This section considers Important events within Anglo-Sikh history such as early European accounts of Sikhs, the role ofSikhs in the armed forces and pre British Raj accounts.


Sikhs in Birmingham

Community Profile 1991

Although Birmingham has become a home for many Sikhs for the past four decades, the image of Sikhs as a whole, remains somewhat of outsiders and `strangers at the gate'. This image remains despite the fact that Sikhs, along with Pakistanis, African-Caribbeans and the Irish, form the fourth largest ethnic group of Birmingham. It seems that neither their numbers nor their social and economic presence has registered much impression in the city. For some observers, Sikhs appear to be a prosperous community, whereas others see them as a far flung poverty-laden community. Such a picture has often been formed by the media, with the stories of prosperity being gathered from the Punjab -the homeland of the Sikhs - which is the most prosperous state of India. Whilst a few very visible and prosperous Sikhs no doubt exist in this country, the majority are like any other complex community, and are individuals of varying economic fortunes. The poverty thesis is the standard stereotypical picture of all third world peoples who have migrated from their lands of origins to more prosperous Western countries. Such impressions are not only false, they can do practical harm in misunderstanding the real needs and aspirations of various ethnic groups.

Although Sikhs are often considered a religious group, they have been recognised by the House of Lords, in the Mandla case, as a distinct ethnic group. Sikhs as individuals and members of a religious/ethnic minority, have similar needs as those of any other comparable community. Although comparatively a new community in English society, they have made many kinds of adjustments, modifying certain features of their collective and individual behaviour. An appreciation of their background will go a long way in fostering a cross-cultural communication enjoined in a city like Birmingham.

The aim of this report is to present a profile which is likely to be an approximation to the reality of the community. The profile presented here takes account of the statistics released by 1991 Census survey. However, it must be emphasised that since the census did not identify Sikhs under a separate category, calculating estimates for the Sikh population based on the ethnic group figures, is by no means an easy or precise task.

This profile of the Sikh community in Birmingham presents data on the economic and social life of the community along with a brief outline of the cultural and religious heritage. It presents a brief introduction to the religious tradition of Sikhs, their characteristic family and social norms, some information on leisure activities, festivals and other community features.

It also attempts to raise some specific issues of the Sikh community in Birmingham and identify ways that service providers can be more effective.

The profile presented here is no substitute for a detailed case study of particular needs of certain groups within the Sikh community. Sensible policy planning will demand a comprehensive survey of specific issues to enable effective services to be developed.

It is well-known that individual behaviour and group organisations are better understood in the context of a community's values, passions and cultural traditions. The key to understanding the forces operating upon individuals lie in their religious, cultural and moral universe. A sympathetic knowledge, then, of the Sikh tradition is indispensable when dealing with individuals, their organisations and the community as a whole. The Sikh moral world has provided its members with a specific viewpoint on many private and indeed social and political matters. Above all, what is required on the part of administrators is an open mind and appreciation of individuals' needs, to be heard and understood with due regard to their cultural and social tradition.


The Sikh presence in the United Kingdom dates from the late 19th century, when young Prince Dalip Singh, the heir to the sovereign state of Punjab was deposed and later exiled to Britain. He grew up in Britain, acquired Elveden - a 600 acres rural estate in Suffolk - and lived in style mixing with royalty, often seen hunting with the Prince of Wales. However, his childhood memories of Punjab, and his loss of sovereignty as a ruler of the Sikh kingdom tormented him and he eventually turned into a rebel. He died in Paris in 1893. His remains are buried in Elveden - a place of considerable veneration and attraction for contemporary Sikhs (1). The Sikhs who followed him into Britain, however, were of more modest means. From the 1920s, a few Sikhs from the western Punjab districts of Lahore and Sialkot arrived and worked as peddlers and they were joined by some Sikh students who came for higher education. The first gurdwara in the United Kingdom was at the initiative of a few Sikh students who persuaded Maharaja Bhupindera Singh of Patiala to donate considerable sum of money to open a gurdwara in West London in 1911.

