India is a land of many religions. It is considered a divine land. Both Buddhism and Sikhism originated from India. The beauty of the land can be gauged from the fact that the law treats all religions as equal and allows citizens to practice, profess and propagate the religion of their choice as a fundamental right. However, sometimes, these religious prerogatives come into conflict with the law. These situations usually appear when there’s an apprehension that public safety, morality, health etc. can be compromised due to the religious practice. The wearing of Kirpan which is a ceremonious dagger or knife carried by Khalsa Sikhs is one such practice. Carrying blade weapons is prohibited, however, the Sikhs don’t consider the Kirpan as a weapon of harm. They view it as a tool to protect the weak, oppressed and vulnerable people. Although this practice of carrying Kirpans is considered an essential religious practice under Article 25 of the Constitution by the Supreme Court, the issue remains controversial not only in India but also in many other countries with a considerable Sikh population like Canada, Australia etc. The Government of New South Wales in Australia even imposed a temporary ban on the carrying of Kirpan by Sikh students in public schools when a 14-year-old boy used a Kirpan to stab a 16-year-old boy at school.
The question then arises, how does one balance security and safety with religious freedom and propagation. The government in Australia then had to remove the ban after a court in Queensland declared the ban unconstitutional. To analyse the intricacies of the issue, it is important to note the history behind the practice.
KIRPAN: THE SYMBOL OF SANT-SIPAHI
Kirpan is one of the five Ks in Sikhism with the other four being Kesh, Kangha, Kara and Kachera. As stated above, the Sikhs view Kirpan as a religious symbol and not as a knife or even a weapon. It is an important element in the Sikh Code of Conduct. The word is made up of ‘Kripa’ meaning mercy, compassion, grace, and ‘Aan’ meaning dignity and pride. For Sikhs, Kirpan is a symbol of non-violence that will protect innocent and vulnerable people in danger and will bring peace to society. Sikhs are expected to exhibit the characteristics of a Sant Sipahi, or “saint-soldier,” displaying no fear on the battlefield and treating defeated enemies with dignity.
The Bhagat goes on to define a Sant Sipahi as someone who is “truly brave…who fights for the deprived.” Kirpans are curved and have a single cutting edge that can be sharp or dull, according to the wearer’s religious beliefs. They differ in size, and a Sikh who has completed the Amrit Sanskar initiation rite may carry more than one; the Kirpans must be made of steel or iron. Sikhism was developed in the 15th century in the Punjab region of Early-Modern India.
The Mughal Empire ruled this culturally rich region at the time of its establishment. During the reign of Guru Nanak, the Sikh faith’s founder and first guru, Sikhism emerged as an alternative to both Hindu and Muslim doctrines. Akbar, the Mughal emperor, was particularly concerned with religious tolerance. His connection with the Sikh Gurus was friendly. The Sikhs had a strained relationship with Akbar’s successor, Jahangir. Later Mughal kings revived shari’a traditions of jizya, a poll tax on non-Muslims. Guru Arjan Dev, the sixth guru, refused to delete references to Muslim and Hindu teachings from the Adi Granth and was summoned and executed.
This occurrence is seen as a watershed moment in Sikh history, leading to the first instance of Sikh militarization under Guru Arjan Dev’s son Guru Hargobind. Guru Arjan Dev instructed to the five Sikhs who accompanied him to Lahore that Guru Hargobind must form a defensive army to safeguard the people. Guru Hargobind learned shashtar vidya, a style of martial arts that became popular among Sikhs. He first conceived of the kirpan through the concept of Sant Sipahi, or “saint soldiers.” Following the murder of the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur by Aurangzeb, who was fiercely intolerant of Sikhs, partly motivated by his desire to enforce Islamic law, the relationship between the Sikhs and the Mughals deteriorated even further. Following the deaths of their leaders and rising persecution, the Sikhs officially accepted militarism for self-defence by forming the Khalsa; the executions also prompted the formalization of several components of the Sikh faith. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and final guru, legally incorporated the kirpan as an obligatory article of religion for all baptized Sikhs, making it a duty for Sikhs to be able to protect the needy and oppressed, to defend righteousness and freedom of expression.
