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He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means

Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

#Budget2017" data-image-description="<div class="story-highlight"> <h1></h1> <div class="media user-dt"> <div class="media-left"> <div class="media-img author-sm-img"></div> </div> <div class="media-body"> <div class="para-txt"><a>Aman Sethi</a></p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="story-lg-img"><img title="Union Budget 2017" src="" alt="Union Budget 2017" /></p> <h2><a class="zem_slink" title="Minister of Finance (India)" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Union finance minister</a> <a class="zem_slink" title="Arun Jaitley" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">Arun Jaitley</a> presents the <a class="zem_slink" title="Union budget of India" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Union Budget</a> 2017-18 in <a class="zem_slink" title="Lok Sabha" href=",77.2083333333&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=28.6175,77.2083333333 (Lok%20Sabha)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">Lok Sabha</a> on Wednesday. (<a class="zem_slink" title="Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">PTI</a> Photo / TV Grab )(PTI)</h2> </div> </div> <div class="story-content"> <div class="social-icons-ar no-print"></div> <article class="story-details">In his budget speech on Wednesday, finance minister Arun Jaitley announced a record allocation of Rs 48,000 crore for the <a class="zem_slink" title="National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act</a> (MNREGA) – prompting the obvious questions:</p> <p>a) Is it really a record?</p> <p>b) What were previous allocations like?</p> <p>c) Is it enough?</p> <p><b>Record: Yes or No?</b></p> <p>In absolute numbers, yes.</p> <p>But things get complicated from here on.</p> <p>Jaitley’s allocation is indeed the highest-ever budgeted allocation for the MNREGA, and a 26% hike over the previous year’s budgeted allocation of Rs 38,500 crore – a scheme his Prime Minister, <a class="zem_slink" title="Narendra Modi" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">Narendra Modi</a>, once derided as a “monument to the failure” of the previous <a class="zem_slink" title="United Progressive Alliance" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">United Progressive Alliance</a> regime.</p> <p>Yet a quick perusal of MNREGA accounts reveals that the total allocation for the scheme for 2016-17 was actually Rs 47,499 crores, once we include two supplementary tranches totally Rs 8,999 crore injected in August and December last year.</p> <p>In this context, the actual increase for 2017-18 appears to be a far more modest Rs 501 crore, or a one percent increase, unless the government introduces supplementary allocations this year as well.</p> <p>The big increase that has everyone excited was actually last year.</p> <p><b>Why were supplementary allocations granted?</b></p> <div id="inarticle_wrapper_div"></div> <p>The MNREGA is a demand-driven programme, and so states must – by law – provide employment to anyone who asks for it, up to a maximum of 100 days per person per year.</p> <p>Hence, states often spend beyond the allocated amount.</p> <p>However, years of under-allocation – in 2012-13, the allocated was just Rs 29,387 crore, Rs. 33,000 crores in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and 36,967 in 2015-16 – have meant the scheme has run-up sizeable deficits that are rolled forward every year, with a portion of each year’s allocation eaten up by the previous year’s unpaid expenditure.</p> <p>The paucity of funds meant that pending payments, which were just 932 crores in 2014-15, ballooned to about Rs 7,000 crores till date in 2016-17, according to analysis by the <a class="zem_slink" title="Centre for Policy Research" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Centre for Policy Research</a>.</p> <p>This pending Rs. 7000 crores will eat into Jaitley’s allocation, making less funds available for commissioning fresh works.</p> <p><b>So it this record allocation enough?</b></p> <p>“It is hard to know,” said Avani Kapur, a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, who has studied MNREGA allocations and expenditure for the past eight years, “<a class="zem_slink" title="Total revenue" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Total expenditure</a> for 2016-17 is already Rs 53,594 crores.”</p> <p>Thus, Jaitley’s record allocation of Rs 48,000 crore for 2017-18 does not even cover the cost of the MNREGA for the current year.</p> <p>But this year’s allocation suggests that, after years of starving the scheme, the government is re-thinking its significance.