Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18075-23 Singh v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Jasveer Singh complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Firebrand Sikh separatist or stooge: Mystery of preacher on run in India”, published on 26 March 2023.
2.The article reported on the search for Amritpal Singh, “a Sikh preacher who has emerged as a ferocious proponent of Khalistan”. The article said that Mr Singh had reinvented himself as a “stern Sikh guru” and “has struck at the communal harmony forged between Sikhs and the other 98 per cent of India’s population”. The article went on to say: “Most Sikhs are appalled by him, even those who are aghast at prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalism. Sikhs are not a distinct ‘race’. They are descended almost entirely from Punjab's Hindu peasantry.”
3.The article also appeared online, in substantially the same format, under the headline “Separatist or stooge: mystery of Amritpal Singh, Sikh preacher on the run”. This version of the article was published on 25 March 2023. The online version of the article stated: “Most Sikhs are appalled by him, even those who are aghast at Modi's Hindu nationalism. Sikhism was founded as an egalitarian brotherhood by a great Hindu reformer, its theology borrowed heavily from Hinduism, and for centuries it was regarded, like Buddhism and Jainism, as a highly autonomous branch of Hinduism.”
4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1, as it had inaccurately stated “Sikhs are not a distinct ‘race’. They are descended almost entirely from Punjab's Hindu peasantry ". The complainant said that Sikhs were a distinct race, and this had been confirmed under UK law in the racial discrimination case, Mandla vs Dowell-Lee. In this case, the judge had ruled that Sikhs are their own separate ethnicity - which the complainant said is defined as a "racial group". The complainant said the article’s statement was an attempt to erase Sikhism’s separation from the Hindu/Indian national identity. He explained that Sikhs are distinct from historic Hindu peasants, and that the article had suggested that Bhai Amritpal Singh’s advocacy of Sikh sovereignty was an “absurd idea foreign from the faith”.
5. To support his position, the complainant provided a tweet which he said was posted by a respected group, the Sikh Scientists, which said: "In fact, it might not be wrong to say that Sant ji's famous ‘Sikh ik wakhri kaum hai’ statement was reinforced (if not founded) on the famous victory of Mandla v Dowell-Lee, where the Sikh lawyer had to convince to the house of lords that indeed Sikhs are a different race !! [sic]"
6. The complainant also supplied a tweet from the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee - a group he described as a leading Sikh body - about the distinct Sikh identity:
"We are aware of anti-Sikh and mischievous efforts being made to amalgamate the uniqueness, distinctness, and originality of the Sikh Qaum. This was said in clear words through a resolution of SGPC's general house passed on March 28, 2023, that 'The Sikhs are Sui generis, a distinct entity'. As per the teachings of Sikh Gurus, the Sikhs will continue to respect everyone. But the conspiracies of the forces that hurt the Sikh identity, history, and traditions cannot be tolerated.”
7. With regard to the article's claim that Sikhs were descended from "Punjab's Hindu peasantry”, the complainant said that the first Sikhs were Guru Nanak Dev Ji Maharaj and his sister Bibi Nanaki – who came from a land-owning family. Furthermore, he said that the final identity of the Sikhs was formed by the Punj Pyareh (Five beloved ones) as selected by Guru Gobind Singh Ji Maharaj in 1699, a group which included non-Punjabis; he said therefore that the origins of Sikhs could not be described as “peasantry”. He said this framed Sikhs within the Hindu-Indian national identity – one that is heavily formed around the notion of caste – as peasants, and therefore at the lowest strata of society.
8. The complainant also said the online version of the article inaccurately claimed that Guru Nanak was a “Hindu reformer" and that Sikhism’s "theology borrowed heavily from Hinduism, and for centuries it was regarded, like Buddhism and Jainism, as a highly autonomous branch of Hinduism". The complainant said that, since its inception, Sikhism had been separate from Hinduism – and that scripture could confirm this. He said that, in the prayer/poem by Chaupai Sahib - one of the daily prayers Sikhs recite - a line reads “Raam Raheem Puraan Kuraan aneyk kahai mat eyk na maanyo (Ram, Rahim, Puranas, Quran and many others recite, but I don't believe in even one)”, making clear that Sikh’s consider themselves distinct from other faiths. He further said that Guru Granth Sahib Ji said that followers are “neither Muslim nor Hindu”. He also referenced a YouTube video titled “Is Sikhi derived from Hinduism? Brunel Sikh Soc - Q&A #6 posted by Basics of Sikhi, where the speaker said Sikhs were not derived from Hindus.
9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to the statement that "Sikhs are not a distinct race”, the publication said that the legal case which the complainant had referenced was heard in 1983. In the case’s judgment, the judge had said that Sikhs were “a racial group defined by reference to ethnic origins for the purpose of the Act, although they were not biologically distinguishable from the other peoples of the Punjab." It said that the judge had made clear that he recognised this definition in the context of the 1976 Race Relations Act, rather than in any wider sense. The publication said that even this narrow definition was “now redundant” and – as a senior lecturer in Sikh Studies at the University of Birmingham – had noted, “this is no longer relevant today because the 1976 Race Relations Act has been replaced by the Equality Act 2010.
