Man for all people.

Gyani Sundar Singh Sagar (1917-1996)

On 15th November 1976 a law was passed that allowed Sikhs to wear turbans on motorcycles. A Mancunian, Gyani Sundar Singh Sagar, was widely credit as being instrumental in bringing about this historical amendment but, as you shall read, this was far from Gyani Ji’s first challenge in upholding religious and social justice.

A Sikh scholar and political activist, Gyani Sundar Singh Sagar, was born on 3rd June 1917 in the village of Ghalotian Kalan, Sialkot, Punjab India (now in Pakistan). He was educated in Scott Mission High School and Punjab University Amritsar, where he graduated with a degree in Punjabi language and literature. He was married in 1938 to Rajinder Kaur.  After his graduation he accompanied his father on commercial trip to Great Britain. This journey would be critical in the decision of where to settle after the upheaval and turmoil of partition.

The 1947 division of India resulted in the Sagar family havening to flee their homes in Sialkot when it suddenly became part of Pakistan. Whilst the family lived for time in India, Gyani Ji thought that Great Britain should be their new home. In 1948 he settled in Manchester. He made a living as a freelance salesman but also dedicated much of his time, using his education, language skills and knowledge of Britain, to selflessly aid his fellow Sikhs across the UK in navigating the often complex administrative system. His input was invaluable in establishing Europe’s first Sikh Gurdwara (Temple) in Manchester in 1953.

Victory for the people of Manchester

In 1959 Gyani Ji applied to become a Manchester bus conductor. After being accepted he was then informed that employment was subject to the mandatory wearing of the full uniform, including peaked cap, which would force Gyani Ji abandon the wearing of his turban. Gyani Ji was rightly outraged at this blatant unjust, unfair and unilateral policy. Sikhs employed elsewhere were allowed to wear their turbans. Thus began a near decade long campaign for religious tolerance and social justice with Gyani Ji taking on, not only the intransigence of Manchester city Corporation, but also the out dated working practices of the transport workers unions. This battle was covered extensively in both the local and national press. Gyani Ji was tireless in his campaigning, writing constantly to MPs, ministers and religious figures and senior military officials most of whom were very supportive of his position. One letter writer, quoted in David Beetham’s book, transport and turbans wrote: “Has Manchester Corporation forgotten the battle of Kho in Burma when Sikhs came to reinforce a besieged force?  I don’t remember anyone telling them they weren’t wanted because they were wearing Turbans’.

Despite popular opinion for Gyani Ji’s struggle, Manchester Corporation decided again and again against accepting turban wearing Sikh’s among their work force. At the third official rejection in Sept 1966a dispirited Gyani Ji said, “I want to die for my turban rather than to live under discrimination in this way.’ Showing great depth of resilience, Gyani Ji turned for support to the people of Manchester, and by October 1966 he had gathered 3,000 non-Sikh and 2,000 Sikh signatures urging the council to rethink its decision. Gyani Ji gathered 1,000 Sikhs to formally present the petition to the Lord Mayor, Nellie Beer. By December 1966 the city’s transport committee finally rescinded its opposition to turban wearing employees. Gyani Ji heralded this as “A victory for the people of Manchester’. Ironically Gyani Ji was informed he was no too old to apply for the position himself but appropriately his nephew, Mukhtiar Singh, became the first turban-wearing bus conductor in Manchester.

After such a long and often gruelling struggle many would have retired from the daunting task of upholding religious and social justice but there was little respite for Gyani Ji. He was already in the middle of a battle with the publishers of Chambers Encyclopaedia about an error in their entry about Guru Nanak. Gyani Ji was involved in 400 correspondences including several with later disgraced owner of Chambers, Robert Maxwell. They finally agreed to his changes and the entry was amended

Leader of the pack

In 1973 two turbaned Sikhs were stopped by police for not wearing a crash helmet in Gravesend. They had contravened The Motor Cycle Crash Helmets Act 1972. This prompted the formation the ‘National Turban Action Committee UK’ headed by Baldev Singh Chahal, Gyani Ji was drafted into lead the campaign. He immediately brought the issue to the attention of the media, National and local press and TV ran extensive stories about the problems of the ‘Urban Turban’. Gyani Ji once again brought his extensive network of contacts in to support his arguments. His argument was that if Sikhs had been allowed to lay down their lives for Britain during the Raj and two world wars without any legal compulsion for them to wear helmets instead of turbans, then they deserved the right to choose what to wear when riding a motorcycle. Simply putting a turban over a helmet was not a solution as it contravened the religious practice of wearing turban.

Changing a law is a slow process and needed continuous and effective campaigning. Despite now being 57 and suffering from both asthma and diabetes, Gyani Ji decided to commit himself completely to the cause at whatever personal cost. He bought a motorcycle and rode it proudly through Manchester being stopped and arrested several times. Manchester was once again the battle ground for the right to wear turban. His refusal to pay the fines because he did not recognize the validity of the law he had contravened led him to be given custodial sentence.

Gyani Ji was not afraid of serving time in prison for his cause and knew that it would further highlight the arguments he was already making through his many correspondence. However, before he could serve his seven day sentence in Strangeways Prison, his fines were paid by the sympathetic Lord Mayor who thought he was saving Gyani Ji from a self-inflicted punishment but had in fact undone all of his hard work. Undaunted Gyani Ji repeated his acts and once again sentenced and served seven days in Strangeways.

On the day of his release, he had given his sons instructions for his moped to be brought to the prison gates. In front of national and local press and TV and radio he was garlanded with flowers and amidst the cheers of Sikhs and non-Sikh supporters and, of course, the local constabulary. He was stopped and booked seven times on his ride home that day and was ready for another extended stay in prison. However, by this time largely through Gyani Ji’s efforts an amendment to the law was making its way through parliament.

On 15 November 1976 ‘an act to exempt turban wearing followers of the Sikh religion from the requirement to wear a crash helmet when riding motor cycle’ was passed. (Motorcycle Crash Helmets religious Exemption) (Act 1976 Chapter 62, Section 32, Road Traffic Act 1972.)  Gyani Ji once again saw this as something for everyone to be proud of and said that, ‘whilst it was great day for Sikhs it was a victory for the people of this great country and common sense’

Gyani Ji continued his efforts to bring tolerance, justice and common sense to the choice of wearing of turbans for Sikhs. In his last days he was still working to gain exemptions for turban wearing Sikhs on building sites. Gyani Ji died on 25th December 1996. He was deeply mourned by, not only his family and community, but a wide circle of friends, politicians, academics and free-thinkers throughout the country.