Canadian Sikhs liken helmet battle to Komagata Maru

February 16th, 2008 - 2:44 pm ICT by admin  

By Gurmukh Singh
Toronto, Feb 16 (IANS) The case of Baljinder Badesha, a local Sikh who is fighting a court battle to overturn a law barring Sikhs from driving motorcycles without helmet, has been likened to the famous Komagata Maru case of 1914. Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship, was hired by a rich Sikh, Gurdit Singh, to bring Indians to Canada to challenge the then law that allowed entry only to those who came without breaking journey from India.

“Since there were no direct ships from India to Canada, how could anyone come here without first reaching Hong Kong and then boarding another ship? Komagata was a challenge to the then discriminatory law. Now, we Sikhs have mounted a challenge to the Traffic Highway Law that forbids motorcycle driving without helmets. This is another Komagata Maru for us,” an Indo-Canadian businessman from Brampton told IANS.

Badesha was fined $110 and banned from driving in 2005 while stopped for not wearing a helmet.

The 39-year-old is being supported by the Sikh community and the Ontario Human Rights Commission in his legal battle.

The Indo-Canadian businessman said they had planned to mount challenge to the helmet law about four years ago.

“First, we raised the issue with Indo-Canadian politicians. Harinder Takhar was our minister for transportation then. But the helmet law stayed on the statute books.

“Then some committed Sikhs offered to violate it and then challenge it in court. Badesha did it in 2005. I think it will be sorted out in our favour very soon,” said the businessman who was in court Friday to lend moral support to Badesha.

He said: “Sikhs from about 3.5 percent of the population in British Columbia and they are allowed to drive motorcycles without helmet. Here in Ontario, we are more than 1.5 percent of the population. We should be given this exemption as well.”

Vancouver-based Avtar Singh Dhillon, who fought and won a similar battle in his province of British Columbia in 1998, said on the phone that he had spoken to Badesha and lent him his support.

“When I challenged the helmet law, I had little support. I had to pay my lawyer. But now Badesha has all the support. Though such matters take time, I am sure the helmet rule will be overturned in favour of Sikhs,” Dhillon said.

Badesha, who appeared in court for the second consecutive day Friday, said since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allowed him to practice his faith, he could not be stopped from driving with a turban.

He said: “I like to ride motorcycles, so that’s why we are fighting the case.”

However, his religion didn’t allow him to remove his turban, he said.

Badesha admitted there were dangers in driving without a helmet. But people are dying even in safe cars, he countered.

Arguing on his behalf, lawyer Owen Rees of the Ontario Human Rights Commission said: “What the state is saying to Mr. Badesha is you have to choose between your religious beliefs or (abstain) in order to ride the motorbike.”

Another defence lawyer said if disabled people could be exempted from seatbelts in cars, why not exempt Badesha from a helmet.

However, government lawyers said that riding a motorcycle “is significantly different than the interests that have been found to be violated in other cases.”

They said since fatal and non-fatal injuries cost the government millions of dollars each year, allowing non-helmeted motorcyclists on the roads will add to the burden on the exchequer.

But the defence lawyer said even if all the turbaned Sikhs, who formed only about two percent of the provincial population, drove motorcycles without helmets, it would carry little hazards.

If the court decides in Badesha’s favour, the province may have to enact a fresh law to allow all turbaned Sikh to drive motorcycles with helmet.

However, such laws already exist in the provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba.

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