Monday, 24 May 2010

Sikhism & Open-air Funeral Pyres (Part I)

Sikhism & Open Air Funeral Pyres Brief

Note: This guidance note was prepared for open British Sikh Consultative Forum
pending judicial review of the relevant case on 10 November, 2008.
In this informal record, only relevant parts of letters and communications have been quoted.)

Main headings:

1. Introduction

2. Sikh religious position: The Sikh Reht Maryada (The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions)

3. BBC Apology for linking Sikhs with Hindu practices

4. Views of some leading Sikh nationwide organisations
& Responses to the Cremation Socity of Great Britain

5. Some useful contacts

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1. Introduction:

It needs to be made clear in the UK law and to the media and other groups e.g. environmental groups and the Cremation Society of Great Britain:-

(1) That the demand for OPEN-AIR is NOT a Sikh RELIGIOUS demand.

(2) That office holders of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) can only convey the relevant provisions of the Panth approved Sikh Reht Maryada, The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions, approved by the Khalsa Panth and published by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shromai Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. No office holder of any of the Gurdwara Parbandhak Committees in India or abroad, have any personal authority to give advice contrary to the Sikh Reht Maryada.

(3) That Sikhs are well satisfied with current indoors cremation facilities in the UK.

(4) That Sikhs are not Hindus and do not subscribe to Hindu rituals and practices; and,

(5) That this demand linking Hindu-Brahmanic ritualism with the Sikh faith is divisive and can harm community relations in the UK.

It is for Gurdwara councils in the UK to seek legal advice and take action as they see fit.

2. Sikh religious position

Sikh Reht Maryada
(The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions)

2.1 The approved Sikhs religious code, based on Sikh teachings, is called the Sikh eht Maryada - The Code of Sikh Conduct & Conventions. It is published in Panjabi and English by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Amritsar.

2.2 The SGPC collectively, is the highest Sikh authority for conveying the decisions of the Khalsa Panth, the Order of the Khalsa (the Sikh nation), to all concerned.

2.3 No office holder of the SGPC has any authority to issue guidance without reference to the Sikh Reht Maryada. Therefore, in connection with issues such as Sikh rites, any communication from any office holder of the SGPC which does not quote the relevant parts of the Panthic approved Sikh Reht Maryda, does not carry any authority whatsoever.

2.4 The relevant part of the Sikh Reht Maryada about "disposing of" the body, the Sikh guidance is clear:-

(quote from Sikh Reht Maryada):
Article XIX : Funeral Ceremonies
(Panjabi part see under “Mirtak Sanskaar” item (e)

(c) However young the deceased may be, 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.
(end quote from Sikh Reht maryada)

2.5 For all purposes, the Sikh view is that the dead body has absolutely no religious significance whatsoever.

2.6 So far as Sikhee (Sikh practice) 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 disposal.

2.7 It is preferred in Sikhee, 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.

2.8 Cremation in gas furnaces is superior to open air cremations. That is the Sikh preferred method in the UK. That is the firm Sikh view of nationwide Sikh representative organisations and gurdwaras.

2.9 UK Sikhs reject the linking of Sikh religious practice with any other non-Sikh faith.


3. BBC Apology for linking Sikhs with Hindu practices

3.1 BBC Report on Open Air Cremations 13-7-06: Network of Sikh Organisation (NSO) complaint & BBC Apology

3.1.1 Dr Indarjit Singh OBE JP, Director Network of Sikh Organisations wrote to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit on 22 September 2006:
[The more important passages have been highlighted.]

(Quote)
“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, they 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.

SUMMARY OF COMPLAINT

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.

REDRESS SOUGHT

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 quote)

3.2 BBC letter of 11 December 2006 from Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints to Dr Indarjit Singh OBE, upholding the complaint:-

“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 bbc.co.uk, 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

[“Pharos International” (see below): Editor’s note: “Despite several attempts by the Crematorium Society to obtain a transcript of the “on-air” apology, the BBC eventually advised that they were unable to “find it” !]

