Part 1 – Sikh Book Club – Sikhs in Britain: From and Through Punjab

Coblogged: Jodha and Mewa Singh

First off, our sincere apologies.  Due to unforeseen circumstances, this could not be published on Monday.  The rest of the days will go along much better.  Also, bear with us as we will get better as we go along.  So Ji Aayan Nu and welcome to TLH’s 1st Book Club


The first chapter begins with a cursory summary of Sikh history.  As the authors note (and in this section you can hear Gurharpal Singh’s voice a little more prominently), much of this chapter was published in his earlier Ethnic Conflict in India.

Beginning with the Guru period, the authors note that migration is hardly a new phenomenon for the Sikhs, nor can it be said to merely be a colonial phenomenon.  Selectively touching upon aspects of Sikh history, the authors draw heavily from McCleod and Grewal as the more definitive accounts.  However some of the debates in the field are noted as contrary to McCleod’s position of Guru Nanak lying within a ‘Sant tradition familiar to north India’, Sikhs regard the founder of their faith as one that created a ‘new religion for a new age’ (12).

Most of the succeeding Gurus are not elaborated upon until we see a ‘transformation’ that began with Guru Hargobind and Guru Gobind Singh.  We then arrive at the polity of Sardar Ranjit Singh, where the authors see a “major change in the fortunes of the Sikh community as a whole.  From being primarily peasant cultivators, Sikhs came to represent over 50 percent of the ruling class and constituted more than half of the army” (14).  The authors also note that even in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century (prior to company and colonial rule), the doctrine of the Khalsa was already ‘better suited’ to the needs of the 18th and 19th centuries due to ‘ideas of equality, the need for mobility, and the requirements of guerilla warfare” (15).

During colonial rule we see special treatment of the Sikhs as well as religious revivalism through the Singh Sabha in order to “translate Sikhism culturally in order to withstand the colonial encounter.”  The Khalsa was to take a hegemonic role.

However all was not well with the Sikhs’ relationship with the British.  A ‘third Sikh war’ broke out as Sikhs began clamoring to control their own institutions.  In 1925, the colonial authorities conceded and we see the formation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbhandak Committee (SGPC) as the religious parliament of the Sikhs and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) as its political wing.  It is these two bodies that have become termed the ‘Sikh political system’.  [For a previous post on the relationship between the two, see here].

In an important section for the rest of the book, Gurharpal Singh discussed the major categories of the Sikhs – amritdharis as the core, a much larger section of keshadharis, an increasing number of mona Singhs, and the marginal sahajdhari section.

Partition saw dramatic effects in the political fortunes of the Sikhs.  From a marginal community (in terms of demography) in 1941 (Sikhs constituted 15% of Punjab), they constituted 35% in post-partition Punjab, to finally about 60% of the current population in the state of Punjab, following the Punjabi Subha movement.  However the new demographic majority and the new state has not appeased all, as the authors note as many Punjabi-speaking areas were excluded, Chandigarh and the vital river waters are to shared and under Government of India (GOI) control.

The next remarkable change occurs under the rubric of the ‘Green Revolution’ [see previous posts on the Green Revolution here, here, and here] during the 1960s and 1970s.  The introduction of high-yielding varieties of cereals saw a dramatic shift to a new model of farming.  Higher input costs led to higher yields, but at what cost?  It was during this period that we begin seeing a rapid shift in social relations and a rapidly increasing wealth differentiation between those families that had the capital to sustain the new form of farming and the downward poverty for those who could not.

It was against this backdrop that we see the SAD formulate the Sikh grievances in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (ASR).  While for SAD opportunists, the document may have merely been a rallying cry for political re-election, some parties that rallied behind the ASR were keen on its implementation.  One such faction was that led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.  Clashes soon broke out as the GOI attempted to assert its hegemonic use of violence against an increasingly independent movement.  A battle between the two forces occurred on June 5, 1984 [termed Operation Bluestar by the state, termed Ghallughara by the Sikh masses].

