Who Is Mandeep Kaur?
I never thought about that and never been asked that question before but that’s a really good question actually. I guess that’s what we’re here for to find out who we are and to find ourselves. I don’t think I have found myself yet. It’s a difficult question. I’m a very honest person and transparent in my communication that also makes me a very straightforward person. I also like to stand up for the right values even if that means I’m going to get backlash. I will always try my best to push the system and do my best all the time. I’m a very passionate person. I can be a very possessive mum (laughing) and I’m also a wife. When I say possessive I mean I’m just very protective which I think is quite a natural part of being a mum. Myself and my husband have got a great trust towards each other. I remember having a conversation with my daughter and I was due to go to Canada to do Patchar. I was never doing it for money it was purely in Seva. I was going out there to speak to the community in Canada. I remember saying to my daughter I’m going tomorrow but I really don’t want to go. I wanted to stay with my children. My eldest child said to me you know Mum when you was getting married you had to leave your house and then had to come to dad’s house but you didn’t want to do that did you? I remember saying no. My Eldest then said but you did it and that’s why we are here in the world. She also said there are some things in life you don’t want to do but you have to do it. I remember just looking at her and I said to her you have just given me the courage to go and do what I need to do. I see myself as a person who has a role to play that role is unclear to me yet. I really do appreciate life also my kids and my husband are a massive part of my life. I love also being a child with my children and with my husband. I feel I can be trustworthy and a good listener.
(I have have had so much great feedback when it comes to Mandeep Kaur she may not agree but she is such a great person. Her voice is soothing and she gives great advice. She is a great listener and a brilliant friend. Mandeep is a role model to many as she does not think that but to me she is. When I first met her for this meeting she even had food ready for me! This woman is a beautiful soul. You will know what I mean when you meet her )
Have you always been into your Sikhi?
I was born into a Sikh family but then again I would say more Punjabi family. We didn’t have practising Sikh’s in our house. Yes we used to go to the Gurdwara. That was it really. Then my mum became a baptised Sikh so she took Amrit. That then attracted me very much into Sikhi and looking at the Kirpan and the Dastaar. So I remember asking my mum can I take Amrit and she looked at me and said no. My mum said you are too young but she stated they have no issues with you wanting to do it but you are still quite young, wait till you get married as it will be very difficult for you to find a match when you are baptised and had taken Amrit. Then I just left the topic after that for a period of time. But the yearning kept increasing and I kept regular sangat to keep learning about my Guru.
I saw a Documentary about yourself talking about how important your Dastaar is. Why is it important to you?
Again this is not where I started, even when I took Amrit I used to cover my head with a chunni (scarf) That was good enough for me back then. There were lots of people that came to me when I never used to wear a Dastaar and used to say that I should actually wear one and they gave me millions of reasons on why I should. I really started to hate it because I was really getting more and more pressure to wear one. I remember saying to them look this is who I am and you can’t force me to wear one. I’m just at that point I’m not ready for this yet. I remember saying I respect all your reasons I respect you all as people. A few incidents happened to me with that scenario. But I’m not going to do it for the sake of doing it, once I do it I do it because I want to as I will be in a better position in my mind to do this and respect the Dastaar fully. But it just so happens as time went on I was actually dying to wear one. It happened without any thinking any preparation it just happened but I was ready. I remember I was married and I said to my husband you know I’m ready and this is what I want to do. My husband just said to me you go for it. At that time I was learning about Bani. One of the lines that really inspired me was “Saab Surat Dastaar Sira”
When we talk about Guru Granth Sahib Ji scriptures we say and we should live to our Guru and do whatever he says. And this just appealed to me. That the line doesn’t apply just to males it doesn’t say that. I mean it wasn’t only just that line but there’s so many different teaching’s that I could tell you about on the reasons on why I came into this journey.
