Kirpan: the holy and the safety


A laical government would like to establish which religious “values” are acceptable

20 May 2017 – The first Criminal Section of the Supreme Court of Cassation, with decision nr. 24084 of 15 May 2017, rejected the petition of an Indian man of Sikh religion, who had appealed a fine he was inflicted for being found with a ritual knife (a Kirpan), about 7 inches long, brought outside of his home, without a “justifying reason”. His appeal was rejected in the name of safety and of “compliance” with the values of the society in which that immigrate lives. The Sikh man had held that the dagger is a distinctive sign of his religious identity and that bringing it could be okayed based on article 19 of the Italian constitution.

However, the judges considered the Kirpan as a weapon and noted that it was brought outside of the man’s home, without a “justifying reason”. They basically referred to Law 110 of 1975, article 4, point 2, which allows one to bring an irregular weapon with himself (such as knives, bows, scissors, tools for martial arts, etc.) only in case of a utilization for their proper (legal) function. For instance, as the decision itself declares, “it is justified to bring a knife with oneself, on the part of one who is going to a garden or to cut trees, or on the part of a medical doctor who during his visits brings a lancet in his handbag. Versus the allegation of circumstances comprising objective evidence, it is up to the defendant, to prove that a justified reason for the bringing exists.” (2.1).

As a matter of fact, our Sikh had tried to explain that the bringing of his knife was only justified by his religious creed, but “although acknowledging that his assertion is sensible, the Court does not deem the symbolism connected to the bringing of the knife could become a differentiating condition according to the law.” (2.2). Practically, the judges decided that the Kirpan’s being a religious symbol, yet having characteristics of a weapon, is not a “justifying reason”. According to the decision, even religion cannot be considered as a differentiation factor, because: “In a multiethnic society, the cohabitation of subjects from different ethnics necessarily requires the identification of a common nucleus in which immigrates and societies receiving them, must acknowledge one another. If the integration does not force one to abandon their original culture, yet in accordance with article 2 of the Constitution (which validates social pluralism), the insurmountable limit is the protection of human rights and of the history of laws of the hosting society. Therefore an obligation is essential for the immigrate, to conform their values to those of the occidental world, in which they freely chose to insert themselves in, as well as to preventively examine the compatibility of their behaviors with the principles regulating that, and thus the legality of those behaviors as related to the law system ruling them. The decision to settle oneself within a society in which one knows the values referred to are different from those one comes from, forces one to respect them, so it is not tolerable that the adherence to one’s values, though licit according to the laws valid in one’s original country, brings one to consciously infringe those of the hosting society. A multiethnic society is necessary, but it cannot bring to the forming of conflicting cultural melting pots, depending on the ethnics composing it, because such situation would be opposed by the uniqueness of the cultural and juridical structure of our country which sees public security as a good to be protected and to such aim calls for the prohibition of bringing weapons or offending objects with oneself.” (2.3).

The Cassation magistrates, in formulating their decision, also called on article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which in comma 2 states, “freedom to demonstrate one’s religion or creed can be subject of those sole restrictions which, as laid down by laws, would represent necessary measures in a democratic society, to protect social security, health or morals, or to protect other people’s rights and liberties.” (2.5).

This decision, in my opinion, although formally legitimate (being a fact that a dagger is a weapon) and based on the Italian Constitution as well as on the European Convention on Human Rights, has caused discussions and will cause more for a long time, even regardless of the easy polemics on the part of the diverse political parties. Discussions obviously do not concern the fact that the laws confirm the prohibition to bring an object out of one’s home which (even if rich in symbolic and religious valences) per our ruling system is in fact a weapon, and as such, is forbidden.

