The UK Sikh Biking Community celebrates almost fifty years since turbanned trailblazers fought hard for the religious right of Sikhs to wear turbans while riding motorcycles. The law exempting Sikhs from wearing motorcycle helmets was passed in 1976 by the British government, but not before an arduous struggle.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sikh community faced many challenges in British society, mostly due to racial discrimination and bigotry. Jagat Singh Gill, who was stopped and had to produce documents 20 times over the course of 1976, went to court to challenge the motorcycle helmet law. However, it was not until 1979 that Sikhs were allowed to ride motorcycles within Great Britain. Kuldip Singh Gill, Jagat Singh Gill's son, was a resident of Gravesend at the time, now a business development director at a Design & Build Construction Company, was arrested 23 times in one month by the Kent police.
Being of the view that devout Sikhs who enjoyed riding motorcycles or needed to ride them for work or travel were being unfairly restricted in their religious practices, Kuldip, his father and his extended family fought hard to extend the Government's recognition of the turban as a religious item for the benefit of Sikh bikers.
Even today, many Sikh bikers are riding motorcycles because of the perseverance of the Sikhs in the 1970s who fought against all the odds and being locked up fighting for justice. As a further reflection of the contemporary challenges Sikhs faced, in 1980, Kuldip was purposefully knocked off his motorcycle while riding in Gravesend, which led to a four-month hospitalization with multiple broken bones. The driver was later found guilty of various driving related crimes as well as hate crime and ordered to pay £4,500 in compensation.
In November 1976, Her Majesty the Queen gave her Royal Assent to a Bill to exempt turbanned Sikhs from having to wear crash helmets when riding a motorcycle: The Motorcycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act, 1976. Sydney Bidwell, an MP for Southall and Ealing at the time, played a significant role in this victory. He acknowledged support from many colleagues and the warmth and friendship of the Sikh community in Britain and interest shown throughout the world.
Bidwell said at the time, "The ultimate triumph of the Bill reflects what most of us revere in our 'way of life': the ability, sometimes in Parliament, to bring about its will across the boundaries of normal party politics: back-bencher's success over the reluctance of a government department (Tory and Labour) - in this case Transport. The measure reflects too, an acknowledgement of the forces of Anglo-Indian historical relationships which in this publication come shining through the debates recorded here in the House of Commons and more fully in the House of Lords."
In other countries such as Canada, it took until 2018 for the Government to amend the motorcycle helmet law to exempt turban-wearing Sikhs from the requirement to wear a helmet whilst riding a motorcycle. In the USA, at least 30 of 50 states only require those under a certain age to wear helmets or have no helmet laws at all.
This victory was a significant milestone for Sikhs living in the UK. It was a recognition of their religious identity, and it highlighted the importance of respecting and accommodating religious differences. More importantly, it showed how the collective effort of a community can bring about change.
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