533. The Man in Blue – The Vote in Gent (Ghent) Council

I have lived and worked in Belgium from June 2010 till June 2013. In that period a lot of time and energy was spent by Sikh activists on trying to get more access to secondary schools for those of our youngsters who wear patkas or turbans.

In 2010 there was only one secondary school that allowed students wearing religious ‘headgear’ in Sint-Truiden. When I left in 2013 there were none. When I arrived most primary schools allowed patkas, now only the ‘free’ (Roman Catholic) primary schools allow them.

Instead of going forward we have gone backward. The history of Belgium is quite different from that of France and the Netherlands. Belgium only became an independent country in 1830. During the time when what is now Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and later the Austrian Habsburgs the state, and therefore education, was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Initially after independence the same condition applied and it was only after a long struggle that ‘neutral’ state schools were founded, and there is still in the state school sector a tendency to keep all things ‘religious’ outside the schools. The schools are not really neutral, they are humanist or agnostic schools.
Add to this the modern factors of xenophobia/islamophobia and you understand why there is such a strong movement for neutral schools and neutral government services.

But it is not all bad news. The current chair of the socialist party of the Dutch (Nederlands) speaking region has proposed abolishing of bans on the wearing of religious symbols. This was followed up in Gent, where employees of the city who in any way deal with the public could not wear religious symbols.

Since the last local election the city is ruled by a coalition of Socialists, (conservative) Liberals and Greens. They had agreed to leave the ban in place, but their hand was forced by a petition against the ban. The petition had sufficient signatures to force the council to have a debate followed by a vote.

As Greens and Socialists have a majority in the council and there was also some support from others (but not from the Liberals) the ban on the wearing of religious symbols was abolished.

The Liberals indentify strongly with the fight for neutral state schools, but also many members of the Socialist members identify with it. The debate in the socialist party is far from over, although even its Antwerpen branch has come out against the ban.

But the political reality in the Dutch speaking part of the country is that there is a good chance that the nationalist NVA will win up to 40% of the vote in the 2014 elections. And that party is totally against the wearing of religious symbols in ‘neutral’ schools and government buildings.

532. The Man in Blue – Should we follow the messengers or should we follow God ?

Recently when travelling to Hasselt by bus I met a man who had served in a major Roman Catholic Monastery on the Dutch-Belgian border. And on the return trip from Hasselt to the Sangat Sahib Gurdwara I met him again.

He was friendly and open-minded. We agreed that the problems that face the Christian churches these days have nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. Most of the Christian churches have emphasised too much on their structures, their hierarchies and neglected the inclusive spiritual message of Jesus.

On the way back he asked me what role Jesus played in my life. My first reaction was that that I now understand Jesus and his teachings better than before I became a Sikh. I see Jesus as a great spiritual teacher, whose teachings mostly agree with the core teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib.

I love reading the ‘dharmic’ stories (the parables) that Jesus used to teach his disciples (chelé), which like the Guru Granth emphasise Godly behaviour rather than complicated belief systems.

But I also said that I first and foremost believed in God, who is the source of the power, the insight of the great spiritual teachers. I hear God speak through the Sikh Gurus, through the Bhagats, through the Guru Granth Sahib. Similarly I hear God through Jesus and through other spiritual teachers.

I am now staying in Iver, in between Hillingdon and Slough, and I brought a small picture of Guru Nanak which is on the little press next to my bed. So I have a connection with Guru Nanak, and with the Nanak who signs off the shabads by the Gurus in the Guru Granth Sahib.

But the Nanak that speaks to me in the Guru Granth Sahib is the conduit through which I can hear the One, the All-Powerful, Omnipresent.

Many Sikhs do hero worship, and I try to avoid that. Our Guru and famous personalities from Sikh history were heroes, but they were heroes because they walked in God’s way. Their power comes from God, the words they spoke or wrote come from God.

The Guru Granth Sahib stresses this again and again. Be with God, listen to God, try to understand God’s word and apply it in your delay life. We should not follow people, we should follow God. Guru Gobind Singh also explicitly told the sangat not to worship him. Respect for the Guru leads to love for God.

This is what gives me strength, this is what keeps me happy. This is what makes me, in spite of being an ‘old age pensioner’, return from a comfortable life in Belgium to new challenges in the UK.

I also came back to enjoy the beautiful Kirtan that you can daily hear in the Southall Gurdwaré, and which help me to stick to the path, that is as narrow as the cutting edge of the sword, that leads to God.

