Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
November 10, 1997


Delhi's Sikhs protest against helmet rule

Chindu Sreedharan in Delhi

Helmets, cops and the local government, together with the Central Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, are greatly 'jeopardising' the practice of a minority religion in Delhi -- at least, that's what the Sikh community in the capital claims.

The referred threat to religion, strangely, arises because of the strict implementation of the CMV Act. Or, to be more precise, a section therein which calls for all riders of two-wheelers (turbaned Sikh gentlemen exempted) -- yes, ladies too! -- to wear 'protective headgear.' But Sikh women riders say they won't. Because their religion prohibits it.

"As per the Rehat Nama (rules of the community)," says lawyer Manjit Singh Butalia, who filed a petition in the high court seeking exemption of the rule for Sikh women, "a Sikh cannot wear a topi. If he does, he will die of leprosy for seven lives. By forcing our ladies to wear a helmet, the government is violating our fundamental rights. The authorities are prohibiting us from practicing our religion."

In any case, he argues, if Sikh men can be exempted on religious grounds, why not the women?

The police, however, are not ready to buy that. Religion or no, they maintain, you got to wear a helmet if you want to ride. Or else, be ready to pay the required penalty every time you are caught.

The law took effect from November 1. And the cops, armed with bundles of challans, (traffic tickets) have been enforcing it most religiously, making many reluctant riders part with Rs 100.

The first day saw nearly 3,000 challans being handed out. The next day, it was 2,000. By November 9, the police had fined over 9,000 riders, encouraging quite a few not-so-religious Sikh women to go in for helmets.

Butalia, meanwhile, had sought judicial intervention in the matter. "But they (Justices Arun Kumar and Dalveer Bhandari ) didn't admit it," says Butalia who now plans to move the Supreme Court. The judges dismissed his petition on Friday, remarking that accidents do not distinguish between Sikh women and others. The bench also advised the lawyer to 'think rationally.'

Another petition with the same prayer also shared the brisk fate of Butalia's petition. Meanwhile, the Akali Dal, the Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee and Delhi Industries Minister Harsharan Singh Balli have entered the fray.

While the Akali Dal stages protest marches -- on Friday, hundreds of placard-holding, slogan-shouting activists demonstrated before Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral's home and handed him a memorandum -- the Gurdwara Committee has filed a petition in the courts.

Balli, for his part, has written to Delhi Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma and Lt Governor Tejendra Khanna to intervene and prevent a head-on collision between his community and the government.

"The situation may turn explosive. The whole Sikh community is agitated; their religious sentiments have been hurt by the law," Balli told Rediff On The NeT, "I have asked the CM and the governor to intervene for the sake of peace and order. But I haven't received any response."

"Sikh men and women are exempted from this rule in America and Canada," the minister continues, "Then why can't the authorities do it here also?"

Well, they aren't proposing to -- as of now. "No, no changes," confirms Special Commissioner (Traffic) Archana Arora, "I can't say whether the rule will be amended in future, but for now, it stands -- there will be no exemptions."

"(In that case) the masses will decide," warns Balli. "Guru Gobind Singh said Sikhs should not wear a topi. It is illegal to force us to wear one."

"We just cannot have this law," adds Butalia, "If they (the CM and governor) don't respond, I will move the Supreme Court."

Meanwhile, the cops are having a tough time enforcing the Act. Enterprising riders use anything which remotely resembles a helmet -- from plastic caps to mine gear -- to get around the law. And most women riders leave the helmet's straps untied.

To check and book all such violations, the police admit, is an impossible task. "But the move is in the right direction," they say, "On a very rough guess, some 100,000 riders have bought new helmets -- 98 per cent now wear some sort of headgear. That's better than nothing!" "In time," assures Deputy Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Qamar Ahmad, "people will buy quality helmets. The law will continue. So will the booking of offenders."

Tell us what you think of this report