Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast

Report on the International Conference on the Sikh Diaspora, April 21-22, 2001, University of California, Santa Barbara

[Report written by Shinder S Thandi, Visiting Professor in Global Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA]

The Sikh community, now numbering around 20 million, is scattered across the globe. Whilst the majority of Sikhs still reside in the Punjab there has an outward migration to most areas of the world over the past 500 years. Sikh settlements outside Punjab started in the sixteenth century and accelerated during the second half of the nineteenth century after the annexation of Punjab in 1849 and increased army recruitment of the Sikhs to the British Indian army. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century Sikhs had started migrating in significant numbers to as faraway places as Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and to the southeast Asian countries of Singapore and Malaysia. By the beginning of this century, they had started arriving on the Pacific coast of North America until the Immigration laws and the Komagatu maru affair curtailed their further migration. There was also a sizable movement of Sikhs to east Africa, recruited to help develop the railway and road infrastructure. Later, as immigration laws were relaxed and as demand for labor increased during the post-war boom periods, Sikhs began to settle in large numbers in Europe and North America.

Despite this presence of Sikhs communities in foreign lands for well over a century, no serious attempt has been made to trace their evolution and development outside Punjab and India. Further, there is little documented knowledge about their struggles and achievements and the challenges they faced in transmitting their heritage, tradition and group consciousness to the younger generations in environments that were usually very hostile. It was because of these apparent gaps in the historiography of overseas based Sikhs that scholars associated with the Sikh Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), decided to dedicate their second international conference on Sikh Studies to the theme of the Sikh Diaspora.

Professor Gurinder Singh Mann

The conference was organized by Professor Gurinder Singh Mann who holds the Kundan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies at UCSB. Professor Mann has been the driving force behind raising the profile of Sikh Studies in North America over the past ten years and has been instrumental in nurturing a critical mass of young scholars who, he hopes, will carry the beacon forward for the benefit of future generations. The funding for the conference was provided by the proceeds from the Kudan Kaur Kapany Chair in Sikh Studies and the program in Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Professor Mark Juergensmeyer

The two-day conference theme was divided into two distinct themes. The first day focused on the histories of the Sikh diaspora whereas the second looked at the cultural representations in the Sikh diaspora. Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, Director of the Global and International Studies program at UCSB, an early pioneer in the promotion of Sikh Studies in North America and proactive in the establishment of the Chair at Santa Barbara, opened the conference, welcomed the delegates and shared a personal narrative of the events that first aroused his interest in Sikh/Punjab studies when he was a young graduate student at Berkeley. He recalled how he was presented with a totally unexpected but a fortunate opportunity to examine and document discarded records of the Ghadrite movement. This experience was enough for him to pursue some of the issues further especially as they related to the Indian nationalist discourse and the religious and social movements in the Punjab.

Professor Mann

Professor Mann, in his introductory remarks in welcoming delegates, reminded them to focus on a century of migration, the long period of suffering and struggles, but more importantly, on the achievements of the Sikh community. He emphasized that it was time to move away from formulations that led to perceptions of the diaspora Sikhs as victims or marginalized exiles as the community had now matured to a stage where the diasporic experience needed to be celebrated. He gave a number of examples of countries across the globe where Sikhs held very responsible positions and were in playing an influential role in decision-making in their adopted homes.

Professor J.S. Grewel

The first morning session, chaired by the distinguished scholar, Ainslee T Embree, of Columbia University, started with a paper by the eminent historian of Sikh history, Professor J. S. Grewal, former Vice Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, Punjab. Professor Grewal made an original attempt to explain the emergence of Sikhs communities in the different parts of the Mughal Punjab and other regions of India from about 1500 to 1850. The development of these communities was closely associated with the travels of the Gurus and their disciples. By careful reading of the Janamsakhis and other rare documents such as the Dabistan and early Hukumnamas, he explained the spread of Sikhs, especially as traders, as far away as Dacca to the east and to the Northwest Frontier to the west. By the close of the nineteenth century Sikh communities had been established in large numbers in Kolkata, Hydrabad, Sind and the Bombay Provinces.

Professor Indu Banga

The second paper was presented by Professor Indu Banga, an established historian based at Punjab University, Chandigarh. Her paper covered the crucial period 1850 to 1950 during which we see large-scale movement of Sikhs outside the Punjab. In a meticulously detailed paper she parodied Sikh migration into three main geographical locations: the early South Pacific phase, the second North American phase and the more recent post-war European and North American phase. Although she emphasized the importance of both the push and pull pressures generating both internal and overseas migration, her focus was mainly on the former. She explained how changing agrarian fortunes, land rights legislation, British colonial labor policy including army recruitment, were important determinants. She also gave specific reasons why Sikh overseas migration was particularly concentrated in the doaba region of Punjab.