509.The Man in Blue – Big decisions !

Life ain’t easy ! Those that know me and those of you who read column 503 and 504, know that I want to go back to Southall.

Although Belgian Limburg is not a bad part of the world, and although I love the walking and cycling, I do miss the big sangat and the many Gurdwaré of London. I miss the big city atmosphere and all the buses, trams, undergrounds and trains. I miss meeting with people of many cultures and religions, I miss working together with people of all different backgrounds.

And in this first generation community you do not have the diversity of sangat that you have amongst the well-established Sikhs in the UK.

Two weeks ago in the Gurdwara, after the Sunday divan, I was called into the room where committee members and some others active in the community sat together. They promised me to support me financially if that was needed to keep me one more year in Sint-Truiden. This came not just from committee members but also from ordinary members of the sangat.

I am in a difficult position. I badly want to go back to the UK (see above), but here I helped start various projects in education that are not easy to leave.

I recently discovered that the two UK organisations that have been my main sources of income over the ten years that I lived in West London do have work for me, but no money to pay me. Although I think that in the UK I will be able to earn some money to top up my pension (I’ll be 65 on the 6th of May), there is the added problem of currency conversion.

I will receive three bits of pension, and two of these are in Euros. With Spain causing new unrest and the conversion rate between sterling and the Euro already down to about 80 pence this will add to the uncertainty.

Sorry to bore you with my personal financial affairs, but these are important issues. I am sure that there are many people who have lived both in the UK and in the Euro-zone and who face similar problems.

And trusting in God does not mean that one should not look at all sides of a question like the above. To cut a long story short, I have decided to stay here one more year till June 2013.

My Dutch pension will just about cover my expenses here, and if I can earn some more money doing tuition and by charging for some of the things that I have done  for free so far, I might be able to recoup part of the 8000 Euros that I spent here the last two year.

Please UK friends and relatives come and visit us here in Belgian Limburg. Eurostar still offers tickets to any Belgian station, and although the Brussels area is famous for its overcrowded motorways, driving from Calais to Sint-Truiden is not too bad.

And next year is going to be exiting as we might be able to lift the ban on the wearing of patka, turban and híjáb in secondary schools this country !

493.The Man in Blue – Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan, Sint-Truiden 23 October 2011

I do not think that there is a religious obligation to organise Nagar Kirtans on or near Vaisakhí or the birthday of Guru Nanak. But Nagar Kirtans can be used to make non-Sikhs more familiar with our beliefs, practices and traditions. Most countries in continental Europe do not have a long shared history with Sikhs, and their populations are not aware of the ‘what and why’ of the beards and turbans.

All occasions outside the Gurdwara should be used to manifest our values. This applies to the Levensloop fundraiser and the Kamal Nath demonstration that I have described in my two previous articles. It also is relevant for our annual trip to Ieper, where we remember all the young men who gave their lives in World War I, and to the Vaisakhí and Guru Nanak Nagar Kirtan.

During the Levensloop fundraiser and the 11 November Ieper parade and ceremony the emphasis should be on our visible presence and the joined remembrance of the dead of all nationalities of World War I.

During a Nagar Kirtan or a demonstration we should have banners and handouts in the local language, which make clear why we are ‘singing of Guru’s hymns in the town’, or why we are demonstrating. In this context the shouting of Khalistan slogans instead of Kamal Nath slogans was not helpful.

In the period preceding the Nagar Kirtan we used the experience of last year to get the ‘official’ part of the organisation sorted out in time and equally to get all the materials and vehicles needed in place for the day.

Last year the Nagar Kirtan was held mid-November, and it was a dark and dreary day, although it stopped raining shortly after we left the Gurdwara. This time it was a brilliantly sunny autumn day, which helped to bring more locals out of their houses.

It was a pity that the French Gatka group was not able to come, but we managed through the efforts of some of our older members, who did manage to demonstrate some of the skills involved in Gatka.

The Sint-Truiden Sikh community always honours non-Sikhs with whom we have a good relationship, varying from the mayor, someone from the local police to a representative of Masala, a group of volunteers who do their utmost to help newcomers in this country and a lady from the Naamsesteenweg who is always happy to help new residents in her area.

