When I heard about a group of masked men disrupting an interfaith marriage at Leamington Spa Gurdwara, I despaired that this dispute within the Sikh community had still not been resolved peacefully.
It’s not the first time a group had disrupted such a wedding. Last year an interfaith wedding in Lozells, Birmingham, nearly turned into a mass brawl after protesters tried to stop it and police were called. Another wedding in Coventry only managed to go ahead after negotiations with the disrupters.
The protestors did themselves no favours by masking their faces like bandits. Most of them may have been carrying ceremonial daggers, known as kirpans, but Warwickshire Police report also reported uncovering “another non-ceremonial weapon” and is still investigating the incident.
Did the drama they caused detract from the point they were trying to make? Most probably. But if this group felt they had a right to protest, then why do so without respecting the rights of the bride and groom? Why not protest outside? In video footage of the disruption, one protestor makes derogatory remarks towards Muslims and black people. If they want respect for their beliefs, where is their respect for the faith and race of others?
The argument that rumbles on is that interfaith marriage has no place in Sikhism if lived according to a Sikh guide, the Rahit Maryada. In a theological sense that is correct.
According to Harpreet Singh, a Sikh theologian at Harvard University, Sikhs first codified their rites of passage in the court of [the tenth guru] Guru Gobind Singh, around the year 1700. These written texts were called rahitnamas or the “letters of rahit”.
The modern version of the rahit, known as the Sikh Rahit Maryada, was debated publicly for over a decade. Sikh institutions as far and wide as Malaysia, the UK and the US were given an opportunity to comment on it before it was revised and adopted by the Sikhs during the colonial period.
The rahit has seen three amendments since its adoption in 1945, which Singh says means that it is a dynamic text and can be changed democratically by the consensus of the Sikh people.
As it stands, the rahit specifically prohibits interfaith marriage in the context of the Anand Karaj ceremony – which is the wedding ceremony which takes place in a traditional Gurdwara. But many Sikhs do not follow these rules. Mixed marriages take place anyway, often outside of the Gurdwara and using religious ceremonial service of their partner’s religion.
In fact, a great many practices of Rahit Maryada that should be adhered to by Sikhs are not. “The Rahit Maryada is not always fully observed by Sikhs,” says Jagbir Jhutti-Johal of the University of Birmingham, “for example many Sikhs still will only marry within their own caste.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests many more mixed marriages between Sikhs and non-Sikhs take place in India without incident, which begs the question why an element of the Sikh youth in the UK is obsessively focused on mixed marriages?
It may be, as some researchers suggest, that protesting is becoming an “identity marker” for young Sikhs to express their ethnicity and culture. They are, in effect, exploring where the boundaries between religious traditions and their British citizenship lie.
Of course all Sikhs have a right to express their opinion about how their religion should be expressed in their life choices. But those who seek to promote their Sikh identity are only undermining their own cause if they choose such disrespectful methods of communication.
It is up to Sikh elders, too, to deal with the youth in a more constructive way. After all, Sikhs should now be uniting to face far more pressing problems within the global religious community, such as the high rate of female foeticide. The Punjab often tops the list for this horrific crime, yet this practice breaches Sikh principles in a far more fundamental way than two people of different faiths choosing to marry each other.
If young Sikh men were protesting against foeticide as passionately as they protest interfaith marriages, that really would be a marker of progress for the Sikh community.
Herpreet Kaur Grewal is a writer and journalist
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