image caption: Gurmukh Singh OBE

Sikh Experience of Dealing with British Civil Servants


As British Citizens, we are justly proud of our civil service &ndash probably still the best in the world. However, public service and its perception have also changed over the last few decades. Movement of professionals and managers between the private and public sectors has been encouraged through re-structuring of the old hierarchical style career grades and professional level technical and business skills have been brought to the public service.

Yet, on the reverse side, both, continuity of experience and quality of service, have suffered over the years as a result. This is noticeable in the area of government interface with communities. Civil servants seem to be out of touch with the British diversity today.

Overall, the British Sikh experience of civil servants in departments dealing with communities, immigration and border security, law enforcement and religious rights etc over the decades has not been a happy one. Civil servants in these areas seem to expect the so called community leaders to come to them during the consultation process while they sit in their offices. It is almost a sort of colonial attitude towards minority communities. Yet, my own experience as a civil servant in international trade area was that we were well briefed before and during trade talks by business research and statistics. So, why not follow the same process when talking to communities and assessing their needs in a plural society?

Misunderstanding, mistreatment and spread of misinformation about Sikh identity started with the press in the late 1950s when the turban-wearing men and salwar-wearing women were shown as if they were the only immigrants! They were caricatured in cartoons as aliens landing on the beaches and following beach signs to 5-star hotels! When Sikhs asked for work, they were told to first remove their turbans and cut their hair by the factory gatekeepers. Most of us from that generation carry the scars of such open discrimination and insults.

Sikh protests and campaigns triggered by prejudice against Sikh identity and religious articles of faith started in the early 1960s and continue to this day. The climax was the Mandla case which reached the House of Lords in 1983. There is still no official guidance about Sikh Kakaars for officials dealing with the Sikhs. Nor are statistics about the Sikhs collated by thousands of bodies at routine monitoring level so that policy changes can be informed to create a level playing field. When consulting communities, civil servants seem to show preference for dealing with those in their own image but who are hardly in touch with the grassroots level or conversant with Sikh ideology and way of life which has contributed so much to the UK economy.

Yet, in a changing British plural society, deep-rooted prejudices can only be countered through well-informed government policy and accurate statistics. That is a challenge for the civil servants and the ministers dealing with the Sikhs and other communities. These issues, also set down clearly in The Sikh Manifesto will almost certainly influence Sikh voters in the next General Election.


Gurmukh Singh OBE