Another thing that inspired me was being a role model for my children. This happened when my first daughter was born and she was 6 months old we went to Amritsar. I didn’t know how to do my Dastaar properly and my husband helped me over 10 days and it was really hard. Now I don’t see myself without my crown. I see my beauty in my crown. This is part of me. I can see the difference. I say its a uniform you know you work in an organisation where you wear a uniform in the police. When you wear that uniform you have to adhere to certain expectations of yourself and etiquette. With Sikhi in my opinion with this uniform you can’t take it off. If anyone finds it hard in the beginning, pressure or limitations but acting in the manner the behaviour will change and it becomes easier. The Dastaar for me is important it’s my crown.
What is your education background?
I am an Engineer. I have done my education in civil engineering. I’ve also done my masters. Also done my PHD in Engineering also. In between doing my PHD I became a chaplain.
Before the job you are doing now, what was you doing before that?
So after my masters I was a researcher at University did that for a few months till I enrolled for my PHD. Other than my researching I was a student. I did a few jobs as a student. I wasn’t in any full time role.
You are the only Sikh female chaplain in the Armed Forces. What made you decide to go for this particular role?
I’m the only Sikh Chaplain and female yes. Again this was not something I planned to do which is quite funny really. This is whilst I was doing my PhD and one of the students he brought in a newspaper article with the job inside it and he said there’s a job in here that may be some sort of interest to you. I didn’t really pay much attention to it and I thought no it’s not for me because I don’t have some of the qualifications they may possibly be looking for and the criteria was quite high and also for example and you had to be in country for so many years and obviously I was here as a student doing my PhD. Also there is no age restriction yet to be a certain age to apply and I was under the age restriction. The one thing that did click to me and was the reason whilst I was doing my degree and my masters I was part of a lot of the Sikhi associations and I used to be part of a lot of unions as well and we were promoting Sikh Values. We used to go and help and support drug addicts and take them to rehabs. So I was into that as a volunteer and I used to love doing that. I checked the article for the job again and I thought there was a welfare and listening part to the role and I love to do that. So I thought to myself I will apply and see what happens. I would love to do that as my profession. I was shortlisted and that was good enough for me and I was invited for an interview and I got the job. I was so happy and so shocked. I really enjoyed my interview and I got a feel to what they would want me to do. It was a massive responsibility and I was studying. My mum suggested to me to do Ardaas (prayers) and get guidance. I was in a dilemma to take on the role. My mum was a huge support. The paperwork did take a long time but I was successful and here I am. It all worked out in Oct 2005.
For people who do not know, what a chaplain is, especially a Sikh Chaplain could you explain?
My primary role is to support Sikhs and their dependants on a moral, spiritual and pastoral basis. The other strand is I advise the chain of command, the bosses and the Ministry Of Defence as a whole also on policy and faith matters especially Sikhi. The third strand is educational. I go out across 3 services. The Royal Navy. The British Army and The Royal Air Force to talk about the values and relay them to defence. I organise events myself and I feel very satisfied.
Is it hard being a career woman and juggling home life as I can imagine your job can be quite demanding?
I would say it is challenging. It is not impossible. To do this role you have to make sacrifices for sure. But I really enjoy what I do. I take issues that I face and I take it as I am helping my community. That gives me a drive and if its really hard and harsh at times I just push myself. I feel like I am working for my Guru (God)
There is no other Chaplain and I work alone and I have no team. Things can go right or wrong. I work incredibly hard. I am motivated. But if you have the right passion you will have no problems, with positive feedback and a smile on someone’s face you would like to carry on doing it.
Are your family supportive?
Yes they are very supportive. My husband and children value what I do. My husband has always encouraged me to do my best. I could never have done that without any family support.
You are a role model and I know you say you aren’t but you are and even to myself. But who is yours?