We honoured our mayor, Ludwig Vandenhove together with the visiting mayor of Sint-Truiden’s sister city in Nicaragua. Last year another visiting group from Nicaragua came to the Gurdwara, and asked us very good questions, showing a real interest in our faith and culture. Even in Nicaragua the awareness of Sikhí is increasing through our activities in Belgium !

492.The Man in Blue – Kamal Nath in Leuven 13 October 2011

Kamal Nath is one of the Congress politicians who in November 1984 encouraged the anti-Sikh pogroms in New Delhi.

These pogroms were not spontaneous outbursts of anger after the murder of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh body guards.

All independent observers agree that the pogroms were organised and encouraged by the ruling Congress party. And none of the Congress politicians responsible had to answer for their actions in court.

The police made no effort to protect the victims of mass murder, rape and arson. The few police officers who were willing to do their duty were threatened with dire consequences. As the law and order situation was totally out of control it would have been appropriate to call in the army but that also did not happen.

Anybody who wants to know more about 1984 and the Sikhs in India can send me an email (harjindersingh.amritsar@yahoo.co.uk) and I will email you a copy of the Kristallnacht report that deals both with June and October/November 1984.

On the 13th of October the EuroIndia Centre, the Confederation of Indian Industry and the City of Leuven organised the 5th EuroIndia City Summit. The conference was no doubt a useful event, discussing the sustainable development of modern cities.

It also made sense that a relevant member of the Indian Union government would be amongst those who addressed the conference during the opening session. But that people like Kamal Nath are part of the Indian government and that they are sent abroad to represent India, is totally unacceptable.

I know that there are members of the present Congress government who genuinely want to make India more democratic, more just. How these people can allow fellow-ministers that promoted mass murder I cannot understand.

Our Kamal Nath demonstration in Leuven was mainly made up of Sikhs from Belgium, with about 20 from Germany and some individuals from countries like Switzerland, France and Italy. In total there were about 300 people.

We achieved both that the Leuven authorities and the University have become more aware of what happened in Delhi and in Congress ruled states in November 1984. They have all recognised that the protesting Sikhs had a very valid point. There was also reasonable press coverage.

We achieved that Kamal Nath now knows that there are very few countries left where he will not be denounced. We had relevant banners in English and Dutch, but the slogans shouted were mostly in Panjabi and more about Khalistan than about Kamal Nath. We should be more focussed during this kind of manifestations, more aware of the impression we make on non-Sikhs.

491.The Man in Blue – Levensloop, Sint-Truiden 1 and 2 October 2011

‘Levensloop’ (walk for life) is a fundraiser to help people suffering from cancer. The walk started at 4 pm on Saturday and finished 24 hours later. Participants could walk or run, and the idea was that throughout the 24 hours each team would have at least one member running or walking.

Palwinder Kaur, who works in the Sint-Truiden town hall, appealed on the Sunday before to the Gurdwara sangat, which resulted in more than 50 volunteers coming forward. We wanted to support the charity but we also saw this as an excellent opportunity to show that Sikhs want to work together for the common good with our fellow human beings of whatever background.

We demonstrated that Sikhs, with and without turban, are not people who only are concerned about their own group issues.

The main ‘events’ of the ‘Levensloop’ were the opening and closing rounds, when all team members, including VIPs, took part. Seeing so many Sikhs wearing turbans walking through the park around the ‘Speelhof’ buildings was very good and we had many positive reactions from fellow participants.

Sint-Truiden is a small market town and it is blessed with some very nice parks and around it are many country lanes which are ideal for people like me who like walking and cycling. Although I have taken part in the ‘Sikhs in the City’ relay marathon, I am not a runner.

It enjoyed taking part and to notice that due to my daily cycling and walking I was in good condition. I found it easy to walk several rounds, take a little rest and start again. The response from other participants was mostly positive, but when I walked early on the Sunday morning I felt a bit uncomfortable as some of the younger walkers were not quite sober.

Apart from fundraising through walking or running we also raised money through selling parkoré. Nanak Singh, the Gurdwara cook, and his volunteers had been busy and we had enough to serve both our own people and the more adventurous Limburgers. We also offered tea and free cola. Even I drank coke, not because I like it, but because I was thirsty and there was nothing else available.

When we walked the last round the sangat started doing simran, which was wonderful.

Sikhs would do themselves an enormous favour if they were to do more seva outside the Gurdwara. The true Sikh, the true Khalsa is she or he who serves all.

