Sikh Ethnic Tick Box for the UK 2021 Census – ONS assesses evidence and says 'No'

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 difficult to see what additional benefit that data collected through a Sikh ethnic tick box would bring. ONS research has already suggested that the existing Sikh religion tick will capture virtually all Sikhs in the UK.”  


The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its White Paper titled, ‘Help Shape Our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales’ in which it does not propose adding an additional specific response option to the 2021 Census ethnic group question’ for the Sikh community (3.105).

ONS has done a thorough job in garnering evidence through a 2017 survey commissioned by ONS in Hounslow and Wolverhampton (areas with high numbers of Sikhs) to test differences in responses to Sikh religion and Sikh ethnic tick boxes, focus groups and conducting their own data analysis, which they have supplemented with information provided by community representatives. In their decision, the ONS have sought to reflect the diverse views within the UK Sikh community on the matter. Given the initial furore that occurred in early summer 2018, when press statements  were released making claims that the Sikh ethnic box was going to be implemented, and from previous consultations with experts, ONS appears to have recognised that it must take into account a wide range of views, rather than just those from a few ‘representative’ Sikh bodies and leaders of Sikh gurdwaras, to make an informed decision. More importantly, they have fairly considered the evidence (or lack of it) for the need of a Sikh ethnic tick box.

The decision has been condemned by the Sikh Federation (UK) and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for British Sikhs who have long been campaigning on the issue and have claimed to have the support of most Sikhs in the UK, using 112 letters of support from Gurdwara leaders to back this up (out of approximately 300 gurdwaras in the UK). They have claimed that ONS ‘has misrepresented the survey of Gurdwaras'.

Sikh Federation (UK) and the APPG for British Sikhs have also alleged that the ONS for over 20 years has discriminated against the Sikh community, and that with this decision has opened itself up to ‘legal action and a claim of institutionalising discrimination against Sikhs’. This claim of discrimination is a serious one, and one that will concern the ONS. Those pursuing this allegation will need to be clear about the evidence base for such a claim. In 2003 ONS issued guidelines in "Ethnic group statistics: A guide for the collection and classification of ethnicity data" (2003) on how public bodies can supplement their data sets, using Sikhs as an example. John Pullinger’s letter to the Chair of the APPG for British Sikhs Preet Kaur Gill MP dated 14th December 2018 also outlines how ONS will work with public bodies, local authorities and the community to ensure that the data on the Sikh community is collected.

It is difficult to see what additional benefit that data collected through a Sikh ethnic tick box would bring. ONS research has already suggested that the existing Sikh religion tick will capture virtually all Sikhs in the UK. Most importantly, faith data in public institutions such as the NHS is already collected and is likely to provide a richer source of information. For example, a quick google search shows a plethora of workforce monitoring reports and data on religion collected by public bodies:

Medway NHS foundation Trust  

Ministry of Justice

Transport for London

This demonstrates that the rationale of why the Sikh community actually needs an ethnic tick box is a flawed one and the APPG for Sikhs has failed to provide any robust evidence on this matter. Moving forward, Sikh organisations should focus on working with the ONS and other public bodies to mine and meta-analyse the faith and ethnicity data already available to establish what, if any, need there is for further data collection and analysis, and also to encourage them to use this data more effectively. The current ethnicity classification used by ONS is by no means perfect and in coming years, may need a complete revision. However, adding a simple tick box to the current classification will not improve statistics for Sikhs and may actually damage what is already there and in the pipeline as promised by the ONS. 

Have your say...

  • Inderjit Singh
    1. At 2:05PM on 03 January 2019, Inderjit Singh wrote

    We Sikhs are a religion not an Ethnic group. When will the fanatic element realise this.

  • Param Singh MBE
    2. At 3:43PM on 03 January 2019, Param Singh MBE wrote

    This is a great summary of the situation. Thank you for the great work you do Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal.

  • Gurjeet Singh Samra
    3. At 2:06PM on 04 January 2019, Gurjeet Singh Samra wrote

    I am surprised with the above comments . She kept quiet for so many years when Sikhs were campaigning for separate ethnic category for Sikhs . Last census 84000 Sikhs asked for separate category for Sikhs in the official census form despite handful people objecting and now 112 Gurdwaras who returned the response , all wanted separate tick box for Sikhs and even house of lords in this country recognise Sikhs as a Separate ethnic ? It's just handful individual people who don't represent Sikhs are objecting ? Its shame??

  • Kamaljit
    4. At 8:59PM on 04 January 2019, Kamaljit wrote

    Sikhs should not drop this. It will be a struggle but we can have a Sikh Ethnic tick box. We must fight ONS on this discrimination. Those who want to be labelled Indian can continue ticking the box. A Sikh is a Sikh.