Most Sikhs living in the UK are from the Punjab - a province in the northeast of the Indian subcontinent - better known as the homeland of the Sikh community. Although a small minority have migrated from East African and Far Eastern countries, they all share ancestral roots in the Punjab region.

I. Punjab: The Sikh Homeland
Punjab, the land of five rivers - Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum - is the homeland of Sikhs. Punjab was the site of Indus Civilisation which flourished from 2000 BC to 600 BC (2). From the medieval period onwards, it also formed a gateway for Afghan and Persian adventurers and princes eyeing the splendour of the Punjab plains and easterly Gangetic region of India. The first recorded rulers of the area were indigenous Hindu aristocrats. They were subsequently overrun by the Afghan and Persian rulers, followed by the glorious Mughals [1526-1706]. The Mughal rule was destroyed by several Afghans who ravaged across the Indus to Delhi and this led to the rise of the Sikhs from 1760s onwards (3).

From the decline of ritualised Hinduism and the political ascendancy of Islam, a new faith of Sikhism was ushered in during the 15th century by Guru Nanak. The followers of the new faith of Sikhism were not content with spiritual emancipation alone, they also sought political power. As the Mughal power crumbled, Sikh bands rose to rule over a large territory of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh - one eyed lion of Punjab - assembled various Khalsa confederacies into a powerful Sikh empire. His rule extended to the farthest limits of Punjab; embracing Kashmir, in the north, and Peshawar in the West. Punjab became a sovereign country under the Sikhs for almost a century. The sovereign rule was brought to an end when Ranjit Singh's successors were defeated by East Indian armies in two Anglo-Sikh wars; the first of these was fought in 1846 at Aliwal, Sabraon and Mudki. The second War was fought in 1849 at Chelianvala and Gujarat. As a result, Punjab became a province of the British Indian empire (4).

As modern education developed under British rule, communal identity took on a new meaning. Punjab's Hindus looked towards the Gangetic plains as their true home, while Muslims sought a new territory in the form of Pakistan as a protection from Hindu domination. As the British departed from India in 1947, the Punjab was plunged into a major tragedy. The map of Punjab was to change drastically (5). As a consequence, the province was partitioned into two; the Western districts became a province of Pakistan, and the eastern region was allocated to India. The Punjab itself was also partitioned between Pakistan and India. The partition was accompanied by unprecedented communal riots, when some two million people moved across the new borders of the two states and a quarter of million people - Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs - were killed in communal violence.

The legacy of Sikh rule in the Punjab has remained an active component of Sikh psyche for political sovereignty.

II. Developments since 1947
In the post 1947 period, as a result of Sikh leaders' goal of autonomy, the Indian Punjab was further divided into Hindi and Punjabi speaking states in 1966, when Haryana became a new state. In 1984, the simmering confrontation turned into a major tragedy when the Central government ordered armies into the Golden Temple - resulting in the partial destruction of the most sacred Sikh shrine. As a reaction to the Central Government's action, a militant movement for an independent Sikh state - Khalistan - emerged. During the last decade, several thousand Sikhs have died for the cause. As will later be illustrated, the Sikhs of Birmingham and the Sikh diapsora have been deeply involved in these events in their homeland (6).

The new Indian province of Punjab has a population of 20 million [1991 census] of which over 60% are Sikhs; the rest being Hindus with small populations of Muslims and Christians. The neighbouring states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir have some Sikh populations. A few Indian cities, especially Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi have large Sikh populations. New Delhi was a particular attraction for Sikh refugees from West Punjab in 1947.