It is fair to enforce the current law system, however, perhaps a better attention to the spiritual and cultural dimension of a minority religious group, would have been necessary in this case. It is unfair, instead – while the need for the protection of pluralism (be it religious, cultural, etc.) of minorities, is being recognized – to invite the immigrates to a passive adjustment to the culture and the “values” of the hosting country. For what “values” is the decision addressing? Whose “values” are those? Of the Italian society? Of which part of the Italian society then? Of Europe? Of America? Which America? Or, of the West? The word “values” is vague, indefinite, may embed countless meanings that change along with the time and along with the variations of customs and habits. It is unfair to want to lean members of other cultures and religions to the western parameters which moreover are not even homogeneous. For the exact same reason, the so-called “migrants” cannot and must not force their spouses to accept the “values” of their culture if the latter do not wish to.

However, the lawmakers considered legitimate to hold that migrants, who for some reason decided to live in western countries, are obliged to “adjust themselves to the values of the society in which they decided to settle” (2.3); so it is legitimate the same, on our part, to criticize that obligation and deem that in a plural society as the Italian one, the integration process needs a greater, adequate knowledge of the culture and religious traditions of others. Knowledge and respect are necessary to create a true integration process. Unfortunately, in our land the Sikh are not broadly known yet; often, with their turbans and their long beards, they are perceived as connected to the Middle East religions, then, several of them (especially the younger) sometimes attempt to minimize their religious identity. But for the majority of theirs, being a true Sikh means to wear a turban and bring a Kirpan which per their tradition, cannot be absolutely compared to a weapon, except for its shape.

The Italian Supreme Court decision stating they are obliged to “adjust themselves to the values of the society in which they decided to settle”, seems to show some incapability to understand the rights of others, of cultural or religious minorities. Along this line, in the name of the law, human rights can be harmed. This is the expression of some dullness on the part of lawmakers in our land (but also in the West) that stalks on through the wave of lies and misinformation, the same which brought to the suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and to the anti-mosques law in Italy, several times criticized by our Federation.

Today, it seems that governments are repeatedly implementing the unacceptable practice to trespass the limits of their powers, so harming human rights.

Now, let us go back to our Kirpan which, as we said, is a religious badge, a holy symbol, which no Sikh ever used to assault or offend anyone. Notwithstanding the decision of our Supreme Court, some Italian minor courts, criticized by Lega Nord (right-hand, catholic Italian political party, Translator’s note) had previously recognized that it is legal to bring it outside one’s home. Decisions in this sense were issued in February 2009 by the Cremona Court and also in Vicenza; it is not casual that in these areas the Sikh culture is better known due to the high presence of immigrates come from Punjab. These decisions, which clearly established that the Kirpan cannot be considered the same way as cold steel weapons (even if in the Vicenza case, the right to bring it, was acknowledged “because the blade is not sharp”) testify how laws can be interpreted in different ways and also how the knowledge of other people’s culture and religion can be crucial to favor an integration process (for juridical specifics and technical considerations on the decision from the Vicenza court, see Judge Mr. Gatta, his Note to the criminal court of Vicenza, 28 January 2009, in Il Corriere del Merito, May 2009, from page 536).

In India, one can be carefree in bringing a Kirpan out of his home (article 25 of their Constitution). The same right was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, too, in a decision dated 2 March 2006 (for more specifics, see F. Astengo, Canada Supreme Court affirms the right to bring the Sikh’s knife at school, in the magazine Associazione Italiana dei Costituzionalisti). In the United Kingdom, a special law authorizes the Sikh to utilize their holy dagger.

So let us try to give a quick look into the Sikh religion, to try to better understand the religious meaning of the Kirpan.

The Sikh religion was founded around 1500 by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), a mystic and major cantor of the power and greatness of God. The new religious movement came up and developed in Punjab, a border zone between Hinduism and Islam, in northern India. Nanak sang about the unfathomable experience of the Transcendent and preached that, “there is no Hindu nor Muslim – because God is neither Hindu nor Muslim – and the way I follow is the way of God.” In his teaching, Nanak tried to demonstrate the nonsense of reclaimed religious memberships based on mainly exterior reasons; he insisted on the need for a mainly intimate religiousness.

