Sikh pilgrim at the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) in Amritsar, India. ⓒPaulrudd
Religion has played a big part in my life. I come from a practicing Sikh family and I feel that I belong to a nationwide and yet close-knit community. As I grew older, I found that this community was but a small part of a global one, united by faith. In 500 years since its origin, Sikhism has spread around the world and is now practiced by 30 million people worldwide. I will explore how this spread occurred, both through the macro-level history and by some of the personal stories contained within those statistics.
From 1500, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first Sikh Guru (teacher), travelled across Asia west of the Himalayas for 24 years spreading his teachings. Despite its origins on the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan in particular had many converts; their Sikh population later expanded during the Sikh Empire (1799-1849), and to this day there is a significant Afghan Sikh population. Despite the common perception of diasporas as being exclusively migration-based, this was in fact a diaspora of conversion. From an early age, the religion was mobile.
Said Sikh Empire was another great factor in spreading the religion. Guru Gobind Singh Ji (1666-1708), the tenth and last guru, militarised the religion to fight the Mughal Empire that ruled India. After a century of conflict, the Sikh Empire was established in 1799, covering all of Punjab and much of the surrounding area. This facilitated easy migration of Sikhs within the Empire’s borders, spreading the religion’s influence. The Empire ended with the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-1849), after which the British East India Company took complete control of India.
As an aside, the ruler of the Sikh Empire at the time was Maharaja Duleep Singh, who had taken his position in 1843 at 5 years old. After the loss of the war, he was taken to the UK where he became a favourite of Queen Victoria’s. Two of his sons from his first marriage attended Eton College and there is a memorial to his son Frederick outside of the Drawing Schools, pictured below.
During its 50 years of eminence, trading with neighbouring regions, such as Afghanistan created wealth within the empire, but, more importantly for the diaspora, added to the Sikh population. Even in the 1970s, there were between 200,000 and 500,000 Afghan Sikhs, which reflected the influence of both the Sikh Empire and Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s 16th Century travels – though this population has since decreased.
Britain ruled India until 1947, when India gained independence and the catastrophic Partition of India followed. Punjab, the origin of Sikhism, was particularly affected, divided in two between India and Pakistan. At this time, many Sikhs still lived in Punjab due to the religion’s origins and imperial past there. However, those living on the Pakistani side of the border were forced to migrate east after Lord Mountbatten’s announcement on 3 June 1947, creating shock, panic and fear. The 15-million-strong forced migration, of Sikhs and Hindus eastwards to India and Muslims east and westwards to West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), resulted in horrendous bloodshed: 2 million died. As a result, the majority of Punjabi Sikhs reside in India. A Sikh population remains in Pakistan, but the pre-partition number of 2 million has fallen closer to 20,000 – a 99% decline.
‘Viceroy’s House’ is an excellent film that displays the reality of the social panic at that time, which all interested should watch.
Unfortunately, the partition meant that many Sikhs have been cut off from their heritage, as many of the most sacred Gurdwaras (Sikh temples), such as Kartarpur Sahib and Nankana Sahib in northeast Punjab (the birthplace of Guru Nanak Dev Ji), were placed in Pakistan. Therefore, the Pakistani government grant permission to Sikhs worldwide twice a year to visit these Gurdwaras. My maternal grandmother made this spiritual pilgrimage in 2017.
The below video is recommended to those who want to understand more about Sikhism in Pakistan, especially relating to pilgrimages to Nankana Sahib and other important Gurdwaras.
The diaspora was already growing before external interference. However, the British Empire introduced the possibility of international migration, and so an international diaspora. People were effectively supplies who could be shipped from country to country whilst still being under control of one empire. Being able to speak English, Sikhs and many other Indians became valuable assets to the British Empire.
There were a few countries in particular which saw an influx of Sikh migrants due to colonisation; of the 12 countries outside India with the highest estimated Sikh populations, only three cannot be directly explained by British colonialism. For the sake of brevity, only two will be explored in depth.
|Country||Sikh Population||% of global Sikhs|
|7||Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania||50,000-100,000||0.21%-0.42%|
Malaysia was one such destination for the diaspora. The very first, albeit small-scale and forced, Sikh migration was that of political prisoners sent to Malaysia for anti-British involvement in 1849 during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. From 1865, this movement became more substantial. The British respected the military capabilities of Sikhs, particularly those who had fought for the old Sikh Empire; thus, they were integrated into British armed forces and sent across the Empire. For this reason, many Sikhs who migrated to Malaysia were policemen or soldiers. Today, more than 100,000 Sikhs live in Malaysia (out of a total population of 32 million). Even in a Muslim-majority country, there are over 100 Gurdwaras, showing the lasting effects of this historical migration.
Another country where British colonialism created a large Sikh diaspora was Uganda. In 1895, the construction contract for the Uganda Railway was sold an Indian agent, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee. He sourced his workforce for the project of over 30,000 indentured labourers from Punjab, and so many Sikhs were included in this number. Even after completion, which took 6 years, many Indians chose to remain in Uganda.