III. Religion. Language and Culture
Until 1947 Punjab was a region which had a rich mixture of many different groups of people and cultural traditions. Each group - Turks, Afghans, Tartars, Hindus and Sikhs - contributed to the composite culture of Punjab. Punjabi was the common spoken language and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs shared many social customs, common beliefs, and were justly proud of a rich heritage of oral literary tradition. Among many well-known legends of Punjab, Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahiban, the romance of Sassi, and Puran Bhagat are still part of folk history and celebrations. At numerous popular fairs, Punjabis draw on a veritable heritage of folk poetry, dances and ballads of heroic past (7). For women there is characteristic quick-step giddha while men participate in Bhangra.

IV. Anglo-Sikh Connection
Sikhs have had a historical relationship with the English. During the British rule in India, Punjab was the recipient of two distinct developments; the Canal Colonies project and army recruitment. The Canal Colonies development started in the late nineteenth century and transformed Punjab's vast tract of western districts' wasteland into a fertile region which resulted in a huge migration of population from central and eastern districts to these fertile and highly productive areas. Secondly, the Punjab became a favourite area for army recruitment, as its many ethnic groups were considered to have superior `martial' skills (8). The Sikhs in particular found favour in the imperial military service. Many Sikhs were exposed to overseas experience as a direct result of military service. Both these developments were to facilitate migration, both internal and abroad.

A large number of Sikhs served in the Indian armies and many Sikh regiments were sent to Europe to take part in the two World Wars (9). It was indeed this Anglo-Sikh connection which brought them to the British shores. Among the first Sikhs to arrive in Britain were ex-soldiers and their families after the Second World War. With the expansion of British industries requiring more labour, the British authorities looked towards her two ex-colonies - the West Indies and India and Pakistan.

I. Sikh Migration to Britain
Of the 20 million Sikhs in India about a million live abroad (10). They are scattered in most of the western countries, Europe, the Far East and East African countries; with the biggest concentration in United Kingdom. Although Sikhs form only 2 percent of the Indian population, Sikhs in Britain represent almost half the Indian migrant communities .
Sikhs came to the United Kingdom as part of the general influx of Commonwealth migrants -West Indians from the Caribbean Islands, Bengalis from Bangladesh, Kashmiri and Punjabi Muslims from Pakistan, Gujaratis and Sikhs from India. Starting in the 1950s, the largest influx started in late 1950s, peaked in the 1960s and gradually declined in the 1970s to almost no primary migration in the 1990s.

While the majority of Sikhs came directly from the Punjab, a large minority came via East Africa and other former British colonies to which members of their families had previously migrated. Sikhs have a long history of migration, though not as old as some other Indian communities such as the Gujaratis, or Tamils of South India. The first Sikhs abroad were probably those who went to East Africa, on a contract to work on the Ugandan Railways linking Uganda and Kenyan hinterlands. Several thousand Sikhs were eventually involved in this work in Africa. Although some of them returned, many stayed on. As a result of Africanisation policies of the 1960s, which signalled their departure to more secure lands, many sought refuge in Britain and other western countries.

II. Reasons for Migration
Migration is a multi-dimensional phenomenon - and there have been many different routes by which people have migrated from one country or region to another. Economists emphasise that the prime motive of a migrant is to improve his or her economic lot. Political scientists will tell us that many past migrations have been result of persecution of certain ethnic groups while history is replete with colonial migration which took such forms as the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic. The migration process for particular individuals and groups may be voluntary, forced or a mixture of the two. For Sikhs, all three factors have in varying degrees, influenced migration, although for a majority of Sikh migrants it has been voluntary.

After the Second World War, labour shortages in the U.K., caused in part by the need for more labour to reconstruct the infrastructure and the development of post-war Britain, together with the emergence of the National Health Service and rapid industrial growth, led to an active recruitment of labour from overseas colonies. During this period a small minority of ex-soldiers and other Sikhs came to settle in the UK. The early Sikh settlers in the Midlands came to fill the manual jobs available in the metal industries.

The partition of the Punjab brought many Sikh colonisers of the western districts back to their original villages who had to face smaller lands than they had previously enjoyed. In addition, although Punjab was a relatively rich state, the agricultural productivity of some areas was low due to land being water-logged. The opportunity to go abroad presented itself as the word went among villagers of the opportunities open in Valayat - a new Punjabi word for England. From Punjab, the major districts which have sent Sikhs abroad are Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala.