Nanak preached the uniqueness of God: “The Guru [Master] of gurus is one only, although he has different forms” (Asa Sohila, 2). The heritage he left to his pupils (“Sikh” means “follower” or “pupil”) was undoubtedly the full body of his religious canticles, which comprise the first nucleus of the “Guru Granth Sahib”, the “Holy Book” kept safe in the “Golden Temple” in Amritsar, in the Indian Punjab. Along with the Holy Book, Nanak left a second important factor of cohesion: he established the gurus’ breeding; in fact he appointed as his favorite successor, Angad (1504-1552), so creating a continuation of his tradition. Ten “historical” masters are counted, i.e. Nanak plus nine of his successors, in each of which the Sikhs believe the spirit of the founder reincarnated from time to tim.

The tenth and last successor, Govind Singh, was a great reformer. In a hard time of continuous wars, he established the Khalsa (1699), a “Community of the Pure”, which endowed the pacific community of the Sikh with the distinctive character of a militant community of faithful ready to give their lives to defend their faith. Since then, the Sikh religion always had such double inspiration: on one hand the maximum tolerance and a deep spirituality, as the founder Guru had preached, on the other hand dauntlessness and a warrior spirit. It is not a case that still nowadays the Indian army has many members of this religion enrolled.

Nanak had characterized his faith with “statements in three parts” (triratna). The first included the “knowledge” (gian), the “love” (prem) and the “service” (seva); the other one the “Divine Name” (Nam), the “generosity” (dan) and the “pureness of life” (nan). Those who instead recognized themselves in the new establishment, the “Community of the Pure”, after a peculiar ceremony named “Amrit” (a sort of baptism) had to reach an additional triple prescription, composed of “common cooking” (deg), “victory” (fatah) and “sword” (teg). The conduct of the Sikh who follow the Khalsa of that time, is still the same of today: their life is regulated by precise rules (Rehat Maryada) that also include the control of their bad feelings as well as the self-restraint from smoke and intoxicating drinks.

On their clothes, still today, they wear distinctive signs known as the “five Ks”, from the initial letter “K” which is the first of the five names in Punjabi language: long beard and hair (kesh), a little comb to set their hair in a bun on top of their heads (kangha) covered by the turban, wide pants (kach) instead of the traditional Indian tunic (dhoti), an iron bracelet (kara) and a sword or knife (kirpan). Those who wear these distinction badges, have undergone a ritual “baptism” (amrit-pahal), have pronounced the three “surrenders” (giving up from boasting one’s social or working position, from being proud of one’s origin, and from believing in superstition or other faith) and have added the epithet “Singh” to their name, i.e., a “lion.”

It is to be recalled however that not all Sikhs are “amritdharian” (meaning those who accomplished their Amrit ceremony), not all of them have taken the vows of the “Community of the Pure”. Many of them, not accepting the martial reforms imposed by the tenth Master, prefer to remain bound to the inspiration of the original teaching from Nanak.

The Kirpan, which these days is being so much talked about, due to the decision from our Supreme Court, for the armitdharians is not a weapon but a witness of adherence to the Khalsa and of their commitment to defend their faith. It is a ritual sword generally brought on one’s waist or hung on one’s belt. It can be brought above or beneath one’s clothes and its dimension can vary: from one inch or slightly more, to over three feet when it is utilized in religious celebrations, ceremonies and parades. The blade, a single-cut one, is typically made of steel or iron and its handle is often made of metal with wooden or leather borders. Usually, a Kirpan is brought in its apposite case, well-tied, even though sometimes, in the occasion of religious ceremonies it can be unsheathed. The word “kirpan” is composed of two other terms: “Kirpa” for “mercy” or “clemency” and “aan” for “honor” and “dignity”.

