SIKHS OUTRAGED AT OPEN-AIR FUNERAL MISREPRESENTATION
The Sikh Federation (UK), a leading Sikh organisation in the UK, has expressed shock at the handling and media coverage of the first open-air funeral in the UK for over 70 years.
A Federation spokesman said: ‘The authorities have made a major mistake in the way they have handled this matter. This type of cremation should not have been allowed. It is totally unnecessary for a body to be disposed of in this way according to the Sikh Code of Conduct, the wishes of the British Sikh community have been ignored and it was also an illegal act that should result in a prosecution.’
‘The Newcastle-based Anglo-Asian Friendship Society (AAFS), led by Davender Kumar Ghai, a Hindu, is a complete non-entity in the context of the British Sikh community (and Hindu community) and was simply interested in attracting attention to itself with this outrageous act in defiance of UK law. We are surprised that the responsible media has not investigated the matter further and grossly misrepresented the Sikhs.’
After an article appeared in The Times on 1 February 2006 titled: ‘Hindus and Sikhs call for the right to open-air cremations’ the AAFS was asked in writing to explain itself as it had no authority to comment on behalf of the Sikhs. The AAFS was informed that the Sikh Code of Conduct was the only authority that governed what should happen to a Sikh upon death. A full public apology was demanded from the AAFS. Ghai was contacted immediately after the article in The Times and he agreed not to represent Sikh interests in the future. It would appear that he has gone to extreme lengths to carry out this disgraceful act on Wednesday and to cause maximum mischief for the British Sikh community.
The body cremated on Wednesday was that of Rajpal Mehat, 31, an illegal immigrant described by the AAFS and the media as a Sikh, who had drowned in a canal in Southall in December last year. We understand Ghai helped track his family in India. He then arranged for his mother and sister to attend the cremation on Wednesday. These facts alone demonstrate how desperate Ghai and the AAFS was to find somebody they could describe a Sikh and cremate some 7 months after his death.
The Sikh Code of Conduct in commenting on funeral ceremonies states the body should be cremated. Only where arrangements for cremation can not be made is the body disposed of in another manner depending on the prevailing circumstances. For all purposes, the Sikh view is that the dead body has absolutely no religious significance whatsoever. Therefore as far as Sikhs in the UK are concerned cremation in gas furnaces with the necessary Sikh religious service is something that is suitable. It is not totally unacceptable for any Sikh to have an open air cremation with the Hindu rituals witnessed on Wednesday. The Sikhs in a meeting with the Department of Constitutional Affairs in February 2006 made its position very clear on Sikh funeral ceremonies and Sikh opposition to open-air funerals.
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs has said: “The plain fact is that any funeral pyre is illegal and to burn human remains in the open air is against the law. The 1930 Cremation Act prohibits the cremation of human remains anywhere except in a crematorium.”
Before the funeral, the Northumbria police had been alerted but allowed it to go ahead after checking the coroner’s report
and other documentation. However, on Wednesday evening, after the funeral ceremony conducted according to traditional Hindu (not Sikh) rites, the police said that offences may have been committed even though it had earlier allowed the event to take place.
Superintendent Graham Smith said: “In respecting the values and beliefs of all faiths we did not wish to cause any additional upset to a grieving family. This meant all our inquiries were carried out in an extremely sensitive manner before the service got under way.”
However, the Northumberland Police are this morning holding an urgent meeting with Sikh representatives from the main Gurdwara in Newcastle and will be told in no uncertain terms that what Ghai and the AAFS has done is totally unacceptable to the Sikhs and the police should have consulted with them as this would have allowed them to prevent Wednesday’s offensive act.
A Sikh Federation (UK) spokesman said: ‘ The handling of the open-air funeral by the authorities and the superficial and irresponsible media coverage has greatly damaged the image of the British Sikh community. We have received numerous complaints from Sikhs and non-Sikhs regarding Wednesday’s offensive act that was totally unnecessary and carefully engineered by a non-Sikh to damage the Sikhs. We expect the authorities to use the full force of the law in prosecuting Ghai and the AAFS, which should lose its charitable status. The media must also give Sikhs the full right to reply and put the record straight to prevent a further deterioration in community relations.’
Source: Gurjeet Singh, National Press Secretary
Sikh Federation (UK), 14 July 2006
In search of truth
The follow up on the accusations pointed by the Sikhs Federation was made immediately after.
In response to the claims and the subsequent release of the letters that pointed the facts has led to an apology of the national media that broadcasted on BBC soon after. This ultimately has clarified all the accusations made by the Sikhs Federation with regards to the cremation event.
The following documents prove and confirm that the person whose cremation was conducted on was indeed a Sikh person and not Hindu.
Funeral pyre starts legal wrangle
An open-air cremation of a young Sikh man has been held at a secret location in Northumberland sparking a legal row.
The funeral pyre of Rajpal Mehat, 31, took place in a remote field on Wednesday after Northumbria Police gave permission on “humanitarian grounds”.
But the Department for Constitutional Affairs said the ceremony was “unlawful” and police later admitted the service “may” have been illegal.
Open-air funeral pyres have been illegal in the UK since 1930.
Mr Mehat, an Indian-born Sikh, drowned in a canal in Southall, west London, last December and police took months to identify him because he did not have any papers on him.
They eventually found the telephone number of Davender Ghai, president of the Newcastle-based charity Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, on the dead man’s mobile phone and contacted him for help.
Mr Ghai helped tracked down the dead man’s family in India.
He also hired a site for the pyre from an apparently unwitting landowner in Stamfordham, Northumberland, and Mr Mehat’s family flew over for Wednesday’s ceremony.
Before the service Northumbria Police spoke to Mr Mehat’s relatives and said they were satisfied the death was not suspicious and that the organisers had complied with legal requirements.
Superintendent Graham Smith said: “In respecting the values and beliefs of all faiths we did not wish to cause any additional upset to a grieving family.
“This meant all our inquiries were carried out in an extremely sensitive manner before the service got under way.
“Following further investigation, we believe offences may have been committed under the Cremation Act in relation to where human remains can legally be cremated.
“We are now discussing the matter further with the community, our partners and the local authorities.”
A spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said: “The plain fact is that any funeral pyre is illegal and to burn human remains in the open air is against the law.
“The 1930 Cremation Act prohibits the cremation of human remains anywhere except in a crematorium.”
In January this year the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society submitted an application to Newcastle Council requesting land for cremations.