Thursday 8 April 2010

Should Sikhs be permitted to wear a kirpan in public?

The kirpan is a sword or dagger carried by many male Sikhs. According to a mandatory religious commandment given by Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Guru of Sikhism) in AD 1699 at the Baisakhi Amrit Sanchar (a holy religious ceremony that formally baptizes a Sikh), all baptized Sikhs must wear a kirpan at all times as a symbol of their faith. Generally, the kirpan is a curved dagger that is sheathed. Kirpans are typically made from iron and range in blade size from 3 inches (7.6 cm) to over 3 feet (90 cm), though Sikhs in the West wear kirpans with a blade of about 3.5 inches (9 cm). Most Sikhs wear the kirpan concealed under their clothes.

Many Sikhs consider that a kirpan must be carried as a weapon to fulfill religious criteria which demands that male Sikhs protect defenseless people from violence. The logic of that kind of religious criteria would mean that they can also carry handguns to protect defenseless people. The kirpan is worn as a symbol of the Sikh being willing to defend his or her faith, or to defend the weak or oppressed. The most important meaning is that the kirpan symbolizes the commitment to fight ‘the enemy within’, that is weaknesses in one’s own character and behaviour.

A Sikh who does not wear his Kirpan openly, in a sheath, or suspended from his waist may be in violation of the religious commandment if the nature of the Kirpan is that it is capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon that may inflict great bodily injury or death. A Sikh is not in violation if the Kirpan cannot be removed from its sheath without difficulty or is not capable of ready use. Similarly, a Sikh is not in violation if the blade is dulled or rounded such that it may not be capable of inflicting great bodily injury or death. Many Sikhs attach small symbolic kirpans to combs that Sikhs keep in their hair. Similarly, small kirpan-shaped pendants are worn around the neck, again fulfilling the criterion of the faith that the dagger be ever-present.

The requirement that baptized Sikhs wear the kirpan has caused problems in many areas for those who choose to carry a kirpan usable as a weapon, especially where the custom clashes with local laws against carrying weapons especially when they are concealed. In cases where regulations conflict with wearing the kirpan, such as boarding an airplane or entering a prison, Sikhs must comply with authorities.

Many Sikhs consider that they—and their children—should be able to carry a kirpan on their person even though it is illegal in most countries according to the legal code of most countries. Generally carrying a knife for good (usually occupational) reason is allowed; and smaller knives, e.g., folding pocket knives, may often be carried without restriction. In many countries however, there has been public debates about allowing Sikhs to carry a kirpan that would otherwise be an unlawful weapon, with some countries allowing Sikhs a dispensation to carry a kirpan. An additional issue is carrying kirpans into schools; even if a kirpan is not forbidden in society at large, schools often forbid carrying such items.

In most public places in Canada, carrying a kirpan in public is allowed, although there have been some court cases involving the carrying of the kirpan 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 is against Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a reasonable accommodation. 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. The Supreme Court of Canada later ruled that he could have the kirpan on his person while attending school.

As a bladed article, possession of a large enough kirpan 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 to prove that he had it with him for "religious reasons". There is an identical defence to the similar offence (section 139A) which relates to school grounds.

Not all those who identify themselves as Sikhs carry or recommend carrying a kirpan usable as a weapon. Hardeep Singh Kohli, who identifies himself and most of the Sikhs he knows as secular Sikhs, criticized UK Sikh judge Sir Mota Singh QC for calling for Sikh school children to be allowed to carry the kirpan, saying that he thinks it's OK for kids to take knives to class. Kohli said in response, “I'm simply not comfortable with knives being allowed into school.”

On October 24, 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 3000 kroner fine or 6 days' imprisonment. Though the High Court later quashed this sentence, it maintained that the carrying of a kirpan by a Sikh broke the law.

Swedish law has a ban on ‘street weapons’ in public places that includes knives unless used for hobby (for instance fishing) or profession (for instance a carpenter). Carrying some smaller knives, typically folding pocket knives, is allowed, making it permissible to carry kirpans in public.

There have been several court cases in the USA relating to the legality of wearing a kirpan in public places. Courts in New York and Ohio have ruled that banning the wearing of a kirpan is unconstitutional. 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 which makes it impossible to draw.

Sikh students enrolled in 61 schools run by the National Heritage Academies in the US have been allowed to carry a kirpan, subject to certain restrictions. The National Heritage Academies which runs its schools in the states of Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Ohio, has allowed Sikh students to carry a kirpan in the institutions.

Employers such as AT&T and organizations like the International Monetary Fund have reversed bans against Sikh Kirpans across the United States.

I think I can safely say that most Sikh’s carrying the kirpan on their person would never think of pulling it out of their sheaths as an offensive weapon. But there are some but few exceptions.

On April 2, 2010, a crowd of about 150 people in Brampton, Ontario was yelling obscenities and threats outside the Sikh Lehar Centre in Brampton when three temple officials stepped out to pacify them. Within seconds, one in the crowd, clutching a thick steel bangle, punched Manjit Mangat, the 53-year-old president of the Sikh temple, in the face. Witnesses say at least two men brandished unsheathed kirpans. The next moment, Mangat, a prominent Brampton lawyer, Manjit Mangat was on the ground — his face bloodied and a 5-inch wound in his abdomen. His attacker, Sukhwant Singh, in his early 50s, was arrested and charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. On February 10, 2009, a Canadian Sikh boy was taken to court on kirpan assault charge.

As I see it, if a Sikh wearing a kirpan that is larger than a penknife, draws it from his sheath in an offensive manner while in public, (other than to defend himself or another from a physical attack from someone else) he should forfeit having the right to carry a kirpan larger than a penknife in public. From then on, he should have to wear a kirpan as a small attachment to his comb in his hair or as a pendant around his neck or in his pocket if that is his wish.

Further, I think that all regular sized kirpans that are worn in public should be adhesively secured in their sheaths so that they can never be withdrawn from their sheaths. There is no need to have a sharp kirpan easily drawn from a sheath since the wearing of the kirpan is to serve a symbolic purpose only and for no other purpose.

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