British Sikhs Praised For Their Role In Keeping London Rioters At Bay

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Even Britain’s renowned Scotland Yard praised the work of the dedicated community of Sikhs who they said was a model of what to do when widespread violence rears its ugly head.

LONDON – The Broadway in Southall, with its glittering shops reflecting the prosperity of the local Punjabi community built up over the past 50 years, must have presented a very tempting target to would-be looters last week.

But it was extremely lucky for the looters, who had ransacked stores in many other boroughs in London and cut a swathe across Manchester, Birmingham and other parts of England, that they chose in the end to give Southall a miss.

Had they got in, The Telegraph concluded after a study of the lie of the land in the potential battleground, they would not have been able to get out.

“It’s numbers,” said Himmat Singh Sohi, the president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the biggest gurdwara in Southall and also apparently in Europe. “Even if there had been 200 of them, we had 1,000.”

What he didn’t spell out was that his lads were armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks and a few ceremonial swords as well.

Were they swords for ceremonials or were they actual swords?

“They are sharp, very sharp,” smiled Himmat.

Even Britain’s renowned Scotland Yards praised the work of the dedicated community of Sikhs who they said was a model of what to do when widespread violence rears its ugly head.

In an emergency, the exit routes out of Southall can very easily be blocked by local groups, which would make escape for any invaders practically impossible. And the area is densely populated with Asians.

Local MP Virendra Sharma, the Labour representative for Ealing Southall, agreed that Southall had learnt the hard way how to defend itself. He recalled the first trigger for action that came in 1976 when Gurdip Singh Chaggar, a Sikh youth of 18, was knifed to death by a white gang.

In 1979 followed the notorious Blair Peach incident. He was a white New Zealand-born teacher taking part in an anti-racism demonstration when he received fatal injuries from a police baton. During those early years, the police seemed keener to protect the right of extremist white groups to march through Southall than to address the grievances of its terrorised Indian population.

The contrast with the police’s helpful attitude last Tuesday could not be greater, remarked Sharma, who was in the gurdwara as part of the team of community elders negotiating with senior officers on what could and could not be done.

The law states that people may use “reasonable force” to defend their property but are not allowed to pursue the culprit — that is the police’s job.

At one point, there were 1,000 people in the gurdwara, plus leaders of mosques, temples and churches who had been summoned by Himmat to an emergency summit.

“We told the police they were not a vigilante force and were here in support of the entire community in Southall,” Sharma said.

Those gathered at the gurdwara also wanted to support the police in keeping the rioters at bay in Southall. It was made clear to the police, though, that if they were unable to protect local shops and homes, “we would have to do it ourselves”.

Was religion a factor in the way the local community, especially the Sikhs, had responded?

“Yes, of course,” asserted Sharma. “It teaches you to be less individualistic and work for the whole of the community. The religion teaches you social values; it brings people together as if they are members of an extended family.”

Today, the gurdwara in Havelock Road was again bustling with activity but for altogether happier reasons —three couples were getting married at the venue in quick succession. In contrast to the long night on Tuesday, when anything might have happened, Southall seemed remarkably serene.

A white Rolls-Royce decorated for a wedding was parked outside the gurdwara. As it left with one happy couple, its place was taken by another Rolls-Royce, this time a gleaming black one with pretty ribbons.

Young men were milling around the place, taking in shoes and handing out either black or saffron headscarves, while in one of the large halls upstairs, Sharma was holding forth in Punjabi.

He was offering his blessings to the bride and groom, Ruby Kaur Dusanjh and Sandeep Singh, but also tossing in advice on the need for continued community cohesion.

“I am very proud of Southall,” commented Sharma, who had raised the defence of his constituency in the special Commons debate last week and received a pat from Prime Minister David Cameron.

Himmat, who was keen to explain how he saw things, bounded up four flights of stairs to a room marked “president’s office”.

“You okay?” he asked this correspondent. Himmat was scarcely out of breath, which was not bad for a man of 65. “I used to be a kabaddi champion,” he murmured.

Himmat does not like military comparisons, so he did not want to be seen as the commander-in-chief of a strong army.

On Monday night, he said, he had gone home and within half an hour telephoned the leaders of all the other communities in Southall — he had their landline and mobile numbers keyed into his handset.

The summit next day could not have happened as quickly as it did “had we not been meeting regularly over the years”, he said.

Himmat had come to the gurdwara in 1993 to sort out its finances, was president from 1994 to 2008 and supervised the construction of the £18.7-million building. He was re-elected president in 2010 for a three-year term and is now playing a key role in establishing a Sikh school with a large playground.

Keyed into his mobile are the numbers of all the senior policemen in the division, including the top commander, Andy Rowell. Himmat is planning to honour a senior policeman who has now retired and with whom the gurdwara had maintained warm relations. It is clear from Himmat’s tone that senior Indians in Southall have been able to develop close relations with the police.

He grinned: “The police here are better than the police there (in India).”

Himmat is himself a baptised Sikh who sees his role as ensuring that all communities live harmoniously in Southall.

“After all, this is our country, our home. It doesn’t make sense to burn down your own house. The looters are also part of the community.”

In the last day or two, word had got back to Himmat that there had been an angry exchange with some Somalis, whose numbers in Southall have grown to significant proportion. Himmat quietly but firmly put out the word that there should be no trouble.

“The Somalis are part of the community in Southall,” he said.

Relations between Asians and the Somalis, the latest immigrants to move into the area, had sometimes been problematic. “But now they are absolutely fine,” said Himmat.

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