Earlier this week, West Midlands Police reported that their Counter Terrorism Unit had laid charges against two individuals from grass-roots organisation, Sikh Youth UK. It’s most high profile member, Deepa Singh and his sister were charged for knowingly or recklessly providing false or misleading information to the Charities Commission, whilst the latter was also charged on six counts of theft. Whilst this is an ongoing investigation for the Charities Commission whose inquiry was announced in July of this year (although it had been running for some time by then), news of the charges by West Midlands Police have been denounced by Deepa Singh as “fabricated“. Furthermore, in a statement released on social media, he has claimed that “a credible source has disclosed that senior ‘Sikh’ police officers have pushed for action to be taken“. Is there more going on in this case than any of us realise?
Political happenings within the UK Sikh community have been growing over the last decade. Punjab-based movements such as #iPledgeOrange have garnered a thirst for knowledge on sub-continental current affairs, whilst the rise of the far-right across the west has motivated younger generations of Sikhs to mobilise themselves and their peers. To this backdrop, organisations such as the Sikh Press Association and the National Sikh Youth Federation have helped guide UK-born Sikhs in a range of ways from facilitating hustings before general elections (Sikh PA) to publishing reports on incarcerated prisoners in the Punjab (NSYF). What unites all Sikh organisations is mirroring that renewed desire to be more active, attempting to make a difference to the society in which we reside.
And it is with this in mind that we come to consider Sikh Youth UK and their present situation. The organisation has grown rapidly in recent years attracting publicity, good and bad, primarily for their role in combating grooming. There are few issues as sensitive in modern Britain as that of child grooming – the organised coercion of young girls, and sometimes boys, into a life of sexual abuse. Sikh Youth UK were unabashed in tackling the issue and unequivocally vocal in identifying whom they saw as the culprits. Their no-nonsense approach employed physically asserting themselves on the ground and not holding back when speaking to predominantly young Sikhs at a range of institutions. Naturally this was met with both support and opposition in fairly equal measure, and so it’s no disservice to say that Sikh Youth UK joined the swelling ranks of ‘Marmite’ organisations that permeate the Sikh diaspora – you either love them or you hate them.
Their prominence increased during agitations highlighting incidents of beadbi of the Guru Granth Sahib in Punjab, a stance reflecting their views that the utmost respect for the Guru Granth Sahib must be maintained – a viewpoint shared by every Sikh worldwide. In contrast however, when those same ideals were placed in the sphere of inter-faith Anand Karaj services that have continued despite widely shared edicts against doing so, they found themselves – like others, including this writer – quite alone. The clear distinction between Sikh Youth UK and other groups in this area was that they made personal appearances at such Anand Karaj services to prevent them going ahead; media coverage of mostly young males with their faces covered, trying to prevent two people from getting married only exacerbated the general sense of animosity towards them.
But everything so far was par for the course of being a politically active, socially influential organisation from a migrant community in the west. It wasn’t until late last year that the present situation begins to unfold, and even then we have to go a further year back for the true origins of how Sikh Youth UK came to this point. In November 2017, a Scottish citizen by the name of Jagtar Singh Johal, affectionately known as Jaggi, was kidnapped in broad daylight whilst shopping with his newly-wed wife in Punjab. Over the following weeks, a myriad of accusations were leveled at this individual and others – none of which have thus far held up through investigations and in the Indian Judicial system. Despite the repeated warning signs, the British Government has done little to help and until last year, protests continued and pressure was being asserted with the assistance of Johal’s MP. Then in September 2018, the homes of five Sikhs were raided by the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit in the early hours of the morning. Indian media exploded with extensive coverage, providing sensitive and potentially case-damaging information supposedly gathered from the raids, giving credence to eye witness accounts from the raids that members of the Punjab Police were also present and had to some extent directed proceedings.
