In 1955, Sant Singh Shattar moved from Jalandhar to Birmingham. He applied for the job of a postman on March 7, 1960, only to be rejected. As a Sikh, his turban meant he could not meet the Post Office’s requirements of wearing a uniform cap. But he fought and won — becoming the first postman in the UK postal department in 1961 to be allowed to wear a turban on duty, a change that helps Sikhs in the UK even today. Fifty-eight years after he won this battle and nearly two years after the Postal Museum, London, installed a panel narrating this inspiring story — a postcard from London has reached Shattar’s family in India.
Shattar died in 1983, aged 73, at his home in Phagwara, Punjab. His family hadn’t been in touch with the UK postal department and was unaware that they had taken such an initiative in Shattar’s memory. His daughter-in-law Santosh Kaur, 72, says it was her granddaughter who started searching for traces of her great-grandfather’s travels in Birmingham in 2016. But it wasn’t until December 2018 that they got to know about the installation. The museum then got in touch with Shattar’s family through the UK-based historian Amandeep Singh Madra.
Speaking from Los Angeles, Santosh, who recently visited the museum, says, “We knew little about my father-in-law’s struggle as he would not discuss much when he came home. I found a scrapbook in which he’d stick his write-ups and documents about the turban issue and old photographs, but we got no other details.” Santosh’s son Hartej Bans Singh still lives in Phagwara with his family, and she hopes that they, too, visit London to see “how their great-grandfather’s struggle has been recognised”.
“My father-in-law also used to write a column ‘Pagdi Di Jang’ (Battle for Turban) in vernacular newspapers whenever he came home but never discussed what was going on in Birmingham. We are thankful to the UK postal department for not letting this piece of history go unrecognised ” she says.
This March, when Santosh visited the museum, she carried along Shattar’s scrapbook. It had, among other things, a 1963 letter from then Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon, in which the CM wrote, “I’m very glad to know the splendid work done by you in vindicating the honour of the turban. It thrills me to know that our brothers have now, through your help, got their rights in England.”
Andy Richmond, head of exhibitions, access and learning, at The Postal Museum, writes in an email, “The rejection of his application was referred to the Commonwealth Relations Office by the High Commissioner for India in the UK.” After lengthy discussions, Shattar joined in 1961 as a postman in training at Birmingham post office, who was allowed to wear a navy-blue turban instead.
Security was the ground of rejection initially. The Commonwealth Relations Office had written: “Until quite recently, there were strong practical reasons, connected with security, for our requirement that postmen should wear a uniform cap. In the future, we shall not insist that Sikhs who apply for employment as postmen must wear a uniform cap…”
Richmond writes, “The idea to install the panel came from a project we ran in 2014 with a group of people from the University of the Third Age (a global movement of retired people). They had been tasked with researching our archive to find the unsung heroes of the Post Office, who could be featured at the museum. They found an article about Sant Singh in the Post Office Magazine of December 1960.” The museum then decided to honour his memory.
While Shattar’s victory led the Birmingham Corporation in 1962, Manchester Corporation in 1966 and, later, the UK Railways to allow the turban, in France, the turban struggle continues, with “religious symbols”, including the headgear, being banned.
‘Pioneering Postman – Birmingham resident Sant Singh Shattar joined the Post Office in 1960, having fought to bring about an important change. When he applied for the job of postman, he was initially rejected. As a Sikh, his turban meant he could not meet Post Office requirements to wear a uniform cap. But the High Commissioner from India in the UK intervened and Post Office reviewed its decision. Sant Singh became the first postman to wear a turban on duty, now an everyday sight,’ reads the panel installed at The Postal Museum, London remembering Shattar.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Head and Heart’