When the Chandigarh Traffic Police announced that women and men two-wheeler riders alike would be challaned for not wearing helmets, my family WhatsApp group turned into a battleground of opinions and ideas on this issue.
We are a Sikh family. All the men in my family wear a turban. The women do not. The traffic police rule is only those wearing turbans are exempt. Going by the protests against the decision, it would appear that all Sikhs are opposed to the rule.
But I do wonder if a few people in the community who are vocal in their opposition to the helmet rule should speak for all on this crucial matter that has a bearing on individual safety. The discussions in our family group do not represent the views of the entire community, but they give a small indication that there is more than one viewpoint on this issue.
Everyone in the WhatsApp group had a view, regardless of age or gender. Sentiments were running high. Someone even changed the group name for a while to ‘Helmets for Sikh women or Not’. Most of the men and my female cousins are all of the view that it is necessary to wear a helmet while on a two-wheeler. There are also a few other relatives who are opposed to the rule saying it’s disrespectful to the Sikh identity.
My brother-in-law who lives in Ambala said: “Safety first. If you are safe/alive, [only] then you will be called a Sikh or Hindu. It’s only in India [we can protest], when we go abroad there are no excuses for avoiding safety gears.”
To this, an elder cousin in Ludhiana was quick to respond: “We Sikh [are not people] who came from another land. We belong to India and thus the government of India [must] understand the feelings and emotions associated with Sikhism regarding the turban issue.”
With the debate hotting up, another brother-in-law, a lawyer, cited a judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court mentioning, “No religion is above safety measures.” The long debate continued and ended only when a cousin’s birthday came up. But by then, it was clear that those saying Sikh women must wear helmets outnumbered those opposing the initiative.
I also believe that helmets should be worn, but as I wear a turban, I could not wear one all the years that I drove a two-wheeler. But my wife, also a Sikh but not a turban-wearer, is an occasional two-wheeler driver, especially when she has to go short distances. She is quite clear: she wants a pink-coloured helmet for herself.
My grandfather once told me when I was young that turban is our pride. He said it protects the kesh from getting hurt in an accident, from the weather, and keeps it intact. The size of the turban varies in the length, from a minimum of 6 metres and exceeding even 10 metres, depending on each person’s style. Perhaps the bigger ones may help cushion the head as well as the hair from injury.
In 2007, I was riding my motorcycle to Sector 26 college when I was hit by an unknown vehicle. When I came to my senses, I was lying on the road with multiple fractures in my right leg. Now I have an aluminium nail and four screws in my leg. My 7 mt turban was lying a few feet away from me, but I think it cushioned my head and prevented it from getting injured, though it is possible too that I did not fall in such a way as to injure my head. But Sikh women, most of whom are not kesgi, do not even have the little protection that turbans provide in case of accidents. What is their protection?
I love my family members and respect the religious views of those who oppose the helmet rule, but in my personal opinion, wearing a helmet while riding a two-wheeler is not going against our great religion. Sikhs sacrificed their lives for kesh, but two-wheelers did not exist then, and there was no issue of road safety at the time.
Suffixing Kaur and Singh as the last name is an honor for us given by our Gurus, but Kaur alone is not enough protection for non-kesgi Sikh women in case of accidents. That is why my wife and mother are in favour of helmets, and so are a majority of the other women in my extended family.