Priyanca Radhakrishnan –
The five ‘Ks,’ of which the Kirpan is one, are items that baptised Sikhs are required to carry with them all the time.
I remember my grandmother telling me, as a child, that Sikhs were known as the protectors of the vulnerable and that the five ‘Ks’ meant that in wartime, Sikhs were easily distinguishable and people knew immediately whom to turn to for help.
In New Zealand, carrying a Kirpan is legal except on airplanes.
However, when a group of seven Sikhs were denied entry into Eden Park for the India-Zimbabwe cricket match on March 14, a public debate was sparked between the right to religious freedom and public safety.
Should Sikhs be allowed to carry a Kirpan on board flights? Was the International Cricket Council being discriminatory or protecting public safety? How much freedom should people have? Is religion a strong enough justification for legal exemptions for certain groups? Are rights ever absolute?
Recently, in the international arena, there have been significant arguments for and against another right – freedom of speech.
In New Zealand, there have been calls to examine whether New Zealanders truly enjoy freedom of speech in light of the intimidation that Nicky Hager faced after he published ‘Dirty Politics.’
Freedom of speech is important. However, there has been significant public outcry when that right is misused. The ‘X Factor’ judges who were fired for making unacceptable comments on TV 3 show on March 15 are a case in point.
According to political philosopher John Rawls, people should be allowed maximum freedom to live their lives as long as it does not impinge on the freedoms of others.
We have a right to express ourselves, but we also have a responsibility not to do so in such a way that restricts the rights of others.
Under the New Zealand Bill of Rights, we have a right to freedom of religion.
Religion is often considered central to well-being. As such, religious freedom should not be restricted without good reason.
Some Sikh groups in New Zealand contend that the Kirpan is recognised as a religious requirement by many countries, that New Zealand compares itself to these countries and hence should follow suit in terms of legislative change.
India, United Kingdom and some states in America and Australia have drafted legislation making it legal for Sikhs to carry a Kirpan domestically and public safety does not appear to have been compromised as a direct result.
The counter arguments appear to revolve around equality – no one else is allowed to carry knives on airplanes so why should Sikhs be allowed? For example, Air India does not allow Kirpan to be carried in hand luggage on its international flights.
If legislative change to allow baptised Sikhs to carry a Kirpan on airplanes is considered, there must be public consultation, including the wider Sikh community.
Such an inquiry should consider alternatives that are acceptable to the Sikh community such that rights, responsibilities and public safety are balanced.
We must remember that rights are not absolute and that they come with great responsibility.
Priyanca Radhakrishnan is Policy Research and Communications Assistant to Phil Goff, Member of Parliament and Labour’s Spokesperson on Ethnic Affairs at his electorate office in Mt Roskill. Please read related reports in this Section.