Oh a difficult one. I can’t say there is a person. There are people who have inspired me. Again I should have a role model. If I think about it now, when I read about Guru Nanak Dev Ji. I want to become like him, it maybe a weird thing to say (laughing)
The way he behaved, lived and acted, and I only became to know when I started to read more about him. I realised I didn’t know my Guru until I read this and that’s how I felt. Especially when I did Parchar I use Guru Nanak Dev Ji all the time and I belong to him. Also there are some Sikh women that I also read about. Those women who let their children get cut to pieces and still say their Sikhi is everything to them. I feel shaken in a positive way as they were my sisters. That history inspires me a lot. The first novels I ever read about Sikhi was by Satwant Kaur and Balbir Kaur. They are strong women. There is another lady called Baljit Kaur, she is a strong personality and she is from Canada and when I heard her speak she was really great. She is a huge inspiration to me.
I met you originally at an event and you was speaking about Sikhi. Now you do a lot of talks all around the world. What is your most memorable one?
Another hard one! I mean amazing things have happened. But to be honest the most memorable one for me was we had Saraghari Day in Staffordshire just recently, I know you are aware as you was invited. I did a service there and I spoke there and it wasn’t long and it was about Sikhi. We were having lunch and one of the guys came up to me, he wasn’t Sikh he said ” Whatever you said today I can click with that” You are like a godly figure and you have a great aura and I was chuffed about what he said. I remember saying these teaching are not just for Sikhs but it is universal. I mean I had women hugging me also.
I was also speaking at Niskham centre in Birmingham recently and a Muslim lady came over and hugged me and said I see God in you and when she said that I felt something. I will share another example with you. I went to the camp and I won’t mention any names. I spoke for a week and I remember one of the attendee’s came up to me and said do you remember me and I replied no. As I said my memory isn’t good (laughing) But he said I came last year and we spoke about this and this. The male was married for 8 years and his wife was still in India and he shared his story openly and publicly and the title was “Dukh” (sadness) Also how to overcome sorrow. I asked them can you share with us all what is your biggest sorrow you are facing now? This male stated he was married but he has not accepted his wife and it has been 8 years and we had a massive debate about it. I asked why. The bottom line was she is a good girl but he felt like he was forced into the marriage. But it wasn’t his fault. The girl was still living with his parents and still looks after his parents. I said you are lucky in this day and age that does not happen. We did Ardaas together and I said it would be great if you could bring her here to the next camp and one day and you learn to accept her. Anyway, this year I met him again. He had brought his wife with him to the camp. I was so happy and I felt the humanity. The male said he was really happy. It took him time to accept her still but he still did it.
Have you ever received any negativity with your work or your identity?
I did and still do. Again I will give you an example I was recently asked to do someone’s Anand Karaj. I was asked to do someone’s wedding and it was an honour and it was in Smethwick and it was the same one that me and you met and when you did your Sikh Awareness Event it was there. The first thing he asked me to do an introduction and then I’m going to be an undercarriage and it was a great feeling and it was a massive responsibility.
So anyway recently someone from Europe asked me my wedding is coming up we would like you to lead on it and then I said no speak to your family you know this isn’t a birthday party this is a Anand karaj. So he went back and then I got a response after he spoke to everybody he spoke to community members and they stated that women can’t do that. Just because I’m a female my first reaction was oh that’s good. I actually really like a challenge it makes me and push myself more if everything went smooth I wouldn’t learn anything about myself. So I said that’s fine don’t worry but he was like no we still want you to attend though. We still like you to do Parchar. you can do everything else but not the wedding. all I said was there’s only one thing I want from you and for you to give me the reason on why you didn’t want me to do this. Or does the Granthi need the money? Or is it that people will start talking. I said I really would like to know when I can try to educate them in regards to this I said I’m not even coming there for money you know you can have the money. I remember getting a phone call and then saying I’m not going to lie to you I’m going to be honest with you it was because of my parents they didn’t feel comfortable and they had this very strong belief that females cannot perform the Anand Karaj. Then he said you know they love you to bits and I really want you to come but they don’t want to do this he said it’s actually in their mindset you know it cannot be changed it’s just the way they are. I remember saying you know what fair enough you know it’s okay I really don’t want to upset your parents and I don’t want you to get into an argument with your parents. His parents were already compromising his happiness because he was having a traditional Sikhi wedding. I said just leave it now. Hopefully I can do the Parchar and educate at the same time. It was a family affair. The day after he wanted to speak to me urgently that his parents had gone to Amritsar they had gone to Darbaar Sahib. They had spoken to the officials there. They asked the question if a female can perform an Anand Karaj and they were told off for even thinking like that. There is no such no thing. The motive was to educate people about this question. I don’t like backward thinking. That was a small example. Incident’s like these only teach us something and makes us even more stronger.