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4. Views of some leading Sikh nationwide organisations
& Responses to the Cremation Socity of Great Britain


4.1 Sikh organisation were alerted in February 2006 and the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society’s claims were rejected

4.1.1 Letter from the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society passed on to the British Sikh Consultative Forum (BSCF). (Copy recipients are shown to give an idea of circulation.)

From: Dr Anand
To: asian_voice@hotmail.com ; info@awazepunjab.com ;
awazeqaum@btconnect.com ; awazeqaum@hotmail.com ; info@dailysajjan.net
; info@thesikh-times.co.uk ; gujaratsandesh@btconnect.com ; Hindisamiti@hotmail.com
Cc: santhimon@deepika.com ; asian_voice@hotmail.com ;
mpmediaservices@yahoo.co.uk ; hindisamiti@hotmail.com ;
rkaul@sunriseradio.com

Sent: Sunday, February 12, 2006 6:35 PM

Dear Press Officer

On 30th November the Lahore government took the unprecedented step of
granting permission to our charity to have a plot of land, planning
permission and financial grant to build a traditional crematorium in
that city. Within weeks Afghanistan, another muslim state followed suite.

You may be aware that the www.Anglo-Asian.org submitted an application
to the Chief Exec of the City requesting land for traditional funeral
pyre for the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and any others on the basis of
their Religious Human rights on the 30th January 2006. I attach the letter.
We had not anticipated the unsolicited National and international
Media coverage on a daily basis. I attach the list
I feel you as Press Officer should be aware of this and perhaps so
should the counsillors.

Please feel free to get back online or on 07967000818 24/7 if needed


Dr Anand, GP
18A Elmfield Road, Gosforth, NE3 4AY
Joint Secretary to the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society

4.1.2 Dr Anand’s e-letter was passed on to the British Sikh Consultative Forum (BSCF). Gurmukh Singh responded for the BSCF (This BSCF should not be confused with a grant funded organisation by the same name which is Chaired by Bhai Mohinder Singh Ji of Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha.)

To:
Dr Anand GP
Joint Secretary to the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society
18A Elmfield Road, Gosforth, NE3 4AY

Dear Dr Anand

Your e-mail below about "traditional funeral pyre for the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and any others" has been passed on to me as Administrative Secretary of the British Sikh Consultative Forum.
This topic was raised for discussion in the Sikh diaspora following an item in The Times of 1 February 2006. Two relevant communications and The Times report are copied below for ease of reference for all concerned.

Can you please clarify on what SIKH religious authority (to quote your message) " the www.Anglo-Asian.org submitted an application to the Chief Exec of the City requesting land for traditional funeral pyre for the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and any others on the basis of their Religious Human rights on the 30th January 2006." ?
In religious matters, the only Sikh authority is the "Sikh Reht Mayada" agreed by the Khalsa Panth and issued by the Dharam Parchar Committee of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, based at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar (see my briefing note below). [not attached]
It is important that this question is answered as soon as possible. If a mistake has been made then I would suggest a full public apology from the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society to the UK Sikhs. This matter is being taken most seriously and is also likely to be raised at a meeting with the Department for Constitutional Affairs early next week.

Gurmukh Singh ACIS; MCMI
(Ret’d Principal (policy), UK Civil Service)
Administrative Secretary
British Sikh Consultative Forum

Copied to:
The Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee
The British Sikh Federation
Secretary, Sri Guru Singhj Sabha, Southall
The Sikh Missionary Society UK
Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (Birmingham)
Sikhs In England
Sikh Federation (UK)
SCAN Slough
Bhai Autar Singh (Malaysia)
BSCF Advisory Group
Sikh Press as per your mail.

British Sikh Consultative Forum’s challenge was not taken up. Despite a report about this matter in the “News & Views” column of the Panjab Times (Issue 2099), regrettably, Sikh organisations too ignored the matter at the time until misleading media reports in 2007. SGPC was copied the above response from the BSCF and made aware.

