The U.K.’s Evolving Rules on Turbans | SNE
Jun 17, 2018
Coldstream Guard Charanpreet Singh Lall marching with his colleagues during the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London, earlier this month.
Earlier this month, members of the Coldstream Guards marched through London for the Trooping of the Colour to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 92nd birthday. It is a ceremony that has marked the official birthday of Britain’s sovereign for over 260 years. This time, the ceremony was significant for another reason. For the first time, one of the guards wore a turban bearing the ceremonial cap star. The British media lauded the event’s “historic significance”.
Charanpreet Singh Lall, a 22-year-old from Leicester, told the media that he hoped this would be welcomed as a “new change in history”. He followed the footsteps of Jatinder Singh Bhullar, who in 2012 became the first guardsman to wear a turban outside Buckingham Palace. However, unlike Mr. Lall, whose appearance was widely welcomed as yet another sign of Britain’s multicultural present, Mr. Bhullar faced criticism, with some reports in the British media saying that he was taunted by colleagues. This despite the fact that at that time, there were a number of Sikhs in the Army who already wore turbans. There are estimated to be around 4,000 turban-wearing Sikhs in the British police, and 230 across the armed forces.
While Sikhs have long had a role in the British military, individuals — particularly in roles seen as symbolically significant — have been met with resistance from the establishment. In 1917, Hardit Singh Malik (India’s first High Commissioner to Canada) became the first Sikh turban-wearing pilot in the Royal Flying Core, says Shrabani Basu, author of For King And Another Country, which recounts the experiences of Indians on the Western Front in the First World War.
“He had a lot of problems getting in: they didn’t mind Indians in the military but they didn’t want them to be officers,” she said, noting that the following pressure, including from his tutor at Oxford University, Malik was accepted. However, he later faced criticism from his colleagues. “He later devised a big helmet that fit over his turban,” she noted.
Victoria and Abdul
Even further back in history, turbans of a different kind also courted attention within the British establishment circles. Ms. Basu cited the friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, her Muslim turban-wearing assistant and teacher. She noted an incident during the Highland Games at Braemar, Scotland, in 1890, when the Queen’s son, the Duke of Connaught, expressed his outrage at the “conspicuous” figure of Karim and his turban, among the top hats in the Royal Enclosure. The Queen’s private secretary at the time dismissed his concerns, pointing out that he was where he was on the Queen’s orders and any concerns had to be taken up with the Queen.
In modern Britain, the rules related to turban-wearing have continued to evolve. In 2015, the government introduced a new employment law that enabled Sikhs to wear turbans in all workplaces, removing a loophole that campaigners said had led to discrimination. Only a few exceptions remain in place, including in situations where turbans cannot replace safety helmets, including in certain emergency response roles.
In 2009, a Sikh policeman, who was ordered to remove his turban for riot training, was awarded £10,000 by an employment tribunal that found he had suffered indirect racial and religious discrimination as well as psychological damage.
Despite progress, however, abuse has continued. This February, a Sikh man had his turban ripped from his head outside Parliament in central London in an apparent racist attack.