"9/11 has stifled conversation" says Sikh leader as fear causes Leeds community divide

“When it happens every single time, when the seat next to you on a bus is always the last one taken - what does that tell you about how you are perceived?”

Tuesday, 3rd December 2019, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 7:13 pm

For Jatinder Singh Mehmi this is a regular occurrence, both here in Leeds and elsewhere in the country, because he wears a turban.

According to the Sikh faith, the reason a turban is worn is so that a Sikh can easily be spotted in a crowd by anyone in danger and needing help, knowing that it is the duty of Sikhs to help and protect anyone.

Perception

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Jatinder Singh speaks about stigma creating a fear over his faith.

However, it now, rues the Principal Social Scientist for the Environment Agency - means something very different.

He recalls being on a packed train a few weeks ago which was standing room only, other than the seat between him and the window, and no-one took it.

He adds: “What do they think will happen to them. I am not just out of a swamp. I have spoken to other Sikh and black friends and they say it happens all the time.

“It is an unconscious perception and a lack of understanding creates more fear. Since 9/11 we have stifled that conversation. The outcome of that was that we should talk more and have more integration but it has made us more fearful of each other which means those atrocities have won - they want division and to turn communities against each other.”

The Sikh Temple went all out to celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.

As the Yorkshire Evening Post continues to look at Faith in Leeds and how that is practiced today - this is an uncomfortable reality.

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Origin of Sikhism

During the world-wide celebration of the 550th anniversary of the birth of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the YEP attended the Gurdwara Guru Kalgidhar Sahib - unannounced.

Worshippers bring food and donations to The Sikh Temple as they mark the 550th anniversary of the founder of Sikhism.

It is said that Guru Nanak started the movement, back in 1469, in response to social inequality and gender inequality.

In Sikh practice, the Gurduwara is open to anyone, of any faith, religion, gender or wealth. Visitors are encouraged to eat together on the floor - regardless of class or boundary and enjoy the food prepared by volunteers in the Langar (community kitchen).

During the visit we found the congregation willing to chat about the faith despite not knowing we were coming, how they came to Leeds and were free to film and observe the religious proceedings.

Sikh community in Leeds

The Langar is a hive of activity as the community dine together.

Tarlochan Singh was seven years old when he came to Leeds with his family in the 1950s. He went to what was then known as Cowper Street School.

He recalls: “Had we gone where there were most English, we were scared. As I grew up I saw a lot of race attacks in those days. My father told us to walk away, ignore it, which we did. My grandkids have grown up here, my sons grew up here - they don’t see any racism whatsoever. I 100 per cent feel relief that is not happening for them.”

As we chat, preparations are being made for a children’s party and a feast for all following prayers.

In the prayer room upstairs, the Sikh Holy Scriptures, Guru Granth Sahib, is being read from beginning to end in a continuous process that takes around 48 hours. As Sikhs come to listen and worship, donations of money and food are also presented in the prayer room for the Langar.

Santok Singh is an electrical engineer living in Oakwood and he recalls: “People have blended in now, they take on other cultures. We celebrate Christmas as well as other traditions. My children say they don’t see any of that anymore. If your parents brought you up to practice religion you passed it on to your children.”

Religion in present day

Both men pray twice a day at home but come to the temple on Sundays or for other special events as is becoming more usual in order to fit in with modern day life, jobs and family commitments.

But that does not mean Sikhism is waning - possibly the opposite as many congregations are now third generation.

In 1954, Tarlochan’s father bought a six bedroomed house for £600 and it would be 1962 before the first Sikh temple was built on Chapeltown Road but it was the rapid expansion of religion and faith that led to the road being so called.

There used to be four or five churches, but in recent years they have closed due to lack of use or lack of funds. One is now a dance hall and one is used as a place of worship for another denomination.

As those who came as youngsters remain in Leeds, have families of their own and pass on the religion to them - the numbers of Sikhs in Leeds has increased to just short of 9,000 according to the 2011 census.

This figure will be higher today and points towards the need for what is now seven Sikh temples in Leeds.

Temple

And so we visit the main one - The Sikh Temple at 192 Chapeltown Road - which is grand, illuminating and buzzing.

It is the same night as the Guru Nanak Dev Ji celebrations and there are even marshalls manning the car park it is so busy.

We meet with Jatinder Singh Mehmi again and observing the custom of male and female entrances, removing shoes and wearing a headscarf, we are shown inside to what is an absolute hive of activity.

Community

The Langar is bustling and seems to be the main focus of the night - but also in general.

Jatinder explains: “All food is bought by the community, prepared by the community, served by the community and eaten by the community.

“We all sit together on the floor and it shows equality. We create this environment where we are a family. One of the most important things Guru Nanak said is ‘there is only one God’. The best way to serve God is to serve people, treat everybody equally. Wealth, background, social position doesn’t matter. It gets rid of ego.”

The acceptance of others does place them in a vulnerable position sometimes, he concedes, but while they are mindful of that - it doesn’t deter them from the outlook they have.

Homeless people regularly benefit from the Langar as do the city’s international students, particularly Indian students regardless of Hindu or Muslim faiths and a backpacker passing through Leeds ate at the temple in return for helping out in the kitchens.

“We don’t discriminate against anybody. It creates a strong bond within the community.”