European Court rules against the Sikh turban in French schools

Strasbourg, France - Sikhs feel let down once again in history, now by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the apex European judicial body supposed to be the guarantor of human rights and human dignity.

The Court in its judgement confirmed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy had told me (Tejinder Singh) last September at the concluding press conference of the European Union/India Summit in Marseille, France.


Standing next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh wearing a light blue turban, Sarkozy answered this reporter’s (Tejinder Singh) question about the wearing of turbans by Sikhs in France.

Regarding the required Sikh head covering, an integral part of their religious identity, Sarkozy, replied curtly, “Sir, we respect Sikhs. We respect their customs, their traditions. They are most welcome to France.”

Visibly irritated, Sarkozy continued in French, “But sir, we have rules, rules concerning the neutrality of civil servants, rules concerning secularism, and these rules don't apply only to Sikhs, they apply to Muslims or others. They apply to all on the territory of the French Republic."

The practice by Sikhs of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally is a symbol of respect, the most important of the five outward symbols required of all Sikhs, and the turban is worn to cover the uncut hair. Sarkozy explained that the banning of turbans is not discrimination, that, “These rules apply to everybody, to everybody with no exception. There is no discrimination whatsoever.”

Making it clear to the Sikh community in France that they have no option other than to conform to the rules, Sarkozy made the paradoxical statement, “We respect their traditions and their customs and we are convinced that they too respect the laws, traditions and customs of the French Republic.”

During this whole episode, Indian Premier Singh stayed silent on the subject even though I had put the question to both the leaders.


In 2004, three Sikh boys, Jasvir Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Ranjit Singh, were expelled from French schools for wearing turbans. These students were the first victims of the ban instituted which prohibits Sikh students from covering their hair at school, a decision that prompted world-wide protest from the Sikh community.

The European court ECHR dismissed last month the first legal challenge, since France passed a law in 2004 banning religious signs in schools, filed by UNITED SIKHS on behalf of Jasvir Singh.

The decision, against which there is no leave to appeal, and which was communicated to UNITED SIKHS lawyers yesterday, strengthened the resolve of the Sikh community globally to rise to the challenge and defy odds to regain their right, commented UNITED SIKHS in a statement.

The Court, without requiring France to respond to Jasvir Singh's legal arguments, followed the decision it made last November in the Islamic headscarf physical education cases (which pre-dated the 2004 law), by ruling that the ban on turbans is a proportionate response to the aims of protection of the rights and freedoms of others and the protection of public order.

UNITED SIKHS filed, last December, another legal challenge before the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of Bikramjit Singh, who was expelled from the school with Jasvir Singh when they refused to remove their turban in school. France has filed a response to Bikramjit’s claim and UNITED SIKHS lawyers are preparing a reply, the organization stated.


Jasvir Singh was 14 years old when he, along with two other Sikh students, was expelled from Michel High School in Bobigny, France for wearing a keski. The keski is a small, discreet piece of cloth, which acts as an under-turban, covering the unshorn hair that is considered sacred in the Sikh religion. It is frequently worn by young Sikhs as a prelude, or as an alternative, to wearing a larger turban.

In the appeal filed to the ECHR, UNITED SIKHS lawyers had argued that the 2004 law interfered with Jasvir’s human rights in a way that was disproportionate to the aim of the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The lawyers added, that there was no pressing social need which dictated that members of the very small Sikh minority in France should not be able to wear a discreet head-covering.

Moreover, a Sikh’s uncut hair is a much more conspicuous sign of adherence to the Sikh religion than the keski which covers it. Accordingly, requiring a Sikh pupil to remove his keski, revealing his uncut hair tied in a tress knot, makes his religious affiliation more conspicuous rather than less.

The principal of the high school had asked the Jasvir to stop wearing the keski to school, but he declined to do so because it represents a fundamental aspect of his religion, beliefs, and identity. Jasvir was initially removed from the classroom and made to sit in a separate study area in order to pursue his education. He was placed in the school canteen, where he undertook self-study and was provided with educational materials by a teaching assistant if he requested them. No teacher taught him during the period of three weeks that he spent in the canteen. This separation continued for three weeks before he was excluded from school altogether.


Commenting on the decision, Mejindarpal Kaur, UNITED SIKHS Director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy stated, "Today is the day, 264 years ago, when a Sikh martyr, Bhai Taru Singh, was scalped alive by the oppressive rulers of the day because he refused to give up his faith that required him to wear his hair unshorn. Today our lawyers learnt that the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed Jasvir Singh’s right to wear his religiously mandated turban to school, denying him a right to practice his faith."

"Yet we have faith that we will win the battle to win the hearts and minds of the French government," she added.

Jasvir Singh’s London Lawyer, Stephen Grosz of Bindmans LLP stated, “Sikhs are striving for a society in which all faiths coexist in harmony, where the expression of religion and culture is a celebration of diversity. By contrast, the Court’s decision allows states to suppress expressions of religious diversity, apparently as a means of promoting peace. It is a depressingly negative view of the state’s role in promoting religious tolerance."

Commenting on Bikramjit Singh’s case before the UN Human Rights Committee, he added, "The UN Human Rights Committee, which is also considering this issue, has called on France to justify its ban on the wearing of religious signs."


