Monday, 24 May 2010

Sikhism & Open-air Funeral Pyres Report (Part II)


(The Sikh Times UK report of 9 August 2007, also published in the autumn edition of the quarterly magazine Pharos International of The Cremation Society of Great Britain)

UK Sikh organisations condemn misleading statements by the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society linking Sikhs with Brahmanic ritualism.
Row sparked by query from the Cremation Society of Great Britain about recent press reports.

Sikhs are not “Hindus”!

A query from the Cremation Society of Great Britain about a report in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle has sparked a row between the Anglo-Asian Society and nationwide Sikh organisations.

In his response to the Cremation Society of Great Britain asking for the Sikh view about open air funeral pyres, Gurmukh Singh from the British Sikh Consultative Forum, wrote that the Sikhs have their own religious Code of Conduct & Conventions (The Sikh Reht Maryada). This should be consulted by any organisation claiming to represent the Sikh religion.

The Sikh religious position had been made clear to the media and Mr Davender Ghai, President of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society last year. The question of open air funerals had been extensively discussed in open Sikh forums and the actions of Davender Ghai, condemned.

The BBC were forced to make public apologies for misreporting on this same issue in December 2006.

We have been here before!

Julie Forrest of The Cremation Society of Great Britain drew attention of Sikh organisations to a report in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of 29th June, 2007. The heading of the report by Sonia Sharma reads, "Religious equivalent of the Pope supports open air funeral campaign. Hindu leader backs pyres bid.” A Swami Divyanand Teerth described as “religious equivalent of the Pope” is quoted by The Newcastle Evening Chronicle reporter as saying, “Cremation in the open air is the birthright of Hindus and Sikhs as well as their unalterable duty.” According to the report, Davendar Ghai of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, “who organised the open air funeral of Rajpal Mehat in Newcastle last year, has won legal aid to fight his case in the High Court.” Rajpal Mehat, an illegal immigrant according to the Sikh Federation UK, has been incorrectly described as a Sikh. The report goes on to claim, “Sikh organisations have also approved the charity’s legal team indicating they want to support the judicial review in court.”

The Sikh Fedration’s response to the Cremation Society reads, “We are satisfied with the services offered in UK crematoria….We have publicly condemned Davender Ghai and his illegal actions. Given our contacts with the Gurdwaras (the main Sikh organisations) in the North East we do not think any meaningful Sikh organisation, with any real representational capacity, would have approached the charity’s legal team indicating they want to support the judicial review in court. Davender Ghai should be challenged to specify which Sikh organisations.”

There were two attachments to the Sikh federation's response to the Cremation Society:
First attachment is a “Daily Telegraph” report of 15 July 2006 with the headline, “Pyre was a mistake, say Sikhs”. The report incorrectly describes a Hindu Rajpal Mehat, who was “burned” on an open as a “Sikh”. A point taken up by Dr Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations with the BBC (see boxed item) for giving the same false impression without proper investigation. To quote from the Daily Telegraph report: “A Sikh organisation has criticised the decision to allow the first open-air funeral in Britain for 72 years. The remains of Rajpal Mehat, a 31-year-old Indian-born Sikh, were burned on a pyre in Stamfordham, Northumberland, on Wednesday.

“The cremation went ahead in accordance with Hindu customs after his family contacted Davender Ghai, the president of the Newcastle-based Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Northumbria police allowed it to take place but said later that it contravened the Cremation Act 1902.
“Yesterday the Sikh Federation (UK) accused the authorities of making "a major mistake" and claimed Mr Ghai had organised the funeral simply to attract attention to his campaign for funeral pyres to be allowed in Britain. The Sikh view, said the federation, was that a conventional cremation was satisfactory because a dead body had "absolutely no religious significance whatsoever". It called on the Crown Prosecution Service to take Mr Ghai to court. Mr Ghai said last night: "All I have done is to obey the family's wishes. It went ahead with the blessing of the police."
The second attachment is the Federation’s press release with the heading, “Sikhs outraged at open-air funeral pyres.” and relates to the same Daily Telegraph report.
Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England responded to the Cremation Society along similar lines. To quote, “Many thanks for your e-mail to Sikhs In England concerning Mr Ghai's absurd suggestions which were vehemently challenged by Sikhs nationally at the time he originally made them and Mr Ghai had to accept that he was not in any way able to represent Sikh interests in this or any other matter. The wrongfull assertion in the BBC news clippings also resulted in the BBC having to give on-air and television apology to the Sikh community for taking Mr Ghai's assertions as valid and for hurting the feelings and damaging the Sikh community's identity.”