</p> <p>“To government’s credit, it is at least acknowledging the need to increase MNREGA allocations and expenditures,” Kapur said.</p> <p>At first glance it would seem as if the Finance Minister’s announcement of an allocation of Rs 48,000 crore for the <a class="zem_slink" title="National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme</a> is a dramatic increase of nearly 25% over last year’s allocation of Rs. 38,500 crores. In fact, the increase is a mere 1%, of Rs 500 crore, as two supplementary allocations during the course of the year made the total budget of 2016-’17, Rs 47,500 crore.</p> <p>Regardless of the budget allocation, what needs to be understood is that for the MGNREGA to work as per the legislation, it needs to have adequate resources to be made available for work to be provided on demand. As of today, 22 out of 34 states have negative balances. As per the ministry’s own data a total of Rs 3,469 crores in pending liabilities have already piled up, even as they have spent 93% of the funds available for this financial year. This is likely to dramatically go up over the next two months, as traditionally demand for work has peaked during this season.</p> <p>The <a class="zem_slink" title="Supreme Court of the United States" href=",-77.0044444444&amp;spn=0.01,0.01&amp;q=38.8905555556,-77.0044444444 (Supreme%20Court%20of%20the%20United%20States)&amp;t=h" target="_blank" rel="geolocation">Supreme Court</a> has issued a series of strong orders in the ongoing Swaraj Abhiyan Public Interest Litigation, one of which stated, “the <a class="zem_slink" title="Government of India" href="" target="_blank" rel="wikipedia">Government of India</a> is directed to release to the State Governments adequate funds under the Scheme in a timely manner so that the ‘workforce’ is paid its wages well in time. The Government of India must shape up in this regard.”</p> <p>Despite this, as per the Ministry’s mechanism of preparing indicative labour budgets, even to honour only the approved budget for the months of February 2017 and March 2017, nearly Rs 10,013 crores would be required (at the average cost per person day of Rs 228). This means that we would end the year with close to Rs 13,482 crores in pending liabilities, and a budgetary allocation that has not even kept pace with last year’s amount in real terms.</p> <p>This unpredictable under resourced fund flow mechanism has implications for implementation, particuarly timely payment to workers, which greatly affects faith in the employment guarantee. The Supreme Court order emphatically stated that delayed wages were unacceptable and a violation of the rights of workers. Yet this continues with impunity. At present 54% of the wage payments continue to be delayed, and as a result Rs 231 crores of compensation to workers also remains due.</p> <p>For casual workers suffering from the distress of demonetisation, the MGNREGA is intended to provide livelihood security net for exactly such situations. However, with pending liabilities already piling up, the situation is likely to get worse in the next two months as budget releases will only be made in April. Further, the notification for the requirement of aadhaar for accessing work under the MGNREGA from the next financial year, again in violation of repeated Supreme Court orders to not make aadhaar mandatory, is likely to have massive disruptive and exclusionary effects. The People’s Action for Employment Guarantee demands that the Supreme Court orders on <a class="zem_slink" title="Aadhaar" href="" target="_blank" rel="homepage">Aadhaar</a> and adequate funding be followed, the notification on mandatory Aadhaar be revoked and the adequate funds be made available to the MGNREGA to truly function as a demand based programme.</p> <p><em>Signed by Aruna Roy, Mazdoor (Kisan Shakti Sangathan), Nikhil Dey (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan),</em></p> </article> </div> " data-medium-file="" data-large-file="" class="wp-image-71906 size-full lazy-loaded" src="" sizes="(max-width: 2580px) 100vw, 2580px" srcset=" 2580w, 640w, 1320w, 1600w" alt="" width="2580" height="1720" data-src="" />
Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendumeaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

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Comment (1)


    The courage to withstand insult and develop a brand which explains the pride of turban of Sikhs is appreciable. The sikh man has given the people the way of surviving insults and developing insults into courage of appreciation by many

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