UK

Why British Sikhs are calling for a 'black Diwali'

Firework display in India to mark Diwali Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some British Sikhs say they won't be celebrating the festival of light, as a sign of protest

The million-strong Hindu community in the UK is combining the celebration of Diwali with the visit of the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. But many British Sikhs, who also mark the festival of light, are refusing to take part, in protest against the Indian government's treatment of their religion.

For Sikhs, Diwali commemorates the release from prison of their sixth guru, Hargobind Sahab.

But temples and schools in the UK are among those who will observe a "black Diwali", without the usual candles and fireworks, as a mark of their anger about the desecration of the religion's holy scriptures in the Indian state of Punjab.

Mr Modi, a former chief minister of the state of Gujurat, is a hugely popular figure among Gujuratis in England, hundreds of whom worship at the Shree Swaminarayan temple, which towers over the neighbouring houses and flats in Willesden, north-west London.

One of the members of the temple, Kavita Vekaria, is in charge of decorating the oblong brick building with lights and enormous peacock feathers and is looking forward to seeing Mr Modi speak at a huge rally at nearby Wembley Stadium.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Shree Swaminarayan temple has been decorated for Diwali while worshippers look forward to Mr Modi's visit

"I'm extremely, extremely happy to see him," she said. "It's an absolute honour, he's a really honourable person and I have so much respect for him."

Suresh Jesani, a member of the temple's youth academy, said: "For us, it's one of our own guys coming to our own country. As a community it's massive for us."

But London has also seen protests against the Indian government's stance on the events in Punjab.

The police apologised for their treatment of Sikhs after violent scenes outside the Indian High Commission last month.

Two of those arrested were a financial adviser from Ilford in east London and his teenage daughter.

Ropinder Singh, 48, said officers jumped on him, removed his turban, and pulled out some of his long beard. He said they also removed his kanga - a wooden comb worn under the turban which is one of the five holy symbols of devoted Sikhs.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Protests began in Punjab last month after a torn-up copy of the holy book was found in the village of Bargari

"I was pulled to one side, I was kneed in the groin, and then literally had 10 police officers on top of me planting me into the ground," he said.

"To me it's like I physically died that day."

His daughter Charanjeet Kaur, 17, said officers had removed her kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, another symbol of faith carried by Sikhs, as police horses came near the protest.

"I felt like someone took my heart away for a second," she said. "They were treating all of us like animals."

Commander Mak Chishty, the Metropolitan Police's head of community engagement, issued an apology for the removal of Charanjeet's kirpan and that of another protester.

A holy flag was also trampled in the chaos.

Commander Chishty said officers sent to Sikh protests would in future be told about the importance of the religious symbols.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Modi's visit to the UK has caused controversy

Sikhs see a connection between the heavy-handed policing and the arrival of Mr Modi in the UK.

Jagraj Singh, a religious campaigner and the founder of the educational charity Basics of Sikhi, said the Hindu nationalism of Mr Modi's BJP party was a major concern to Sikhs, Christians and Muslims in India.

He said Mr Modi's attitude was that "other groups within India should realise who's boss".

"Whereas previously the parties were more secular and appealing on economic policies or the general policies you might get here, now it's more Hindu nationalism, that's the agenda," he said.

"The other minorities in India are getting a rough ride."

While Mr Modi will be welcomed at Wembley Stadium, and by the Queen and David Cameron, there are likely to be further protests against him.

Campaigners have already projected an anti-Modi message onto the side of the Palace of Westminster.

Like in India, policing the protests in the UK has become a sensitive religious issue.

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