Ashes Scattered In UK's Ganges

Sikhs In England have challenged a misleading report by http://news. article/ of 20 July, 2007. Clarification is also being sought from the “leading Sikh” mentioned in the article. The heading reades,”Ashes Scattered In UK's Ganges” and some relevant quotes are,“A river on Tyneside could become Britain's answer to the Ganges as the place for people to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
“Gateshead Council has designated part of the River Derwent for Sikhs and Hindus to carry out the ceremony, believing that by immersing ashes into flowing water they will be sent to heaven.A leading Sikh, Bahal Singh Dindsa, has praised the council for being "forward-thinking". But many authorities prohibit the scattering of human remains in UK rivers, for fear of contamination…..The Sikh practice of burning the bodies of the dead on funeral pyres before scattering the ashes is also prohibited under UK law.” This is a damaging and misleading statement about Sikh “practice”. (See boxed item “Sikh Reht Maryada”)

Investigative journalism V. spreading misinformation

Sonia Sharma, Reporter, Evening Chronicle has responded to further queries from Sikh organisations through the Cremation Society of Great Britain (trying to clarify the Sikh practice) as follows, “I have spoken to Mr Ghai about the groups that have shown an interest in the campaign for open air funeral pyres. At this stage they are unwilling to disclose the names of the groups. They are following advice from their legal team and say that all will be revealed when the case is heard at the High Court.”
Despite being alerted about strong objections by Sikh organisations, Sonia Sharma did another report on 12 July this year again associating the Sikhs with this Hindu demand.

To the above, we leave the last word to Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England, “…if there is to be a Judicial Review, this is meant to be open (to the public) process and any representation made will be automatically open to scrutiny. Either Mr Ghai is playing his little games again or more worryingly, he is naive to the implications of what he is getting himself involved in. Either way Mr Ghai will not be able to sustain the argument that the Sikh religion supports his own faith's position in the way he purports or attempts to portray.”

One of the many mails on the Sikh cyber-forums:

Reproduced below are comments by Bhai Autar Singh of Malaysia. Bhai Sahib is the founder of the worldwide Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ) which has over 6,000 members including Sikh scholars of repute. He wrote, “Among the essential last rites mentioned [in The Times report of 1 February 2006] are:
1. open air cremations
2. disposal of ashes - they are cooled and carefully collected so
that there is no possibility of intermingling with other ashes
3. the remains need to be taken to india
all these [and more] rituals are deemed essential to the process of
reincarnation and any slack in the performance of these would
incur "catastrophic consequences for the departed soul".
As far as Sikhi is concerned, the performance or non-performance of
any ritual in relation to the disposal of the dead body has no
bearing on the fate of the departed soul. Hence whether the body is
cremated, buried, immersed in water or eaten by animals, is not the
focal issue. The prevailing circumstances dictate the mode of
Having said that, it is preferred in Sikhi [Sikh way of life] to cremate the dead body as this is considered the best method. when there is a choice of methods of cremation, again the choice should be the best method. IMHO cremation in gas furnaces is superior to open air cremations. Regarding cooling and separating of ashes, the Sikh Reht Maryada forbids us from separating the ashes of the body from those of the clothes, wooden bier or coffin, etc. we are to dispose off all the ashes together. And of course we are to immerse the ashes in flowing water, preferably. otherwise we can bury the ashes. the guiding principle is that we use the best and most convenient method and that we do not end up setting up a tomb where the ashes or the body is buried, immersed or cremated.
The news report focussed on the need to carry out prescribed rituals
to assist in reincarnation. I notice that in our Sikh funerals also there has emerged a set of rituals that must be done, in a certain way by certain specified relatives. hence the pyre must be lit [or the furnace button pressed] by the eldest son, etc. I think the most important activity [not a ritual but a spiritual] that must be done on the death of a relative is as follows:
The Paath must be done by all the near and dear relatives themselves..
yes, by the family members themselves. not by friends and
acquaintances. Not by hired paathies. but by the spouse, sons,
daughters, and other close family members. That I firmly believe is
one activity that we must stress upon. The one activity that would
certainly help everyone, including the departed soul for he/she would
surely be rewarded for ensuring that his/her family is able to read
Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and thus be linked with Gurbani for all
times to come, and beyond.
If you have not yet taught your children how to read Gurmukhi, and
hence Gurbani, now is the perfect time to start, may Akaal Purkh be
with you.
And if you want to do that ultimate duty for your departed parent, it
is not the lighting of the pyre or the pressing of the button or any of the many others that everyone around will tell you to do. Your ultimate seva and duty would be to participate in the Paath yourself. Are you prepared for the ultimate duty?