Political events continued at breakneck pace with retribution upon Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.  Her death was followed by ‘pogroms’ against the Sikhs in Delhi “in the full glare of the global media” (24).  Turmoil followed in Punjab that led to the GOI being able to violently reassert its writ by overwhelming force, including nearly 250,000 military and paramilitary personnel [this number does not include the Punjab Police force] and the deaths of 30,000 in Punjab, between 1984 and 1993 (24).

‘Normalcy’, in some frame of the term, returned in 1997 with the election of the SAD in a landslide victory after years of President’s Rule [martial law].  However, the SAD did little in terms of realizing any of the demands of the ASR and in 2002 the Congress Party defeated the SAD.  [Since then the SAD has returned to power].  The authors see that the SAD will remain a political force by its control of the ‘Sikh political system’ (25).

In concluding the first chapter, the authors quote the words of political scientist Paul Brass: Sikhs today have “succeeded in acquiring a high degree of internal social and political cohesion and subjective self-awareness” (25).  The formulation of this consciousness as a distinctive religious community is based on the foundations of the Sikh Gurus, but reached its climax under the impact of colonial modernity.  The further crystallization of this identity can be seen in the diaspora and because of the diaspora.  The diaspora has been the main driver of Sikh nationalism in the recent past, but the authors believe that it is at these sites that creative alternatives may also be found.

The second chapter, titled “Punjabi Society and Sikh Migration”, deals with the social structures left behind in Punjab and those reformulated and reconfigured in Britain.  It may be worthwhile to quote at length the authors, when they write:

Sikhism as a faith tradition was greatly influenced by the nature of Punjabi society.  While many aspects of Punjabi social structure and culture were receptive to Sikhism’s teachings, the new faith took root in an agrarian society that was very much part of the broader Indic tradition.  Sikh values with their special emphasis on equality, community and service have always nestled uncomfortably within broader Punjabi values.  Ethnicity and cultural tradition have often overshadowed them; sometimes, misleadingly, religion and culture have been conflated (26).

The authors deal with a number of cleavages, but caste seems to be the most manifest.  Caste sustains social hierarchy through endogamy.  The authors assert that it is this cleavage that pervades Sikh society and is the source of pluralism within the Qaum, not region, language, ethnicity, or class.

In rural Punjab, access and ownership to the most productive lands gave Jats a unique status vis-à-vis other caste groupings in the Punjabi village.  Through this social and economic pre-eminent position, they often controlled local and religious institutions.  Other caste groupings have had a remarkable amount of autonomy from the Jats in that their artisan skills have been in high demand (most notably in the case of Tarkhan-Ramgharia migration to East Africa).  The authors state that many artisan castes trace their lineage to key events and people in Sikh history and for some groups such as the Ramgharias, they have constructed a narrative of identity that combines caste and Sikh traditions, but distant from that of the Jats.

The so-called ‘low’ castes have often lived in segregated areas in villages and due to their vulnerable positions were most prone to economic, political and sexual exploitation by Jats.  Caste antagonisms reigned supreme and religion rarely mediated against these hierarchies.  Consequently these groups have asserted their cultural and religious autonomy as well.  However, the authors find that while the Ramgharias have done this with strict adherence to Sikh customs, other groups have done this by engaging and emphasizing heterodox practices which combine elements of Sikh tradition with reverence for Sants that championed the cause of so-called ‘lower’ castes.

In addition to caste, it is ‘social norms’ and ‘factions’ that are the most prominent features of the Punjabi village.  Social norms are especially related to concepts of family esteem that exists between a binary spectrum of izzat (prestige and honor) and behzti (dishonor).  Biradari (kinship) connections play a key role in developing a state-wide network based on mutual respect, obligations, and patterns of regular exchange.  However in a patriarchal agrarian society, izzat often mandates a woman’s place as confined to the home.  Social norms from the Punjabi village also prize power and wealth as values in and of themselves.  Domination and assertion of this power is greatly admired.

Factions amongst Jats in Punjab have been most studied by Joyce Pettigrew.  The faction, organized behind a ‘leader’, pervades all Sikh organizations – political, social, economic, religious, and cultural.  While the resources have changed from the Punjabi village to the diaspora, the same problematic organization system remains.  This is why unity and collaboration are so rare.

