The Dynamics of Sikh Diaspora since Independence-1


South Asia Post: Issue 31 Vol II, January 15, 2007


“Before examining the complex contours of the Sikh Diaspora, it may be noted that the overall Indian Diaspora has been estimated at over 25 million – an unconfirmed source has put the number of Sikhs abroad to be around 3.7 million – is spread across more than 110 countries. The Indian Diaspora has certainly emerged, in the recent years, as a significant economic, social and cultural force in the world. P.M. Manmohan Singh has stated that  “the NRIs’ remittances – over 20 billion annually - with the significant proportion from the Gulf – has been an important factor in keeping the country’s current account deficit in the balance of payments in a zone of comfort”, adding that, “the largest single item of our export basket is the remittances sent back home by workers in the foreign countries”.

[South Asia Post is happy to publish the synopsis in two parts of the  “Sixth Bhai Chanan Singh Memorial Lecture” on ‘The Dynamics of Sikh Diaspora since Independence’ delivered by Ambassador Bal Anand, IFS (Retd.) on 9th Nov. 2006, at Bhai Vir Singh Sahyat Sadan, New Delhi.]

When I was sounded some time back by Dr Mahinder Singh, Director Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan for the topic of lecture this evening - at the subtle suggestions of Prof. Pritam Singh - I remained at a loss for quite many days as to what aspect of Sikhs and their Faith I was qualified and confident to speak of. The task compelled me to examine critically (Plato said, “an unexamined life is not worth living”) all those years of my own life among the Sikhs in Punjab. I had an acute consciousness and even trepidation of being the first non-academician and a Punjabi to the very core of my being who even contests the credentials of being described as a ‘non-Sikh’. I could arrive on the topic of Sikh Diaspora with a clear thinking that I have personally experienced many of the plus and minus elements of being away from ‘home’, totaling a period of more than 26 years during my career in the Foreign Service. When I broached the subject with an old schoolmate, he remarked that the word ‘Diaspora’ sounds so closer to, ‘Des Parayia’!  To quote Gurubani, ‘Man pardesi je thiye, sabh des parayia ‘ i.e., ‘if the heart does not feel at home, every place is a foreign land’.

Although it has currently become a popularly used coinage of a word in the global market of discussions of academicians of diverse disciplines, the term “Diaspora”, is an ancient word, etymologically derived from the Greek Diasperien, from dia meaning “across” and sperien “to sow or scatter seeds”. The Greek translations of Hebrew Scriptures, explicitly intended it for the Hellenic Jewish communities in Alexandria (circa 3rd century BCE) to describe the Jews living in exile from the homeland of Palestine. The “Diaspora” had, therefore, a definite religious overtone in the medieval rabbinical writings to describe the plight of Jews living outside of Palestine. No surprise, a perceptive reviewer of, ‘The Sikh Diaspora’.  The Search for Statehood by Dr. Darshan Singh Tatla, has taken a quiet serious view in asserting and, I quote “the very title of this book evokes, a heart-rending dilemma…the term “Diaspora” brings to mind the Jewish plight whereby the community dispersed throughout the world after being let loose from Babylonian bondage. Sikhs have suffered no such enforced dispersal.” The reviewer could indeed be quite correct – if the Partition of India, which drove out hundreds and thousands of Hindus and Sikhs from their historical homeland, is accepted.  The other early historical reference is the Black African Diaspora, beginning in the 16th century with the slave trade, forcibly exporting as many as 12 million West Africans into slavery and exile.

It is extremely interesting to note that during the period of almost three decades of Independence, the Government and the people of India had entertained a somewhat dim view of the Indians living abroad.  The perceptions and general impressions started radically changing some time in 70s and early 80s with the success stories of many Indians residing abroad. It was asked whether their achievements abroad can be replicated back home particularly when India was embarking on the 21st century under the youthful leadership of Rajiv Gandhi, who became a personal icon of India aspiring to be a significant world player, powered by science and technology.  The coming to power of the Bartiya Janata Party under the leadership of Shri A.B. Vajpai started the unfolding of the long prepared agenda of the party to attract the Indian Diaspora to be a partner in the overall development plans of the country. The report of the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora headed by Dr. L.M. Singhvi, presented in Dec. 2-001, quickly became the blueprint and the framework of reference for a comprehensive plan of action for the engagement of Indian Diaspora with the motherland.

The specific subject of Sikh Diaspora would require carefully analysing and understanding as the concentric circle in the overarching larger circles of the Indian Diaspora and the Punjabi Diaspora respectively. There is, of course, no denying the fact that the ‘Kesdhari Sikhs’, preserving the symbols of the five K’s have been facing extra impediments in their professional and personal life. In terms of country-wise analysis, it would appear to be appropriate to start with the Indian Diaspora community in Britain, which could be considered representing the diversity of India and the unique historical linkage between the two countries. The religious break down of the Indian population, though problematic to calculate, is an important aspect underlining the culture and the language of the various groups. Obviously, those categorized, as Hindus are the largest group followed by the Sikhs – it is pointed out that while the Sikh population in India is fewer than 2% estimates of Sikhs as a proportion of Indians in Britain are put at more than a third. The Sikhs having no qualifications are accounted to be 20% while the figures for Hindus is 15% and for Muslims 33%. The figures for ownership of housing are indeed impressive for the Sikhs, who are U.K’s top house-owner; 8 out of 10 Sikhs are likely to own a house, considered the basic symbol of prosperity. The Sikh Gurdwaras – since the opening of the first in 1911, the number has reached more than 200 – are spread out in length and breadth of Britain and have become the centres of many positive and some controversial activities of the community. In what could be termed a total contradiction of the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, there are caste-oriented Gurdwaras and a significant number of them are controlled by the elements rejected by the mainstream Sikh community.

[The text of the lecture is available at the web log of Ambassador Anand]

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