There is always that stigma that men can do a better job than a female isn’t it?
Honestly it just makes me laugh and I’m strong within myself and you have to be I try not to worry myself about it but it also gives me a reason for me to educate you know some people about gender equality. My Guru has given me this world for a reason and I’m going to fill it to the best of my ability. Out of all of the Chaplains I am the only female one and that for me speak volumes doesn’t matter about anything else. It’s a shame that certain communities still push the stigma about females and it’s quite sad actually. Its always boys this and boys that I don’t feel the females always get the short end of the stick but it drives me even more and it shows me it doesn’t matter if i’m female I will achieve my goal. I also go to events where they just want a female so it’s two different extremes. I’ve been to places like New Zealand and Australia and they wanted me to speak there as I was a female.
You have also changed a few policies in the army can you give me an example?
Yes, we have changed a few policies one is that a Sikh Soldier can keep his beard and wear the 5K’s. They can do their prayers (bani) whilst serving in the Army. That’s a huge achievement. If we didn’t push towards it then it would of never happened. There is more room for Sikh’s who want to join the army to become more devout. I always take advise from superiors also.
What was your biggest challenge since you started your role?
Okay so my biggest challenge was my own community letting me down when you want to achieve so much for the community. Especially when you work really hard and you’ve achieved something it could be anything. The problem we have is everybody seems to think they are scholars and that they know better than others and give their opinions. and to me that’s fine you’re entitled to your opinion. For me it’s my job to look after the faith needs of people and that’s my job as a chaplain. Sometimes I have to change policies to help the needs of other people and we have really successfully done to be honest and I’m very proud of that and it will help people in order to join the army in generations to come. One thing I always get is can we be in the army as a Sikh can we live in our Sikh way and join the defence and be devout and still be a soldier. That’s a massive question that i’m always getting asked.
You also do your annual event Chardi Khalla, can you tell me more?
Chardi Kala event has been running for 12 years. When I first came into this role, I remember saying I am a chaplain for the Sikhs where are they? How do I talk to them? How do I engage with them? How do I get to know them? How do I know where the issues lie? (laughing) There was a lot of questions I was asking in terms of my role and the response was they didn’t know so after a lot of issues and meetings that obviously occurred I decide to set this up. I was given some information but not a lot. In the first instance I set up an event a one day event for people to come so I could introduce myself. A lot of people there with a sceptical you know as in who is she, what she going to do that sort of thing. But a lot of people turned up and I was very surprised and then it went really well. So then I decided to set up this three day conference bring everyone together. Now this was a spiritual retreat. So the idea was as I look after 3 units The Royal Navy, The British Army and The Royal Air Force, I didn’t have an office where people could come and see me in just once place as all units are spread out all over the place. I was alone and whenever I was needed I would go out and visit that unit. I support where ever they are and it’s very hard to see them on a regular basis, and the idea was for everyone to come to one place so everyone can meet each other get to know each other and to get to know me. It was to lift our morale and also on the spiritual side also, reflect on our faith values. It was to recharge ourselves because work can get quite demanding. It’s also extended to the soldier’s partners and family members if they wanted to come as well. I must say I’ve had a great experiences for a decade doing this conference I always keep the feedback forms and always look back on them and to see you know what people really thought when they came to the conference, it is because it’s very important isn’t it. It is not easy trying to arrange this three day conference there’s a lot involved and there’s a lot that you need to do and make sure that everything goes smoothly. We have funding involved and who is paying for what. What food shall we get. There are many protocols that you have to face and you have to adhere to. But it is so worth it so the idea was to bring people together and it’s also civilians as well such as civilian staff. So you live as a Sikh for 3 days.
