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Kirpan: At Centre of Global Debate on Religious Freedom

The issue of Sikhs carrying kirpans on person has surfaced once again. This time, the practice of the ceremonial dagger being carried by Sikhs has come under discussion in New Zealand after National Party member Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi proposed a bill allowing a Sikh to carry kirpan in public places and workplaces without it being a legal offence.

Bakshi, who is based in Manukau East, has drafted a private member’s bill in the ballot to seek the change. His proposed bill does not change the Civil Aviation Rules, which govern what may be carried on board a domestic flight. A Sikh man was earlier this month deboarded from an Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch to Invercargill for carrying the dagger on him.

 Amendment of Rules in New Zealand

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English had told a gathering in Auckland on August 4 that the government, if re-elected, will amend the Crimes Act to allow kirpan to be carried, according to the Politik website.

This was not the first time the New Zealand government had talked about changing the law.  Former Prime Minister John Key in 2015 went far enough to say that the government was considering exempting kirpans from civil aviation rules so that they can be carried onboard aircraft and not stowed with luggage.

While Bakshi is optimistic about the changes since New Zealand is a “multi-cultural country which recognises diversity”, the Bill comes with its fair share of detractors.

Voices Against the Proposal

Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, believes that the move to allow Sikhs to carry their kirpans would be unfair to others, for example, the Maoris who want to carry a taiaha, according to New Zealand Herald. Taiaha is a traditional weapon of the Maoris made of wood or whalebone. “If Sikhs can do this as part of their customs, then what do we say to Maori who want to carry their traditional weapon, a taiaha, or perhaps a Hindu who wants to carry a trident, their traditional three-pronged spear,” he was quoted as saying. “Perhaps it’s time for a serious talk with the Sikh community to avoid people walking around with a dagger of cold hard steel.”

Bakshi counters this viewpoint by saying that the Bill will protect the Sikh faith under the New Zealand Law. “ A kirpan is not an offensive weapon. It is solely an important symbol of faith,” he says.

 The Issue in Australia

The issue of the kirpan is not limited to New Zealand alone. In Queensland, Australia, Sikhs are allowed, by the virtue of the Control of Weapons Act, to carry a kirpan in public spaces for genuine religious purposes with the exception of schools, where the reasoning has been excluded from the law. However, it has not been without hiccups. A mother from Melbourne questioned the exemption last year in Herald Sun: “I along with the community have the right to feel safe … in this instance I feel we have been let down, in that a religion should not override our laws. I know that there is an anti-weapons law and I know that my teenage children are not allowed to carry knives. So why is it then that there is an exemption? If they want to carry these knives then it needs to be completely and utterly hidden.”

While the case did not cause a change in the law, it did result in strict enforcement of the kirpan being carried in a concealed manner.

Europe Discusses Kirpan

Meanwhile, in Europe, Sikh representative across Europe met last month to discuss actions to safeguard the Sikh identity in Europe. The meetings, Gurjeet Singh of Sikh Federation, UK, told the Times of India, divided countries across Europe into four categories: countries with well-established Sikh communities where Sikh identity issues were reasonably well understood; countries with secular policies where Sikhs had been experiencing significant difficulties; countries with Sikh communities that were growing and had been establishing themselves in more recent times; and countries with governments that had right-wing policies and practices where Sikhs need to remain vigilant.

In Italy, for example, the Supreme Court had banned kirpan on pretext of public safety. With this move coming under much heat, the Italian government suggested that the ‘kirpans’ may be re-designed, produced and issued by Italian authorities.

The modified ‘kirpan’ will be issued to Sikhs with an individualised serial number and licence, according to media reports. It will be a flexible ‘knife’ without a tip or an edge, that bends when it comes in contact with anything. According to the Italian authorities, only the modified ‘kirpans’ will be allowed to be worn by Sikhs in Italy.

However, the modified kirpan did not go down so well with the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of Sikhs. The religious leaders of Akal Takht rejected the modified version, after being presented various kirpans of various sizes, saying it does not adhere to tenets of the Sikh religion.