A Sikh cyclist’s claim that mandatory helmet rules impinge on the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression has thrust the niche sport of endurance cycling into the centre of a Supreme Court controversy.

In July, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Delhi resident Jagdeep Singh Puri’s plea that the government create guidelines to prevent violations of religious freedoms by private entities. Puri initiated this case with the help of United Sikhs, an international non-governmental organisation, after he was prevented from participating in an endurance ride in August 2015 because he refused to take off his turban and wear a helmet.

According to filmmaker and anthropologist Harjant Gill, the involvement of a group such as United Sikhs reflects the case’s connection to similar campaigns in Canada, Australia and the United States where Sikh human rights lawyers have successfully won exemptions from mandatory headgear rules. Meanwhile, the media, judges and lawyers have interpreted this case as a question of whether safety concerns can usurp minority rights, or whether the turban, rather than simply a head covering, is essential to the Sikh religion. But there is something else at stake: whether fluid religious practice can survive in a world of increasingly bounded identities.

This case is also a sign of the growing popularity of recreational cycling in India, particularly randonneuring, which consists of formal endurance rides organised by Audax India. In randonneuring events such as the one Puri attempted, participants complete specific distances, from 200 km to 1,200 km, within set time limits. These events are not races but, rather, tests of self-sufficiency, perseverance and the ability to deal with discomfort. The multi-day cycling, with quick naps by the side of the road and long nights of pedalling through quiet countryside, makes this less of a sport in a traditional sense, with clear physical boundaries that set it off from everyday life, than an experiment in pushing and remaking one’s own boundaries.

In 2017, Indian cyclists completed nearly 2 million km in officially sanctioned randonneuring events. From a single event in 2010 in Pune, Audax groups in 49 Indian towns and cities now organise over 500 events a year, drawing thousands of participants. All this activity is overseen by Pune-based Divya Tate. As director of Audax India, Tate is responsible for systematising, coordinating and promoting the rides, compiling riders’ data and working with volunteers to ensure all participants follow safety regulations.

‘We are not against helmets’

On August 14, 2015, Puri arrived at Green Park, New Delhi, intending to ride with dozens of other randonneurs through the night to Panipat and return the next afternoon. The 50-year-old graphic designer cycles over 8,000 km a year. In an email interview, he said he is attracted to cycling long distances because it is “one of the best tests” of one’s abilities, and Audax India events “were [in 2015] among the limited platforms available to me to validate and fulfil a sense of achievement”.

That evening, the achievement was to cycle 200 km within 13-and-a-half hours. However, during the pre-ride safety check, volunteers spotted him without a helmet. They pointed out that wearing a helmet at all times, along with having front and rear lights, spare batteries and a reflective vest, were some of the Audax India regulations listed on the ride registration form he had signed. They told him his time would not be officially recorded but, since the event took place on an open road, he was free to complete the ride (which he did).

In a written statement to the court, Audax India has said the mandatory helmet rule is “borne out of global best practices [with] the objective of reducing the chances of risk and injuries”. Audax India emphasises safety precautions because of the particular dangers endurance cyclists face in India, such as potholes, the absence of cycling-dedicated infrastructure and insufficient traffic enforcement. Endurance cyclists also ride for hundreds of kilometres on unfamiliar roads and often in areas far from medical services that can adequately deal with head trauma. These problems are compounded by sleep deprivation, which can lead to reduced reaction time and poor decision-making.

Audax India rejected the religious discrimination claim, describing itself as an “inclusive, secular organisation”. It also emphasised that its primary purpose is to collect the ride times of those who follow the “standard rules and requirements” of the sport. They noted that Puri cycled with “officially recognised riders and made use of the community to complete the Brevet [as the ride is called]” but was not given official certification because he did not follow the rules. “We are merely a certification organisation that manages data of all our riders, the ones who agree to our rules, our format, in return for the management of their statistics during our events only,” Audax India said in its statement.

But to Puri, mandatory helmet rules prevent him from fulfilling his duties as a practising Sikh, which to him means wearing a turban at all times. He does, however, make adjustments for cycling. During long rides, he says he ties “an under-turban of three meters first which adds extra padding on top of my head, followed by a five meter turban”. He then secures everything in place with a bandana that he wraps around his lower face. Since the incident in 2015, he has publicly encouraged Sikh men to cycle without “having to compromise their faith” through the “Turbanators” cycling group. “We are not against helmets,” he said. Instead, he added, they “try and be ‘role models’ for the next generation of Sikh riders”.