10. It also supplied a ‘Question and Answer’ document, posted by the Network of Sikh Organisations, which referred to the Mandla v Dowell-Lee judgement. This said:
The case went up to the House of Lords where the Judges ruled that for the purpose of protection against discrimination, we could be considered an ethnic group.
Q: Does this mean that Sikhs are a distinct ethnic Group?
A: No. It simply means that Sikhs from any part of the world, including converts of any ethnicity, are entitled to protection against discrimination while in the UK as if they were a distinct ethnic group.
11. The publication said the article was careful to place the word “race” in inverted commas, signalling to readers that the term itself was open to interpretation. It said that, in the Collins English dictionary, the first definition of ‘race’ was: “A group of people of common ancestry, distinguished from others by physical characteristics, such as hair type, colour of eyes and skin, stature, etc.”
12. Regarding the claim that Sikhs were descended from "Punjab's Hindu peasantry”, the publication referenced an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry “The Sikhs in the Punjab”. This said: “The origins of the Sikhs, a religious group initially formed as a sect within the larger Hindu community, lie in the Punjab in the 15th century.” It also referenced the article “Origins and development of Sikh faith: The Gurus”, published by The British Library, which said Guru Nanak – the founder of the Sikh faith – was brought up in a Hindu household in the agrarian society of the Punjab. The publication acknowledged that Guru Nanak's family owned land, but said that the article did not claim Guru Nanak was from a peasant background nor did it mention him. It said the article claimed – in the context of refuting the claim that Sikhs are a distinct "race" – that they are "descended almost entirely from Punjab's Hindu peasantry". The publication said it was not in dispute that Sikhism originated in the Punjab and that like, most societies globally at that time, the Punjab was predominantly agrarian, with the majority of people employed on the land. It said the claim within the article was simply a statement of fact.
13. The publication next turned to the online article’s claim that “Sikhism was founded as an egalitarian brotherhood by a great Hindu reformer, its theology borrowed heavily from Hinduism, and for centuries it was regarded, like Buddhism and Jainism, as a highly autonomous branch of Hinduism”. It did not accept this was inaccurate; it said that Guru Nanak was born into a Hindu family. It also said, that in the context of an article which reported on a specific individual rather than an analysis or history of Sikhism, presenting the origins of Sikhism in this way was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. It said that the article did not say that Sikhism was a branch of Hinduism, but rather, in its early years, it was regarded as such. The publication further cited a source in Encyclopaedia Britannica, which said: “many Western scholars argue that in its earliest stage Sikhism was a movement within the Hindu tradition”.
14. The complainant said the University of Birmingham academic had been referring to an internal Sikh community debate about the need for a separate census tick box for Sikhs. He said this debate was about the adequacy of the UK government’s ability to cater for Sikhs using current means of data collection, rather than whether Sikhs were a distinct race within the Hindu-Indian national identity.
Relevant Clause Provisions
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
15. The Committee acknowledged that there would be a range of views and interpretations in any given sect of a religion, and that there were likely to be a range of perspectives on whether the Sikh people are a distinct race: it was not in a position to make a ruling on whether this was the case. The Committee’s role was to establish whether the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and, if such information had been published, whether it was significantly so. The Committee noted that the publication was able to provide several sources from recognised authorities which supported its position that Sikhs are not a distinct "race”, such as a quote from the Network of Sikh Organisations. It also noted that the word “race” had been placed in quotation marks, which went some way to acknowledge that this was a word which held varying interpretations. Therefore, the Committee was satisfied that this reference was not inaccurate or misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
16. The Committee appreciated that the complainant disagreed with the article’s claim that Sikhs “are descended almost entirely from Punjab's Hindu peasantry.” The publication had said that it was not in dispute that Sikhism originated in the Punjab and that the Punjab was historically a predominantly agrarian society, with the majority of people employed on the land. It had also provided excerpts from texts, which supported its position that the founder of the Sikh faith was brought up in the agrarian society of the Punjab. The Committee further noted that the claim within the article had said “almost entirely descended”, which indicated that not all Sikhs had descended from “peasantry”. As such, the Committee did not consider this statement to be inaccurate, misleading or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
17. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concern that the online article had implied Guru Nanak was “a great Hindu reformer” and had stated “its theology borrowed heavily from Hinduism, and for centuries it was regarded, like Buddhism and Jainism, as a highly autonomous branch of Hinduism”. The Committee noted that the publication was able to provide sources which suggested that in its earliest stages, Sikhism was a movement within the Hindu tradition. The Committee further noted that it is widely accepted that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was born into a Hindu family. Where the newspaper was able to provide sources to support its position and where the reference to the origins of Sikh theology was a brief reference within an article focused on the actions of Amritpal Singh, it was the view of the Committee that the article was not inaccurate, misleading or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 18/04/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/11/2023
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