Monday, January 29, 2007

carrying the kirpan

Sikh priests carrying their ceremonial daggers caused alarm on a New Zealand internal flight last weekend. NZ Civil Aviation Authority is now looking at airport security after five priests wore their daggers onto the flight from Auckland to Napier. Hastings priest Jarnail Singh says a woman on board noticed his dagger, creating an unnecessary fuss. Singh told NZ3 TV priests normally keep the knives in their check-in luggage on international flights and now they will do the same for domestic travel.

The ceremonial dagger is called a “kirpan”. New Zealand is not the first country where the kirpan has caused strife. In northern California Sikh children have been forbidden from carrying kirpans to school. In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled a Quebec school board was wrong to tell a 12-year-old Sikh boy he could not wear it in the classroom. The knife must now be worn under the clothes and sewn into a sheath befitting its role as “a mark of a citizen’s honour rather than a soldier’s vocation”.

The kirpan is one of the five k’s, the symbols of the Sikh faith. The others are kesh (uncut hair), kanga (a wooden comb tied behind the turban), kacha (unisex undergarments) and kara (an iron bracelet). The word Sikh means teacher in Sanskrit and the religion of Sikhism began in Northern India in the 16th century. The Guru Nanak Deva (1469-1539) received a vision at Sultanpur to preach a new way to enlightenment and God. He taught a strict monotheism, the brotherhood of humanity. He rejected idol worship, and the oppressive Hindu concept of caste. The stories of his life are collected in two sets of writings. The first known as the Janamsākhīs. The scribe Bhai Gurdas also wrote about Nanak's life in his vārs.

Historians believe that Sikhism is a syncretistic religion, a cross between the devotional Bhakti movement of Hinduism and the psycho-spiritual Sufi branch of Islam. However many independent beliefs and practices have since been added that now make Sikhism different from both. There are now an estimated 24 million adherents worldwide making it the world’s fifth largest religion. 21 million of these (90%) live in the Punjab region of northern India.

The holiest temple of the Sikhs is in the Punjab. This is the Golden Temple, (Harimandir Sahib) in the Punjabi capital city, Amritsar. In 1984 the temple was the site of a massacre by the Indian army. The Sikh militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was the spur for the attack. He was a supporter of the notional state of Khalistan, an independent Punjab. After a crackdown on Sikh militants Bhindranwale holed up in the Golden Temple along with 600 of his supporters. The army launched Operation Blue Star to remove them. The army grossly underestimated the defensive capability of Bhindranwale and his supporters and suffered major casualties. They eventually brought in tanks to crush the rebels. Bhindranwale was killed in the action along with 250 rebels and 48 Indian troops and the temple was mostly destroyed.

The desecration of the temple had far-reaching consequences. Two months later the army chief of staff and planner of Operation Blue Star Arun Shridhar Vaidya was killed by Sikh militants while driving his car home from the market. After another two months Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. In revenge, nearly 3000 Sikhs were massacred in the days that followed in systematic anti-Sikh riots that were tacitly supported by the Congress government. The riots caused many Sikhs to emigrate to USA, Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

According to the Sikh Council of Australia, there are now 22,000 Sikhs in Australia. NSW has by far the largest population with half the total population. The first Sikhs arrived in Australia in the 19th century to work as hawkers, cane cutters and camel drivers but their numbers were curtailed by the White Australia Policy of the newly federated nation in 1901. The next wave of Sikh immigration came in the wake of the British Colombo Plan scholarships for emerging commonwealth nations. Sikh numbers expanded again due to violence in East Africa against Indian families.

After the Second World War and the partition of India, many Sikh migrants started to congregate around the northern NSW towns of Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbour to work on the banana farms. The great upheaval in Punjab at the time of Partition of India in 1947 provided the impetus for many family members to come and join the earlier migrants to Australia. There are now 2,500 Sikhs in Woolgoolga, approximately 50% of the town’s total population. The town has two Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) both of which are prominently visible from the Pacific Highway which passes through the town. Today over 95% of Woolgoolga's banana industry and 10% of Coffs Harbour is owned and operated by Australians of Sikh ancestry.

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