The Delhi High Court order to the Central Board of Secondary Education to allow Sikh examinees of the MBBS to sport a kara and carry a kirpan into the venues for the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test is regressive. The court has curiously noted that the CBSE’s decision to bar all metallic objects on account of the use of unfair means in the exam in the past was based on some “vague apprehension”. Sikhs happen to be one of the most modernist, progressive, tolerant, understanding and accommodating communities in the world and, hence, they should not mind this little inconvenience. Unlike an intolerant, Stalinist country like France, no state institution of India — under the legislature, executive or judicial wings — would ever ask the Sikh citizens to keep at home their most important and respectable community identity marker: the turban that holds another ‘k’, kesh (hair). Nobdoy would raise an objection to kangha (comb) and kacchera (an undergarment) either. The humiliation meted out to Sikhs in France is Stalinist rather than secular because if secularism entails the separation of state and religion, neither of the two entities must interfere in the matters of the other. Since a turban impinges on no freedom of another French national, it should be no business of the state. The French policy is thus reminiscent of Stalin’s clampdown on churchgoers. The bench of S Ravindra Bhat and AK Chawla has missed the nuance of Europe and made an untenable statement: “Slowly, the rights of a person go and we will become a European country.” In reality, Indians enjoy just a fraction of civil liberties that Europeans do barring some extreme instances in a few out of 50 countries.
The issue has revived an old, needless controversy where some Sikh bodies invited the risk to life of members of their very community. For years together, whenever Delhi Motor Vehicle Rules were revised, these religious organs protested, saying that Sikh motorcyclists and pillion riders should not be required by law to wear helmets. If a helmet is anti-Sikhism, it begs the question, however, why these gurudwara committees never objected to Sikh cricketers wearing helmets. Makers of two-wheelers, just like manufacturers of larger vehicles, carry out hundreds of simulated crash tests, which establish that nothing lesser than a standard helmet can save the head from crushing under the impact of an accident. Tests conducted by the reputed All India Institute of Medical Sciences establishes the fact. The law of the pluralist, multicultural United Kingdom does not consider the cloth wrapped around the head protective enough; in accident-prone places, additional protective gears are mandatory.
A kirpan being a sharp weapon does have security implications, which its carrier must appreciate (assuming the carrier wouldn’t take to the proposition kindly that he no longer lives in the atmosphere of 1699 AD where being war-ready was important to safeguard the faith). If a kirpan remains a permissible prop in all places, the law should have no objection to the Muslim burqah either. And personnel at sensitive installations like an airport should be charged with affront on a woman’s dignity if they ask a passenger to remove the veil for security clearance. Never mind that there could even be a man inside the black cover rather than a woman! Hindus, being a varied group not mandated religiously to follow a particular holy book or follow a certain prophet, may launch a peculiar sect where, say, a trishul (trident) would be an article of faith, which cannot be kept aside under any condition. A Christian sect might then come up, saying that the ends of the holy cross many believers wear around their necks must be sharp and pointed. Entertaining such eccentricities of religion has turned the constitutionally dictated secularism of India into a joke. Unfortunately, judges, who should be beyond the temptation of populism because their jobs do not depend on votes, are losing the plot, too.