Ceremonial dagger 'part of the body' say devout Sikhs

London, UK - Britain's first Asian judge has said Sikhs should be allowed to wear their ceremonial daggers - known as Kirpans - to school and other public venues.

It follows a number of high-profile cases where Sikhs have been asked to remove the item, required by their faith, in the workplace or in the classroom.

But what exactly is a Kirpan and just how many Sikhs wear one?

Dabinderjit Singh has been wearing his Kirpan almost non-stop for 23 years.

The 44-year-old wears it in the shower (tied to his head), in bed, in the car, at his desk and on the train. The only time he takes it off is when he boards a plane.

Mr Singh, who is an adviser to the pressure group Sikh Federation UK, was keen to get across an important fact - not all Sikhs wear the Kirpan.

"Practising Sikhs are the only ones who are required to wear the Kirpan," he said. "It is only worn by someone who lives a very strict life - that's why only a few Sikhs become practising Sikhs."

He estimated that fewer than 10% of Sikhs in the UK wear a Kirpan.

There is no hierarchy in Sikhism's five "articles of faith", which also include Kesh (unshorn hair) and Kara (steel bangle), but the Kirpan (small sword) is the article of faith around which there is the "most sensitivity".

And by practising Sikhs, he means those boys, girls, men and women who have been baptised, wear all five articles and observe the strict code of conduct.

'Golden decade'

Mr Singh's day begins with a bath, he prays and meditates for an hour in the morning, and again in the evening. He is a strict vegetarian and does not drink.

Once baptised at the age of 21, he could only marry another baptised Sikh. His father was not a practising Sikh, and his mother only became one at the age of 65.

The 10th Sikh guru decreed in 1699 that baptised Sikhs should wear the five articles of faith, including the Kirpan. It had a symbolic function - to identify and unify the Sikh community - and a physical function - to defend others.

Mr Singh only uses his Kirpan to bless food after a sermon. His daggers range in length between 3in and 5in (7-13cm) and he says they are "pretty blunt".

It is worn in a sling around the body, normally under clothes, and the dagger is always buttoned into its sheath.

"When I was a kid, only one or two Sikhs were practising in my school," he said. "In the last 10 years, more and more young people have become fascinated with their history."

He calls it the "golden decade", marked by several important anniversaries and events.

Public awareness

Something else has changed, he says, and that is the secular acceptance of Kirpans.

He accepts the stricter security measures on planes since 9/11 but says Sikhs can still fly with their Kirpans within the US, Australia, New Zealand, and, of course, India.

Recalling an incident at Buckingham Palace 10 years ago when he was receiving his OBE, he said there was no trouble getting in and the ceremonial guards had bigger swords than he had.

He said he "never has a problem" getting into the House of Commons, but some government buildings and tourist attractions, such as the London Eye, have refused entry to practising Sikhs.

He has also heard that a Sikh was not allowed to sit his driving theory test because of his Kirpan.

But Mr Singh is hopeful that a new government code of practice will help inform the general public and the security industry about the dagger.

Didar Singh Randhawa, president of the two Sri Guru Singh Sabha temples in Southall, west London - the biggest outside India - said public awareness about the Kirpan was all-important.

Mr Randhawa referred to the high profile case of have-a-go hero Sukhwinder Singh. The 31-year-old was stabbed to death after chasing muggers in east London last month and according to Mr Randhawa, Mr Singh was wearing a Kirpan.

Mr Randhawa, who has been wearing his Kirpan for a year and a half, said there had been a few individual cases of problems in offices and schools but the main problem was the airlines.

However, he said the UK government was "more sympathetic" than many European countries and he hoped ministers would listen to their pleas and allow them to fly with the smallest Kirpans.

"The only problem is awareness," he said. "It is a part of our bodies. It is part of our religion. I don't like to take it off."