The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

The many faces of Sikh diaspora
Roopinder Singh

The Global Indian: The Rise of Sikhs Abroad
by Gurmukh Singh, Rupa, New Delhi. Pages 289. Rs 2,500.

The Global Indian: The Rise of Sikhs AbroadTHE movement of Punjabis from what was the land of five rivers began after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death. Sikhs became an important part of the British Army and this took them to the southeastern parts of the Asian continent, and then to Britain, the US and eventually the whole world.

The outgoing, free-spirited and enterprising sons of Punjab have now become omnipresent internationally and it would be hard to find a country they have not made home.

Attempting to put together the luminaries of the Sikh diaspora is not an easy task. This coffee-table guide to prominent Sikhs in various parts of the world has long been in the making and as one goes though it, the hard work is obvious. It has rightly been divided into various sections—Britain, Europe, Canada, America, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and East Africa.

Britain: Starting with Maharaja Duleep Singh, the Sikh saga in the UK is post-1849. They have become Lords of the Realm (Lord Tarsem Singh), have dispensed justice (Judge Mota Singh) and ruled the airwaves (Kailash Puri). A person like Bir Singh Mahajan, who has been umpiring at Wimbledon, is a constant visible symbol of the multi-faceted Sikh presence in the UK. Punjab entertainers—singers, filmmakers and scriptwriters—who also have a tremendous impact, are shown in large numbers. Major migration to Britain took place after Indians were displaced from Africa in the 1970s.


Europe does not have the numbers, but it too has a visible presence. They range from a few in the Scandinavian nations to the recent flood in Italy. Yet they are there and highly visible, helped in no small measure by various UN organisations in Switzerland. The section on Europe mentions my friends Rajvinder Singh and Amrita Cheema, as well as the veteran European Sohan Aadri, an artist from Copenhagen, and the Paris-based Unesco legend Madanjeet Singh. Neena Gill, the first woman MP of Indian origin in the West, is also featured.

Canada is more Punjabi than Punjab in many ways, with the language being taught at school level too, but it has been a long struggle to be accepted, to do well and to assert the community’s identity. Sikhs went to Canada as immigrants who were selected largely on the basis of their physical attributes, and even today you have the physically empowered Tiger Jeet Singh and his son Tiger Ali Singh, both of the World Wrestling Federation fame. Sikh immigrants started as lumberjacks. However, one of the enduring images I have in my mind is of three-piece-suit clad, fob-watch-wearing Sikhs walking down a street in Canada at the turn of the last century. Now you have top political leaders, including Ujjal Dosanjh, who became the first coloured premier of British Columbia.

Indian immigrants were not allowed to own land in the US during the early 1900s when they first established a bridgehead in California. The Sikhs married Mexican women and bought land in their name. They also established a gurdwara in Stockton in 1912. During WW-I, Bhagat Singh Thind served in the US Army, but was not allowed to become a US citizen. He battled against bigotry and stayed on, as did Dalip Singh Saund, who became, in 1956, the first Asian Congressman, and headed the prestigious Foreign Affairs Committee.

Today, Indian achievers are the norm—practising physicians like Amarjit Singh Marwaha, Manjit Singh Bains, Rajwant Singh, academically-inclined ones like I. J. Singh, and Bhai Harbans Lal and academics like Gurinder Singh Mann, Mrigendra Singh and Pashaura Singh. IT has its stars— Narinder Singh Kapany, father of fibre optics, Sanjeev Sidhu and Kanwal Rekhi. Then you have Yogi Harbhajan Singh, who has converted many Americans to Sikhism. Incidentally, his wife, Inderjit Kaur, is much more than just Mrs Yogi. Her full name is not mentioned. Women might rightfully have a grouse. Satwant K. Dhamoon, New York’s famous gynaecologist, does not find mention. Neither does Jane Singh, one of the early chroniclers of the Sikh disapora, though IT millionarie Kavelle Bajaj does.

Overall, Sikh women achievers are under-represented in the book, as are sportspersons. Sikh sportspersons, men and women, have represented Kenya, Uganda, Great Britain and New Zealand in hockey and they should have been highlighted. The reader looks in vain for Alexi Grewal, who won the Gold for the USA in 1984 Olympics, and Ranjit Grewal, who represented the UK in the same Olympics.

In any work of this kind, selection is always a major issue, as is space (which prevents this reviewer from discussing the South-East Asian and Australian sections in detail). However, one wishes that the history and the experiences that shaped the Sikh diasproa were discussed in greater detail. Thus, Kenya’s Makindo gurdwara’s rediscovery, how it had been maintained by a Punjabi-speaking Masai Black before it was rebuilt, is a fascinating story, but one a reader is deprived of.

Seeing this well-produced book, one appreciates the work that must have gone in it. It will find a place on many bookshelves in spite of its price. It is visually rich, with photos on every other page. It marks the faces and personalities of important persons from a dynamic community in transit. However, an index would have been handy.

Reading this book brings to mind others in the genre—Rozina Visram’s Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (1986), Darshan Singh Tatla’s Sikhs in North America: An Annotated Bibliography (1991), Marie de Lepervanche’s Indians in White Australia (1984) and Hew McLeod’s Punjabis in New Zealand: A History of Punjabi Migration 1890-1940. (1986). Gurmukh Singh’s conclusion focuses on the future, which definitely will throw up more people who will carry forward the good work.