After 10 long years, the time for the 2011 national census has arrived!

For many people, it’s a tedious task they do out of legal compulsion. For the rest, it’s a chance for them and their community to get counted. For people such as me, it raises some serious questions about identity and what we define ourselves as.

It’s important to realise that this matter isn’t solely about personal identity as the census results have a big impact on the communities that are recognised. A less statistically visible community is one that has less funding, less resources, lesser preservation and less representation. Hence, it’s something that each and every one of us must consider seriously for many reasons!

The question under focus is of course that of ethnicity – question 16 in the census, about which there has been a great deal of talk amongst the Sikh community. With question 20 on religion being entirely voluntary, accurate numbers of religious communities aren’t gained. However, the Sikh community has suffered significantly. According to the previous census of 2001, the number of Sikhs in the UK was just 336,000 when the actual figure was estimated to be closer to 700,000 at the time…

As a result, over the last year Sikhs in the UK have been increasingly lobbying for a ‘Sikh’ tick-box for the ethnicity question in the census; not only is this intended to get a more accurate number of the Sikhs in the UK but also to assert the idea that Sikhism is not just a religion but also an ethnic identity. Although legally the Sikh community is accepted as an ethnic group, many people still question the use of this term for what is traditionally seen as just a religious group. In fact, the conceptual use of ethnicity and religion interchangeably is often something that is discouraged within the Sikh and Punjabi communities. Nevertheless even today, many use ‘Sikh’ and ‘Punjabi’ as meaning the same thing although they denote two different concepts. So is Sikhism really an ethnicity AND a religion?

In UK legislation, Sikhs are considered an ‘ethno-religious group’ – a term that was given birth to following the Lee Vs Mandla court case in 1983. Without going into too much detail, it was argued here that not allowing a Sikh boy into a Birmingham school because of his turban was a breach of the Race Relations Act 1976, because Sikhs are an ethnic group.

The case defined ethnic groups by the following criteria:
1. A long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive;
2. A cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance. In addition to those two essential characteristics the following characteristics are, in my opinion, relevant:
3. Either a common geographical origin, or descent from a small number of common ancestors;
4. A common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group;
5. A common literature peculiar to the group;
6. A common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it;
7. Being a minority or being an oppressed or dominant group within a larger community. For example, a conquered people (say, the inhabitants of England shortly after the Norman conquest) and their conquerors might both be ethnic group.

The use of ‘Sikh’ as an ethnicity does allow non-religious Sikhs to have their Sikh descent registered in the census; that said they can still express their lack of religious belief in the religion question. Non-religious people of Sikh background may be one of the prime reasons for the disparity in 2001’s census between registered Sikhs and actual Sikhs.

Every single one of the criterion above are applicable to Sikhs, and hence I definitely don’t deny Sikhs being an ethnic group. However, I think there’s definitely more to the issue. Promoting this notion of Sikhs being an ethnic group undeniably has its drawbacks religiously. Sikhism as a religion is a way of life, and bundling this religious philosophy with a particular community, namely ‘Punjabi Sikhs’, makes the religion more exclusive to the outside world. One who is religiously a Sikh but is not of Punjabi ancestry (criteria no.3) or does not speak Punjabi (criteria no.4) would therefore be Sikh in terms of religion but not in terms of ethnicity. Does this mean certain people are ‘more Sikh’ than others? Does this not open the doors for further discrimination and Sikh hierarchy? It seems to be making the religion, if anything, more inaccessible to other communities.

Although the above criteria apply to the Sikh community, they can also be applied to being ‘Punjabi’; the only criterion that doesn’t apply is that of a common religion to the Punjabi community. The notion of being Punjabi is one that has strict regional connotations only, without any religious aspect.

Nevertheless, many people of Punjabi descent still put this regional identity aside and prioritise their ethnicity as Indian or Pakistani. As a Punjabi, I don’t believe one can call themselves Indian nor Pakistani and still do their heritage justice. Punjab is divided between these two countries, with the majority lying in Pakistan, so neither of these terms is appropriate for it. To me, the term ‘Indian’ is very generic. Within India are numerous different states, each with their own language, culture, religions, music, arts, foods and traditions. In effect, India is the amalgamation of many ‘mini-countries’ that each have their own ethnic groups. In addition, the very basis upon which India and Pakistan were created is religious difference, as opposed to ethnic background. So to use these nationalities as ethnicities isn’t something which I believe to be upholding cultural background.

On a more personal note, with the greater knowledge of my cultural and religious background I now have, I could never affiliate myself with an Indian identity. As a Sikh I speak as part of a community that is a tiny minority in India. This is a country, like many others, that strongly oppresses minorities; with past events like the 1984 genocide and even current events against the Sikh community, I find it difficult to affiliate with this notion of ‘being Indian’.

Our entire lives, each and every one of us has been asked that question ‘What are you?’ in reference to our ethnic backgrounds. Most of us would probably answer without giving it much thought or importance. However, the answer we give defines who we are and the community we belong to.

Hence, I urge all of you to think carefully about what background you associate most closely with, whatever that may be. So, when it comes to this Sunday 27 March 2011, you can make sure that your community is counted!