Kiran Stacey Political correspondent
Thu, 23 February 2023 at 6:00 am GMT
Grassroots Labour supporters have complained about the behaviour of Preet Gill, the shadow international development secretary, whom they accuse of undermining Sikh victims of sexual violence.
Sikh members have made a complaint to the party after Gill sent a series of messages on a WhatsApp group that appeared to cast doubt on allegations of sexual abuse within gurdwaras.
In the messages, which have been seen by the Guardian, Gill says those calling Sikh temples unsafe are using “very dangerous language” and urges them to submit written apologies to their gurdwaras. One member of the group said she was “disgusted” by the comments, calling them “unforgivable”.
The messages are part of what some in the community believe is a pattern of Gill, the most senior Sikh in parliament, allying herself with conservative members within the community even when doing so alienates more moderate British Sikhs.
Nav Johal, a Labour councillor who was on the group to which Gill sent the messages, said: “I was very surprised by her comments, as there are genuine concerns with safeguarding at UK gurdwaras. Her messages were even more surprising given Gill [a former social worker] comes from a child protection background.”
A Labour party spokesperson would not comment on the complaint, but said: “Though we cannot comment on leaked WhatsApp messages, Preet would never downplay abuse or violence.”
The row over the WhatsApp messages was prompted by the publication of a report by Sikh Women’s Aid, which surveyed 839 Sikh women in Britain and found nearly two-thirds said they had experienced domestic abuse.
The report went on to warn about the lack of protection offered by gurdwaras in particular, with some of the respondents saying they had been abused by faith leaders. Sukhvinder Kaur, a co-founder of Sikh Women’s Aid, said: “We should hang our heads in shame at the sheer level of abuse that has been allowed to run rampant in parts of our community.”
The accusations triggered an angry response from Gill, who sent a string of messages to the WhatsApp group called Sikhs in Labour. In one, she criticised the report’s “sweeping statements”, adding: “Where is your Evidence guru ghars [gurdwaras] are not safe??? This is outrageous you should apologise to the sikh community.”
Later, she added: “Calling guru ghars unsafe is very dangerous language … Please submit a written apology to guru ghars.”
At one point in the conversation, Gill said alleged victims of rape at one particular gurdwara had been in consensual relationships with their accused attacker – comments that another member called “unforgivable”.
Some in the community claim that the WhatsApp exchanges add further evidence of Gill’s conservative religious beliefs, which they say clash with Labour’s liberal ideology and could risk damaging relations with India. However, friends rejected the characterisation of her views.
The Guardian has learned that a dossier of evidence was recently handed to the Home Office about Gill’s links to hardline Sikh nationalists, who argue for an independent state in what is now Indian Punjab. India regards the movement as a significant internal threat, and in 1984 Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar – Sikhism’s holiest site – to put down a rebellion.
The dossier included photographs of Gill taking Keir Starmer to her local gurdwara while he was campaigning for the Labour leadership and posing with him for a photograph in front of a gallery of pictures of Sikh nationalists.
Among them was Labh Singh, the former leader of the nationalist group the Khalistan Commando Force, who was once accused of masterminding India’s biggest ever bank heist in order to fund the group. Another showed Sukhdev Singh Babbar, the former leader of Babbar Khalsa International, which investigators believe was responsible for the bombing of an Air India flight in 1985 that killed 329 people.
Sunny Hundal, a British Sikh journalist, said: “It was a big mistake by Preet Gill to have these photographs taken in front of those portraits. Either she doesn’t understand their context or she is politically naive, at best.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “Preet is not responsible for the wall displays of any gurdwara and does not recognise several of the names you have listed or know of their backgrounds.”
A Home Office spokesperson said no action had been taken on the dossier.