Dr. Kamal Kalsi fights US Army regulations to keep his Sikh faith: unshorn beard, turban-wrapped hair

Sikhs continue to fight for their religious rights.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Dr. Kamal Kalsi, a Sikh with an unshorn beard and turban-wrapped hair, is at the head of a movement to reverse the US military’s mandate on uniforms so that Sikhs and other citizens of religious minorities can serve their country without having to change their appearances.

An Army Reserve officer since 2001, during which time he was in medical school studying to become an emergency room doctor, Kalsi volunteered for active duty in 2009. However, he was informed that his appearance was in violation of military grooming policies, and that unless he got rid of his turban and beard, he would not be allowed to fight for his country.

Kalsi appealed to the Department of Defense so that he could get a religious exemption from the current uniform regulations, which state that a turban and beard — fixtures of the Sikh faith, which says that followers should never cut their hair — go against the uniformity desired in the military, potentially disrupt “unit cohesion,” and could also pose a safety risk to the soldier. And although he got the exemptions in 2010, they only apply to his current posting; he will need to re-apply for them should be transferred or stationed abroad.

Only two other Sikhs have been granted religious exemptions from the standard military uniforms: Capt. Tejdeep Rattan, a dentist currently stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Cpl. Simranpreet Lamba, currently stationed at Washington state’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord and who is also the only currently enlisted Sikh soldier in the US Army. But for Kalsi, two is not enough: any Sikh or religious minority who wants to serve should be able to, he says, regardless of their religiously mandated appearances.

“It was an amicable process between myself, my superiors and the Army,” Kalsi said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” “But [it] took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, [just] to get one soldier in.”

Kalsi hopes that American Sikhs who want to serve their country don’t have to be afraid of getting denied because of their adherence to their faith. And he’s not alone in this fight; Secretary of State Chuck Hagel’s office has received letters from around 105 legislators urging that the uniform mandate be changed.

Congressman Jeff Denham (R-CA), in an interview with Sacramento’s FOX-40, said that he is imploring his fellow lawmakers to support the pro-Sikh movement. Denham said that he has met with the local Sikh community, attended Sikh cultural events, and has assured them that he is doing everything he can to make sure the military has an “open-door policy” with regards to them.

In addition to Denham and Kalsi, a public education campaign about Sikhism is being spearheaded in California by Sim Singh and Goldie Pabla, two community leaders who also spoke with FOX-40 about the military dress code controversy.

“To have the Sikh population serve in the military today will essentially stymie a lot of these bullying a lot of discrimination we do face because in the eyes of the public, now, a Sikh person wouldn’t be viewed as a terrorist person, but a hero,” said Singh.

Pabla revealed that six out of 10 Sikh students are bullied because of their turbans, and that the root of this traces all the way back to 9/11.

“When people, you know, hear the word terrorist, they assume that’s someone with a turban and a beard. {But] that’s far from the truth,” said Pabla.

Even in Canada, Sikh awareness is catching on. The University of Toronto held a Turban Day on Friday, March 14, to educate students and the general public about Sikhism, turbans, beards, and how far more often than not, they mean the exact opposite of “terrorism.”

To contact the author, email to deepakchitnis@americanbazaaronline.com

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