LEGALITY OF KIRPAN IN OTHER NATIONS
In modern times, there has been a dispute about permitting Sikhs to carry a kirpan, which falls within the restriction on bladed weapons, with certain countries allowing Sikhs a dispensation. Other difficulties arise that are not legal, such as whether to allow the carrying of kirpans on commercial aeroplanes or into areas where security is tightly enforced.
A kirpan is permitted in most public locations in Canada, though there have been some legal disputes involving carrying on school grounds. Multani v. Commission Scolaire Marguerite Bourgeoys, a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada decision, held that prohibiting the kirpan in a school setting violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that the restriction could not be upheld under section 1 of the Charter, as per R. v. Oakes. The problem began when a 12-year-old schoolboy dropped a 20 cm (8-inch) long kirpan in class. School officials and parents were concerned, and the student was obliged to attend school under police surveillance until the court ruling was reached. A student may carry a kirpan as long as it is sealed and secured.
Possession of a kirpan in a public place without a justifiable purpose as a bladed article is prohibited under section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. However, there is a unique defence for a person prosecuted if he can demonstrate that he carries it for “religious reasons.” There is an identical defence to the comparable offence (section 139A) of carrying bladed items on school grounds. The official list of prohibited items at the London 2012 Summer Olympics venues barred all types of firearms but allowed the kirpan.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1994 that Sikh pupils in public schools have the right to wear the kirpan. State courts in New York and Ohio found in favour of Sikhs who faced prosecution under anti-weapons statutes for wearing kirpans, “because of the kirpan’s religious nature and Sikhs’ benign intent in wearing them.” In New York City, a compromise was reached with the Board of Education, wherein the knives may be worn as long as they were securely fastened within the sheaths with adhesives and rendered impossible to draw. The increased security of air travel in the twenty-first century has produced issues for Sikhs carrying kirpans at airports and other checkpoints. As of 2016, the TSA expressly prohibits carrying “religious knives and swords” on one’s person or in cabin luggage and instead requires them to be stowed in checked baggage.
The discourse surrounding the carrying of the Kirpan by Sikhs consistently garners attention, particularly in nations outside of India. While India has been the cradle of Sikhism, where the significance of the Kirpan as an integral religious tenet is well acknowledged, the debate intensifies in foreign contexts. It is imperative to recognize that the Kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, is an essential element of Sikh religious practice. While there exist reasonable restrictions on carrying the Kirpan in educational institutions, it is crucial to delineate it from potentially harmful items, such as firearms. In India, the acceptance of Sikhism as an inherent part of its cultural and religious fabric underscores the nuanced understanding of the Kirpan as a sacred symbol rather than a weapon.
 Renae Barker, The Ban on Kirpan in New South Wales is inconsistent with Australia’s commitment to Multiculturism, The Conversation, May 27, 2021, https://scroll.in/article/995845/the-ban-on-kirpan-in-new-south-wales-is-inconsistent-with-australias-commitment-to-multiculturalism
 PTI, Australia Court Overturns Ban on Sikh Kirpan in Schools, August 5, 2023, The Free Press Journal, https://www.freepressjournal.in/education/australia-court-overturns-ban-on-sikh-kirpan-in-schools
 The Sikh War Code, its Spiritual Inspiration and Impact on History, August 2011, https://www.sikhphilosophy.net/threads/the-sant-sipahi-tradition-flows-from-guru-nanak-himself.36543
 Khalsa, Sukhmandir, “Kirpan- Kakar- Sikh Sword”, April 5, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150405150009/http://sikhism.about.com/od/glossary/g/Kirpan.htm
 Sikhism and the Sikh Kirpan Fact Sheet, The Sikh Coalition
 “What is the Kirpan?”, World Sikh Organization of Canada, April 2, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20150402114654/http://www.worldsikh.org/what_is_the_kirpan
 “The Five K’s”, July 22, 2012
 Bulletin of March 3, 2006, Supreme Court of Canada
 Barring Kirpan Violates Freedom of Religion, The Canadian Human Rights Reporter Inc., https://web.archive.org/web/20130929015835/http://www.cdn-hr-reporter.ca/hr_topics/religion-and-creed/barring-kirpan-violates-freedom-religion
 Official Reports, Studies, Publications- Downloads- Olympic.org
This article is written and submitted by Aayushi during her course of internship at B&B Associates LLP. Aayushi is a 3rd year year B.A. L.L.B (Hons.) student at NLU, Jodhpur.