Professor Hew McLeod

The morning session also included case studies of pioneer Sikhs in Australia and New Zealand and a profile of the contemporary Sikh community in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. Professor Hew McLeod, a highly respected historian of the Sikh tradition, traced the evolution of the Sikh communities in Australia and New Zealand from the 1880s onwards until, migration was restricted through legislation in the early 1920s. His main focus was on the New Zealand community, which he had researched over a long period. He described the main forms of their economic activities, especially their involvement in agricultural and dairy farming and their early attempts at institution building. Professor McLeod paid particular attention to the existence of differential relations of the Sikhs with the Pukihar (New Zealanders of European decent) and indigenous Maori communities.

Gurdit Singh

Gurdit Singh, a young doctoral scholar based in Sociology at UCSB, made a visual presentation on the minority Sikh community in the North West Frontier Province. Through his slides he traced the evolution of the community, their geographical concentration and socio-economic well-being. He particularly emphasized the challenges facing the community in maintaining and transmitting Sikh tradition within a dominant Islamic culture.

Professor Shinder S. Thandi

The afternoon session, chaired by Professor John S. Hawley of Columbia University, included four papers on Europe and North America where an overwhelming majority of the Sikhs outside India resides. Shinder S Thandi, founder Editor of the International Journal of Punjab Studies and currently a Visiting Professor in Global and International Studies at UCSB, provided an overview of the settlement, struggles and achievements of the Sikh community in Europe. Focusing mainly on the Sikh experience in Britain (where the community numbers around 400,000) he particularly emphasized the protracted struggles of Sikhs during the 1960s and 1970s to gain economic, cultural and social space. By the 1990s however, the Sikhs community had developed confidence and maturity, was becoming more visible in the civic, political, social and economic life of Britain and was now able to assert and celebrate their cultural identity.

Professor Hugh Johnston

Professor Hugh Johnston, a well-known historian of Sikh history from Simon Fraser University, Canada, focussed on the pioneer Canadian Sikhs, their struggles in building institutions and overcoming hostile and racist sentiments, especially harsh immigration controls in the earlier part of this century. He recalled the Komagatu maru incident and the important role this has played in the psyche of Canadian Sikhs since then.

Professor Jane Singh

Professor Jane Singh of University of California, Berkeley, continued this theme of struggle when she provided a lucid and detailed account of the early Sikh pioneers in California, USA, in the first two decades of this century. Professor Singh, who has previously undertaken path-breaking research on the Ghadrites, emphasized three main areas for special consideration: the early settlement period and material conditions of pioneer Sikhs; role of US public policy and how this hampered activity of minorities like the Sikhs; and the emergence of a strong sense of ethnic consciousness.

Professor Constance M. Elsberg

The fourth and final paper of the afternoon session was presented by Professor Constance M. Elsberg, a sociologist from North Virginia College, Virginia. Her focus was on non-Punjabi Sikhs (gora Sikhs) in the West with a particular focus on the 3HO movement. Professor Elsberg traced the history of the Happy, Holy, Healthy organization (3HO) to the new religious (counter-culture) movements that began in the 1960s and 1970s on university campuses across America. By the late 1960s Harbhajan Singh Yogi had entered the stage and the movement began to take on a distinct Sikh tradition orientation focusing on aspects of tantric yoga. Although the community of followers grew quickly, by the late 1990s it appeared to be running out of steam both due to internal organizational problems and difficulties in sustaining the movements popularity with the offspring of the earlier members.

Dr. Bhagan Singh

The second day of the conference was devoted to examining the cultural representations in the Sikh diaspora. The morning session, chaired by Professor Thomas R. Metcalf of the University of California, Berkeley, included five papers, which focused on aspects of education, art and music in the diaspora. The first paper was presented by Dr. Bhajan Singh, an educational practitioner from Singapore. In a hugely applauded multi-media presentation, Bhajan Singh talked about meeting challenges of cultural transmission among the Thai and Singapore Sikh youth. He explained the philosophy behind their Sikh education model, the careful selection and production of course materials and their delivery. Their model had proved to be a success with 2,000 children currently going through the education program in Singapore alone. The model was now also successfully being delivered in the two other countries with major Sikh settlement in the region: Thailand and Malaysia.

Suzanne McMahon

The next speaker, Suzanne McMahon, South Asian Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, provided details of her involvement in developing archival material (including the infamous Ghadar collection) which is now available to researchers on the Sikh and South Asian diaspora both at Berkeley and other University of California libraries. She explained that a lot of financial resources had been committed to collecting and preserving valuable records of individuals, of family and of localized histories of the earlier migrants. A large part of these resources were now available in digital form. She also provided details of the forthcoming exhibition she was helping to organize on early pioneers entitled Echoes of Freedom.

