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RHEA L NATH and RAJNI ANAND LUTHRA report on community sentiment following today’s announcement of a ban on the Sikh symbol, one of the ‘five Ks’.
Following a violent altercation between two teenage boys in Glenwood High School earlier this month, the NSW Department of Education has moved swiftly to ban students, staff, and visitors from carrying knives for religious purposes on school grounds.
It has received a mixed response from the Indian community, who are concerned for the safety of students along with the infringement of religious expression in schools.
On 6 May, it is understood that a 14-year-old boy of Sikh background, who was being bullied, stabbed a 16-year-old student during lunchtime. He was subsequently charged with two counts of wounding a person with intent to cause bodily harm.
Glenwood High principal Sonja Anderson later wrote to parents, informing them that students were in fact allowed to carry knives to school with a “reasonable excuse” under the Summary Offences Act.
“In addition to having a knife for food preparation, such as hospitality students, the possession of a knife for genuine religious reasons is specified as a reasonable excuse under the Act,” she said.
Bawa Singh Jagdev, former President of the National Sikh Council of Australia and community elder, believes there’s “no religious requirement” for the ceremonial dagger in schools.
“According to the Rehatnama (Sikh Rehat Maryada or the Code of Sikh Conduct), only baptised Sikhs carry the kirpan and follow all the other set regulations. Importantly, a person can only be baptised after the age of 18, so the question does not even arise that kids should be wearing the kirpan to school,” he told Indian Link.
“The Code of Conduct says very clearly that maturity is required to understand the significance of the basic tenets and requirements of what it means to be a Sikh, especially with regards to the five Ks that a Sikh should have on their person. About the kirpan specifically, there are norms on when you should wear it, why, and how. It is a weapon after all.”
Jagdev submitted the same in a report a few years ago for Education Queensland. (Currently, the Weapons Act 1990 in Queensland states that kirpans cannot be worn on school grounds.)
Other Australian states have legislation exempting Sikh students to carry kirpans on school grounds, including the Weapons Act 1999 in Western Australia and Control of Weapons Act 1990 in Victoria.
Ramneek Singh, chair of the Young Sikh Professionals Network (YSPN) Australia, told Indian Link, “The question of the kirpan is loaded, especially as the media is looking at it as a dagger or a knife. It was never meant to be perceived of as a weapon, historically or in contemporary times. The Five Ks, according to the religious doctrine set out by Guru Gobind Singh, are five pieces of identity. Each has a specific value. The Kirpan stands for fighting for the oppressed.”
Raised in Sydney, he attended school in Parklea and Girraween, and himself never wore a kirpan to school. As an adult now, he wears one on ceremonial occasions only.
“In the current context, individuals should be allowed to practice their religion while balancing it with community safety,” he observed. “Government policy in this regard can look into the size and make of the symbol, and decide accordingly.”
The most important issue for him from this incident though, is the bullying of a young person for his faith. From personal anecdotes, as Sikhs are so easily identified, he finds that it is a common occurrence.
“It’s an issue that isn’t addressed at all. System intervention needs to be considered,” he stated.
Since the incident at Glenwood High School, a petition has surfaced on Change.org which calls for an end to anti-Sikh bullying. Created by Akaal Singh, it has already garnered over 16,000 signatures.
“This petition meant a lot for many Sikh Youth in nearby schools. Racial attacks were getting common and kids felt like they did not belong in the community despite many being born and raised here. By you signing this, many kids now believe they have a strong support network behind them and can raise their problems to many trustable people,” it reads.
Around the world, the issue surrounding kirpans in schools has remained contentious. In Canada, where Sikhs account for around 1.4% of the population, kirpans are permitted subject to the size of the dagger, along with remaining sheathed and out of sight.
School policy in the UK seems to be less clear, with incidents considered and adjudicated upon on a case-by-case basis. In one instance (2012 London Olympics), Sikhs were allowed to carry a sheathed kirpan as long as worn under clothing and if they could prove that they were adhering to the other four articles of faith.
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