So no Smoking, Drinking or eating meat for 3 days?
Yes. We had this discussion as well. A lot of the soldiers who were there who are retiring at the time and said this is an annual get together, and this is what we’ve been missing for the last 20 years. If this was set up when they started, their life would be a lot different. They still keep in touch with me even though they are retired so that honestly means a lot to me as well. The army was different. It’s completely different now imagine joining the army 20 years ago.
Then one person said most of us drink and eat meat and why can’t we have it here. My response to that was this is a Sikhi conference. So everything we do will be a lived experience. It’s not going to be where you just sitting there listening to lectures you will be participating as well. It isn’t about the food or drink that’s not what you’re here for you not here for the food/drink you have to remind yourself you’re here for a spiritual retreat. Again I was tested in terms of those issues. But I had to hold my own values and be strong. But thankfully people adhere to it for the conference. We do spiritual prayers and I do not want alcohol present. One of the Soldier’s partner even lead a prayer and she had never done that before and it really made me happy. These conferences are very beneficial.
You have also put on other events also tell me more
Yes. I have done Vaisakhi at the Ministry Of defence building. This was very hard work and I was running around so much also. But I had a huge success with spaces running out. this was for the community and we was able to educate the Ministry of Defence about Sikhi. What is the Vaiskahi and who we are a Sikhs. but that we did it you know part of the Whitehall building which is the Ministry of Defence building with a massive thing. This attracted a lot of people and it was an open event also. I tend to invite a lot of non Sikhs than Sikhs as obviously we know or should know about Vaisakhi. We had Gatka this year as well. some people who actually worked at the Ministry of Defence building came to observe what we was doing. they said it was great that we was doing this and we are learning a lot more about your culture. There was a lot of education behind it we had a lot of mistaken identity so it was a day where people could learn what Sikhs are. It speaks volumes when people give you that feedback because it’s important very important to hear that. My idea behind this was just to educate people about our culture and Faith.
The first ever event I ever did was when my daughter was very poorly and she was in hospital at the time and I will never ever forget the experience I had trying to put that event together. I had arranged that whole event from the children’s hospital in Birmingham. I remember sitting in the children’s pray room on the phone trying to organise this event. The event went so high profile without me even knowing about it because I where I was at the time. I remember I was at the hospital and I was giving my daughter a bath at the Children’s Hospital and my phone just would not stop ringing constantly. The media from India had started to contact me and said they want me to make sure we get this right. This was happening for the first time so we want to make sure everything is perfect. Even the UK media are all on board then they were contacted to be there actually on the day. They were asking me how do we make sure we get things right.
The irony was they all knew I was at the hospital. But the commitment was so pressing they wanted it to be done quickly. I was in the hospital for a good few months with my daughter, on and off for a year. Let me tell you something I left the hospital and went home just to get changed and then took a train go to the event and they go straight back to the hospital. Nobody knew that. I actually wrote my speech on the train. I was very emotional on the train and I ask myself what inspired me to do this despite everything that’s going on in my personal life that’s what I was thinking. In my speech I even said I get my inspiration for those who stand up for their faith, our Guru’s. I felt emotional on the day but I also felt powerful also. If I can manage what was going on then I can manage anything else to come. By that point my daughter was out of danger and I could disclose what was going on at the time. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer Stage 3 at that time. I remember she had surgery for 9 hours and it didn’t go well and then after 7 days had to go for surgery again. She was only 3 at the time and she was tiny. They wouldn’t let her go home if she had a temperature. I used to go to work when she was asleep. Then my husband would come and we were taking turns to look after her and make sure someone is around her. The doctor kept saying don’t do that you’re not even sleeping during the night and you’re not even sharing your emotions with anybody.