Guru told us to fight against injustice, nowadays we specialise in fighting each other. Guru told us to serve all, we prefer to serve only fellow Sikhs.

461.The Man in Blue – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday

I have been in Sint-Truiden, Belgian Limburg for almost 8 months. By now I know the local Sikh community quite well, and I have found some new good friends amongst them.   

Since the 1st of January I live in a small ‘studio-apartment’ in central Sint-Truiden, but I still spent most mornings in the Gurdwara. In the late afternoon I again cycle to Halmaal to attend Rahras and Sukhasan and help Granthí Singh when needed.

What I have not yet achieved is to have a full variety of friends of all ages, male and female and from different communities. But I am making progress.

Last week Wednesday I went to Leuven. I went to see a student who is writing a thesis on the Sikhs. We met a number of times in the Gurdwara but this was the first time I went to Leuven to see her. She was at the station and we went to one of the University buildings to discuss the progress of her project.

After that we walked back to the station taking the ‘scenic route’ and I took the train back to Sint-Truiden. Nothing special happened, but we do feel at ease with each other in spite of the age difference. I enjoy talking to her and walking with her and I know that she also feels at ease with me.

On Friday I went to Hasselt to meet somebody we closely work with in the ‘campaign’ to convince the educational sector and the politicians that allowing hijáb, turban and patka in schools will not cause a revolution in Belgium.

She works for an outfit that supports organisations set up by immigrants or children of immigrants. On this visit I first met a young woman who is partly of Kurdish descent and then I spoke to the person I came to see who hails from Kosovo, and to a young Berber trainee, who wore a híjáb.

Three women of different ages, all three from Muslim countries but with quite different cultural backgrounds, and different degrees of commitment to the faith they grew up with.

This 63 year old Sikh Netherlander, born in Dutch Limburg, living in Belgian Limburg, cannot even begin to tell you how much he enjoyed talking to and listening to these fellow human beings.

You can wear a híjáb and work together peacefully with people with a different outlook on life. You or your parents may come from Morocco, Kosovo or south-eastern Turkey but you can find a place for yourself in Belgian Limburg, speak Dutch with a local accent and not lose your connection with your background.

On Saturday I went to see friends in Brussel. The wife grew up in Austria and is of Panjabi Sikh background and he is from France. Long live diversity !

438.The Man in Blue – Three Months in Sint-Truiden

 I started writing this week’s column on the 15th of September, which is near enough three months after the 17th of June when I left the UK. Apart from some seriously annoying bureaucracy around where I can live to have a legal ‘domicile’ in this country, without which I will not get an ID card, no medical care, no use of the library and a few more related issues, I am happy living here.

There is also a serious problem with racism, with especially the radical Flemish party propagating a narrow interpretation of ‘Flanders for the Flemish’. But we must not underestimate the racism in the UK, openly propagated by the dirty rag called the Daily Mail.

I am happy here because I live near a small market town that reminds me of the slightly bigger small city where I was born. Wherever I am in the borough of Sint-Truiden (which includes the surrounding villages) I am within minutes from the countryside on my 50 Euro wonderful new second-hand bicycle.

There is an extensive network of country lanes and enough hilly bits to keep the old man in good shape in spite of the karah prasad, the mattai and the sometimes over rich Gurdwara food.

I am happy because I feel very much at home in the local Sikh community, and I have also met a good few ‘white’ inhabitants of Sint-Truiden who are not frightened of people who look different.

I am happy because I can make a contribution to more understanding between communities in this country. Many Belgians believe that turban and hijáb represent anti-Belgian values, symbolise a wish not to integrate.

Our most urgent problem is the ban on wearing of turbans, hijábs etc in many of the secondary schools. I was involved in three actions related to this problem. The first was a meeting with a Christian Democrat politician, the second the answering of a letter from the leader of the Flemish Socialist Party and the third a manifestation on one of the squares of Sint-Truiden.

Both the meeting with the Flemish Christian Democrat MP and the Action in Sint-Truiden involved Sikh youngsters, with the grey beards in the background. I have made some nice pictures of the manifestation in Sint-Truiden, which will appear on my Flickr account and on my maninblue1947 blog.

Because we are a small, mostly first generation community, the young Sikhs who are growing up here and are being educated in Belgium are the only ones who speak fluent Flemish and therefore they get a chance to play a leading role. This is important as another ‘western’ prejudice is that all young Sikhs who wear turbans or patkas are victims of dictatorial parents who force this on their children. There is plenty to do for me here, there are some real challenges here and I like it.

