A long-running campaign concluded on April 9th, 1969, when Sikh busmen working in Wolverhampton won the right to wear their turbans while on duty.
The Midlands had a thriving Indian Sikh community and many of the men had found work as conductors and drivers on the region’s buses. Most English bus companies already allowed practising Sikhs to wear full beards and turbans, which were elements of their religious code, but a few, including the one run by Wolverhampton’s city council, would not.
Instead it insisted on its busmen being clean-shaven and wearing the company’s standard uniform badged peaked cap, in line with company regulations. When pushed for a reason, it said it was a rule which applied to all employees, but declined to supply a practical justification for the rule. For example, there were no health and safety grounds to prevent the wearing of a beard or turban.
Finally, after growing pressure from Sikh employees and their supporters in the wider community, Wolverhampton’s Transport Committee agreed to drop its ban. Some supporters pointed out that Sikhs had fought and died with the Allies during World War Two. If they could lay down their lives for Britain while wearing their turbans and beards, why couldn’t they staff its buses doing the same!
Yet it took the threat of an extreme act before the Transport Committee backed down. Leader of the Sikh campaign was 66-year-old Sohan Singh Jolly (pictured), who threatened to burn himself to death in protest at the ban. At first he wasn’t taken seriously, but when 14 others vowed to follow his example and set fire to themselves unless their request was granted, members of the Transport Committee quickly reconsidered their stance.
Announcing the decision, chairman of the eight-man committee Councillor Ronald Gough, said members felt the previous ban on turbans had been “right and proper”, but added: “In the interests of race relations, we have taken the decision to relax the rule.”
The news came just days after Labour MP Ernest Fernyhough, a junior minister for employment in Harold Wilson’s government, visited Wolverhampton and warned city councillors of “wide repercussions” if Mr Jolly were to carry out his threat. More pressure in support of the Sikhs came from the Transport and General Workers Union and the Indian High Commission, in London.
Some people criticised Mr Jolly for making the threat over what seemed to them a fairly trivial matter. He replied that it was anything but trivial for practising Sikhs, and he had been forced into making the threat by the committee’s repeated refusal to budge on the issue.
“I am a moderate and religious man,” he said, “and would never have taken the extreme step of threatening my life if they had not refused to listen to reason.”
In fact, the apparently small victory, affecting just a handful of Wolverhampton employees, had a wider significance. Britain had a growing Sikh community of around 130,000, many of whom had escaped religious persecution in their native India. They worked in a variety of industries, which now increasingly recognised their right to wear their traditional attire unless there were sound practical reasons for not doing so.
Devout Sikh men live by a religious code which requires them to wear the ‘Five Ks’ at all times. They are the Kirpan (a small ceremonial dagger), Kesh (uncut hair and a full beard), Kanga (a wooden comb holding their wrapped hair in place), Kara (a steel bangle) and Kachera (traditional cotton undergarments).
In 1982 the House of Lords, which is Britain’s highest court, ruled that Sikhs were a distinct ethnic group and entitled to protection under the Race Relations Act. It effectively gave them the right, enshrined in law, to wear turbans and beards in all walks of life.