Defence chiefs have abandoned plans to raise a regiment of British Sikhs amid fears that the move would be branded racist.
The proposal to create the regiment, reminiscent of those that fought for Britain in the two world wars, was dropped by the Ministry of Defence after discussions with the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).
Sikh leaders had informed Army recruitment officers that they could easily find enough volunteers to form a 700-strong regiment. However, despite the infantry being under strength by 3,000 soldiers, the offer was rejected.
Lieutenant General Sir Freddie Viggers, the Adjutant General with responsibility for recruitment, is understood to have accepted the argument put forward by race commissioners at the CRE that creating a Sikh regiment would be divisive and amounted to “segregation”.
Leaders of Britain’s 500,000 Sikhs were supportive of the idea of a new regiment, arguing that it would be no different from the Scots, Welsh and Irish Guards or the Royal Gurkha Rifles, which recruits exclusively from Nepal and which is regarded as a model infantry regiment.
The decision to shelve the plans was last night criticised by politicians, members of the Sikh community and soldiers, who claimed that the Army had fallen victim to political correctness.
Kuljit Singh Gulati, the general secretary of the Sikh Temple in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, said: “The Sikhs have a long and distinguished heritage of serving with the British Army.
“I know there are many, many Sikhs who would join up and would serve wherever required. But if you want to get them in large numbers they need their own regiment, something they would take a huge amount of pride in.
“They would regard it as very prestigious. It is a shame that it now looks as though it will never happen.”
A senior Army officer said: “The MoD has missed a golden opportunity in not tapping into the Sikh community’s desire to form a regiment. It’s nonsense to suggest this would amount to segregation and since when did the CRE dictate Britain’s defence -policy?”
The decision will also dismay Prince Charles, who has expressed an interest in the creation of dedicated units to boost the number of people from ethnic minorities in the services and to harness the military tradition of the Sikh faith in particular.
Last year, the armed forces were ordered to meet tough targets to recruit more men and women from ethnic minorities.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The creation of a Sikh Regiment has been considered by the Army policy staff responsible for both equality and diversity issues, who went on to consult with the Commission for Racial Equality.
“Both agreed that grouping ethnic minorities runs counter to the Armed Forces philosophy that seeks to include, not exclude, and extend opportunities.”
A CRE spokesman said: “We would not support any policy that seeks to isolate specific groups in the Armed Forces or wider society.
“The creation of a separate regiment according to ethnicity would be segregation, which amounts to discrimination under the Race Relations Act. Anything that creates separation between regiments can only have a detrimental effect upon our Armed Forces’ operational effectiveness.”