For two centuries in the British Empire and later in independent India, Sikhs have been known for their fighting prowess and their habit of going into battle wearing their distinctive headdress. Many Sikhs consider keeping long, unshaven hair in a turban as part of their religion’s Five Kakars, or sacred markers of identity, and for decades Sikhs around the world have resisted pressure from governments to wear helmets. whether serving in combat or riding motorcycles.
Now a plan by the Indian Army to buy 12,730 ballistic helmets designed specifically for Sikhs has drawn criticism from top religious leaders in Sikhism, sparking the latest debate for a community that has long been trying to navigate the dueling mandates of its religion and secular authorities. .
Usually, Sikh men cover their hair with a thin undergarment called patka before tying it in a knot on top of their heads. The 5 to 8 meter long turban or pagh is wrapped over the patka. The practice is said to be one of the commandments handed down by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who lived between 1469 and 1539.
The Indian Army’s new helmet, called Veer, or brave in Hindi, would be worn on top of the patka but replace the turban. The helmet has a bulge to accommodate a Sikh soldier’s topknot, and the designers say it would provide protection against small arms fire and be compatible with mounted night vision goggles, cameras and communication systems that Sikh soldiers could not previously use with their turbans .
But in a statement on Jan. 12, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the foremost religious authority in Sikhism, wrote to India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh requesting that the helmet procurement plan be withdrawn. The turban is a sacred symbol of Sikh heritage, committee chairman Harjinder Singh Dhami wrote.
“To order a Sikh soldier to take off his turban and wear a helmet just because it better protects his head is ignorance to the psyche of the Sikh,” Dhami said in the statement, which listed historical battles in which Sikhs fought without helmets. had fought.
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The controversy in India mirrors similar debates in the West, home to a huge Sikh diaspora. Until recently, the US Marine Corps prohibited Sikhs from entering basic training unless they shaved their beards. Beards, which are also part of the sacred Sikh markings, hindered the wearing of gas masks, the Marine Corps said.
After the ban was challenged in court by a Sikh-American advocacy group, it was overturned by a federal judge in December. The Marines are reportedly considering an appeal.
Former Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, a Sikh veteran who has served in Bosnia and Afghanistan, has said he tried to make his own gas mask so that it would match his beard during his time as a soldier.
In the civil field, whether Sikhs should wear helmets has also been debated. While Sikhs are exempt from helmet requirements to ride motorcycles in countries such as India and Canada, German courts have ruled that Sikhs must wear head protection. Australia, another country with a large Sikh population, also requires helmets for motorcyclists, sparking protests from Sikh groups.
The debate in India has been particularly sensitive as Sikhs make up a large portion of the military and comprise some of the most storied combat units including the Sikh Regiment, Sikh Light Infantry and the Punjab Regiment.
Men from the Indian state of Punjab, where the majority are Sikh, make up 8 percent of the army, although Punjab only makes up 2.5 percent of India’s population. In many Sikh families, military service is a point of pride and tradition. That legacy is so entrenched that when filmmakers produced a Bollywood remake of “Forrest Gump” last year and wanted an Indian equivalent to the character played by Tom Hanks, they came up with a Punjabi Sikh protagonist (played by Aamir Khan) who comes out of a military family came. .
Kusumesh Mishra, an engineer at the defense company MKU and the designer of the Veer, said he got the idea for the helmet after his company encountered a Sikh soldier who complained about the lack of suitable headgear.
“You have helmets for everyone, but not for us,” Mishra recalled the Sikh soldier to business leaders. Last year, Mishra interviewed more than a dozen Sikhs to gauge their reaction to the helmet and tested it with Sikh soldiers in extreme cold in Ladakh, the Himalayan region near India’s tense border with China and Pakistan, he said.
“It’s very disheartening to see this,” Mishra said of the controversy. Those who object to the helmet “don’t even know what the helmet looks like or how it’s made.”
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It is unclear whether the Indian military, which has been silent about pushing back Sikh religious leaders, will force the use of the new helmet. In recent years, the military has faced intense resistance to initiatives such as an austerity scheme to release recruits after four years of service, but implemented them anyway. (Many in India traditionally view military service as a secure, lifelong job that also raises one’s social status.)
Some Sikh veterans have defended the military, calling the thinking of their religious elders impractical.
“Will Pakistan be a [pledge] that their snipers will stop attacking our Sikh troops if they wear a turban?” asked retired Lieutenant General KJ Singh, referring to India’s neighboring nemesis. Singh, whose four-decade track record has included a stint with United Nations peacekeepers, said Sikh traditions face greater threats in the modern world, such as a growing number of young village men choosing to cut their hair as a fashion -choice.
“Start with all those singers and actors who cut their hair,” he said with a sigh.