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2 August 2017updated 01 Aug 2021 9:29am

“They tried to take it off at school”: Tan Dhesi on being the first Sikh MP with a turban

The Labour MP for Slough on integration, standing out, and his reservations about Europe.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“The first ever turbaned Sikh to the British Parliament – indeed, I believe, the first ever to be elected to any European Parliament.”

This is how Tan Dhesi, the new Labour MP for Slough, described himself in his maiden speech to the House of Commons. “A glass ceiling has truly been broken,” he said.

“I, for one, Mr Speaker, am very much hoping that these brightly-coloured turbans will act as a magnet as you repeatedly point towards the Member for Slough to make his invaluable contributions to proceedings in this House.”

Standing out for his turban had a very different effect when Dhesi, now 38, was growing up in Kent’s Gravesend. “At school, you get discriminated against,” he recalls. “One student tried to take off my turban then. Thankfully such instances haven’t scarred me, but I’ve always taken any negativity as a challenge.”

I speak to him over a cup of tea in Parliament’s Portcullis House. Today he is wearing a deep red turban, and looks relaxed in a checked blue shirt with no tie. It’s a few days until recess, and Parliament has an end-of-term feel.

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“Only 1 per cent of the population is Sikh in the UK,” he tells me. “Anyone wearing a turban, you’re always going to stand out, you’re going to look different to others.”

For the first time, British Sikhs who wear turbans have someone in Parliament who doesn’t look different from them, and Dhesi is proud of that – but he says he will work to serve everyone, in the Sikh spirit of sarbat da bhala. “Working for the betterment of all, regardless of background, colour or creed,” he explains.

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Dhesi has been a Labour councillor for almost a decade, and was Mayor of Gravesham in Kent in 2011. He was born in Slough and spent his early years there, where his father worked at the Ford factory in Langley and his mother worked for a local petrol pump company. Both his parents emigrated to Britain from the Punjab.

Work dried up in Slough after a few years, so they moved to Kent where Dhesi’s father started a construction company. As a 16 year old, Dhesi spent his school holidays as a labourer on a building site. He worked his way up from sweeping to operating dumpers and diggers and then to drilling. “If someone is pushing a broom all day, you can’t tell them what to do unless you’ve been there, on the other side, doing that [yourself],” he says. “You don’t quite appreciate how hard people have to work.”

At the age of four, Dhesi was sent to school in India for four and a half years, returning at nine years old to Gravesend rather than Slough. He speaks eight languages: Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, French, German, Italian, Latin, “and a bit of English”, he smiles.

Dhesi recalls turning up as Mayor to the French town twinned with Gravesham and surprising locals with a speech in fluent French. “I don’t think they were expecting a turbaned guy, coming over from England, to be giving them a ten-minute speech in French,” he says, with a chuckle.

“We in England, I think, are famed for not learning or not going beyond English, but it’s important within wider society that we do try to learn other languages as well, foreign languages are important.”

Yet he doesn’t feel “overly attached” to the European Union, citing France’s insistence that Sikhs remove their turbans when going to state school or having an ID photo taken. He calls this “highly disappointing” and “ironic, when more than 80,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers died to liberate [that] very country”.

He adds: “In Britain, I think that people are more cultured, or they’re more aware. The same can’t be said at most European airports. That cultural sensitivity and understanding of people of Sikh background, or Muslims with hijabs or niqabs, or others  – I don’t think [that] is there in various other parts of Europe.”

In local politics, Dhesi has focused on community, faith and integration. “We’ve got a common language in terms of the national language of English,” he says. “So it’s important that we push that, but we don’t do it to the detriment whereby we try to obliterate or eliminate other languages and cultures.

“You can be proud to be Sikh… but you can still be proud to be British.”