The coronavirus pandemic has forced difficult lifestyle changes across the world. But Dr Sanjeet Singh-Saluja’s story has added a grim conundrum.
Singh-Saluja, a Sikh doctor based in Canada, had to ‘choose’ between his religious faith and the Hippocratic oath. He and his brother Ranjeet, also a doctor, made the ‘extremely difficult decision’ of shaving their beards in order to wear medical-grade protective equipment needed to treat Covid-19 patients. The choice was not enforced by the country, Canada, or the hospitals the Singh-Saluja brothers were working in. It was an individual choice, but with consequences for others.
A devout Sikh, Singh-Saluja had been practising one of the tenets of Sikh tradition — ‘kesh’ — but chose to give it up on in order to fulfil his duty as a doctor. In Sikh tradition, kesh is seen as God’s creation and is never cut as an acceptance of God’s gift.
Needless to say, for a Sikh to cut his or her hair is a grave sacrifice. As I write this, my Sikh grandfather’s words are ringing in my ears, “Sar katwa lena, baal nahi (Get your head cut, but never your hair).” Not taking anything away from Singh-Saluja’s contributions and his sacrifice, but he and his brother have unknowingly set a rather harsh precedent for the entire Sikh community.
There has been no dearth of praise for the Sikh community for taking a stand in unprecedented situations. Be it feeding langar to migrant workers during the lockdown in India or standing in solidarity with Shaheen Bagh protesters. They are not afraid to look beyond politics and stand for what they believe in selflessness.
Singh-Saluja is also a shining example in the same story of Sikh selflessness, and social media immediately recognised it. People thanked him for his sacrifice and lauded him for his courage. However, this appreciation comes with a catch.
By going public about a decision that is so private, he has unknowingly set himself as a standard to be looked up to by the Sikh community. In time, this standard will not just be appreciated from a distance but also demanded from other people of this community. An individual’s choice should not become a standard for all — neither is it fair nor feasible.
Myth of choice
What’s most interesting about the coverage of this particular Canada incident is the assertiveness with which it has been portrayed as a ‘choice’.
Headlines ranging from Doing Good: Sikh doctor makes ‘extremely difficult decision’ to shave ‘in this time of need’, Corona warrior puts humanity first: Sikh doctor shaves off beard to perform frontline role to Duty First. This Sikh Doctor Shaved His Beard To Serve His Patients Better During The Pandemic, hardline the myth of choice.
Anyone praising Singh-Saluja for his ‘heroic’ act is catching the wrong end of the stick. In a structure catering to the comfort of the dominant White people, what ‘choice’ is a minority left with?
In more ways than one, this incident brings out the harsh reality of a White community preferring a certain form of ‘Whiteness’. In June 2019, Quebec passed a bill barring civil servants from wearing ‘religious symbols’ at work, including the kippah, turban, kirpan and hijab. Five Sikh doctors in the United Kingdom working in the NHS have now been temporarily removed from frontline duty because they refused to shave their beards.
Dr Sanjeet Singh-Saluja’s conundrum has brought back the age-old dilemma of science versus religion. However, battling a pandemic in the social media era has added new dimensions to this debate. An individual’s choice now can have never before seen consequences.
Views are personal.