The response to the raids was robust and measured in thought, if met by a somewhat perturbed Sikh community who understandably were now concerned, even fearful, at the escalation of consequences for ‘speaking out’. Once again, Sikh Youth UK came into the limelight for the way in which they responded – ably and successfully preventing local Police force recruitment teams from canvassing members of the Sangat at various Gurdwareh. They went further, issuing a call to ban Police forces from utilising Gurdwara spaces for the purposes of recruitment, community engagement and positive PR. There were a number of confrontations as some Gurdwareh disagreed with the call, encounters documented by mobile recordings and shared through social media and messaging services that further divided members of the Sikh community.
Whilst this proved more troublesome for the organisation than previous stances had, that mattered little in comparison to how this act was received by decision-makers within the Police force. A new body comprising Sikhs who are members of the UK Police force was inaugurated earlier this year and in the time since, the ‘National Sikh Police Association UK’ has ramped up its participation in Sikh community projects and engagement. It may very well be that forming the ‘NSPA UK’ was on the to-do list for quite some time, but the timing most certainly stinks of counteracting recent events. It is no secret that many senior members of the UK Police force who happen to be Sikh felt embarrassed and personally afflicted at the call to ban their operations in spaces they hold as dear as the rest of the community; could it be as Deepa Singh has suggested, that these charges are being driven in retaliation?
There is a lot that does not sit well with what is going on at present. When Deepa Singh’s home was raided earlier this summer, he and his sister were arrested at 6am, and somehow by 9am there were reports in the mainstream press detailing the accusations with substantial context. Leaks are not unheard of, but the perception that an attempt to malign Sikh Youth UK in a concurrent media campaign cannot be ignored. That the Police force employs individuals who can orchestrate such motions strategically and morally should not be surprising, particularly to anybody familiar with Gurpal Virdi’s ‘Behind The Blue Line‘, that author formerly belonging to the Metropolitan Police. Although there is an ongoing investigation by the Charities Commission, now that charges have been leveled we await a Court hearing before discovering how substantial they are. But something surely is amiss when after being arrested in July, Deepa’s first action following bail was to host a meeting for influential Sikh leaders and sevadars, to present where money raised by Sikh Youth UK had been spent in an attempt to clear their name within the Panth – they were vindicated by all accounts that this writer has heard.
There are things some people might accuse Deepa Singh of, but stealing money donated by the Sangat is not one that I can fathom will hold up to scrutiny. Having known both Deepa Singh and his sister for over thirty years, I have no hesitation in believing their protestations of innocence. Rajbinder was one of the kindest and gentlest souls I had the privilege of growing up around – that she has been caught up in this, having supported her brother in recent years on his road to redemption, is of great sadness and frustration to me. That Deepa Singh has been so ostracised, taking into account his fervent demeanour and sometimes questionable decision-making, is disappointing too, but not so surprising. I find myself repeatedly defending Sikh activists and organisers from a community that believes more of what it hears than what it experiences; no different than the rest of society in a Whatsapp-world, but call me crazy, I expected better from the Sikh fold whose history and ideology gave birth to lions, not sheep.
On the face of it, many of those listening to Deepa Singh’s response will dismiss it as conspiratorial in nature, but as outlined there is so much more going on here than meets the eye. When financial misgivings are raised at any organisation in the public eye, we are used to assuming there is no smoke without fire, as is probably what some think in this case, but in light of what took place with last year’s raids, the continued incarceration of Jagtar Singh Johal, an increasingly politically-informed generation of younger Sikhs, and the unchecked advances of the Indian State into every corner of the UK Sikh community, can we afford to be so dismissive? I think not. There are probably too few Sikhs willing to hold this conversation right now – some fearing that dreaded threat of monitoring by the State, others out of fear of how they will be received, and maybe even one or two hoping the charges stick so that they can move in on the ground that Sikh Youth UK have so firmly held. But this is a conversation to be had; it is connected to events that should not be looked at individually or out of sequence. The dots might not connect, but how do we know until we start to talk about it? There is a bigger picture here that requires us to appreciate how the State – whether Indian, British, American, Russian, Canadian etc. – is influencing our direction as a Panth, how it is impinging on our values, and how the lack of Statehood in the Sikh nation is driving us along the path to perdition. The case of Sikh Youth UK might help us to step back and take in that canvas.