Published May 26, 2011 | 8:00 am
Sikhs have long served in international armed forces. They have fought for their rights to retain their articles of faith while defending their countries.
And despite being a minority, Sikhs in the American, Canadian, British and Singapore armies, have found success and climbed the ranks.
Sikhs have a historic military culture and have long kept their articles of faith in the militaries articles of faith in the militaries of Britain, Canada and India. Small numbers of Sikhs have served in the US armed forces for years without incident. But in the 1980s, the post Vietnam War ,military moved to increase conformity and banned displays of religious identity for new recruits. In 1986, the army banned “conspicuous“ religious articles of faith, including turbans and unshorn hair, for its service members.
On Vaisakhi in 2009, the Sikh Coalition (US-based NGO that defends Sikh civil rights) launched a campaign calling on the army to accept Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi with his Sikh identity intact into the military. In October, the army announced that Capt Kalsi would be able to serve with his Sikh articles of faith, the first time in 23 years. Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan scored the next victory for Sikhs in the US armed forces when he appealed the army’s ban and completed US army officer basic training without sacrificing the articles of his faith.
Captain Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi : Captain Kalsi, a doctor from Riverdale, New Jersey, was the first Sikh recruit to serve in the US army after decades with his turban and other articles of faith after appealing the army’s ban. Born in India, he is married with two children. Capt Kalsi signed up for the army during his first year of medical school. His father and grandfather were part of the Indian Air Force and his great grandfather served in the British Indian army.
The US Sikh community, estimated at more than half a million, have long suffered hate crimes after the September 11, 2001 attacks by assailants who falsely associated Sikhism with deceased al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. “I think the only way for that perception to be eliminated is when young Sikhs come up and say -I want to serve in the military,“ asserts the captain.
Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan: Captain Rattan was recruited and commissioned by the US Army in 2006 as a part of the Health Professions Scholarship Programme (HPSP). After completing his final year of dental school, he joined the US army officer basic course.
However, after completing his education, he was told that he must remove his turban and cut his hair before he begins active duty. He submitted a request to the army to keep articles of faith while serving in the army and became the first Sikh in decades to complete US army basic officer training with his unshorn hair and turban in March 2010 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
Capt Rattan attended Wright State College in Dayton, Ohio, where he obtained both a masters degree in bioengineering and a MBA. He studied dentistry at New York University College of Dentistry. Now stationed at Fort Drum, New York, Rattan is serving in the United States Army Dental Command, as one of the US military’s 760 dentists on active duty.
Spc Simran Preet Singh Lamba : Thanks to his Punjabi and Hindi language skills, 27-year-old Delhi-born Simran Preet Singh Lamba, along with Rattan and Kalsi, became one of the first Sikh soldiers in the US army in more than two decades to complete basic training without giving up articles of his faith. The army recruited him in 2009 through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) programme for his language skills, although he was not a US citizen at that time. The MAVNI programme is for legal non-citizens who have requisite skills in a designated foreign language or are healthcare professionals who meet army standards.
Spc Lamba also completed basic training at Fort Jackson outside Columbia, South Carolina, while keeping his turban and unshorn hair. I am thrilled to serve with my fellow soldiers and serve the US,“ says Lamba, who has now become a US citizen.
“I humbly believe that I was able to excel in all aspects of my training. Most importantly, I was overwhelmed by the support and camaraderie I felt with my fellow soldiers and base leadership.“
He was initially told that his Sikh articles of faith would likely be accommodated. But, in March 2010, his formal request for religious accommodation was denied. Lamba appealed the decision, and his appeal was accepted in September 2010.
Contrary to the concerns of some, Spc Lamba was able to meet all the requirements of a soldier during basic training. He wore a helmet over a small turban during field exercises. During gas mask exercises, he successfully created a seal. He used petroleum jelly to get a tight grip between his beard and gas mask and was able to keep his hair clean under all conditions, meeting all the military’s concerns about training and appearance.
He also enjoyed deep bonds with fellow soldiers and his superiors.
“When the bullets begin flying, it doesn’t concern anyone what religion you are -I bleed the same colour,“ Lamba said, after his graduation ceremony from basic combat training. CANADA Before Sikhs were allowed to immigrate to Canada, nine of their numbers joined the Canadian army and fought in World War 1 in France and Belgium. The first Sikhs are believed to have come to Canada after British Empire soldiers traveled to London in 1897 to take part in Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
Sikh soldiers who made the trip returned to India via Canada and some settled here, finding work in lumber mills and later in railway building.
Spc Captain Prabhjot Singh Dhanoa: From an army background, Captain Dhanoa has been serving in the Canadian army for the past seven years. According to Dhanoa, there is no confirmed census but as per estimates, about 200 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, are serving in the Canadian armed forces. Dhanoa, born in Hoshiarpur, completed his education from Chandigarh.
He was a civil engineer before joining the army. “I have never faced any challenges in the Canadian army because of my turban as Canada respects our role in the World Wars,“ he shares. “In fact, there are more liberties regarding practicing religion and maintaining symbols of faith in the Canadian army as compared to India.“ He had completed his training with his turban and at times a helmet during arms training due to safety concerns.
Spc Lieutenant Jasbir Singh Tatla: Lieutenant Tatla is the first turbaned Sikh to become a regular officer in the Canadian air force. The airfield engineer officer was born in Dhothar village, Ludhiana district. He studied engineering at GNE Engineering College, Ludhiana, and completed his Master of Technology at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. Tatla, who immigrated to Canada in 1999, passed the Canadian forces entrance examination in 2003 and waited four years for a security background check from India. He was detailed to undergo training at Venture Naval Officers Training Centre, Esquimalt, Victoria.