Susan Stronge

The third paper was presented by Susan Stronge, Curator of South Asian Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Susan Stronge had been instrumental in organizing the hugely successful exhibition on The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms at the V&A in 1999. She had also edited the accompanying book to the exhibition which gave more detailed information on the items in the exhibition, their significance and their current condition and location. In her presentation, she discussed the difficulties in gathering the material, the selection and omission of artifacts to exhibit and the cultural and educational program which complimented the exhibition.

Amrita & Rabindra Kaur Singh

The fourth paper of the morning session was delivered by the Sikh artist twins Amrita and Rabindra Kaur Singh from the UK entitled Twin Dialogue: Our Art. Born and educated in Merseyside in northern England, the twins first became interested in their own heritage after a visit to Punjab in 1980. At University they decided to develop their own distinct style, first imitating the Mughal miniature paintings and then borrowing on styles depicted within the Sikh tradition. They explained that a crucial factor in their decision to concentrate on their own heritage reflected a rebellion very much against the pressure that white teachers had exerted on them to develop a European style. Thus, their approach was to directly confront the euro-centrism inherent in the British art curriculum. Through a slide show of some of their paintings, they demonstrated the development of their own unique style, which reflected their own personal experiences of growing up in Britain as young British Sikhs.

Gibb Schreffler

The final paper of the morning was delivered by Gibb Schreffler, a doctoral student working on Bhangra music in the Department of Music at UCSB. In a paper entitled British Bhangra Music in the 1980s, Schreffler traced the history of early Bhangra groups like Alaap and Premi and the changing musical forms and their deviation from traditional Punjabi music. He argued, using pictures and sound recordings, that the 1980s Bhangra music had a very distinct Britishness about it and it was more geared for disco dancing than drawing from the traditional Punjab folk dance. The boy bands proliferated in the 1980s but later also began to fragment and then to lose appeal towards the end of the decade. British Bhangra had to be re-invented in the early 1990s.

Amarjit Chandan

The afternoon session was chaired by Profesor Nirvikar Singh, from the Economics department, University of California, Santa Cruz. This final session included three papers on Punjabi Literature in the diaspora. Amarjit Chandan from London, author of several books of Punjabi poetry, read his paper on the state of Punjabi literature in England. He argues that Punjabi literature flourished up to the 1980s but since then there has seen a slow decline. This, he argued was related both to the declining use of Punjabi language by new writers and because of lower levels of literacy and proficiency in Punjabi language amongst the second-generation migrants. He finished his session with a recitation of several of his poems in Punjabi that emotionally moved the audience.

Sadhu Binning

Sadhu Binning, of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada presented the second paper. In contrast to the pessimistic scenario of the British case presented by Amarjit Chandan, Binning described the Punjabi Canadian literary scene as flourishing and vibrant. He disclosed that there were now about 150 writers in Canada publishing literature and poetry in Punjabi and this has resulted in an output of around 125 books since the 1960s. However, Binning painted a very grim picture of the status of Punjabi literature both within the Sikh community and mainstream literary circles. In the former, there was a distinct lack of interest in reading this literature and in the case of the latter, there was no acknowledgement or recognition of this literature despite the fact that most of the literature was very much focused on the Canadian social condition.

Ajmer Rode

Ajmer Rode, award-winning author of eleven book of Punjabi poetry, was the final speaker. He is also based in Vancouver, Canada. Rode repeated many of the concerns of Binning especially relating to the perceptions of inferior status of Punjabi literature. He pointed out that it was indeed a paradoxical situation where the universities in Punjab had recognized their literature by including their books in the Punjabi literature curriculum, the Sikh and the mainstream community in Canada had failed to recognize this literary contribution. By popular request both the latter speakers also recited some of their Punjabi poetry.

This conference was a very rewarding and enriching experience. By focusing on histories of the diaspora on the first day and recalling the lived experiences of the diaspora in the second, the conference organizers had provided the audience with plenty of food for thought. The conference not only highlighted the commonalties in early migratory experiences but also provided interesting insights into comparative experiences of Sikh diaspora communities. Over the two days, the conference demonstrated the strengths of the Sikh community to pull together in conditions of adversity, to excel in conditions where equal opportunities are guaranteed, to nurture and transmit cultural heritage against overwhelming pressures and to celebrate success with vigor and candor which remains the envy of another Indian diaspora communities. The organizers must be congratulated on the success of the conference and urged to make such conferences more frequent events.

Contact T.S. Sibia
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