Guru Raakhaa
Autar Singh
Subang Jaya, Malaysia ”

Report collated for the Sikh Times by Gurmukh Singh

Anglo-Asian Society website:

1st boxed item
BBC Report on Open Air Cremations 13-7-06: NSO complaint & BBC Apology

Dr Indarjit Singh OBE JP, Director Network of Sikh Organisations wrote to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit on 22 September 2006:

“I refer to previous correspondence with the BBC on 13-7-06, 14-7-06, 21-7-06, and as advised, a formal complaint to the Complaints Unit in Glasgow (copy attached).
I subsequently received a letter from the Editor News at Ten dated 24 July 06 (copy also attached) in which the Editor claimed ‘the team behind the story did a lot of research’. Yet the slightest research would have told them that the name of the deceased, Rajpal Mehat is not a Sikh name, and a service conducted by aBrahmin priest is not a Sikh service. Instead, thy simply assumed that the deceased was a Sikh from a Sikh family, because an unidentified person told them so. Such cursory treatment of a sensitive issue is not acceptable from national media reaching millions, particularly from the BBC. Clearly no attempt was made to check the accuracy of this Report with an authoritative Sikh source, like the Network of Sikh Organisations or similar bodies. either before broadcasting, or worse, after my complaint.
Incidentally, The Times in its report of the event on Thursday July 13th , included a photograph of the funeral, clearly showing a Hindu ceremony, conducted by a Hindu Priest complete with Trishul.
On 15 August 06, I received a letter from the Divisional Advisor BBC suggesting that I formally complain to you, and, in the absence of progress, I now reluctantly doing so on behalf of the Network of Sikh Organisations.

The Report wrongly claimed that the deceased and his family were Sikhs. The correct position is that the deceased’s mother from a Sikh background had married into a Hindu family. Common sense would suggest that this does not make her husband and offspring Sikhs. It would be equally absurd to suggest that if a Christian woman marries a Sikh, the entire family become Christians.
The Report ignoring the fact that Rajpal Mehat, the name of the deceased is a Hindu name, referred to him as a Sikh.
The report wrongly described a funeral service conducted by a Hindu priest
(complete with Trishul) from the Brahmin caste, as a Sikh service
The BBC refused to make corrections regarding the above in their
10’O’Clock bulletin when these major errors were pointed out to them. Instead, they patronisingly maintained that they and their sources knew best.
The BBC ignored Sikh pleas that lurid reporting, of a desire of Sikhs to have open air cremations in Britain’s countryside, had no basis in fact and would create anger and prejudice against Britain’s most visible minority at a particularly sensitive time.
All the above together constitute inaccurate and irresponsible reporting that could create prejudice against Sikhs and harm community cohesion.

A clear apology made at a peak viewing time.
An undertaking that the BBC will in future consult with the Sikh community to ensure accuracy on sensitive issues.” (end quote0

BBC apology of 11 December 2006

“You helpfully summarised your complaint in your letter of 22 September, so I shall follow the order of the summary.