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4.2 Views of some leading Sikh nationwide organisations
& Responses to the Cremation Socity of Great Britain.


Main Sikh organisations were contacted by the Cremation Society of Great Britain last year. A copy of the BBC apology extracted by Dr Indarjit Singh OBE, Director Network of Sikh Organisations (see above), was sent to the Society by the BSCF.
Julie Forrest of The Cremation Society of Great Britain drew attention of Sikh organisations to this issue. To quote from one standard letter to a Sikh organisations [this one to the Sikh Federation UK],
“We are obviously reading with great interest in the media the campaign by Davender Ghai, President of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, for the legalisation of open-air funeral pyres in the UK. In a recent press article by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle dated 29th June it was stated that ‘Sikh organisations have also approached the charity’s legal team indicating they want to support the judicial review in court’. Does the Sikh Federation (UK) support this campaign or are you satisfied with the services offered in UK crematoria?”
A copy of the news report was also received from the Society by the British Sikh Consultative Forum.

4.3 The Sikh Federation's response to the Cremation Society read:
" We are satisfied with the services offered in UK crematoria….We have publicly condemned (see below) 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:
4.3.1 First attachment was 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 also taken up by Dr Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations with the BBC for giving the same false impression without proper investigation.

To quote from the Daily Telegraph report of 15 July 2006:

“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." (end quote)

4.3.2 Second attachement: The Fedration's Press release of Friday 14 July 2006 with the heading,
" SIKHS OUTRAGED AT OPEN-AIR FUNERAL MISREPRESENTATION"

Quote: "..After an article appeared in The Times on 1 February 2006 titled: 'Hindus and Sikhs call for the right to open-air cremations' the AAFS [Anglo-Asian Friendship Society] was asked in writing to explain itself as it had no authority to comment on behalf of the Sikhs. The AAFS was informed that the Sikh Code of Conduct was the only authority that governed what should happen to a Sikh upon death. A full public apology was demanded from the AAFS. Ghai was contacted immediately after the article in The Times and he agreed not to represent Sikh interests in the future. It would appear that he has gone to extreme lengths to carry out this disgraceful act on Wednesday and to cause maximum mischief for the British Sikh community... .The body cremated on Wednesday was that of Rajpal Mehat, 31, an illegal immigrant described by the AAFS and the media as a Sikh, who had drowned in a canal in Southall in December last year...." (end quote)

4.4 The Newcastle Evening Chronicle dated 29th June heading was:
”A CAMPAIGN for open-air funeral pyres in the UK has won the backing of the Hindu equivalent of the Pope.” And Sikhs were repeatedly linked to the Hindu request.

4.5 British Sikh Consultative Forum

To the Cremation Society’s query, Gurmukh Singh responded for the British Sikh Consultative Forum, "Sikh Federation's response to your query refers and I shall be alerting other main Sikh organisations as requested. It is very important that Hindus and Sikhs are not bracketed together in matters concerning the two religions. The Sikhs have their own religious Code of Conduct (The Sikh Reht Maryada) which should be consulted by any organisation claiming to represent the Sikh religion. The question of open air funerals has been extensively discussed in open Sikh forums and the actions of Davender Ghai, President of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, condemned.
In this connection, copied below is an apology by BBC to Dr Inderjit Singh OBE, Director Network of Sikh Organisations, for misrepresenting Sikh religious practice in a report." (end quote)

4.6 Sikhs In England

Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England responded 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 Ghia had to accept that he was not in any way able to represent Sikh interests in this or any other matter.” (end quote)


4.7 The Sikh Times UK 9 August 2007 carried the front page headline:
“Sikh say “No” to open-air funeral pyres”
Followed by a comprehensive report by Gurmukh Singh, Administrative Secretary of the British Sikh Consultative Forum.

