29th May 2019   •   article
Questions raised over Sikh Federation's legal challenge on how Sikhs are classified in UK Census

by Barfi Culture Team | @barfi_culture.
Image: SF UK
The campaigning group Sikh Federation UK (SFUK) is hoping to raise £100,000 for a legal challenge to the UK government's Census 2021 proposals, because they plan to count Sikhs as a religious group rather than an ethnic identity.

The SFUK believes it would be 'unlawful' for the government to agree with the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which earlier recommended Sikhs should not be counted as an ethnic group.

It has been here before. In 2010 the SFUK also threatened legal action on the same issue, but did not pursue it.

This time questions are also being raised about how the SFUK would fund its legal appeal. Last year the Sikh Federation promised to raise half-a-million pounds to fund a legal appeal against the ONS. That target now seems to have been downgraded to £100,000.

What is the SFUK saying?

The SFUK says many Sikhs who identify as Sikh by ethnicity but not religion are not counted in the UK Census. It estimates there are approximately 700k - 800k ethnic Sikhs in the UK. It says not everyone who identifies as ethnically Sikh also identifies as religiously Sikh and the Census does not count them.

A spokesperson said in a press release: "We hope that the government will listen to our arguments and agree to apply a lawful approach to this decision without the need for the case to be fought in the courts."

In a recent letter to members, seen by Barfi Culture, the SFUK said some Gurdwaras, Sikh organisations and individuals had committed to providing funds for its appeal and its lawyers had advised them of a target of £100,000 for the legal challenge.

It also says it is being backed by 120 Gurdwaras and Sikh organisations.

Questions about the appeal

The campaign is opposed by other Sikh groups including the Network of Sikh Organisations, headed by Lord Singh. He said there needed to be a debate on the pros and cons of ethnic monitoring, "before the Federation spends, on its estimate, more than £100,000 of community money in a legal challenge to the ONS."

"There are approximately 300-plus gurdwaras alone in the UK and that doesn’t include other Sikh organisations — so these numbers mean nothing, and still represent a minority view. Besides, the SFUK have exaggerated numbers in the past," he added.

The academic Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal said: "The Sikh congregation (sangat) give to their local gurdwaras freely and without stipulations. They put their trust in the gurdwara committees to use their discretion to spend this money appropriately for religious purposes and most of these donations go towards the upkeep of the gurdwara. I cannot see how supporting such a legal (and political) case would sit well with the congregation of most gurdwaras without prior consent."

"It is therefore vitally important to know if gurdwaras donating to the £100K fund have actually informed their sangat that their money is being spent in support of what is essentially a political cause."

Others say the problem is much broader.

Jagdev Singh Virdee, a statistician with 40 years of experience working on UK and international official statistics, and editor of the British Sikh Report, said:

"I think everyone agrees that we need more and better statistics on the lives of British Sikhs, as much as for any other community. However, a tick box added to the Census ethnicity classification is not the way to achieve this. The current ethnicity classification dates back to the 1970's and 1980's, is based partly on colour (Black, White), partly on geography (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi), and is not a good reflection of British society of this and forthcoming decades."

"The classification needs an overhaul, and in that context, a Sikh category may well make sense. Adding a Sikh tick box to the current ethnicity classification could actually damage the statistics available for Sikhs, with only a proportion choosing to use the category due to either conscious choice or confusion. The Census ethnicity question is compulsory, whereas the religion question, which has a Sikh tick box, is voluntary. This is one reason why those campaigning for the ethnic tick box say that the religion question is not enough."

"One option that could be considered is to make the religion question compulsory too, and give an option of 'Do not wish to say' for those who may object to being asked about their religious affiliation. Since religion and belief are now protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, I think that this option should be given serious consideration. Even the order in which the tick boxes are presented on forms can make a difference to the boxes that people tick. For example, when a 'Mixed' category was first introduced, testing found that more people would use it if it came near the top of the list, whereas fewer people would use it if it came after 'Black', 'Indian', etc. Clearly, not every category can be at the top."

Barfi Culture sent a number of questions to the SFUK, asking who was funding the appeal and how much money had been raised so far. The SFUK did not respond.
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