Faith Engagement – If the Government wish to engage with the community, come to the community!

Mankamal Singh of The Sikh Network

14 May 2023               

Last week the world witnessed the Coronation of King Charles III. For Britain this was a monumental event and perhaps for many, the first time they got to see the religious nature of Britain’s monarchy, with the King being made the ‘Defender of Faith’ as Head of the Church of England. King Charles has been a patron of diversity and faith, understanding that faiths represent different perspectives on truth, and that they can coexist whilst adding richness to society.

Although we see progressive and encompassing messaging from the new King, when it comes to the UK Government’s engagement with minority faiths, such as the Sikh community, it is a very different picture.

A recent Government commissioned review of faith in modern Britain titled ‘Does Government Do God?’, which has come to be known as the ‘Bloom Review’, was published just before the Coronation. The review was presented as an ‘independent’ review into how Government engages with faith.

Despite reference to various faiths, the Bloom Review dedicated 12 pages to what it termed ‘Sikh extremism’, this was not just inexplicable to the Sikh community but also described as ‘bizarre’ by both Sikh and non-Sikh media commentators.

The British Sikh community are an established and integrated minority faith group in the UK, making up less than 1% of the population in England and Wales. What is of huge concern to the Sikh community is the qualitative and opinion-based approach to this specific review as opposed to an expected quantitative and fact balance. This is coupled with a lack of confidence in the independence of the Conservative Government’s decision making, which appears to be influenced by geopolitical foreign policy considerations. For minorities living in the UK, these are challenging times where public perception conflates even the most minor issues.

The Bloom Review boasts 21,000 respondents across all faith communities. However, no breakdown of the respondents is provided so it is impossible to ascertain the origin of those representations or how many of that number relate to the British Sikh community. Considering Sikhs only make up less than 1% of the population in the UK, Sikh extremism makes up 8% of this review. It is worth noting that there are currently no individuals in HM Prison Service on terrorism charges from the Sikh community nor are the community aware of any on-going investigations in the UK on terrorism related to the Sikh community.

The author of the review is Colin Bloom, a member of the Conservative Party and appointed by Boris Johnson in 2019 as the Faith Engagement Adviser at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Bloom was a former councillor for Bromley Council and unsuccessfully stood in the 2010 general election to represent Erith and Thamesmead. He has previously served as executive director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and director of Christians in Politics, which is a Parliamentary Christian Trust.

Bloom is by profession a politician, his political ideology very evident in his review, which in tone and substance often comes across as ‘colonial’. There certainly can be no claim to independence or impartiality. In several TV interviews, Bloom has stated that the review is his own opinion. Given that he is not an expert on human rights, the Sikhs or Indian history, neither is he an expert on terrorism/counterterrorism, it is outrageous that he can make claims against Sikh community engagement with politics, politicians, and political institutions, based on nothing more than a jaundiced opinion.

Over the past decade Conservative Governments have had no qualms about alienating the British Sikh community. The effect of their actions is especially damaging to the young and forces British Sikhs to question any previously accepted British identity, as well as their engagement with politics and political institutions. The Sikhs are amongst the most well integrated Diaspora communities in the UK, successive Tory Governments have sabotaged that cohesion for purely political considerations.

British Sikhs continually raise concerns about better monitoring of public resources, the rise in anti-Sikh hate crime, legislation impacting the Sikh identity, human rights violations in India and the fundamental right to self-determination. The latter being the most politically volatile as it challenges an allied state that the UK Government is at pains not to antagonise, even though it is fully aware of the well documented situation with respect to minority rights in that country. That the world’s foremost human rights organisations are unable to operate within the world’s largest democracy speaks volumes, yet no part of these legitimate issues and concerns enter the UK Government’s discussions with Sikh organisations.

We have a saying in the community, that ‘if the Government wish to engage with the community, then come to the community’.

Labour must pitch itself as being more in touch with the grassroots faith and community organisations, in contrast to the long-held policy of the Conservatives to pander to aloof elites that are unrepresentative of the vast majority.

Labour should also be thinking about ethical foreign policy rather than short term-opportunism, to think about how the Indian Government is using the British Government to repress British citizens.

Labour needs to restate the primacy of UK citizens right to free speech over the desires of foreign Governments to silence dissent and not kowtow to what is in effect transnational repression.

If Labour wish to differentiate themselves then greater engagement is key, listening to Gurdwaras and grassroots Sikh Organisations and their concerns. Not labelling them as extremists for pursuing a peaceful path to self-determination, an enshrined basic human right.

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury was criticised by some for his courageous words calling the UK migration bill ‘impractical and morally unacceptable’. Critics believe faith and politics should remain distinctly separate.

In Sikh thought, there is a concept known as ‘Miri-Piri’ where the temporal and spiritual are in continuous balance, one informing the other. The practical application of this philosophy removes the sort of short-sighted thinking that leads to believing that the ends justify the means, it removes the disparity that is often found between our stated values and our actual actions.

Sikhs believe that their faith should inform their politics, which are ultimately the ideology that governs citizen and state interactions and relationships. In the absence of such underpinning the difficulty for Sikhs as a stateless people is to navigate the contradictions of geopolitics that render them expendable to Governments, leaving them unsupported and vulnerable to the sort of misrepresentations only too visible in this particular review.

Mankamal Singh

The Sikh Network