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Turban snarl trips French drive

Saturday 6 November 2004

CHANDIGARH: At a time when several countries are focusing on north India to attract students, France’s turban ban in its institutions could prove counter-productive to its "Study in France" campaign.

Several French institutions are among the scores of universities eying the vast Indian student market by marketing professional and vocational courses.

Universities, colleges and other institutes from the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and European countries are marketing their courses in north India, especially Punjab.

The foreign university tag has caught on among Indian students in the past decade. Many believe this provides them better job opportunities.

But a leading education consultant here said the French law banning religious symbols would do no good to that country’s educational institutions as a majority of students applying from Punjab are Sikhs.

Under the new French law, students would not be allowed to wear any headgear symbolising religion. This would ban turbans worn by Sikhs who keep long hair on the head in accordance with their distinct religious identity.

The head of Sikhs has to be kept covered at all times. Several Sikh students were turned away from classes in French schools in the last couple of months when the ban was enforced.

Teacher Roma Singh, who was teaching in a French school and sports a turban being a baptised Sikh, said things had become difficult for Sikh students after the French law came into force.

"The French authorities failed to understand that the turban was part of Sikh attire and no Sikh could part with it," she pointed out.

Even non-baptised Sikh women have to sport a scarf or stole (‘chunni’) on their heads while outside their homes.

Roma, who hails from Toronto in Canada but had moved to France after getting a teaching assignment there, said she saw no future for herself if the French government did not ease the ban on turbans.

She would address a seminar in a gurdwara here shortly to inform Sikh students not to aspire to study in France because of the difficulty caused by the latest French law.

Frenchman-turned Sikh Kudrat Singh said his last resort would be to come to India and seek political asylum if the French authorities did not revoke the law.

Gurdial Singh, head of a French human rights organisation, said the French Sikh community - numbering 7,000 - had been put to hardship by the new law and children were the worst sufferers due to an uncertain future.

"But we have decided to fight the French law in court. We will withdraw our children from schools and other institutions. They will do further studies by correspondence but we won’t send them to other countries for studies," he said.

The Sikh community also plans to set up a Sikh educational institution in France to help displaced Sikh students.

"The French authorities themselves don’t know whether the turban ban will be enforced even in an all-Sikh school," a French Sikh pointed out.

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