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Sikhs drag France to UN over turban issue

December 16, 2008 15:29 IST

A prominent Sikh group has dragged French government to the United Nations for violating their basic human rights and freedom of religion by banning the wearing of turbans in schools in the country and on ID document photos.

United Sikhs, the advocacy group's lawyers on Monday filed the complaint before the United Nations Human Rights Commission on behalf of three Sikhs, who alleged that they were being denied the right to wear a turban, which is a basic feature of their religion.

"We are asking the UN to deliver to Sikhs in France their rights under Articles 2, 17, 12, 18, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person," United Sikhs, legal director for International Civil and Human Rights Advocacy, Mejindarpal Kaur said.

"Under the ICCPR, France may restrict these fundamental rights on only the most compelling grounds, and may do so only so far as absolutely necessary. We submit that France has not made out a compelling case for denying a Sikh the right to wear a turban," she added.

The three Sikhs, on whose behalf the petition has been filed, include Bikramjit Singh. He was expelled from school for refusal to remove his turban. Other petitioners are Ranjit Singh and Shingara Mann Singh who were allegedly asked to remove their turban for getting photographed for documents.

"Last month the European Court of Human Rights, which dismissed a similar case, sent a signal to 25 million Sikhs globally that their religion was not welcome in France. We hope that the UN will say otherwise in support of religious freedom in France," she added.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who himself is a Sikh had raised the issue with French President Nicholas Sarkozy when he was on visit to the country in September.

"The three cases, before the UNHRC, will be the first such cases before the UN since France passed a law in March 2004, banning the wearing of religious symbols, including the Sikh turban, in public schools," said Kuldeep Singh, director, United Sikhs.

Addressing the conference through telephone, Bikramjit Singh's lawyer Stephen Grosz exuded confidence that the French government would realise the genuine demand of the Sikhs. Bikramjit was expelled along with two Sikh schoolboys, Jasvir Singh and Ranjit, whose cases were filed by the United Sikhs lawyers before the European Court of Human Rights in May 2008.

The case was, however, dismissed by the European Court of Human Rights last month.

"Religious freedom is an essential element of a democratic society based on the rule of law. For believers, freedom to practice and manifest one's religion is an integral part of ones identity," he said.

"The overwhelming majority of countries in the free world respect this freedom. Far from being a threat, this diversity enriches society, which should not be sacrificed on the altar of secularism. Nowhere is this more important than in schools, where children should learn to celebrate cultural and religious difference," he added.

"I have never been told by immigration officers that they couldn't recognize me, when I travelled on my old passport which had my photo with my turban. I do not understand how the turban can lead to fraud and falsification," said Shingara Singh via a telephone interview.

"I dread to think what will happen one day if I should fall ill and need hospitalisation as I am not entitled to any health benefit and I cannot afford private health insurance," said Ranjit Singh.

Sikhs are required by their faith to wear their hair unshorn and covered at all times by a turban, an intrinsic aspect of the Sikh identity.
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