Faith, Politics and Me: Tan Dhesi
Tan Dhesi (Credit: Imageplotter / Alamy Stock Photo)
In her occasional series, Seun Matiluko catches up with politicians to discuss faith and how they balance religion with politics. Here, Tan Dhesi, Labour MP for Slough, talks about crucial Sikh tenets
Tan Dhesi is excited to speak with me as we begin our Zoom call, encouraging me to “give (him) a shout” the next time I’m in Westminster.
Not enough people understand Sikhism – the government’s recent Independent Faith Engagement Review received criticism from some Sikh groups for not adequately representing the community’s concerns – and Dhesi is keen to represent the nuances of the faith.
Sikhs constitute around one per cent of the United Kingdom’s population and so, Dhesi tells me, “it’s for Sikhs to up their game, to explain to others what their faith is about”. He starts off by explaining the “incredibly important” Sikh principle of sewa, or selfless service: “We believe in sarbat da bhala which basically means working for the betterment of all, regardless of background, or gender, or colour or creed.”
We believe in working for the betterment of all, regardless of background
There are three types of sewa – tan (your body), man (your mind) and dan (your wealth). Dhesi’s grandfather gave him the name Tanmanjeet (he abbreviates it to Tan) to mark his hope that Dhesi would become “somebody who conquers their mind and body… I think I’ve done a fairly good job but it’s for others to judge just how good that job is!”
Dhesi was born in Slough and grew up in Kent, although he also spent four and a half years of his childhood in the Punjab. Dhesi’s father oversaw the construction of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Gravesend, an “eight-and-a-half-acre complex” that remains the largest Sikh worship site in Europe. It took “about a decade to build,” during which time Dhesi witnessed his dad exercise incredible “diplomatic skills” within the community. He says he has emulated those same skills in his political career.
Sikhs who have gone through an initiation ceremony, Khalsa, outwardly show their membership by wearing the five Ks: the kara (a steel bracelet), the kangha (a wooden comb), the kaccha (“the boxer shorts”), the kirpan (“a cross between a dagger and a sword”) and the kesh (“uncut hair”).
Many Sikhs wear turbans over their kesh – “for Sikhs, the turban is very special, it’s treated as if it’s the crown on your head”. That importance is what made it particularly distressing when, in 2018, a fellow Sikh Dhesi had invited to Parliament was racially abused and had someone try to pull off their turban.
“I actually felt very ashamed that that individual had to encounter that outside the seat of our democracy,” Dhesi says. The Speaker of the House issued an apology. Dhesi and others worked to create Turban Awareness Day in Parliament, which received cross-party support.
Other work he has done to increase awareness of Sikh communities includes highlighting the military tradition of men and women in the faith. Sikh soldiers, Dhesi reminds me, “got the highest number of Victoria Crosses proportionately of any community that served during the First and Second World Wars.” As the president of the National Sikh War Memorial Trust, he is working to get a memorial to their service built. He has been working on this memorial since 2017, when he made history as the first turbaned Sikh MP in Europe.
“There was a family wedding up in Huddersfield and a random elderly Sikh gentleman came up to me with tears streaming down his eyes and he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘Look, I am so proud that there is finally somebody who looks like me, looks like my children, in…the mother of all Parliaments. Now, just don’t let us down.”
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