This sort of holy sword was never utilized (even when the Sikhs found themselves in need to fight) as an offensive weapon and will never be allowed to be one (contrarily to another sword called “talwar”, used as a defensive weapon). The Kirpan symbolizes for the Sikh the obligation to courage in the hard battles of life and against any and all injustice; it is a spur to fight spiritually for the good and to follow an appropriate moral living. In other words the Kirpan is part of a religious “uniform” officially and strictly prescribed, thus wearing it, means to follow a teaching that made the research of good and justice in society and in the world, one of its basics of faith.

Despite the above, the Kirpan in the Western world, was often considered “potentially dangerous” and is a risk for the citizens’ safety. Rather frequent are cases (not only in Italy) where especially in airports or public places it was seized. For the Sikh, this is an outrage to their dignity. Similarly outrageous, is to force them to remove their turban (always for security reasons) even if most of those times they accept to do so with goodwill, for obvious quite-living sake. In most recent years the Sikh, attempting to adjust themselves to the Western rulings, have started to utilize smaller Kirpans, made of plastic or gum. But these are just ludicrous compromises….

The problem of symbols representing a religious identity, is rather complex and tightly connected to personal freedom. Religious memberships always expressed themselves through the way of clothing oneself (from the sagum to the tunic, from the kippah – the traditional Jewish headgear – to the Islamic women’s Hijab, just to mention a few cases). Sometimes more tactful objects can be used such as a pin on one’s jacket’s collar or a distinctive on one’s coat. But it is not always like that. In fact, in the totalitarian states, it is sometimes prohibited to wear certain clothes or certain badges. People’s freedom also passes through a dress or a symbol.

But this right as well, in our democratic states, is being limited, often in the name of “secularity”. Let us just mention the matter of the Hijab (the veil) of the Islamic women that burst out in France in 2004, when a law forbidding the “public bringing” of religious symbols, was approved. Of a different temper and due to security reasons, is the prohibition to wear dresses (for instance, the burqa) preventing one from being identified. But even in the latter case, in a free country, nobody may ever forbid to wear such clothes, though a person wearing them will not refuse to show their faces to the legitimate request of a public security officer. Just the same way a Sikh must do when he is requested to remove his turban to verify that nothing is being hidden in it.

We should remember that in Italy, article 19 of the Constitution (which the young Sikh convicted by the Supreme Court decision, had invoked), protects everyone’s rights to show their profession of faith and so to wear clothes and badges that attest their cultural membership or religious identity. Of course, a dress is not a dagger and though attributing maximum respect to Sikhs’ traditions, I do not want to defend the right to bring around a potentially dangerous object, however the real meaning of the holy blade ca only be grasped within the context of its religious, historical and cultural use.

It would be fair and due, to enforce the currently applicable law system, even where it can hide the danger that the logics of security prevail on those of liberty and rights. Guaranteeing citizens’ safety is important, but when it is done under the awareness that security is mostly the child of justice and of protection of human rights, rather than the consequence of social security policies.

How can one force immigrates to lean to parameters (the “values”) of the society in which they decided to settle? Today, the real clash of civilizations is played in court halls and in parliaments of our more or less democratic societies. Such challenge is to be coped with, by keeping some cornerstones still, stemming from the Western juridical experience: first of all, the affirmation of the dignity of each and every human being, on which the principle of equality is founded, along with the consequent affirmation of the rights to liberties (plainly including religious freedom).

We must not and cannot sacrifice the rights to freedom on the altar of “security”. In the same way, any possible interference of governmental powers (in the case of the Supreme Court decision versus the Sikh, the judiciary one) are to be rejected, when they attempt to establish which are “values” to be respected.

I wish that these short notes can contribute to increase knowledge about the great spiritual value the Sikhs assign to their Kirpan, and so create a reflection on the importance of an adequate reading of a culture and religious traditions so different from our ones.

Never before as nowadays, the real challenge is that of giving responses, even juridical ones, to the many queries that more and more frequently pop up from the multi-cultural and multi-religious environment of our society.

Professor Silvio Calzolari
FOB Secretary