Another fold in the long tale of the turban was unwound yesterday in Manchester, where the corporation transport committee refuses to allow turbanned Sikhs to work as bus conductors. The committee has a rule that drivers and conductors must wear the department’s uniform cap.
Seven leaders of the Sikh community in the city – a dignified delegation wearing turbans from pale pink, through patterned browns and greens, to dark blue – yesterday met the chairman of the committee, Councillor CR Morris, to tell him why they think the ban on turbans is wrong.
Matter of principle
The chief spokesman for the Sikhs was Gyaril Sundar Singh Sagar, a university graduate and a leader of the Manchester community, who started the story last year by applying for a job as a bus conductor. He offered to wear the department’s badge in his dark blue turban. After research and discussion, the committee decided to stick to its rule – wear a cap or no job as a conductor. Sagar wanted his turban, refused a turbanned job in one of the bus depots and, with his community, has since been pressing the committee as a matter of principle.
The committee’s original ban on turbans was upheld in the city council last year by 41 votes to 31. A second debate on the issue was averted last month when Councillor Morris said he was prepared to meet leaders of the Sikhs in Manchester, and hear their case. Yesterday, after an hour’s discussion, he described Sagar as a “powerful advocate”.
Points raised by the delegation were that the committee had ignored the general feeling in the city that turbanned conductors should be allowed to work on the buses; that the turban was part of a “proper” Sikh’s life and that it was accepted as a recognised headdress in the Services.
The delegation produced impressive figures showing that in the two world wars more than 82,000 turbanned Sikhs were killed, and more than 108,000 wounded. More than half the Victoria Crosses won in the British Indian armies were awarded to Sikhs, and Sagar made the point that if Sikhs could die with the turban, they should be allowed to live with it. It was also stressed that Manchester was not living up to its progressive reputation because Newcastle upon Tyne already employs six turbanned Sikhs on its buses. Finally, the delegation offered a guarantee that Sikhs employed as conductors would wear turbans of any colour chosen by the committee, and said: “Turbans would add colour to the scene of Commonwealth here … and probably bring more passengers to see how hard and well we work.”
After the meeting, Councillor Morris said he had been impressed by the delegation’s case. It had been listened to carefully and would be placed before the next meeting of the transport committee, whose decision would come before the city council in October. He said:
“I want the Sikh community feel that we are not discriminating against them on religious grounds and that we are taking a tolerant and reasonable attitude. As far as the turban is concerned, it has been a condition of employment that drivers must wear the uniform cap.”
Councillor Morris declined to hazard any guess about whether his committee, after hearing the delegation’s case, would be likely to change its mind. Sager, and other members of the delegation, said the question of turbanned conductors was now a matter of principle. There were about 700 Sikhs in Manchester and it was unlikely that the transport department would be flooded with applications from them for jobs on the buses. But the community was anxious to open the door for any “proper Sikh” who wanted a job as a conductor to know he could get one – and retain his turban.
Councillor T Thomas who asked the council last year not to ban the turban, attended yesterday’s meeting and said that he had suggested that Sikhs might be employed on a short-term basis, leaving room for discussion if any difficulties arose. Alderman Sir Richard Harper, leader of the Conservative group in the city council, accompanied the Sikh delegation. He thought it had provided the transport committee with more information than it had when the original decision was taken. Few people seemed to appreciate the significance of the turban, he said, “In the eyes of the Sikh it is the visible sign of his spiritual grace.”
Editorial: turbans on the bus
Sikhs must, as a tenet of their religion, wear a turban: Manchester bus conductors must, as a condition of employment, wear a peaked cap. It follows that no Sikh can serve as a bus conductor in Manchester, and a year ago, a Sikh who applied for a conductor’s job was refused on this ground and no other. The city council will soon have the chance to reconsider its policy, and we hope it will.