The subtle knife

Reader -k from The Blonde Canadian has alerted me to another interesting religious issue, following on from my post about hijabs at school. The issue involves the kirpan, the ceremonial sword worn by baptised Sikhs, or Khalsa Sikhs.

To wear a kirpan is one of the five commandments followed by a baptised Sikh. Others include not cutting the hair, carrying or wearing a wooden comb in the hair, wearing special undergarments and wearing a steel bracelet called a kara.

The wearing of a kirpan shows that the Sikhs are to be as fearless as lions. (The name Singh, which all Sikh men have as a middle name or surname, means “lion”). It also symbolises the power of truth to cut through untruth. For many years, Sikhs in the Punjab were forbidden from wearing kirpans, and thus it has an important symbolism.

The Sikh principle is “Fear not, Frighten not.” Sikhs are to protect the weak from tyranny and slavery. The kirpan is never to be used aggressively, according to the principle of ahimsa or non-violence. However, a Sikh must not stand by while violence is being done. In those circumstances, a kirpan can be used to prevent violence towards a defenceless person, but only as an absolute last resort.

I have some close Sikh friends, and they can indeed be as fierce as lions, but they are also very compassionate people. When I first met my husband, he had to withstand the scrutiny of my “Indian brothers” – the fact that they approved of him was an important indicator of his qualities, added to the fact that he took the scrutiny in his stride. And he came to a bhangra dance night with me. What a trooper!

The Victorian Multicultural Commission has made a submission to a Parliamentary Commission saying that students should be allowed to wear signs of their faith to school. This includes Sikh students, whom the VMC says should be allowed to wear kirpans to school.

But the President of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, Brian Burgess has reportedly responded, saying, “I would not support this in any way, shape or form. It’s not appropriate that something that can be used as a weapon is brought into school. Can you take it on an aircraft? Can you take it into the MCG?”

The President of the Victorian Australian Education Union, Mary Bluett agreed, saying, “There’s no place for weapons of any kind, ceremonial or otherwise, in schools.”

It’s true that carrying a kirpan is a vexed issue in this security conscious society. The Sikh Coalition has a summary of recent legal cases in the US, the UK and Canada on the topic. But it seems to me that Mr Burgess and Ms Bluett have acted instinctively to say that kirpans should not be carried, without a deeper understanding of what the kirpan symbolises, and when it is to be used. A Khalsa Sikh who used the kirpan in anger as a weapon could face excommunication by the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee in Amritsar, Punjab (the body which passes verdict on Sikh matters). A person who used the kirpan inappropriately could also face ostracism by their community.

It seems to me that a minority of students would wear a kirpan, and that, with a full understanding of Sikh tradition, it can be seen that the likelihood of students using the kirpan in an inappropriate or violent manner would be very low indeed.  In this context, it seems appropriate that Khalsa Sikhs should be able to wear a kirpan to school.



Filed under Australia, law, religion, sikhism, society, tolerance

14 responses to “The subtle knife

  1. Appu

    It continues to baffle me. Simple minded, childlike belief systems are to be taken seriously because not doing so would be hurtful. The equilibrium between being a realist and being a believer would be shattered. So we must all join in to support the myth and now increasingly every myth that our childlike fellow citizens can think up. Can I drink cow’s blood straight from the artery? Can I claim virgin birth and resurrection? Can I indoctrinate my women to dress in purdah? Can I say that wearing long underwear and carrying a small dagger are all parts of pre-ordained requirements that I must meet in order to do the will of him who must be obeyed.
    Too right I can! I can make up any set of wierd scary funny stories and I must be granted respect because otherwise my god is going to react badly? So god is less understanding than the general community when it comes to carrying daggers?
    Please. Do us a favour.

  2. Ten years back, Appu, I would have felt the same way as you. I would have thought that people should just get over themselves and live in the real world. I think I’ve mellowed with age. 😉

    Wearing religious symbols is an outer sign of inner faith – it is in essence, part of someone’s identity. It is about saying that you are a proud member of a particular community and a particular belief system. Okay, there has to be a point where we say some things are not acceptable. If a woman in a burqa wanted to drive a car, I’d be pretty unhappy because she would be a risk to herself and to others because her vision would be obscured. Or if someone wanted to carry a loaded gun around all the time, and said that was part of his religion.

    By contrast, kirpans doesn’t seem to represent a threat to others in most circumstances because of the severe religious limitations surrounding the use of them. If they were a threat to the safety of society, I would argue that they should be banned.