  • Dr Singh
    5. At 10:18AM on 07 January 2019, Dr Singh wrote

    A well reasoned blog from the author and it’s clear that a Sikh ethnic tick box will not benefit the Sikh community, indeed it may disadvantage and divide it by splitting the Sikh population across religion and ethnicity lines. The Sikh Fed, secretariat for the APPG for British Sikhs, should be a little more open about the true motives for their long running campaign for a Sikh ‘ethnic’ grouping, one that stems from the demand for a separate Sikh homeland in the subcontinent. The ‘evidence’, and I say that with a pinch of salt, that they have collected over the last 20 years has quickly been dismantled by academics such as Dr Jhutti-Johal who have shown how weak and biased it was in the first place. The facts are that (1) Sikhs already have and WILL continue to have a separate tick box in the 2021 census in the religion section (there is no discrimination here!), (2) Sikhs are a religious group not an ethnic one, and (3) extensive data on religion is already collected by public bodies, it just needs to be used more effectively.

  • Sarbjit Kaur
    6. At 12:47PM on 07 January 2019, Sarbjit Kaur wrote

    Dr Jhutti-Johal is a voice of reason within the Sikh community and has explained the issues methodically and clearly. Sikhism is a religion, and not an ethnic group. She should be commended for her excellent analysis and her OBE - well deserved. Sarbjit Kaur

  • Gurjeet Singh Samra
    7. At 4:36PM on 11 January 2019, Gurjeet Singh Samra wrote

    Dr Jhutti-Johal is not a voice within Sikh community. she is an individual who has no right to jeopardise the Sikh issue. 112 Gurdwaras and number of other grass root organisations fully support this Sikh tick box. Last census 84000 Sikh ticked as Sikh ethnic despite some selfish individual objecting to it . Sikh community will not be dived by the issue instead first time in British history Sikhs will be recognised separately as ethnic and there are 40000 public bodies where Sikhs will benefit from the separate tick box .

  • Gurjeet Singh Samra
    8. At 4:38PM on 11 January 2019, Gurjeet Singh Samra wrote

    She may be awarded OBE for betraying the Sikh community but Sikhs will never forgive her for this betrayal ????

  • HS Gill
    9. At 7:54AM on 14 January 2019, HS Gill wrote

    I expect (and hope) that Mr GS Samra, who has commented above, does not represent any responsible Sikh organization or body. Making veiled threats to someone with an opposing view to his own by implying they have betrayed the Sikh community is truly disgusting and borders on religious extremism. Maybe he wants to rid the Sikh community of all independent academics and intellectuals? The whole argument in favour of the Sikh ethnic tick box is completely flawed as outlined in the article, the ONS has seen through it, I just hope that MPs won’t duped by it. Dr Jhutti-Johal, please don’t be intimidated by such threats, they represent a creeping ‘Talibanisation’ amongst a small minority of Sikhs in the UK, but the majority of Sikhs will see through this.

  • Manjeet Singh
    10. At 3:17PM on 25 January 2019, Manjeet Singh wrote

    Sikhism is a religion and not an ethnicity. We have Sikhs from all over the world these days. There are Sikhs of all ethnicities including Asian, Oriental, White, Middle Eastern, Black and Mixed. Surely everybody with an ounce of sense will agree that Sikh is not a separate ethnic origin. So lets not be zealots. I find some of the comments here disheartening. Those talking about betrayal and disgust need to think deep and hard about whether they themselves really are Sikhs or in name only.

  • Jagvinder Singh
    11. At 8:27PM on 22 March 2020, Jagvinder Singh wrote

    My religion and ethnicity both have their identity. I am not Indian and I’ll never be. The struggle to include our separate ethnicity box in 2021 census will continue and I feel assured that the law makers instead of listening to few individuals(unknown among SIkh masses) will listen to the SIkh masses.

  • Amandeep singh
    12. At 1:01AM on 07 May 2020, Amandeep singh wrote

    Those who claim to be on the side of "true"sikhs and are stating that those who are asking for sikhs to be included as a separate ethnicity are some how fanatical , are fools. Their main argument is sikh isn't an ethnicity, it's a religon. Well is Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi any more of an ethnicity than Sikh? They are countries, but are included in the ethnic groups tickbox. As a sikh I do not consider myself as indian so wish to class myself as an ethnic Sikh. Those sikhs who dont want to can simply tick the Indian box. I dont speak for all sikhs, so stop trying to speak for me.

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