Despite the Khalistani scare rearing its head again with the rich and privileged farmers’ agitation that lasted a year, the government has, by revision, now allowed Sikhs to carry their ‘religious’ weapon kirpan in airlines. The union government has repealed the order banning Sikh employees and passengers from carrying kirpan at airports.
The Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) on today issued an order that allows Sikhs to carry ‘kirpan’ of a specific length and blade on flights and at airports.
Kirpan may be carried by a Sikh passenger, provided the length of the blade doesn’t exceed 15.24 cm (6 inch) and total length of Kirpan doesn’t exceed 22.86 cm (9 inch). It is allowed while traveling on Indian aircraft within India operating from Domestic Terminals onlyStatement released by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security
The order revoked the previously-mentioned guideline that “no stakeholder or its employee at the airport (including Sikh) and working in any terminal, domestic or international, shall be allowed to carry Kirpan”.
BJP leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa tweeted a photo of the modified order and expressed gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia. Singh said airport Sikh employees and passengers could both carry kirpan at Indian airports now.
The announcement comes after a Sikh employee carrying a kirpan was stopped from performing duty at the Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport in Amritsar on 10 March.
The incident triggered controversy and upset Sikhs who termed it as an infringement of their rights. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Harjinder Singh Dhami wrote a letter to union minister Scindia, asking him to look into the incident and immediately withdraw the rule.
The kirpan is a curved, single-edged sword or knife carried by Sikhs, as part of a religious commandment given by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. The BCAS has now granted permission to carry kirpan on domestic flights.
Twitter users are protesting against the decision of the union government, warning it of foreseeable untoward incidents.
A few apologists have sprung up in the defence of the Narendra Modi government too.
How the Sikh ‘right’ is treated in different countries
On 12 October 2009, the Antwerp court of appeal declared carrying a kirpan a religious symbol, overturning a € 550 fine from a lower court for “carrying a freely accessible weapon without demonstrating a legitimate reason”.
In most public places in Canada a kirpan is allowed, although there have been some court cases regarding carrying on school premises. In the 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision of Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys the court held that the banning of the kirpan in a school environment offended Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that the restriction could not be upheld under s. 1 of the Charter, as per R. v. Oakes. The issue started when a 12-year-old schoolboy dropped a 20 cm (8-inch) long kirpan in school. School staff and parents were very concerned, and the student was required to attend school under police supervision until the court decision was reached. A student is allowed to have a kirpan on his person if it is sealed and secured.
In September 2008, Montreal police announced that a 13-year-old student was to be charged after he allegedly threatened another student with his kirpan. The court found the student not guilty of assault with the kirpan, but guilty of threatening his schoolmates, and he was granted an absolute discharge on 15 April 2009.
On 9 February 2011, the National Assembly of Quebec unanimously voted to ban kirpans from the provincial parliament buildings. However, despite opposition from the Bloc Québécois, it was voted that the kirpan be allowed in federal parliamentary buildings.
As of 27 November 2017, Transport Canada has updated its Prohibited Items list to allow Sikhs to wear kirpans smaller than 6 cm in length on all domestic and international flights (except to the US).
On 24 October 2006, the Eastern High Court of Denmark upheld the earlier ruling of the Copenhagen City Court that the wearing of a kirpan by a Sikh was illegal, becoming the first country in the world to pass such a ruling. Ripudaman Singh, who now works as a scientist, was earlier convicted by the City Court of breaking the law by publicly carrying a knife. He was sentenced to a 3,000 kroner fine or six days’ imprisonment. Though the High Court quashed this sentence, it held that the carrying of a kirpan by a Sikh broke the law. The judge stated that “after all the information about the accused, the reason for the accused to possess a knife and the other circumstances of the case, such exceptional extenuating circumstances are found, that the punishment should be dropped, cf. Penal Code § 83, 2nd period.”
Danish law allows carrying of knives (longer than 6 centimeters and non-foldable) in public places if it is for any purpose recognized as valid, including work-related, recreation, etc. The High Court did not find religion to be a valid reason for carrying a knife. It stated that “for these reasons, as stated by the City Court, it is agreed that the circumstance of the accused carrying the knife as a Sikh, cannot be regarded as a similarly recognisable purpose, included in the decision for the exceptions in weapon law § 4, par. 1, 1st period, second part.”
In 2015 an amritdhari Sikh was fined in the Lombard town of Goito, in Mantua province for carrying a kirpan. In 2017 Italy’s higher appeal court, the Corte di Cassazione upheld the fine. Media reports have interpreted the sentence as instituting a generalized ban on the kirpan. Amritsar Lok Sabha MP Gurjeet Singh Aulja met with Italian diplomats and was assured no generalized ban on kirpans is operative, and that the case had only specific relevance to a singular instance and carried no general applicability.
Swedish law has a ban on “street weapons” in public places that includes knives unless used for recreation (for instance fishing) or profession (for instance a carpenter). Carrying some smaller knives, typically folding pocket knives, is allowed, so that smaller kirpans may be within the law.
England and Wales
As a bladed article, possession of a kirpan without valid reason in a public place would be illegal under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. However, there is a specific defence for a person charged to prove that he carries it for “religious reasons”. There is an identical defence to the similar offence (section 139A) which relates to carrying bladed articles on school grounds. The official list of prohibited items at the London 2012 Summer Olympics venues prohibited all kinds of weapons, but explicitly allowed the kirpan.
Similar provisions exist in Scots law with section 49 of the Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995 making it an offence to possess a bladed or pointed article in a public place. A defence exists under s.49(5)(b) of the act for pointed or bladed articles carried for religious reasons. Section 49A of the same act creates the offence of possessing a bladed or pointed article in a school, with s.49A(4)(c) again creating a defence when the article is carried for religious reasons.
In 1994, the Ninth Circuit held that Sikh students in public school have a right to wear the kirpan. State courts in New York and Ohio have ruled in favor of Sikhs who faced the rare situation of prosecution under anti-weapons statutes for wearing kirpans, “because of the kirpan’s religious nature and Sikhs’ benign intent in wearing them.” In New York City, a compromise was reached with the Board of Education whereby the wearing of the knives was allowed so long as they were secured within the sheaths with adhesives and made impossible to draw. The tightening of air travel security in the twenty-first century has caused problems for Sikhs carrying kirpans at airports and other checkpoints. As of 2016, the TSA explicitly prohibits the carrying of “religious knives and swords” on one’s person or in cabin baggage and requires that they be packed in checked baggage.
In 2008, American Sikh leaders chose not to attend an interfaith meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC, because the United States Secret Service would have required them to leave behind the kirpan. The secretary general of the Sikh Council stated: “We have to respect the sanctity of the kirpan, especially in such interreligious gatherings. We cannot undermine the rights and freedoms of religion in the name of security.” A spokesman for the Secret Service stated: “We understand the kirpan is a sanctified religious object. But by definition, it’s still a weapon. We apply our security policy consistently and fairly.”