Saturday, September 16, 2000

Punjabis in
By S.J.S. Pall

Australia, though a continent in itself, is sparsely populated. The Aborigines have always been very small in number. It was in the last decade of the 18th century that the British started sending convicts to this land as a part of their punishment. Some of the prisoners, even after the completion of their sentence, stayed back in Australia. Gradually, the Aborigines were pushed into insignificance. When the number of Britishers increased in Australia, some people from other countries also started coming in. The Indians started going to Australia as domestic help of the British in the second quarter of the 19th century. There are a few books, articles and research theses available which shed light on the pioneers who came from India.

According to these texts, between 1840 and 1850 a few Indians worked in the fields as labourers or as shepherds. But it cannot be said as to how many Punjabis were there at that time. However, when the Australians started transporting wool in 1860 from one part of the country to the other on camels, the caravans definitely included Sikhs and Pathans from frontier area (now in Pakistan). Since Sikhs are the only class of people who can be easily identified as Indians in a foreign country, it can be said that Sikhs were perhaps the first among the Punjabis who came to Australia. One of the notable books written on Sikhs in Australia by S. Rajinder Singh Gabbi says on the basis of various records like wills, death records, immigration records etc that there were about a 100 Sikhs in the Ricmond River area in 1890. There were around 150 Sikhs in the area of New South Wales, particularly Sydney and New Castle. In 1901, the White policy was promulgated and discrimination against the non Whites started. It was during this period that the Asians had to move from one state to another in search of work. The Punjabis labour, although very hard-working, also became a victim of such discrimination and the Sikhs among the Punjabis were the worst-hit. When the Asians were prevented from bringing their families, many Indians, including Punjabis, had to leave Australia.


According to official records, the Punjabis in Australia, particularly the Sikhs, alongwith Chinese, Afghans and Syrians were working as hawkers around 1920. From 1940 to 1950, a number of Punjabis had purchased agricultural land and started farming potatoes, maize, sugarcane etc. The area of Lismour was inhabited by a number of such Punajbis.

The Australians came into close contact with the Punjabis during the Second World War when they had to fight together in various battles. The Sikh Regiment and the Australian Diggers fought at the famous battle of Gallipoly and at various other places in France, North Africa and Greece. A number of wounded Punjabis were admitted to Australian hospitals. Thereafter, the number of Punjabis increased in various parts of Australia. In 1950, when the Colombo Plan was introduced, many Indians students entered the Land of Kangaroos.

The number Punjabis entering Australia increased dramatically during the 80s and the 90s. In 1996, according to the census report, around 10,000 people had indicated Punjabi as the language being spoken by them in their houses. It may be mentioned here that the Punjabis settled in Australia are not only from India but are also migrants from Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Fiji, New Zealand, Africa, England, America and Canada.

The Punjabis settled in Australia are very well -to- do people. They hold prominent positions in various government departments, like the police, Customs, taxation, jails etc. A number of Punjabis are working in the railways as drivers and guards. Besides, they are doctors, advocates, accountants and engineers.. Although a number of Punjabis are holding prominent positions in companies, they are not given top positions like all other non-Australians. This is despite the fact that legally there is no discrimination policy now.

Gurdwaras have been built in almost every part of Australia. The highest concentration of Punjabis is in the province of New South Wales. Sydney is the most notable in this regard. In Melbourne also the number of Punjabis is quite significant. In Sydney alone, there are four gurdwaras where congregations are held on every Saturday and Sunday. The clergymen appointed here are highly educated and well-versed in the recitation of Gurbani and other religious texts. There are private radio stations which broadcast programmes in Punjabi on specified days. On state TV and radio also, Punjabi programmes are broadcast off and on.

Punjabis in Australia are doing well in the business of cloth, eatables and engineering goods. Punjabi dhabas and restaurants can be seen in a good number of towns in Australia. Punjabi Hindus are mostly settled in towns like Sydney and Melbourne. However, a good number of Punjabi Sikhs inhabit the rural areas like Woolgolga, Murwillumbah, Griffith, Cairns, Gordonvale, Townville, Shepparton etc. A visit to Woolgolga takes one to a Punjabi village where a high percentage of population is of Sikhs. But despite a good population of Punjabis in these areas, they have not yet entered the political field as in England and Canada.