Indian military headache as helmets threaten sacred Sikh turbans

By Pratap Chakravarty - RFI
India Getty Images
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Members of India's Sikh community, who for centuries have gone into battle wearing their signature cloth turbans, are upset by a plan to replace their heritage headgear with odd shaped steel helmets.

The row erupted as Sikh infantrymen marched in the military extravaganza that marked India's 74th Republic Day.

The army has since decided to acquire 12,730 steel helmets designed for Sikh soldiers, but the move faces resistance from the Sikh clergy who argue that turbans are more than just ordinary headgear.

India's defence ministry has so far not commented on its 5 January order.

Upset Clergy

The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which runs Gurdwaras or Sikh shrines in northern India, asked Delhi to reverse the decision, saying it violated the community's religious code and could possibly spark a backlash.

Sikhs comprise less than two percent of India's 1.4 billion population but they account for eight percent of the country's 1.35-million strong military.

“Ordering a Sikh soldier to take off his turban and wear a helmet just because it offers better protection to his head, is ignorance of the Sikh's psyche, and his attachment to the turban,” said Committee President Harjinder Singh Dhami.

Akal Takth, Sikhdom's supreme temporal authority, called for a rethink on the experimental helmet named Veer or gallant which designers say has space for the Sikh soldier's top knot and is compatible with 21st-century battlefield accessories.

In December, a US federal court ruled that the elite Marines Corps cannot refuse entry to three Sikh recruits on the grounds that they wear beards and turbans.

Sikhs wrap the nine-yard long turban over a thin fabric that holds their unshorn hair in place. The combination is one of the several rules that are part of centuries-old Sikh religious edicts.

Shaving is also prohibited, and all Sikhs must carry a curved dagger by their side and wear a steel bracelet on their fighting wrist.

 “Any attempt to replace the turban with a helmet will be seen as an attempt to suppress our identity,” said Takht supremo Giani Harpreet Singh, warning that a similar attempt by the British when India was an imperial colony had failed.

“The Sikh community will not tolerate this,” he warned as Sikh politicians in Punjab state waded into the row, the latest to irk the military since June when India floated plans to hire soldiers on short contracts.

“The decision to make Sikh soldiers wearing helmets mandatory is an attack on our religious identity. I urge the Government of India to reconsider this decision,” Shiromani Akali Dal party President Sukhbir Singh Badal tweeted.

“Turban is a symbol of our religious identity,” added Badal, a former Punjab state chief minister.

The nickel-tough frontiersmen from Punjab are renowned fortheir military discipline and bravery, and are admired for their joie de vivre in general.

Celia Jane Harvey, Britain's first female reservist general, said Sikhs have always been entitled to wear the cotton turban on duty, echoing a similar pledge by Canada's armed forces.

Boot camp debate

“Many European countries owe their freedom to the brave soldiers from Punjab,” the three-star general said during her recent trip to India.

Critics fear that the egg-shaped helmets could be forced on recruits at the boot camp level.

“Existing army rules are such that enlisted men may not have the courage to speak up ... See what is happening to laws exempting Sikh bikers from wearing helmets and yet some are prosecuted,” an officer said on condition he is not quoted.

But former military commanders such as major general PK Sehgal hailed the step as “logical”.

“This decision is perfectly in place because in today's battlefield scenario turbans offer little or no protection against bullets and shrapnel and so it is logical to have ballistic helmets,” said Sehgal.

“Besides, modern helmets increase battlefield awareness,” the expert added.

Retired wing commander S.S. Bisley argued the resistance to helmets held little water in the military aviation wing.

“It is also very good for reactions, which saves you from injuries,” he told local TV.