Singh Sahib Gurbachan Singh Ji, Jathedar Sri Akal Takhat Sahib, head of the 400 year old temporal seat of 25 million Sikhs globally said: "This decision has hit the Sikh community in a much bigger way than France has gained from it. Sikhs have always defended the rights of others by making the ultimate sacrifice. Now the time has come for us to turn to all religious leaders to work together to put an end to this attack on religious freedom. The leaders of all the five Takhat are meeting at the Akal Takhat on 20th July when we will take a decision on the way forward."

Avtar Singh President, Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committe ( SGPC), the largest elected body of Sikhs commented: "The solution now is at the political level. We have left no stone unturned to achieve a result through the courts and diplomatically. There is no choice for Sikhs except to turn to the Indian Prime Minister to do the right thing."

Paramjit Singh, President, Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) in a statement said, "We will fight the decision politically through the Indian Government. If the French government can honor the turban wearing Indian PM during their national day parade recently, we must surely be able to convince them that the Court’s decision cannot stand."

Gurdial Singh, a French Sikh community leader and father of Jasvir singh, bitterly disappointed with the decision, said: "The judges didn’t listen to the voice of their souls or humanity when making this political decision. They will regret one day that they have made a grave mistake by hurting humanity and snatching away from a peace loving community their right to practice their faith. On our part, the battle continues."

Kuldip Singh, UNITED SIKHS president resolved to continue saying: "The Sikh community will have to respond with all its strength. You don’t have to be a numerical majority to bring change through social politics. Guru Nanak was in the minority when he preached love for humanity to the majority communities of his day," he added, dismissing any doubts that France will take Sikhs seriously.

Jassi Singh Khangura, MLA, elected representative of the Punjab state assembly added: “I am very disappointed with the European court’s decision, coming in the 21st Century, on behalf of a developed country. The Punjab assembly has passed a resolution in favor of fighting for the turban and we will carry on fighting. There are strong economic ties between India and France and we will lobby through them. It is time to move the Sikh youth globally who will have to move French youths, the future decision makers in France."


Calling for help of the West including the US and Canada, Kashmir Singh, a French Sikh community leader said, "The judges have shown themselves to be partial by not requiring France to reply to our case. The French government knows that the turban is part of the Sikh identity. We should work with politicians in the USA, Canada and the UK to bring a change of heart in France. In the in the end, we will change the law."

Dr. Pritpal Singh, Coordinator, American Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee said: "We condemn the judgment. We call upon all human rights organizations to stand by us. As Americans, we will seek a meeting with the Secretary of State to seek her help to make our case to the French government that we are peace loving people whose identity is under attack."

Earlier, discriminatory incidents involving Sikhs increased dramatically in the US as a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. There were numerous cases of discriminatory attacks on Sikhs as they were misunderstood as allies of Osama bin Laden due to their appearance.

While the US is making the effort to remove misunderstanding and give Sikhs their legitimate place in society, it seems that in some member states of the European Union, comparable progress and acceptance has flowed in reverse.


US Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat-California), who represents Silicon Valley and who is involved in this issue in his capacity as Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told this correspondent last year, “I don’t believe in sacrificing freedom in order to protect freedom. Turbans are part of the religious identity of Sikhs and we must strive to respect their freedom of religious expression. A balance can be struck between national security and religious liberties, but that balance can only be reached by consulting all the parties involved, in this case the Sikh community.”

“It would be ironic that many Sikhs, who fled their homeland seeking religious freedom, would find that America curtailed their religious freedoms when they arrived upon our shores,” Honda had added.


Asked to comment, Neena Gill, a member of the European Parliament had said last year, “I am astounded by the level of discrimination that is in fact growing … it is not confined to France … it is in Belgium, in Germany and it really smacks against all these initiatives that the European Commission is constantly launching.”

However, solutions aimed at nurturing “unity in diversity,” the European Union’s frequently appearing slogan, are already working in the United Kingdom, one of the member states of the European Union, and across the Atlantic in the United States.

Highlighting the integration and diversity that prevails across the English Channel, Gill, who was born in Punjab, India, said, “If you look at the United Kingdom, you can wear a turban not only in mainstream jobs but also in the police, the army, the air force or the navy. There is no restriction. In fact, the army has special days when they try and recruit people from the Sikh community and the Dastar (turban) is not a problem for them, so I really think we do need to raise awareness, especially from the European Commission in these particular years of Equality and Intercultural Dialogue. We have to target the resources at these issues to ensure that there is greater awareness across the EU in accepting people of different appearances.”

The root cause of the discrimination and a pragmatic solution to root it out was aptly summed up by Jennifer Handshew, a seasoned public relations professional in New York who had told this journalist, “I feel that ignorance and fear are the primary factors that fuel this discrimination and believe that education and awareness will help people better understand what the turban means to the Sikhs.”

What Handshew and others suggest provide a succinct analysis and a solution, but for now, the door to a respectable life in France for Sikhs has been slammed shut by the ECHR while French President Sarkozy had set the ball rolling last year in the presence of Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, himself a member of the Sikh community.