The British plan to organize a regiment around a religion: Perhaps an imperial solution to a contemporary problem

By Chris Mondloch

Best Defense guest columnist

Back in February, several Members of Parliament began urging the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence to stand up a Sikh regiment in the U.K. Army. Not surprisingly, a similar proposal was dashed in 2007 amid charges of being segregationist.

But Sir Nicholas Soames, who was a Defence Minister in the’ 90s and is now a Conservative MP, has decided to take another stab at creating an all-Sikh regiment. Rory Stewart, who chairs the Defence Select Committee, responded favorably to the proposal, but suggested a reserve Sikh regiment may be the best initial option. Either way, the Conservatives’ resounding election victory last week means this proposal is likely to receive serious consideration. All of the very apparent racial sensitivities considered, is there way that creating an all-Sikh Army regiment could actually make sense in terms of the U.K.’s policy goals?

The answer is probably no. But it’s worth a closer look, because bringing back a segregated military unit has important considerations for the U.K.’s desired identity, and will certainly conjure up some pretty negative colonial memories.

On the face of it, this is a move to achieve higher inclusion among British Sikhs, who are severely underrepresented in the armed forces. Only about one in every 30,000 British Sikhs are currently in the military, which is much lower than the national ratio of approximately one in every 300 Brits in uniform. Hypothetically, standing up a 700-man Sikh regiment would boost national unity, patriotism, and all that good stuff.

From the religion’s beginnings in early 16th century India, the Sikhs have a storied history as a minority group who had to fight to maintain their religious freedoms amidst oppression. Sikhism developed out of abhorrence for the Hindu caste system, cementing a legacy of dissent against prevailing social orders. By 1700, the Sikhs had developed a ‘spiritual-military collective’ willing to fight for their faith, first against the Islamic Mughal Empire, and then against the Afghan invasion of the subcontinent. When the British East India Company’s army invaded the Punjab region in 1845, the Sikhs nearly defeated the imperial forces but were eventually forced to surrender.

In the colonial era that followed, the Sikhs forged strong ties with the British, who incorporated two battalions of Sikh infantrymen into the imperial army. In addition to their service on the subcontinent, hundreds of thousands of Sikhs fought for the U.K. in World War I and World War II.

Given the Sikh’s warrior culture and history of royal service, it’s not hard to fathom why certain British policymakers want to increase their numbers in the military. But creating an all-Sikh unit in 2015 seems like an outdated imperial solution to the modern-day problems facing the U.K. MP Soames (who happens to be Winston Churchill’s grandson) called on the MoD to “do away with political correctness” because a Sikh regiment would “make up a very serious gap in our armed forces.”

What serious gap is this? Adding less than 700 troops to a military that is 187,000 strong will hardly boost operational capabilities in any significant way.

Rather, the gap that Soames wants to fill is more based on identity. With an elevated threat risk from jihadist elements in the U.K., and an embarrassingly high number of radicalized British citizens traveling to the Middle East to join ISIS and other Islamist groups, supporters of a Sikh regiment likely wish to give the U.K. Army a more ethnic dimension. After all, this was a successful strategy for the Brits as they conquered a quarter of the world in the 19th century, so what’s to stop it from working now?

Granted, the Sikh community doesn’t seem like a bad place to start. They are a proud people with a legacy of promoting religious tolerance and fighting Muslim persecutors, not to mention their historic loyalty to the crown. Sikh membership in the Armed Services is not proportionate to population demographics, so it makes sense for policymakers to seek a plan to increase recruitment, which Sikh leadership in the U.K. has supported. But given the U.K.’s colonial past, creating an ethnically and religiously homogenous Army regiment is likely to do more harm than good, harkening back to an imperial era that has long since passed.

The Ministry of Defence has also recently called for an increased recruitment effort among British Muslims, who are also severely underrepresented in the armed forces. It has been estimated that there are twice as many British Muslims in ISIS than the U.K. military. However, it is hard to fathom any parliamentary support for an all-Muslim regiment to combat this frightening trend.

Some ethnic units do still exist in the British military. The Royal Gurkha Rifles, comprised solely of Nepalese soldiers, remain operational, as do the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Guards. But while still perhaps vestiges of colonial times, these units are based on territorial affiliations, not religious identity. Explaining the benefits of maintaining the Gurkhas, the MoD says the following:

One of the strengths of a Gurkha battalion on operations today, and particularly in Afghanistan, is the ability of the soldiers to understand cultural nuances, and to empathise with people in conflict zones. Unforgiving in battle, the soldiers are equally generous and warm hearted to those who are affected by conflict.

Although some of these statements are questionable in themselves, it’s an even further stretch to apply this logic to the creation of a Sikh regiment. Whereas the Gurkhas are recruited straight from the Himalayan foothills, a Sikh regiment would recruit from London and Birmingham, hardly a rough-and-tumble warrior culture. Sikhs should be proud of their ancestors’ honorable military legacy, but their valor alone is not enough to justify a segregated unit for a new generation of soldiers.

Sikhs do have legitimate concerns about serving in an integrated military setting. Sikh men are not permitted to shave their beards or cut their hair, and must wear a turban at all times. Strict grooming standards have traditionally deterred Sikhs and other religious groups from serving in uniform. It is especially bad in the U.S. military, which as of last year only had three observant Sikhs in service. It was only in 2010 that the military relaxed its strict regulations banning articles of faith in uniform. The most recent DoD policy allows Sikhs to wear the turban, beard, and long hair in uniform only after they obtain a waiver from their chain of command, meaning their freedoms are subject to change anytime they change duty stations – not exactly providing any level of certainty for prospective Sikh recruits. Just this past November, the ACLU and United Sikhs sued the Army after a Sikh college student was banned from Hofstra University’s ROTC program for his personal appearance.

The U.K., however, has more progressive policy. Turbans and beards are allowed for practicing Sikhs to serve in in almost all settings, including the several Sikh soldiers who have served as Buckingham Palace guardsmen. The only restrictions in the MoD’s Religious Fact Sheet are based on operational concerns — Sikhs may not be able to serve on aircrews because of the tight-fitting helmet, and may need to shave in life-threatening situations where a beard prevents a respirator or gas mask from sealing.

Although British Sikhs face few restrictions in terms of grooming standards, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to serve in an integrated unit. A huge part of being in the military is conformity and unit cohesion. It must be very difficult for a young Sikh soldier, who stands out from his peers and follows a different grooming standard. But providing a quick fix to the problem by putting all the Sikhs in their own unit does not solve an institutional problem. Sikhs face racism in the civilian world as well — incidents like the 2014 attack on a Sikh lawyer in London and the murder of a Sikh gas station clerk in Arizona right after 9/11 are among the most severe examples of the bigotry that still exists. Fostering an institutional culture of acceptance within the British armed forces, rather than bending to underlying discrimination, is the best way to address this problem from within.

The U.K. is already way ahead of the U.S. in terms of creating hospitable military conditions for Sikhs and other religious devotees who require relaxed grooming standards. Soames and others are right to recognize the need to recruit more Sikhs and remind the general public that many generations of Sikhs have served the U.K. honorably. But segregating them into their own regiment is not a prudent way to foster feelings of greater unity or enhance operational capability. It is more likely to highlight Sikhs’ differences and open up a Pandora’s Box of post-imperial sentiments and further calls for religious segregation of the British military.

Chris Mondloch served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Marine Corps for seven years, including a deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2012. He is graduating from the London School of Economics this fall with a Master’s Degree in International Relations. He tweets at @C_Mondloch