The Turbanators say they are not against helmets but want Sikh men to be able to cycle without “having to compromise their faith”. (Credit: @turbanatorsthepedalers / Facebook)
The Turbanators say they are not against helmets but want Sikh men to be able to cycle without “having to compromise their faith”. (Credit: @turbanatorsthepedalers / Facebook)

Choice based on circumstance

The Supreme Court judges have distilled the case into the question of whether wearing a turban is religiously mandatory for Sikhs. But the problem with asking what is or is not mandatory in Sikhism imposes a uniform code on heterogeneous religious practices, turning faith into a set of unchanging laws and customs. Over the centuries, people have adapted religious belief to requirements of self-preservation in all sorts of ways. Visual evidence from the 1700s to the early 1800s shows Sikh soldiers wearing steel helmets, turbans over helmets, helmets over turbans, even a steel helmet crafted to resemble the pleated fabric of a turban. Of course, all of these ingenious workarounds – documented in the website “In Search of the Sikh Helmet” – reflect context-specific choices. The importance of choices people make regarding public expressions of their faith is also the subject of Harjant Gill’s film Roots of Love (2011). This film, set in Punjab, shows how decisions to wear a turban or even cut one’s hair, like all choices we make, are contingent on circumstance rather than reflections of religious essence.

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Consider Rupinder (name changed on request), a Sikh man in his 60s and widely respected among India’s endurance cyclists for his ability to cycle 600 km and be in good enough spirits to joke with friends after its completion. He said he sees himself as dually committed to Sikhism and to the endurance cycling community. Each come with a set of rules and obligations. “I don’t wish to undermine either,” he added. For instance, he carries a Kanga, or wooden comb, because it is “one of the ‘five Ks’ given to Sikhs by Guruji [Guru Gobind Singh]” and it has the practical advantage of “helping me keep my hair neat and tidy during the rides”. But when it comes to headgear, things get more complicated. He wears a helmet with a patka, or bandana, to cover his hair. But he added, “An Amritdhari [initiated] Sikh – someone who strictly follows the word of Guruji – will never be willing to wear a helmet over a patka.”

When Mumbai-based Inderjit started cycling seriously in 2011, he wore a turban instead of a helmet. But five months later, a cycling accident left him lying on the side of the road with “blood coming out [of his head] like a fountain”. He has worn a helmet ever since. When not on long rides, Inderjit customises and fixes bicycles in a shop he owns. He enjoys painting frames and working on fine-grained wheel adjustments called truing, which he considers meditative. Like many Sikh athletes, most famously cricketer Harbhajan Singh, Inderjit has developed a workaround that allows him to maintain his Kesh – or uncut hair, also one of the five Ks – while wearing protective gear. While cycling, he ties his hair into a knot at the base of his head, covers it with a patka and secures a helmet on top.

In cricket or basketball, the action of the game is separated from the routines of daily life. But in an endurance cycling event, which can involve 90 hours on the road at a stretch, managing bodily routines – such as how and where to eat, sleep, defecate and cloth oneself – are just as important as the physical rigours of cycling. According to Inderjit, this lack of separation from everyday routines is what makes “maintaining full religious values” nearly impossible. “At some point in the ride, you will have to lie down on the side of the road to take a nap or rest your legs,” he said. “But with a turban, you can’t just lie down anywhere. You can’t let your turban touch the road or ground because you have to respect it.”

Journalist Amandeep Sandhu says the case in the Supreme Court is partly the result of a “historical sense of persecution Sikhs feel, in India and abroad – a feeling of being neglected and not being understood”. However, waging this symbolic battle in the courts has the potential effect of “reducing the vast and heterogeneous sea of Sikh thought and practice into a corporatised idea of religion”, he added. The problem is that in legal battles such as this, the loudest voices emphasise sharp distinctions, inflexible boundaries and enduring truths. For instance, the Asia Samachar report quotes the judges in the case asking Jagdeep Singh Puri’s lawyers questions like, Is a turban an “essential part of your [religious] practice”? Citing the example of Sikh athletes who wear patkas, the bench adds, “It seems to us that wearing a turban is not mandatory but covering your head is.” But the decisions Puri, Inderjit, Rupinder and other Sikh cyclists make, like all sartorial decisions, are contingent and contextual. They are about intimate bodily practices that are personal, rather than clear-cut reflections of adherence to, or rejection of, religious dogma. Like the choice to commit to cycling hundreds of kilometres over multiple days without any sleep, the choice of whether, and how, to wear a turban cannot be reduced to a single source.

Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria is Associate Professor of Anthropology, Brandeis University, Massachusetts.