A useful table can be found on page 32, detailing the Global Sikh population circa 2005.  While the Sikh population in Punjab is about 14.6 million, the rest of India has about 5.3 million.  5% of the total Sikh population resides outside of the India and Punjab.  The UK has the largest total with about 340,000, followed by Canada with 280,000 and the US with 250,000.  Sizeable Sikh populations (those with 20,000+) also reside in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Phillippines.  The Gulf States in the Middle East due to various employment patterns and conflicts varies dramatically between 60,000 and 175,000.

The authors, next, chart out patterns of Sikh migration.  Various British colonies became areas of destination prior to WWII, but it is after WWII that we see a new set of push/pull factors into the UK.  The Nazi bombing of London during WWII created a massive demand for labor to rebuild Britain.  Public sector workers and even general unskilled labor were all actively encouraged.  Despite the need for labor, UK authorities still tried to create informal restrictions and control the numbering of issuing passports.  Sikhs have rarely let petty things as rules stand in their way for greener economic pastures and during the 1960s, many snuck into Pakistan and secured passports using Islamic names.

Of the various push factors, partition may have been the most significant.  It was out of this traumatic event that some have argued of the emergence of the “third Punjab” or “diaspora Punjab.”  Despite the number of different push factors, scholars have most focused on economic circumstances, especially those tied to the landholding patterns in the Doaba.  This small region in the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by small and uneconomic landholdings, a high population density, and few employment opportunities outside of agriculture.  Even today, marginal and poor farmers, most concentrated in Doaba are those most seeking to leave.

In addition to economic factors, the authors explore non-material reasons as well.  Even prominent Punjabi families have felt the need to create ‘foreign connections.’  With increasing immigration from states such as UP and Bihar into Punjab, foreign wealth and connections is an important way for status differentiation amongst native Punjabis and new immigrants.  An important note by the authors is that the Doaba has more travel agents per square mile than any other region in the world.

Next the authors hold a microscope to this Doabian migration and look for some of its distinctive features.  Doabians have been especially adept at developing survival strategies to compliment meager landholdings.  Migration to Canal colonies, recruitment into the army, educational investment, and securing government appointments have all been part of their repertory.  Migration from Doaba must be viewed locally, as a few barapinds (large villages) have been transplanted overseas en bloc.  It is these migrants that have created the networks for their kith and kin to follow.

Links with their ancestral villages have been maintained through founding of village associations, mobilizing resources for social and religious institutions such as schools, hospitals, and Gurdwaras.  The authors quote Phulkari’s favorite, Bruce La Brack, in noting “the Punjab village remains the psychological ‘homebase’, even if ‘home’ is England, Canada, or the United States” (40).

The last note of distinctly Doabian features is its high proportion of so-called ‘low’ castes.  While in many ways their migration has mirrored those other Sikhs, the authors note of some differences as many of the earlier settlers were the sons of well-educated Dalits, who sought to escape the stigmatization a caste-conscious society.  Unfortunately, “the fraught caste relations of the Punjabi village were thus transferred to the British foundry, the pub, and even the school playground” (41).

Thus while Sikhism as a faith has defined our outlook and behavior, it is important to note that this outlook has been mediated by the everyday experience of Punjabi society that remains overwhelmingly “traditional, patriarchal, conservative, and hierarchically structured by caste” (42).  How subsequent generations in the diaspora respond, reconfigure, and reformulates this is still unknown.  However, the authors note that while at one time, agriculture was joked about as the Sikhs’ only culture, for now, it seems it is only migration.


We’ll leave the floor open for 24-36 hours to allow free comments and then we’ll pose some of our own thoughts and questions.  Also comment on the format, too lengthy, too short, just right?

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3 Responses to “Part 1 – Sikh Book Club – Sikhs in Britain: From and Through Punjab”

  1. […] has been nearly four years since we last attempted this.  Back then, we attempted TLH’s very first book […]