Sikh ethnic tick box in the 2021 Census and a question about research and methodology

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“It is essential that policy makers, such as the ONS, make decisions based on a robust evidence base.”  


A recent article in The Times, ‘Sikhs may get ethnicity status in census’,  which seemed  to suggest that the inclusion of a separate Sikh ethnic tick box in the 2021 census is a real possibility, has generated a lot of discussion within the Sikh community. Many Sikhs have cried foul about the potential bias and flaws in the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) consultation process regarding the issue. 

To give some context, lobbying for a separate ethnic status within the UK census has been going on since the early 2000’s by certain Sikh groups. The argument to include an amendment to the 2011 Census was that the existing questions on religion and ethnicity undermined the Sikh community and the services they were entitled to. The lobbying ultimately failed even after the Sikh Federation (UK) threatened ONS with court action in 2010, in an attempt to force the issue. The ONS is now facing calls from the Sikh Federation (UK) and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs,  for the same amendment to the 2021 census.  The Chair of the APPG, Preet Kaur Gill MP, has already stated that Sikh Gurdwaras have contacted the APPG to discuss the establishment of a legal fund to challenge any negative decision by the ONS. 

Advocating for the change, there are a number of reasons often cited by Sikh Federation (UK) and others for the need for a Sikh ethnic tick box. These include under-estimation of Sikh numbers, inadequate allocation of resources to Sikhs based on current census statistics and the 1983 Mandla vs Dowell-Lee ruling which recognised Sikhs as an ethnic group. There is also a claim that many Sikhs simply do not want to be labelled as ‘Indian’.  

In the 2011 Census only 1.6% of respondents had recorded themselves as ethnically Sikh with a religious affiliation other than Sikh. This compares to a 2017 survey commissioned by the ONS in Hounslow and Wolverhampton (areas with high numbers of Sikhs) to test differences in responses to Sikh religion and Sikh ethnic tick boxes.  Three alternative versions of the ethnic group question of an online survey were tested. These were census in style and identical, except for the ethnic group question. All respondents to the 2017 Ethnic Group Question Test who had selected Sikh ethnic group also selected Sikh as their religious affiliation. In the words of the ONS, ‘There is no indication from the findings [2017 survey] that the religious affiliation and ethnic group questions are capturing different Sikh populations. All respondents who stated they were ethnically Sikh also stated their religious affiliation was Sikh. This is in line with findings from the 2011 Census data’. These results suggest that there is minimal, if any, underestimation of Sikh numbers in the UK using existing Census data.

In terms of inadequate resource allocation to Sikhs, to date no data has been presented in the public domain to substantiate this claim with reference to healthcare and educational funding.  Data on religion is routinely collected by healthcare providers and educational establishments and this may be a better source of information than census data when making resource allocation decisions to particular groups. 

The definition of Sikhs as an ethnic group in UK law stems from the 1983 House of Lords ruling in the Mandla v Dowell-Lee case which used ethnicity to protect Sikhs under the 1976 Race Relations Act.  As Lord Fraser stated in 1983 "The Sikhs are a "racial group" defined by reference to ethnic origins for the purpose of the 1976 Act". However, this is no longer relevant today because the 1976 Race Relations Act has been replaced by the Equality Act 2010

To the claim that Sikhs simply do not want to be labelled as ‘Indian’, this is difficult to prove without further data. A simple check of the number of respondents in the 2011 census who ticked both the Sikh and ‘Indian’ tick boxes would allow one to gauge where the majority view lies.  

Finally, community representation should happen through a process of consultation and feedback. Representatives are elected by the community and work across the community to represent their full range of views and experiences.  It is not clear if any of the groups purporting to represent the Sikh community on the matter of the ethnic tick box fulfil this definition of a ‘representative’.   It is also not clear what process these groups have undertaken to reach their position on the Census, or what evidence base informs it. This leaves a concern regarding how widely and robustly the ONS has consulted the Sikh community.  

In evaluating the consultation process, and the evidence presented by the Sikh APPG and the ONS, there seems to be little justification to amend the 2021 census to include a Sikh ethnic tick box and the data from the 2011 Census supports this.  It is essential that policy makers, such as the ONS, make decisions based on a robust evidence base, and further work is needed to establish, what, if any, benefits could be seen by this change.

Have your say...

  • S hundal
    1. At 8:23AM on 09 August 2018, S hundal wrote

    Excellent argument based on evidence . As a Sikh, I fully support the argument against having Sikh included as an ethnic option.

    Agree with all the points made in Dr Jutti Johal’s blog but I would also argue it is being devisive and promoting exclusivity, which goes against the Sikh faith . I for one will not tick the Sikh ethnic tick box should the ONS be so foolish as to include it.

  • After singh
    2. At 10:15AM on 19 September 2020, After singh wrote

    Need for it every Sikhs right UK gov blatant discrimination

  • Sam
    3. At 11:31PM on 06 October 2020, Sam wrote

    It is very obvious that if one does not want to associate as Indian, they can select "Asian Other" or even just "Other". A small number did, but in the 2011 census an overwhelming majority of Sikhs chose to tick the Indian ethnic catagory. They were not compelled to do so, they certainly weren't forced to do so.

    The push for a Sikh ethnic identity is mischievous and demeaning to what Sikhism is about.

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    4. At 7:15AM on 22 May 2021, wrote

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    5. At 10:59PM on 28 May 2021, sunny yadav wrote

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  • Abrar Khan
    6. At 1:15PM on 19 June 2021, wrote

    Excellent argument based on the fact and truth. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Jaskaran Kaur
    7. At 4:00PM on 24 August 2021, Jaskaran Kaur wrote

    Unfortunately, every country like India have had their fair share of tyrannic leaders. Your ethnicity doesn't change even if your wished not to be affliated with it.

  • Abrar Khan
    8. At 11:39AM on 08 September 2021, wrote

    Brilliantly argument took place. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  • Jack William
    9. At 8:41AM on 15 October 2021, Jack William wrote

    Research takes your time and resources and after that, you need to prove it right. I most of the time read researches of because they have a good strong team.

  • pavel
    10. At 6:53AM on 24 October 2021, wrote

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    12. At 6:16AM on 01 November 2021, wrote

    That this House takes note of the cross-party campaign led by the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs for the inclusion of a Sikh ethnic tick box in the 2021 England and Wales Census; supports Early Day Motion 309; and urges the Government to allow a debate on The Census (England and Wales) Order 2020 on the House floor. There appears to be little reason for adding a Sikh ethnic tick box to the 2021 census, and data from the 2011 Census confirms this. It is critical that policymakers, such as the ONS, make decisions based on solid evidence, and more research is needed to determine what, if any, benefits this adjustment would bring.

  • Matthew Nelson
    13. At 12:26AM on 29 November 2021, Matthew Nelson wrote

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