The Indian Army has proved a crucial adjunct to the British armed forces not only in India, but also in other places, particularly during the First and Second World Wars. Over the years, hundreds of Sikh soldiers have enlisted in the British army playing a vital role. They number less than 100 in the 150,000 plus strong British army, but many have paved the way for generations to come.
Spc Captain Makand Singh: Captain Makand Singh, a 51-year-old from Kuala Lumpar, joined the British army at the age of 17, following in his father, Baldev Singh’s footsteps -the first turbaned Sikh to join the British army. “My father came to the UK and wanted to join the army with a turban and beard but was told he was not allowed to.
He took his case to the House of Commons and won and the rest is history. The army has come a long way -it has changed and evolved.
For me, it was a lot easier because the path was already made. Today’s army is very welcoming to all religious groups,“ says Singh.
Capt Singh studied in India until the age of 14 when he moved with his family to the UK. He enlisted with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) in 1977 and then became a member of the Royal Logistics Corps when it formed in 1993.
Having only lived in England for three years, he spoke very little English, but with the support of the army, worked hard to learn the language. During his 33-year army career, Capt Singh has worked his way up the ranks to a captain and has been posted in Germany, Belize and Hong Kong.
The father-of-two has represented his regiment and the army at hockey and coached military and civilian teams. The soldier from the West Midlands was appointed the ethnic minority liaison officer for his area and regularly visits schools, colleges, gurdwaras and community centres, dispelling misconceptions and talking to youth about a career in the army. He has been honored with the Long Service and Good Conduct medals as well as the prestigious Meritorious Service Medal for his commitment to the recruitment of black and Asian youth into the army.
Capt Singh has become a role model for many young soldiers. Private Ranvir Singh Private Ranvir Singh is soon to become the first Sikh soldier with a turban and beard in the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, which performs ceremonial duties on state and royal occasions. The 27-year-old says, “I feel quite privileged, but there is pressure on me to make sure I uphold the Sikh name and culture. It is the most prestigious regiment in the world and the soldiers and horses look absolutely fabulous.
“I am proud to be the first.”
Pte Singh will be joining the regiment in July for training and will perform his first duties in February next year. Originally from Huddersfield, he enlisted as a Territorial Army soldier with the 562 Transport Squadron and 151 London Transport Regiment at the age of 20. He was inspired to pursue a career in the forces after a talk from Captain Makand Singh at his local gurdwara when he was 13.
“Joining the Territorial Army was the best move I ever made. I am very proud to be a Sikh in the British Army,“ he says.
He has been deployed to Bosnia with the 2nd Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles and is keen to promote the opportunities that exist in the army. Pte Singh has been instrumental in forging closer ties with the British army and local Sikh community by visiting gurdwaras in the Hounslow and Southall areas of London. “We have done a lot in the past two years and built massive ties. Today, we have Sikh ration packs catering to vegetarians and with our numbers increasing, we have turbans to match our uniforms and a Sikh chaplain.“
Pte Singh and his wife Pte Pardeep Kaur, who serves as a chef with 16th Regiment Royal Artillery, are also the first Sikh couple in the army.
Spc Mandeep Kaur: Kaur is the first Sikh and only female chaplain in the British armed forces. As an agricultural engineering graduate from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, the 32-year-old moved to England to study a PhD in the same field, but an interest in community work drove her to apply for the position of Sikh chaplain to the military.
In October 2005, the mother-of one became one of five newly recruited chaplains for the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force tasked with the “moral, pastoral and spiritual care of all serving personnel“. “I took up this role because I thought it would be a unique opportunity and challenge for me as no one has done it before,“ she says. “Even now, five years on, the role is still developing everyday and brings new challenges.
“The Royal Army Chaplains’ Department was founded in 1796, but until 2005, the faith needs of all British soldiers were the responsibility of the Christian padre.
There are now five chaplains for Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh servicemen and servicewomen. Kaur was appointed at C1 grade, which is equivalent to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Her role requires her to fulfil a range of responsibilities from providing emotional and spiritual support to officiating funerals and weddings.
Spc Brig Gen Ravinder Singh: There are only about 12,00015,000 Sikhs in Singapore, a nation of five million people, although their presence cannot be ignored. Sikhs came to this part of Southeast Asia as soldiers, policemen and guards during the British era. When India and Pakistan attained independence, many Sikhs uprooted from their homes and migrated to this region.
Brigadier-General Ravinder Singh took over from Major-General Chan Chun Sing as chief of the Singapore army on March 25 this year. Brig Gen Singh is also the first non Chinese army chief in nearly 30 years. The 46-year-old, who was previously deputy secretary (technology) in the Ministry of Defence, joined the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in 1982 and was awarded SAF Overseas Training Award (Academic) in 1983. He did his masters in engineering science from the University of Oxford, UK. He also holds a Master of Science (management of technology) from the US.
His previous appointments in the SAF include commanding officer, 3rd signal battalion; commander, 2nd Singapore Infantry Brigade; assistant chief of general staff (plans); head joint communications and information systems department; head joint plans and transformation department; commander 6th Division; chief of staff -joint staff.
Singh has made significant contributions to the development of the 3rd Generation SAF, which includes the application of Integrated Knowledge-Based Command and Control (IKC2) as the key driver for the SAF’s transformation efforts. “I am honored to be given this unique opportunity to lead our army and serve our country,“ he says.
Besides these successful Sikhs soldiers , there are thousands of other Sikh soldiers , who are working in various International armies and are proving their valor.