During the late 1960s, families began to join their male relatives or husbands already settled in the U.K. Although there was a great deal of anxiety on the part of Sikhs about calling for their families, stringent immigration laws left them with no alternative except to ask their families to join them here. Immigration policies of the subsequent governments did not help in creating an atmosphere of easy integration of new settlers into the British society. Early attempts by the Government to offer support were aimed at assimilating the new communities, rather than identifying and meeting their needs.

A more recent factor which led to a fresh bout of migration was the political crisis in the Indian Punjab. Following the Indian troops storming the Golden Temple in June 1984, chaos and violence led to a sustained campaign for a sovereign Sikh state - Khalistan. Many Sikhs caught between the violence of the state on one hand and those of militant groups on the other, fled to Europe and North America. As a result, there may be as many as 5000 Sikh refugees in Britain, perhaps half of them living in the West Midlands.

iii. Emergence of a Community
In the 1950s, there were perhaps no more than a few hundred Sikhs living in the West Midlands. By the 1990s, however, there are perhaps as many as 75,000 Sikhs in this region.

Sikh population is calculated on the assumption that it constitutes 45 % of Britain's migrant communities from India.
Most of the early migrants came as single men in the age bracket of 25-45. They came from a rural background, many with primary school education, a small proportion with graduate qualifications, among the latter teachers, doctors and clerical staff. Many coming from Far East had security jobs either in the police or as private personnel. Similarly some Sikhs came from East Africa, and most of these were skilled personnel, some with substantial capital to invest. Among East African Sikhs, a majority belonged to Ramgarhia - a social group of the Sikhs representing in many ways the
elite of the community.

As family reunification took place in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sikhs in Birmingham formed a number of social organisations for various purposes and established the early gurdwaras in Handsworth, Sparkbrook and Smethwick. Gurdwaras responded to parents' worries regarding their culture and religious traditions, and ran language schools for the teaching of the Punjabi language. Despite discrimination in the housing market and the financial services, Sikh families were keen to buy their own homes, welcoming their newly arrived relatives and friends. Economic security was the prime concern of Sikh families until the 1980s.

By the 1990s, Sikhs are well-known and recognised members of the Midland community, with religious institutions, cultural and social associations to match other ethnic communities.

Estimates of the size of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom at the end of 1980s vary from 300,000 to 400,000. As such, the Sikhs form a substantial proportion of the total numbers of the minority ethnic communities in the United Kingdom.

TABLE 1 - Sikh Population of Britain, 1991
Category Numbers in thousands % of population
Sikhs 378.4 0.70
South Asians 1476.9 2.60
Asians 1634.6 2.97
Ethnic 3006.5 5.48
Sikhs as proportion of:
South Asians 378.4 / 1476 =26%
Asians 378.4 / 1634.6 =23%
Total Ethnic Population 378.4 / 3006.5 =13%
Total Population 378.4 / 54860.2 =0.7%
Notes: Sikh Population is calculated on the assumption that it constitutes 45% of Britain's Migrant Communities from India.
Source: Ethnic Groups in Birmingham, 1991 Census Topic Reports, Birmingham City Council

TABLE 2 - Sikh Population of Great Britain: Comparison with ethnic groups. 1991
Ethnic Group Numbers in thousands
1. White 51843.9
2. Black 835.4
3. Indian
Sikh (45%)
Gujerati (40%)
Others (15)
4. Pakistani 475.8
5. Bangladeshi 160.3
6. Chinese 157.7
7. Other-Asian 196.7
8. Other-other 290.1
Total Ethnic Minority Population 3006.5
Source: Ethnic Groups in Birmingham, 1991 Census Topic Reports, Birmingham City Council

The 1991 Census gives data about ethnic minority communities based on their country of origin, however Sikhs are not distinguished separately but are enumerated under Indians. As they form a distinct community within the groups from India, their relative strength in numbers is quite high. Estimates of the Sikh population are presented in Tables 1 and 2. The Sikhs in Britain are the largest community outside the Indian subcontinent. Although the British Sikh community is not as old as that of Canada or California in the United States, a third generation of Sikhs are now being born here.

