Kids Corner


It's a Knife, It's a Dagger, It's a Sword ... No, It's a Kirpan!




The following is an extract from a lecture delivered by Sardar Manjit Singh at the Second Global Sikh Civil Rights Conference, Toronto, Canada, on December 20, 2009, with the title "Redefining and Winning the Right to Kakaars":


My remarks will focus on what we as a community can do to win the endorsement of mainstream society on 'Redefining and Winning the Right to Kakaars'.

My focus today is on the Sikh Kirpan as an article of Sikh faith.

I am confining myself to my Canadian experience for the simple reason that I have been a resident of this country for the last forty eight years.

Following the attack on the Darbar Sahib in June 1984, it became apparent that the people of Canada are completely unfamiliar with Sikhs and their religious beliefs. It is  still the case  today.  It is obvious that to overcome this deficiency, our community needs to cultivate social relations with the members of the main stream society. As a rule, people stand in solidarity with fellow citizens when they feel emotionally connected with each other.

For a long time, this has not been the case for the Sikh community in Canada. Since the 9/11 events, our situation has further deteriorated in this regard. As a result we keep facing hurdles in our daily lives as practicing Sikhs. 

An overwhelmingly large proportion of our community are first generation immigrants. A common belief among our people is that we are targets of discrimination at the hands of the host society. In many cases this is true. There are instances, however, when we as a community have not looked at how we can ameliorate this hardship by not blaming others for our difficulties and by being proactive as a community in finding solutions to these problems within ourselves.

Here are a couple of examples in support of the above statement.

All of you are probably familiar with the story of Gurbaj Singh Multani from Montreal who is an Amritdhari Sikh young man. He was 11 years old in November 2001. While playing in the school yard his kirpan fell out of its gaatra. A parent of another child noticed this and raised an alarm that Gurbaj was carrying a dagger in violation of the school policy. The Parents Committee and the school administration could not understand the significance of the kirpan or of an Amritdhari Sikh which led to a breakdown of dialogue between the local Sikh Community and the school authorities.

Eventually, the dispute ended up in courts going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

As luck would have it, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Gurbaj, thus upholding the right of an Amritdhari Sikh to carry a kirpan in school with certain restrictions on its safe keeping.

This victory cost the community $125,000 in legal expenses.

Over and above the financial cost of this operation, there are a few additional problems arising from this case that need to be looked at by the Sikh community.

First, by going to the courts, we as a community are putting our destiny in the hands of non-Sikhs. Had the Supreme Court decided against Gurbaj, it would have been a major financial and emotional setback for the community. Under this scenario, non-Sikhs would have decided the practice of our religion. In my books giving the reins of our destiny regarding Sikh religious practices into the hands of strangers is unacceptable.

The second point that needs attention is that under the laissez-faire approach towards religious practices within our community, we do not have a norm in terms of age when a person should take Amrit. Five year old Sikh children are known to have taken Amrit with full obligations to maintain the five Ks.

Gurbaj was around seven years old when he took Amrit.

Is this right?

What does a five or seven year old know about the spiritual meaning of a kirpan? If parents insist that their child take Amrit, is it sensible that the child should have a six inch long kirpan? These questions need to be looked into urgently.

The question regarding the size of kirpan is a very interesting issue. Let me explain further.

In 1999, a tribunal of the Canadian Human Rights Commission looked into a complaint by an Amritdhari Sikh from Brampton Ontario. The person complained that a Canadian airline had discriminated against him on religious grounds by denying him to board one of its flights because he was wearing a 5 ¾ inch long kirpan. The tribunal ruled in favour of the airline and dismissed the discrimination charges.

During his testimony, this gentleman had testified that normally he wears an 11 ½ inch long kirpan in daily life because he likes it but switches to 5 ¾ inches long for air travel. He further said, "For a khalsa Sikh, there is no length prescribed that he/she should keep a 3, 4, or 10 inch long kirpan". Upon hearing the decision, the complainant commented that "If the kirpan is too small, it loses its meaning".

