WASHINGTON: A New York lawmaker cited the Sikh faith of India’s current Army chief to press for Sikh religious rights in the US military after the Pentagon’s latest regulations regarding keeping their turban and hair while in service left the community dissatisfied.
“Sikhs have served in the US Army since World War I, and they are presumptively permitted to serve in the armed forces of Canada, India, and the United Kingdom, among others. Notably, the current chief of army staff of the Indian Army is a turbaned and bearded Sikh, even though Sikhs constitute less than two percent of India’s population,” Democrat Congressman Joe Crowley, who has been fighting for Sikh rights, said in letter to US defense secretary Chuck Hagel. The Indian Army chief Bikram Singh visited the US last December.
The US military’s efforts to ensure the rights of religious-minority service members to display their beliefs outwardly — such as wearing a turban or beard — announced on Wednesday after much deliberation, has come up short of expectations of Sikh groups, among those minorities who waited anxiously for the new rules.
Under the new rules announced by the Pentagon, requests for such religious accommodation associated with faith – “long as the practices do not interfere with military discipline, order or readiness” — will still be decided on an individual basis. It will generally be denied only if the item impairs the safe use of military equipment; poses a health or safety hazard; interferes with wearing a uniform, a helmet or other military gear, or “impairs the accomplishment of the military mission.”
The new regulations advise that “expression of sincerely held beliefs” may not be used as the basis for “adverse personnel action” or discrimination. The beliefs that will require religious accommodation in the military include growing hair and grooming practices, both of which are central to Sikh and Islamic faiths.
But Sikh organizations, while appreciating the Pentagon’s initiatives, said the changes do not go far enough. “We are deeply appreciative that the Pentagon established a formal process so that aspiring Sikh American Soldiers and other Soldiers of faith may request accommodation of their articles of faith. We are disappointed, however, that the presumptive ban on Sikh articles of faith remains intact,” the Sikh Coalition said on Thursday.
“While the policy revisions announced today provide a framework through which Sikh Soldiers may seek religious accommodation, we caution that uniform rules barring Sikh service remain intact. To be clear, Sikh Americans must still go through a lengthy and uncertain administrative process before being approved or denied the opportunity to serve their country with their religiously-mandated turbans and beards.” the Coalition said.
Since 2009, three Sikh Coalition clients — Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, and Corporal Simran Preet Singh Lamba — have received rare and historic accommodations to serve in the US Army with their articles of faith intact, the organization said, adding that these American Soldiers have won awards and promotions and courageously proved that Sikhs can make great Soldiers without abandoning their faith.
The continued Sikh dissatisfaction was backed by Crowley, who is currently spearheading a bipartisan letter signed by 20 members of Congress on both sides of the aisle requesting that the US. Armed Forces update their appearance regulations to allow Sikh Americans to serve while abiding by their articles of faith.
“Depending on how they are implemented, some aspects of the new Department of Defense rules may be a step in the right direction,” Congressman Crowley said in a statement. “But more needs to be done to end the underlying presumptive ban on service by patriotic Sikh Americans. Sikh Americans love this country and want a fair chance to serve in our nation’s military.”
“Throughout the world, and now in the US. Army, Sikh soldiers are clearly able to maintain their religious commitments while serving capably and honorably,” Crowley maintained.