428.Man in Blue – Honour Killings

jaisá bálak bhái subháí lakh aparádh kamávai |
A child, who out of a desire to please makes hundreds of thousands of mistakes,

kar upadés jhirraké bahu bhátí bahurr pithá gal lávai |
its father does teach and scold it in many ways, but will still embrace it.

pichhalé augun bakhas lé prabh ágai márag pávai |2|
Forgive my past misdeeds God, and in future keep me on Your path ||2||
Sorath, M 5, 2nd pauri, pana 624

My British readers will remember the case of Surjit Kaur, who was taken to Panjab and murdered by her in-laws. Recently here in Belgium a young woman wanted to marry somebody her parents did not like. This young man was from a ‘lower’ caste, had no job and allegedly used drugs. She was taken to Panjab and died shortly after arrival in Amritsar.

In the debate in England about Surjit Kaur some kept arguing that she was not a Gursikh and behaved badly. This I suppose made the crime understandable or excusable. In the recent Belgian case the father of the victim has been arrested, but has not yet been tried. We have no proof that he is guilty, but all known facts fit in with it being an honour killing.

Some people in the Belgian sangat argue that because the girl was disobedient to her parents they could understand why she was killed.

Obedience can never be unquestioning and respect has to be earned. If parents do not follow Guru’s teachings what should a child do ? If the parents want to marry you off according to caste, and Guru and the Rahit Maryada tell you that this is wrong, what should a child do ?

And even if your daughter has been wilful and disobedient for no good reason, even if the man she wants to marry is a lazy layabout, a drunk, a druggie or whatever, should you then kill her ?

This is where Gurmat comes in. We are taught that God is Father and Mother to us all. A Father and Mother who in spite of our mistakes or misdeeds, will hug us and receive us in Her/His house of which the doors are always open. Just read the shabad above the column.

Should we not try and follow this Godly example ? Or should we justify premeditated murder as punishment for disobedience ? The girls were taken to Panjab under some pretext and killed there. Surjit Kaur’s killers were finally convicted in the UK, due to a brave and persevering brother.

If the Belgian case is indeed an honour killing, I sincerely hope that the murderer(s) will receive their well deserved punishment. Let it be a warning to all that honour killings are not acceptable in India either !

425.The Man in Blue – Banning of Pag and Patka in schools in Belgium

I am on a crash course trying to understand the background of the problems that Belgian Sikh youngsters face in education.

Like France, Belgium is a majority Roman Catholic country. In the Dutch speaking north, which I know much better than the French speaking south, the Roman Catholic Church used to be very powerful.

I think that this power of the church explains the ‘fundamentalist secularism’ of France and Belgium. Additionally in the Dutch speaking area the often right wing Flemish nationalists are not just against being ruled by French speakers but also tend to be against any incomers (Flemish first !).

The anti-incomers’ sentiment is strongest against the Islamic immigrants, probably because they are blamed for the ‘Islamic’ terrorism. This sentiment explains the anti ‘headscarf’ mood in the Dutch speaking part of the country. It is mostly based on emotions, not on rational arguments.

At the moment schools can make their own decisions to ban headscarves (which include turbans and patkas) or not. As I read the political mood it would not surprise me if a total ban on headscarves in schools will be implemented in the Dutch speaking part of the country.

As long as the politicians we have a dialogue with accept that cultural and religious minorities in the country cannot be wished away, we have a chance to win our case based on arguments.

Popular opinion thinks that Muslim girls wearing hijáb or niqáb are forced to wear these by their family. Going by my experience in the UK this is a generalisations not based on facts. Some girls are under pressure to wear the hijáb, others wear it against the will of their family. The same applies to Sikh boys wearing the turban.

I think that Sikhs (and Muslims) should stick to their traditions and values while actively taking part in society. Sikhs should be seen ‘living the values’ that Guru teaches. Sikhs should practice making an honest living, practice compassion and practice One God/One Humanity. We should not withdraw into a narrow Panjabi world of our own.

Popular opinion assumes that Muslims and Sikhs wearing religious symbols do not want to integrate. This again is not evidence based, and we can prove them wrong.

Sikh children, all children, have the absolute right to be educated. We have, all have, the absolute right to work in all jobs. We have, all have, the duty to be active, critical citizens of whichever country we live in.