Kavneet Pannu knows children learn better by example than by being lectured, so when his sons, Karanveer and Sherveer (photographed with their dad, above), joined Cub Scouting, he signed on as a den dad. He later followed them into Boy Scouting, serving as an assistant Scoutmaster and now as a troop committee member.
But Pannu’s major impact has been felt far beyond Troop 48. A tireless advocate for interfaith understanding and respect, he spearheaded the creation of a series of five religious emblems (including one for adults) through the American Sikh Council. The awards were approved by the BSA in 2013, the same year he led the Sikh exhibit at the national jamboree. At that exhibit, 1,500 Scouts learned about the significance of turbans by learning to tie them — and to see past the headgear Sikhs wear as an expression of their faith.
How well do Scouting and Sikhism work together?
Our Divine Master had a very clear adage: A Sikh is supposed to be always prepared. Mentally and physically, you’ve got to be prepared. How do you do that? By training yourself — exactly what Scouting does. Be a good kid, do well in school, have great manners, always respect others, help others, always honor women, be physically fit, learn various skills, never fight with anyone except for pure self-defense, etc. How different is that from Scouting?
Are there religious restrictions (like Jewish dietary rules or Muslim prayer schedules) that affect Sikhs’ ability to participate in Scouting?
None, except we do not eat ritually cut meat like halal.
Yet you’ve had a hard time selling Scouting to your fellow Sikhs. Why?
I wish I could shake up the folks from my own faith so they understand how awesome Scouting is. Most have no clue that Scouting actually fits like a glove with all of our faith principles. The problem is that many within the Sikh community are busy trying to become financially stable, especially newer immigrants. What I’m trying to pitch to all Sikh Americans is: “This is how your kid’s going to be great. If he’s an Eagle Scout, it’s possible he’s going to get scholarships, he’s going to go to a better college, he’s going to get a leg up.” That seems to be working slowly.
How well were your sons accepted as the only Sikhs in their troop?
They never felt out of place. Scouting is such a great thing where kids see how cool the other kid is. If the other kid is fun, everything else doesn’t matter. Whether it’s skin color or turbans or whatever, it gets minimized. Scouting changes kids. They see the camaraderie; they see the respect; they see there’s something wholesome here. It’s just in the air. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Scouting should be lauded for that. If all children can be made into better human beings through this process of Scouting, wouldn’t this country be more wonderful and more humane?
The Jamboree exhibit seems to have been a big success. We had turbaned kids running up and down the slope playing Frisbee. The zip line was above us, and we could see turbans on the zip line. Some kids didn’t remove their turbans for two days because they thought it was the coolest thing.
It sounds like the interest went beyond tying turbans.
We had 200 to 250 Scouts at an open session about Sikhism, and not a single person walked away. Religion’s a boring subject, especially for kids. For kids to sit for 60 to 90 minutes to listen to someone so they could understand is just amazing.
No. Whoever wants to complete the workbook, we will give them a medallion and a certificate. That way, we create more education across the spectrum. When you go through any sixth-grade social-studies book, you’ll find Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, but there’s nothing in those books about the Sikh faith, even though Sikhs have been here since the late 19th century. Scouts who earn these awards will carry that information back to school and say, “We know who the Sikhs are; how come they’re not in the social-studies book?”
What would you like your legacy to be?
My children are going to ask questions like, “What did my dad do for me so I could live in this country and be a great person?” and “What did my parents do to pave a better path?” I want to leave a legacy where my kids are proud of what I did for them and others.
Fact Sheet: Kavneet Singh Pannu
Years as a Scout Volunteer: 12
Current City: Voorhees, N.J.
Current Positions: Committee member, Troop 48, Berlin, N.J.; merit badge counselor; member, National Religious Relationships Committee; chairman, Boy Scout Task Force for the American Sikh Council
Day Job: Small-business consultant
Most Satisfying Moments in Scouting: “Watching both of my children make Eagle and one also earn his Hornaday Award.”
Favorite Camp and Why: The Summit Bechtel Reserve, Mount Hope, W.Va. “The experience my kids had was phenomenal. It had all the activities a Scout can dream of and more, especially with Scouters leading and guiding them for an experience they will never forget.”