1. The Report wrongly claimed that the deceased and his family were Sikhs.
The correct position is that the deceased's mother from a Sikh background had married into a Hindu family.
2. The Report ignoring the fact that Rajpal Mehat, the name of the deceased is a Hindu name, referred to him as a Sikh.

The studio introduction in both bulletins described Mr Mehat as "a Sikh man", and the report itself said "Earlier, before the pyre was lit, the family paid their last Aspects. As Sikhs, they follow the Hindu tradition of open air cremation". As far as we have been able to establish, the facts about Mr Mehat's family are as you state them. and there is uncertainty about which religion he followed, if any. I have seen no evidence which would justify identifying
Mr Mehat and his family (other than his mother) as Sikhs.

3. The report described a funeral service conducted by a Hindu priest (complete with (Trishul)from the Brahmin caste, as a Sikh service.

The passage from the report quoted above made clear to viewers that what they were seeing was a Hindu service. What was misleading; however was the suggestion that it was Sikh practice to use Hindu rites in such circumstances, and that open-air cremation was a requirement of the Sikh religion.

4. The BBC refused to make corrections regarding the above in their 10 O'Clock bulletin when these major errors were pointed out to them...

The later bulletin reflected your views to the extent of adding the sentence "Tonight, one Sikh leader has insisted this is not a practice most Sikhs want", but I accept that this was not sufficient to rectify the misleading aspects of the report.

5. The BBC ignored Sikh pleas that lurid reporting, of a desire of Sikhs to have open air cremations in Britain's countryside, had no basis in fact and would create anger and prejudice against Britain's most visible minority at a particularly sensitive time.

6. All the above together constitute inaccurate and irresponsible reporting that could create prejudice against Sikhs and harm community cohesion.

As you may be aware, Davender Ghai, the organiser of the cremation, claims to have support from both the Hindu and Sikh communities for a change in the law to permit open-air cremation - in particular, he claims to have a petition of 600 signatures, half of them from Sikhs. Our enquiries led us to conclude that such claims should be treated with caution, and we found no grounds for believing his aims had significant support within the Sikh community. To the extent that open-air cremation is controversial, I accept that the
misleading aspects of these two bulletins were prejudicial to the Sikh community.

I am therefore upholding your complaint. A summary of the matter, with a note of the action taken as a result of this finding, will appear in the complaints section of, and I shall send you a copy when it has been posted. I think you will already have heard from Peter Horrocks, Head of Television News that the action is to include on-air apologies (and here I should add my own apology for the fact that, because of a misunderstanding, this letter wasn't sent to you at the same time as Mr Horrocks'). In the meantime, thank you for giving us the opportunity of investigating your concerns and for your patience while we did so.

Yours sincerely
Fraser Steel
Head of Editorial Complaints

2nd boxed item

Sikh Reht Maryada
(The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions)
Article XIX (relevant quotes)
(c) …… the body should be cremated. However, where arrangements for cremation cannot be made, there should be no qualm about the body being immersed in flowing water or disposed of in any other manner.
(f) When the pyre is burnt out, the whole bulk of the ashes, including the burnt bones, should be gathered up and immersed in flowing water or buried at that very place and the ground levelled. Raising a monument to the memory of the deceased at the place where his dead body is cremated is taboo.
[Editorial note: The whole of Article XIX should be referred to but the above quotations are relevant to this report. This is the authoritative Gurmatt based Sikh position. The dead body should be disposed of by whatever means are available. For all purposes, the Sikh view is that the dead body has absolutely no religious significance whatsoever. Those interfacing with the press or involved in any consultation with the authorities e.g. Department for Constitutional Affairs, would wish to give a firm view based on the Sikh Reht Maryada published by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shromani Gurdwara Committee, Amritsar. The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society owes the Sikhs an apology for issuing statements on behalf of the Sikhs without consulting the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee at Amritsar.]

Gurmukh Singh (UK)

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