National Protest by UK Sikhs

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On the 10 October, 1982 a National Protest was conducted by the UK Sikhs. The procession headed by Sant Baba Puran Singh Ji started from Hyde Park and ended at 10 Downing Street where a petition signed by more than 75000 people protesting against the ruling of Lord Denning was presented to the British Prime Minster. The protest was against the clear discrimination by a school in Birmingham to not allow a Sikh boy to attend school wearing his turban.

The turban is a necessary requirement of all Amritdhari Sikhs and it has been a custom for Sikh boys and men to wear the turban from at least the times of Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. Historically, the Sikhs have given their lives rather then cut their hair. Also, during the First and Second World Wars, the Sikhs in the Allied Forces were given special privilege to fight without helmets and wearing the turban and uncut beard. This custom was also practised by the Sikhs in the Armed Forces of the British Empire well before 1914.

In July 1982, British Appeal Court headed by Lord Denning gave the ruling that "Sikhs are not protected by the Race Relations Act as Sikhs are not a racial group but a distinct religious community." The case concerned Park Grove, a private boy's school in Edgbaston. Mr. Mandla, a devout Sikh and a Birmingham solicitor, applied to send his son there but wanted him to wear the Sikh turban as well as the school uniform. The school declared that it had nothing against Sikhs as such but would not allow them to wear turbans or leave their hair uncut. Mr. Mandla took his son elsewhere, but Commission for Racial Equality brought an action against the school and its headmaster.

At the Birmingham County Court the Circuit judge ruled on Dec. 10, 1980 that the Park Grove Private School, Bristol Road, Birmingham was not guilty of racial discrimination under the Race Relations Act 1976. The appellant court dismissed with costs the appeal against that order.

The case then moved to the Court of Appeal at The Strand, London, where Lord Denning, M.R. further said: “Most interesting is that it (the Race Relation Act) does not include religion or politics or culture. You can discriminate for or against Roman Catholics as much as you like without being in breach of the law. You discriminate for or against Communists as much as you please, without being in breach of the law. You can discriminate for or against the “hippies” as much as you like, without being in breach of the law”.

Lord Denning in his judgement observed "under the Act, it is perfectly lawful to discriminate against groups of people so long as it is not on racial grounds. You can discriminate against the Moonies or Skinheads or any other person to whom you take objection, no matter whether your objection is reasonable or unreasonable." The judgement caused acute resentment amongst the Sikhs who felt their comparison with Moonies and Skinheads are both insensitive and insulting. The Master of the Roll held that the Sikhs were not a distinct race or ethnic group.

The Case then moved to the House of Lords on 28 February, 1983 where it was presented by Alexander Irvine QC and Harjit Singh for the appellants (Mr Mandla & Another). This appeal was allowed in favour of the Sikhs. The following is a summary of the reason given by the judges:

“Held - The appeal would be allowed for the following reasons—

(1) The term 'ethnic' in section 3 of the 1976 Act was to be construed relatively widely in a broad cultural and historic sense. For a group to constitute an 'ethnic group' for the purposes of the 1976 Act it had to regard itself, and be regarded by others, as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics, two of which were essential. First it had to have a long shared history, of which the group was conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it kept alive, and second it had to have a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance. In addition, the following characteristics could also be relevant, namely

(a) either a common geographical origin or descent from a small number of common ancestors,

(b) a common language, which did not necessarily have to be peculiar to the group,

(c) a common literature peculiar to the group,

(d) a common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it, and

(e) the characteristic of being a minority orbeing an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community.

Applying those characteristics, the Sikhs were a group defined by reference to 'ethnic origins' for the purpose of the 1976 Act even though they were not racially distinguishable from other people living in the Punjab (see p 1066 b c and g to p 1067 g, p 1068 f, p 1069 a to e, p 1071 b to e and p 1072 d to j, post) King-Ansell v Police [1979] 2 NZLR 531 adopted.

(2) The words 'can comply' in s 1(1)(b)(i) of the 1976 Act were not to be read literally, i e as meaning 'can physically' so as to indicate a theoretical possibility, but were to be construed as meaning 'can in practice' or 'can, consistently with the cultural conditions of the racial group' to which the person belonged.

The 'no turban' rule was not a requirement with which the applicant boy could, consistently with the customs of being a Sikh, comply and therefore the application of that rule to him by the headmaster was unlawful discrimination (see p 1069 f to h, p 1071 b to e and p 1072 h j, post) Price v Civil Service Commission [1978] 1 All ER 1228 applied.

(3) The 'no turban' rule was not 'justifiable' within the meaning of section (1)(b)(ii) of the 1976 Act merely because the headmaster had a genuine belief that the school would provide a better system of education if it were allowed to discriminate against those who wore turbans (see p 1069 h j, p 1070 a to d and f, p 1071 b to e and p 1072 h j, post).

Decision of the Court of Appeal [1982] 3 All ER 1108 reversed.

See the full judgment Mandla v Dowell Lee


  • “History of Sikh Struggles, Vol. 1," By Gurmit Singh, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 1989. Page 69-70.

See also

External links


  • the Act referred to above is the Race Relation Act 1976

These articles deal with Sikh's Five ks

Kesh (uncut hair) -|- Kara (bangle) -|- Kanga (small comb) -|- Kachera (under garment) -|- Kirpan (sword)