4.8 “Pharos International”, The Official jounal of the Creamtion Society of Great Britain Autumn ’07 issue published the BSCF report in full, giving extracts from the Sikh Reht Maryada (Sikh Code of Conduct) and the BBC apology for misrepresenting the Sikh position in their report on open air cremations of 13 July 2006.

4.9 International Cremation and Burial Conference 12th to 14th November 2007

An invitation to brief the above conference regarding the UK Sikh view was received by the British Sikh Consultative Forum from Roger N Arber, Secretary of the Cremation Society of Great Britain. Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England attended and represented the Sikh faith position as briefed.


4.10 Government departments:

Ministery of Justice (MoJ) has been sent the full article in the Sikh Times by Gurmukh Singh, based on BSCF briefing (see 3.5 above), that open air funeral pyres is not a Sikh demand. Harjinder Singh Khalsa and Bibi Satnam Kaur Khalsa have also represented the views expressed through the British Sikh Consultative Forum on this issue. Earlier this year, the BSCF was informed by the MoJ that Mr Davender Kumar Ghai had made a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice for the minutes of the meetings between the MoJ and the various Faith Group leaders.

4.11 Panjab Radio programme Friday 25 July 2008

Panjab Radio presenter Jasvir Singh discussed the issue of open air funeral pyres with Gurmukh Singh of the British Sikh Consultative Forum. The overwhelming response from listeners when the lines were opened, was that UK Sikhs should take a very serious note of these moves to link this demand by some Hindu activists to the Sikhs. Some alarm was expressed that Davinder Ghai was receiving legal aid to take this matter to the courts. The move was seen as a part of the extremist Hindutva agenda to deny the Sikhs their independent religious identity. The judicial review could harm community relations in the UK. Next steps to clarify the Sikh religious position in this review would be for gurdwaras and Sikh organisations including the Sikh Missionary Society UK.


4.12 Sikh cyber forums: This issue has been extensively discussed on national and international cyber forums like the Sikh News Discussion and the Gurmatt Learning Zone (GLZ). A communication from Bhai Autar Singh of Malaysia, the founder of the international GLZ with over 8,000 members including a large number of Sikh intellectuals, was quoted in the main BSCF article, which appeared in the Sikh Times and the Pharos International (see above)

5. Contacts for further information on this issue are:

Harmander Singh of Sikhs in England has volunteered to co-ordinate for the British Sikh Consultative Forum e-mail: harmanders@yahoo.co.uk

Anglo-Asian Society website.
http://www.anglo-asian.org/
Davender Ghai,
President
Anglo-Asian Society
3 cuthbert walk, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE3 1BH
e-mail: info@anglo-asian.org
Evening Chronicle (New Castle) reporter Sonia Sharma: sonia.sharma@ncjmedia.co.uk
Minitry of Justice contact Lynette Hill Lynette.Hill@justice.gsi.gov.uk
Cremation Society of Great Britain: Julie Forrest julie@cremation.org.uk


Sikh organisations

Network of Sikh Organisations: Dr Indarjit Singh OBE JP sikhmessenger@aol.com (Tel: 020 8540 4148)
Sikh Fedration: sikh federation sikhfederationuk@yahoo.co.uk
British Sikh Consultative Forum: sewauk2005@yahoo.co.uk (Gurmukh Singh 020 8737 0866)
Sikhs In England: Harmander Singh harmanders@yahoo. co.uk

Heathrow Sikh Care Society- National Development Officer of the National Council of Faiths & Beliefs in FE - Harjinder Singh Khalsa

British Sikh Women’s Organisation
Satnam Kaur Khalsa

Panjab Radio info@panjabradio.co.uk (Jasvir Singh 9Mob 07947120482)
The Sikh Times: Gurjeet Kaur gurjeet@thesikhtimes.co.uk

Briefing based on related communications and discussions prepared by Gurmukh Singh for the (open) British Sikh Consultative Forum.

Gurmukh Singh
sewauk2005@yahoo.co.uk

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