October 8, 2015 8:51 pm

Second World War vet who fought for Sikh rights decries niqab ban

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OTTAWA – A 95-year-old Second World War veteran who famously championed the rights of turban-wearing Canadian Sikhs says he disagrees with limiting the freedoms of Muslims who wear religious face coverings.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Pritam Singh Jauhal and four friends were barred from a 1993 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Royal Canadian Legion Newton branch in Surrey, B.C. because of a rule that banned head coverings.

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The national organization ultimately changed its policy, but the issue was an emotional one that reverberated across the country. One legion president in Ontario said at the time that vets who wanted to wear turbans should “go back to their country.” Other branches defied the policy change.

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The decorated soldier, who served 38 years with the British and Indian armies before emigrating to Canada in 1980, said in an interview that he doesn’t agree with restricting the use of the niqab.

“This is a multicultural society, country,” Singh Jauhal said. “We have to remain so. You cannot condemn one particular community and accept the other as it is.”

The Conservative party has been campaigning on its position that Muslim women who wear the niqab should be asked to remove the veil while taking the oath of citizenship. Leader Stephen Harper said he’ll be looking at possibly extending the ban to people who give or receive public services.

“The point of the issue is that both turban and burqa, they are religious garments of two communities, Sikh and Muslims,” said Singh Jauhal, referring to another type of Muslim clothing that covers a woman’s face and body.

“I’m very saddened that as they accepted my voice, on putting on the turban when going into a Legion … why don’t they allow the Muslim ladies also to have the burqa on? It’s the same principle.”

Avtar Singh Dhillon, a B.C. man who won the right to wear his turban while riding a motorcycle in 1999, told the Hindustan Times this week he also disagrees with the Conservative position.

“Muslim women must also be given the right to wear niqab, much as Sikhs. It is the question of religious freedom,” he told the newspaper.

Singh Jauhal recalls in detail the incident in 1993, when two attendants told him he couldn’t get into the legion hall unless he took his turban off.

“I said, this is against my religion, I cannot do so,” he said.

“Not only that, I am invited, I am a guest, I haven’t seen any place in the world where a guest is kicked out.”

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The following year, the Queen invited Singh Jauhal and his four veteran friends to tea during a visit to Victoria. Singh Jauhal had written to her after they were barred from the hall.

“She asked me questions about that,” he said.

“I said that I’m extremely sorry, I shouldn’t have bothered you. But she said you did the right thing, to tell me about that case.”

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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