The 1991 Census shows that the Indian population in Birmingham is 51,075 which represents 5.3% of the city's population. Bearing in mind the undercount of Black and Minority Ethnic people in the last Census, and that we are half way through to the next Census, these figures are likely to be well below the population total as it stands today.
The Census did not include a question on religion of respondents. As a result it is difficult to determine the proportions of Sikhs to Hindus within the Indian category who between them form by far the largest religious groups in this diverse category. Any scientific attempts to determine such proportions are fraught with difficulties. For example a survey carried out by the Education Department which might have indicated religion of Indians by extrapolation of the findings is limited by the fact that information was not available on a sizable proportion of students. Furthermore the survey was restricted to certain age ranges within LEA maintained schools only. Another method of determining numbers is by carrying out a search of the electoral register but one of the major difficulties that arises in this method is the commonality of a significant number of Sikh and Hindu names.

The Sikh Council of Gurdwaras estimates that approximately 60% of the Indian population in Birmingham is made up of Sikhs. They also consider that there are Sikhs in other categories such as 'Other-Asian' and 'Other-Other' which should be added to the Indian figure. As precise proportions can never be known for certain, this profile has been drawn up on the basis of the community's own estimates, i.e. 60% of the Indian population, with the 'Other-Asian' and 'Other-Other' categories being excluded.

Based on the above assumption, Sikhs constitute just over 3% of Birmingham's population, totalling 30,645 or 15% of the ethnic population of the city. They form the fourth largest community among city's ethnic minority groups, preceded by Pakistanis (6.9%), Afro-Caribbeans (5.9%), and Irish (4.0%).

TABLE 3 - Sikh Population in Birmingham
Ethnic Group Numbers % of Total Population
a. Sikhs 30645 3.2
b. South Asians 129899 13.5
c. Asians 138867 14.4
d. Ethnic Minority Population 206767 21.5
Total Population 961041 100
Sikhs as proportion of:
South Asians
Ethnic Minorities

1. Sikh population is calculated on the assumption that its proportion out of Indian migrants in Birmingham is 60%.
2. South Asians = 3+4+5 from Table 4.
3. Asians = 3+4+5+6+7 from Table 4.
4. Ethnic Minorities = 2+3+4+5+6+7+8 from Table 4
Source: Ethnic Groups in Birmingham, 1991 Census Topic Reports, Birmingham City Council

TABLE 4 - Sikhs in Birmingham:
Comparison with ethnic groups. 1991
Ethnic Group Numbers %
1. White 754274 78.5
2. Black 56376 5.9
3. Indian
Sikh (60%)
Gujerati (30%)
Others (10)
4. Pakistani 66085 6.9
5. Bangladeshi 12739 1.3
6. Chinese 3315 0.3
7. Other-Asian 5653 0.6
8. Other-other 11524 1.2
Total 961041 100
9. Born in Ireland 38290 4.0
Source: Ethnic Groups in Birmingham, 1991 Census Topic Reports, Birmingham City Council

TABLE 5 - Sikhs in Birmingham: Country of Birth
Place of Birth Numbers %
1. Midlands - Britain = 18,000 50%
Punjab - India = 13,500 38%
East Africa - Far East = 4,000 12%
Total = 36,000 100%
Source: Ethnic Groups in Birmingham, 1991 Census Topic Reports, Birmingham City Council

Table 5 shows that of the total Sikh population, almost half were born in this country. Thus the proportion of migrant population is being replaced by British born Sikhs who will grow up here, and be educated and socialised in the English society.

Source:Sikh Community Profile - Birmingham City Council. 1991

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