “ Catherine Kaloutsky, a VIA spokeswoman, said that VIA’s policy bans weapons, which are defined as including “collectibles, antiques and those of a ceremonial nature.”

She said no exception could be made for Balpreet Singh because his “weapon” fit into one of those categories.

“Any passenger who is in possession of this type of weapon — collectible items, antique items and knives, such as in this instance, that are recognized as of a ceremonial nature — will be denied boarding,” Ms. Kaloutsky said. “Our priority has to be safety and security of all those who travel with us. It is not targeting any individual.”

Singled Out

Balpreet Singh disagrees, “I’ve taken public transit in Toronto and Ottawa dressed like the way I was on the train, and there’s never been a problem. Navdeep Singh Bains, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, is a Sikh and he wears a kirpan into the House of Commons and there is no issue. So why is VIA doing this?

“If I can’t wear the kirpan on the train, next they will say ‘you can’t wear it on the bus, you can’t wear it in the mall.’ Where is it going to stop? What they are really saying [to us] is, you can’t follow your religion and live here in Canada.

Navdeep Singh said, “When I started to go to Ottawa and then sit in the House of Commons, ultimately there [were] no issues in terms of me wearing a kirpan in any capacity. I was never personally ever questioned or bothered or inconvenienced or even made to feel isolated or uncomfortable.

There are over 300,000 Sikhs in Canada, and over 15% of them are amritdhari (baptized) Sikhs who wear kirpans. VIA’s unfair blanket policy means those 45,000 Sikhs can’t ride the national rail carrier.

“VIA Rail should have done something that was more accommodating as opposed to disallowing Balpreet to travel…the behavior [is] unacceptable and I had brought that issue forward to the minister of transportation who is responsible for [VIA Rail]. More importantly, I want to bring it to the attention of [the] VIA Rail board of directors in a fashion that is appropriate, and professional and make sure they are educated on it, in terms of the issue and the whole notion of articles of faith,” said Navdeep Singh.

The Canadian Sikh Council said VIA’s actions were “deplorable.”  Manjit Singh, a spokesman for the Council, said “I don’t want to accuse people of being racist or xenophobic, because name-calling like that doesn’t help. Sikhs have been in this country for over 100 years and as a Crown corporation, VIA should know better.”

Balpreet Singh said he could see how someone ignorant about Sikhism might be worried about a kirpan, but he said he would have no problems explaining it. He added that after the first incident, nothing justifies the behavior of VIA Rail officials. He said the VIA official who removed him was rude and offensive. Balpreet Singh said the official would only give his name as Yves and his employee number, 300015. He added that the official was blatantly discriminating against him.

Rising Controversy and Biased Media Coverage

This issue is already stirring debate in Canada on Religious Freedom versus public safety. The Ottawa Citizen, the paper which first covered the story, has published many letters and an editorial on the subject.

Balpreet Singh's picture in the Ottawa Citizen

Balpreet Singh says he is upset with the unfair coverage, “I thought that the media coverage of the kirpan issue in the Ottawa Citizen was not fair.  To call the kirpan a ‘sword’ and then to use a photo angle that makes it look much bigger than it actually is, was in my opinion, mischievous.

“I also know that a lot of Sikhs wrote in to the paper but they printed mainly negative letters.  The second day, they had a half page picture of me surrounded by negative letters.  Not one positive.  They also changed Tejdeep Singh's letter, which stated all Sikhs wear the kirpan to all ‘male’ Sikhs. They published a correction today, but who changed it, and why? The damage is already done so the correction isn't much use.

“The comments published on the website were also incredibly prejudiced.  Some were outright racist.  These were comments first reviewed by an editor.  Why were they allowed through?”

The Citizen’s website had comments including:

“For God's sake. When are we going to put an end to this and start putting these people in their place? If we went to there country, we would have to follow the rules and customs of their nation, so why is it that when they come here they are not expect to give us the same common [courtesy]? They don't like it here than leave.”

“I am always amazed that the first thing that many of these people from radically different cultures from ours learn is how to scream discrimination and how to file a lawsuit.”

“Just another example of how the immigrants in this country are trying to shove their beliefs down our throats. If you have to wear a dagger as part of your religion, it doesn't say much for the religion. At the same time, they don't care about the safety of passengers, just themselves, so selfish and so uncaring.”

“Whether or not you worship God, Allah, Vishnu or Casper the Friendly Ghost, you will have to do it without a knife, M16 or ground to air missile launcher. If you cannot abide by these rules, there are plenty of medieval middle-east countries who can accommodate you.”

“I would like just ONE observant male Sikh to explain to me why a harmless soft rubber kirpan could not be used instead of a real and potentially dangerous metal knife to fulfill this particular religious obligation.”
In response to this, Balpreet Singh said, “Ideas that the kirpan can be made of plastic or rubber are ludicrous.  I don't understand the egotistical audacity of these people to suggest to us how we should live our religion.  What do they know about Sikhi?  A kirpan should be sarbloh (pure iron) and cannot be of wood plastic or any other material.”

A commenter on a Sikh forum replied to the Citizen’s biased editorial as well saying, “If the visible kirpan should not be allowed because it is a danger on the train, then there should also be precautions for the invisible danger that could be in baggage or hidden on the person. That would require baggage checks and metal detectors.”

“Precautions on a plane are only justified by the use of metal detectors and baggage checks to find ANY potential danger, not just focusing on the Kirpan.”

“The threat posed by the kirpan is insubstantial compared to the threat posed by giving passengers knives and forks with their meals. Or the threat posed by those who might bring real weapons with them in their baggage. Those threats aren't addressed by VIA policy, but a Sikh wearing his kirpan over his clothes is a focus?”

Speaking about his experience since then, Balpreet Singh said, “On a personal level, it's interesting being on the bus or walking around school, seeing people staring.

Very few people have approached me but those who have were polite and often supportive.  Others glare at me with pure venom in their eyes. But it doesn't matter to me much.  A Sikh doesn't care who is with him or against him, just as long as he has Guru Sahib with him. If I am following Guru Sahib's rehat (code of conduct), then it doesn't matter if the whole world is against me, Guru Sahib has promised me victory. So there is absolutely no reason to fear or feel alone.”