|Amandeep Singh Saini, in white, cut his hair and discarded his turban, the most visible symbol of Sikh identity, at 14.|
CHANDIGARH, India — Text messaging with one hand and holding a cup of milky tea in the other, spiky-haired Amandeep Singh Saini, 27, recalled the year-long battle he waged against his traditional Sikh parents to cut his hair.
The act was blasphemous to his father, who tied his long hair in a turban, the most visible marker of Sikh identity.
“I was 14 then. I wanted to jump into the village pool and play in mud. The long hair and the turban were always in the way. It took half an hour to tie the turban every morning,” said Saini, a student pursuing a doctorate in Punjabi literature.
After he cut his hair and discarded the turban, his two brothers followed suit. “My mother wept, my father was angry, but I was stubborn,” he said. “At that age, you don’t think about right and wrong. I look around the campus today, and there are so few turbaned Sikhs.”
The rapidly shrinking number of young Sikhs who wear turbans and have unshorn hair has alarmed many in this religious minority of 20 million. Although there are no formal surveys, community groups say that only 25 percent of Sikhs younger than 30 follow the practice. Many young Sikhs say the daily tedium of combing and tying up their long hair and a desire to assimilate are pushing them to give up the turban, a sacred symbol of a religion founded in the 15th century.
Now, a court case about college admission quotas for Sikhs is threatening to alienate hundreds of thousands of short-haired, un-turbaned youths.
In August, four students petitioned the high court after they applied to a medical college under a Sikh quota but were denied admission. The college said the students, who had cut their hair, did not fit in the category of Sikh. In the ongoing legal proceedings, religious bodies and scholars have testified about the importance of uncut hair to Sikhism.
“The case is about college admission quotas, but it has become part of dinner table conversations everywhere. People are asking, ‘What am I? What will I be after the judgment?’ It is unsettling,” said Gurminder Singh Gill, an attorney for the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, an elected forum of the Sikh clergy that runs the college and whose rules are designed to prevent the dilution of Sikh symbols. “The court ruling will impact future interpretations of the word ‘Sikh.’ ”
Three hundred years ago, devout Sikh men and women were urged to demonstrate their commitment by not cutting their hair and by carrying a sword, comb and a bracelet. They were given the name “Singh,” which means lion in Hindi, as a mark of common brotherhood that eliminates caste distinctions.
Faced with the recent decline in turban-wearers, the community is thinking up ways to draw young people back to the tradition.
A group called Akal Purakh Ki Fauj, or the Army of the Timeless Being, organizes the annual Turban Pride Day in April, sends volunteers to schools to teach turban-tying and has introduced a software program called the Smart Turban that helps people pick a style that suits them.
Since 2005, the group has held Mr. Singh International, a beauty pageant for turbaned Sikhs. Among other talents, contestants must demonstrate their turban-tying skills. The winners have won modeling contracts and movie roles.
“We need more turbaned role models for our young,” said Navnit Singh, a member of the group. To this end, he recently launched a 6-year-old turbaned cartoon character, Rony Singh.
“Rony Singh is a whiz kid and loves playing with gadgets. He can get his friends out of any sticky situation,” Singh said. “He will be competing with Pokemon, Tintin and all the superheroes. I want kids to think the turban is cool.”
Turbans come in a variety of colors and styles, including polka-dotted and tie-dyed. Shops even sell ready-made turbans. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh who was educated at Oxford University, wears a blue turban, and a popular cricket player started a fad by matching his turbans and ties.
In the early 1980s, Sikh religious extremists insisted on turbans and beards as an assertion of pride. Then, in 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards after she sent the army to the Golden Temple, a revered Sikh shrine, to rout radicals holed up inside. Angry Hindus retaliated by targeting turbaned Sikhs, killing and burning thousands alive on the streets of the capital, New Delhi. In the following years of armed militancy and bloodshed, Indian police crushed the movement.
“There were widespread human rights violations. Young men with turbans or with Sikh names were more vulnerable to being picked up and thrown into illegal detention. Many Sikhs cut their hair and discarded their identity to escape police brutality,” said Ishwinder Singh Chadha, a member of the Institute of Sikh Studies. “In the 1990s, turbaned Sikhs were caricatured in TV shows and movies, and young Sikhs lost pride in their identity.”
Rajvinder Singh Bains, a human rights lawyer, said that like many Sikhs, he responded with jubilation when Gandhi was assassinated and mourned when Sikhs were massacred. But he wears his hair short.
“Why fuss over external symbols?” Bains asked. “They say Sikh men have to grow their hair and wear turbans, and women cannot remove their body hair or trim their eyebrows. Is that what we want to reduce Sikhism to?”
Back in the college cafeteria, Saini and a turbaned friend, Sukhjeet Singh Sandhu, discussed their faith over another round of tea.
“I am a Sikh because my faith runs deep in my heart,” Saini said.
“Every fold of the turban of a devout Sikh is like a historical chapter of his blood-soaked history, which every Sikh carries with him with great pride and dignity,” said Sandhu, 26.
But he trimmed his beard, he said, because “campus life demands it.”