Until the 1970s, the diaspora had peacefully coexisted with Uganda’s native population. However, the brutal despot Idi Amin seized power in January 1971 via a military coup. One of the scapegoats he used to gain popular support was the Indian population, which he claimed was ‘milking Uganda’s money’. As a result, he ordered the expulsion of the Asians in Uganda: 50,000 of the 80,000 population were forced to leave in only a few weeks. He explains his reasoning here. This documentary really captures the urgency of the situation and one can see many Sikhs, easily identified by their Turbans, rushing to find a way out of the country.
These refugees from Uganda only spread the Sikh diaspora further. 6,000 moved to Canada while 27,000 took up residence in the UK – this was greatly because many Punjabi people had British passports due to the Empire’s colonisation which made this unplanned migration just that little bit easier. While religion-specific statistics are not readily available, as most Punjabi migrants were recorded as such, not as ‘Sikh’ or ‘Hindu’, it can be assumed a significant proportion were Sikhs.
My Grandparents’ Experience
Objective information about the Sikh diaspora’s significance may not help us genuinely appreciate it. The unique stories of my four grandparents and how they each came to the UK, outlined below, can hopefully add a useful personal touch.
Firstly, my paternal grandparents. My grandfather, Surender Singh Bahra, was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1942. He left school at 14, and so never received a university-standard education. He married my grandmother, Tej Kaur, in 1964, another member of Kenya’s Sikh diaspora, having moved from India as a young girl.
In 1969, they made the life-changing decision to migrate to England. When I asked them why, they said: “It wasn’t that Kenya was bad, it was that England was better.” Due to Britain’s previous imperial relationship with Kenya, its residents had the opportunity to become British citizens. My grandfather recalls the then-Home Secretary, Reginald Maulding, visited Kenya to reinforce this opportunity. They were able to become citizens by just filling out a form, and their flight to Heathrow Airport was therefore free of charge.
Fortunately, my grandparents were not the first Sikhs to migrate to the UK – in fact, they were following my grandfather’s brother, who had arrived a couple of years previously. Thus, there was a large existing Sikh community and support network available, which made the prospect of migrating with two young children (my aunts) to an unknown country slightly less daunting. My grandparents rented a room and shared facilities in East London, where my grandfather’s brother was living, and eventually bought a home in East Ham for £30,000 in 1985, which has a large Punjabi community of all religions, including Sikhs.
Initially, it was difficult to settle in. There was plenty of subtle racism, as well as more violent attacks – which were sadly all too common, especially for my turban-wearing grandfather. However, the difficulties were not just social but also financial. As my grandfather was not university educated, his main work was in manual labour, particularly with cars. He worked in as a store parts man in Hammersmith for a couple of years before working in a garage as a mechanic and finally working at Ford in Dagenham until 2001. However, today my grandparents said that they feel well integrated into British society.
My maternal grandparents had a different experience. My grandfather, Gurdev Singh Kalsi, was also born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1947. At just seven, he was sent to school in India, returning after his education to help provide for his large family, including his mother, four brothers and four sisters. To this end, at 18 he moved to England with his father and brothers. Manual labour jobs in the UK would pay more than in Nairobi, and so they could offer greater support back home through remittances than if they stayed. Eventually, they purchased a family home in South London and brought the entire family to the UK by the end of the 1960s, all receiving their British passports in the same way as my paternal grandparents.
My grandmother, Surinder Kaur Ruprai, was born in Patiala, India in 1948. Unlike my other grandparents, she was university educated, with a postgraduate degree in Political Science. She married my grandfather in India in 1970 and joined him in the UK shortly after, where she had “dreamed” of living.
They relied on my grandfather’s family’s help initially, as their first UK residence was in the family home. Soon afterwards, they bought their own home in Tooting, Wandsworth. My grandmother mentioned that you could start to see a lot more Sikh families in the area, some from India, some from Kenya, but in general more Sikh families.
Although a devout Sikh, my grandfather made the difficult decision to remove his turban and cut his hair to avoid discrimination. He worked in factories and in printing while working hard to advance his skills, by taking higher education classes. As a result of his dedication, he secured a job as a draughtsman with BT, which he worked until he passed away in 2008. My grandmother’s experience in the labour market, while still difficult, was relatively easier than my other grandparents’ due to her greater education. In 1970, she secured a high-flying job for BT in 1970.
Both my maternal grandparents had significant impacts on their communities, seeing the importance of using their success to give back. My grandmother left her prestigious job to become a teacher. My grandfather volunteered for 18 years as a magistrate, and in 2002, he received an MBE for his contribution to voluntary work supporting ethnic minority communities.
I am very proud of my grandparents and their success. In spite of the many challenges they, and all Sikhs, have faced as migrants, they settled in a new country, gained good employment and led fulfilling lives, whilst keeping and spreading their faith. They gave my parents the best foundations they could, and so my parents have been able to do the same for my siblings and me.
Sikhism, and its history, had a tremendous impact on my life. When one considers the now-global nature of Sikhism, in places as disparate as India, Malaysia, Uganda and the UK, it makes clear how many people must have been impacted in the same way, and so how significant Sikhism is to the worlds of both yesterday and today.