    If someone wants to wear a little skullcap or a scarf or a crucifix or a ceremonial dagger – I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t choose to do any of those things myself, but I’m fairly relaxed about others who do choose to do so, as long as it doesn’t harm me or others in society, and as long it’s the person’s free choice.

  3. Spot on with that last comment, LE. Real harm rather than our prejudices — even Enlightenment rationalist ones — must be the criterion in matters like this. Other approaches just cause more trouble than they are worth.

  4. marcellous

    This one tested my liberal conscience because I certainly have those “Enlightenment rationalist prejudices” (I’m letting the question of a prejudice with a reason go through to the keeper just now.)

    I really hate the tendency which because of our authoritarian historical origins, is particularly strong in Australia, to go for the “one rule fits all” approach. That is, in this case, the rule that, because someone might misuse a knife, no-one should have one. But it is also true that, in some circumstances, because of transaction costs in determining how the rule might fit individuals, as well as minimisation of risk, sometimes such a rule needs to be adopted.

    It is, of course, always a question of degree, and we can argue at the margins. For example, why should not careful and attentive drivers be allowed to drive faster than careless and inattentive ones? (In this case, I think there is room for more flexible formulation of rules, and indeed technology now makes it possible to vary speed limits according to conditions, as happens on some expressways.)

    To return to the kirpan, the problem here is not, of course, the use of the kirpan according to its proper principles, or even, I suspect, the risk of its improper use, which I accept will be slight. The problem is the other boys and the other knives. Individuated rules require a more sophisticated rule system, both in their enforcement and also in their acceptance by those to whom they apply. But here we are talking about schools and teenage boys. How much harder will it be to secure adherence to the general rule from them when exceptions are made? My guess is that that is why school principals are baulking at this.

  5. Emma

    What happens if the kirpan is taken off a Sikh by another child in school?

  6. My husband just asked the same question after reading this post.

    My understanding is that they are not easy to get access to, and that they should be sheathed and tucked in a belt. Also all Sikhs have a duty to fight to the utmost stop their kirpans being removed.

    As Marcellous said above, the problem is not so much the behaviour of Khalsa Sikhs, but the behaviour of others who might think that they should also be allowed to carry knives or others who might try to snatch the knife.

    It’s a difficult balance to make, I agree.

  7. It reminds me slightly of a boy of Scots heritage who was suspended from school (post-Columbine). It was some kind of traditional costume day and he came to school in kilt, sporron and ceremonial dagger.

    The faculty freaked and he was suspended.

    Given that I recall classmates of mine coming to school with concealed switchblades etc. I really don’t think the idea of ceremonial weaponry is such a problem. There seems to be this vogue at the moment that says: if it’s a problem BAN IT.

    It’s simple enough to make a ceremonial weapon secure. It’s also pretty simple to conceal an uncermeonial weapon or use some other object aggressively. Don’t agree with the gun lobby on control but they are right when they say it’s the people not the weapons that’re responsible.

  8. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about those Scots knives – what do call ’em? – dirks, I think. Same principle.

    I agree, it’s the concealed weapons which are the real danger, not ceremonial weapons.

    Actually, I just remembered today that some boys in my primary school class built guns which fired nails by rigging up Pacer pencils. If people are determined to do injury, they will.

  9. If the knives are symbolic what’s wrong with them being welded (or being manufactured as molded) as one piece into the shield so that they are incapable of being used as stabbing tools. Seems to me a simple gesture from the religious to the greater good and safety.

  10. shield – I mean sheath or scabbord.

  11. That is a very interesting concept, FXH. I will have to ask my Sikh friend what he thinks of it.

  12. Legal Eagle:

    Under normal circumstances when one takes information off of another’s post it is a common courtousy to at the very least show your readers where you procured the information.

    Most of the time in the blogosphere this is referred to as a ‘Hat/tip’ h/t or a hyperlink leading one back to the sources of information.

    Please at the very least mention that some of your source information came from American Age at Word Press.

    I find your piece just about as bias as they come. There are only two citations at the infamous “Coalition for Sikh” and those being the only two that have had state’s (liberal ones at that!) bend rules to accommodate them.

    In Phil Valentines last work he points out that there would be less violent crime if people wore guns in America and statistically he’s correct. But as society members do you think there is a difference between a gun and a knife?

    What on earth does a knife have to do with religious freedom anyway? Nothing!

    Tell both sides of a story or simply leave it alone. Btw, you should have taken the time to tell your readers that you pirated my front page.

  13. Jon-Paul. I have never read American Age. I have never heard of it. I assure you that if I read of an issue through a particular blog, I let my readers know. Just for the record.

  14. Cheers and thank you.

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