The defending airline presented Dr. Pashaura Singh, a scholar in Sikhism, as a defence witness. Also being an Amritdhari Sikh, he testified that when he flies, he wears a miniature kirpan of approximately 1½ inch length attached to his kanga in order to avoid any hassle with security or airline personnel. He expressed the view that wearing a miniature kirpan is sufficient to discharge his religious obligations and is a practice followed by many devout Amritdhari Sikhs. It was confirmed in further testimony that the Sikh Rehat Maryada has no mention of the length of kirpan.

To add weight to the argument of a miniature sized kirpan, I would like to quote the late Bhai Sahib Sirdar Kapoor Singh, ICS and National Professor of Sikhism (approved by the Akal Takht) from his book Parasaraprasna, published by Guru Nanak Dev University in 1989.

In chapter 5, entitled Five Ks, on page 108 he writes:

"This is the third meaning of the symbol of kirpan, which contrary to the current belief in certain quarters, need not, on every accassion, assume the form of an actual long sword but may also be a small steel miniature of the sword, kept tied to the comb tucked up in the jurrah (top knot) of the head hair. This is not to say that an alien authority may limit the possession of this symbol to this form, but that the symbol may be, when desired, kept in this form, is not in doubt. The ancient usage, going back to Guru Gobind Singh sanctions it. It is by all accounts agreed that when the cremation pile of Guru Gobind Singh's mortal body was probed into against his final instruction, a miniature kirpan was the only relic found in the ashes".

It is apparent from the above discussion that we need to have closure on the issue of the length of the kirpan to be worn by an Amritdhari Sikh. Doing so will save us from unnecessary grief and legal hassles. By Amritdhari Sikh, I mean both school going individuals and adult Sikhs. I have included both these segments of the community for the simple reason that we need a holistic answer to our recurring problems. A partial approach will merely prolong our difficulties.

I would like to recommend a plan of action to address the problems I have flagged earlier.

Before I outline my recommendations, I wish to record my appreciation and commendation to the United Sikhs organization for negotiating a mutual agreement with the National Heritage Academies which operates sixty one schools in the states of Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina and New York.

Among other things, the agreement specifies that the kirpan blade cannot exceed 3 inches. Though regulated, Sikh children attending these schools are now going to be able to fulfil their religious obligations as Amritdhari Sikhs without any undue interference from authorities. This is excellent news and we need to put in place additional similar arrangements.

Now I return to the proposed plan of action.

Given that the nature of the problems faced by the Sikh Community in the diaspora are different from those which Sikhs in India contend with, I would suggest that we tailor our approach towards the kirpan size issue here locally. In this regard I would like the United Sikhs to open discussions with the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh American Legal Defence & Education Fund and other like-minded Sikh groups/ organizations to formulate a common strategy for getting the diaspora community to adopt a common norm for wearing the kirpan. 

I would also like to suggest that we keep the SGPC out of this matter mainly because of its partisan approach based on Punjab and Indian politics. In many ways the SGPC has become dysfunctional and does not understand the reality on the ground that the diaspora community has to live with.

To conclude, the use of legal channels as remedies is a defensive tool. Relying on a defensive strategy to solve our issues is good to a certain extent, however, it is extremely expensive in financial terms and results may be unpredictable.

Let us be more imaginative and bold in finding solutions to our problems.

We need to be proactive in this matter.


[Manjit Singh served as a senior executive with AIR CANADA before his retirement. He is now the Director of Chaplaincy Services at the McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is also the president of the Interfaith Council of Montreal. In 1986, he helped found the institution which has now blossomed into The Centennial Foundation, Canada.] 

April 9, 2010                                                                                                            

Conversation about this article

1: Nanki Kaur  (Chandigarh, Punjab), April 09, 2010, 11:10 AM.

Congratulations on this most thoughtful and insightful piece on the subject. I particularly like the two superhero images you have appended to it: it is a reminder to us that you have to be a super Sikh if you want to be a real amritdhari and wear a kirpan. It is not meant for evety 'lallu-panju' who has nothing better to do. Let's not dismiss or forget the fact that the word 'Saint' precedes and qualifies the word 'Soldier' in "Sant-Sipahi".

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