I will tell you another situation in the hospital when my daughter was sleeping I used to stick by her and you get the hospital readings the monitors. Every time I used to leave the room her readings used to go through the roof and it’s like my daughter’s knew if wasn’t there. My husband was a witness to that. So all the planning was from the hospital and even then I used to get people coming up to me saying, we would have done it better this way. I remember saying you know why don’t you take ownership and do the events and I will always support you but you try it. In the end they asked me to take leadership on the event and that was that. Also people used to say you go Gurdwara and this happened to you I mean whats the point? I remember saying well yes I do go Gurdwara and it is happening to me and my family because we can take it. We are strong. I just remember some of the comments. But there’s a saying if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger. Our Guru is with us.
You also set up British Armed Forces Sikh Association, why was this set up?
Yes. It was a great idea. All faith groups have one. The Muslim Association set theirs up first. We was the last to set it up. It was set up in 2013. I had great volunteers at the time and they were ready to do Seva. We had support from the diversity team also. BAFSA has grown in members. My role is the Chaplain. I’m not the chair of BAFSA.
There isn’t many Female Sikh Soldiers is there? I know you have said for me to become a reserve officer
No there isn’t! There is some but not enough. Yes you still need to join! We need more females like you. You would be a great role model. You just have to start slowly I mean even I have started running now, I have purchased my running shoes and I love it. I sometimes I do fitness tests. I do the bleep tests and the push ups and sit ups! So we can do it! (Mandeep Kaur is trying to motivate me) I have passed my Officers tests now which was a huge achievement.
The Sikh Soldiers come to you when they need a listening ear. You are always supportive and highly respected! Why do you think that is?
I don’t know! (laughing) I don’t know why I am respected. But I am who I am. I visit the Soldiers and their families and build the rapport whenever I can. I like to be that person where I can help. It takes courage to pick up a phone to talk. I love my job and I love what to do. I just listen and offer my support. But I do call people out if needed. But I do not judge them. I also know the people who talk about me behind my back. But I still talk to them and I still respect them. I will never change my nature at all. I am not here to please anyone I am here to help. Listening to someone is the key.
You also do Kirtan so beautifully, is that something you have always done?
Yeah. My first memory was when I was 9 years old when I performed with sangat. My mum encouraged us as well. My mum was very motivated and inspirational. My dad passed away when I was in Year 12. My mum has never not been there even through the difficult times. My mum has always had faith in Guru no matter. Very firm faith. I started to learn the harmonium. One of the ladies in India where I used to live there. The lady said no as she had her own young children. My mum really pushed for me to do classes. I really wanted to learn and I was her first student and since I started and I feel so proud saying this. This lady classes have grown and there were hundreds of children through the years that have learnt from her. I remember playing at the Gurdwara and the whole sangat was so supportive. I was really lucky where I used to live there was weekly Kirtan. I learnt a lot. I have also had a passion for it. Kirtan is a blessing. When you do seva it’s a different feeling.
Whats next for Mandeep Kaur?
I really don’t know (laughing) Nothing in my life is planned. Its up to Guru Ji. I have been blessed so far. Lets see what happens next. As long as I am on Guru given mission/task everything is all good for me.
I met Mandeep Kaur at an event and I always found her so fascinating. The fact she is the only female chaplain in the Armed Forces and is Sikh is just incredible for me. I have listened to her speak and she is just mind blowing. I remember being at the Met Police event and she spoke about Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s teachings and there was much I didn’t know but she broke it down so I could understand. Everyone in that room was holding on to her every word including me. I can even explain what a beautiful soul she is. She really hates “bigging herself up” But I really think she should more. The work she does not only in the Armed Forces but outside with her own Seva is important. Myself and Mandeep Kaur have now become friends she has a such a child like laugh I hope she doesn’t go mad at me for saying so! Please show some love this wonderful person. Mandeep Kaur hasn’t done a blog like this before and also spoke so openly about herself and her personal life. Mandeep has showed incredible strength and for that I have the up most respect for her. This is one sister I’m incredibly proud of. Also a fun fact she always finds her thoughts on the trains! Always something interesting as well. Love this woman she is just so helpful. Mandeep is always pushing for changes and to help the soldiers in anyway she can. This lady has a heart of gold.