The search for identity by young Sikhs in Great Britain


The first Sikh arrivals in Great Britain came in the early part of this century, particularly in the inter-war years. They were in the main students of medicine, Jaw or similar professions and a few were pedlars. Many of these professionals shaved their beards, discarded their turbans and set out to become brown Englishmen. They were considered a desirable catch by local girls and many, perhaps the majority, married and settled — sometimes going to extraordinary lengths of growing beards and putting on turbans and sending photos back home to convince parents and close relatives that they were still true to their beliefs.

Independence, the partition of Punjab and a growing labour shortage in the Britain of the ’50s, led to the next move of Sikh immigration. Some of those who came were ex-Servicemen who came to Britain during the Second World War and were attracted by the freedom and openness of British society. Most, however, were farmers and farm labourers who had been displaced from their land on the creation of Pakistan.

Their arrival in their new country was not easy. They came to a Britain in which the early high respect accorded to Sikhs because of the high esteem in which they were held in the Indian Army, had bewilderingly given way to outright racism. Open hostility made employment, even in a labour shortage, difficult to obtain. Many of the new arrivals felt that their chances of a job would be enhanced if they discarded their turbans and shaved their beards. The jobs they got were in the furnaces, mills and more unpopular factories in the Midlands and the North. They worked incredibly hard, buying and sharing cheap accommodation to jibes of sub-standard living from the locals.

Under the twin pressures of discrimination and the need to work long hours to send money to their families back home, they found little time for religion and, although a few Gurdwaras were established, there were not many turbaned Sikhs. The pub was frequented more often than the Gurdwara.

Going back to earlier Sikh immigration, while a few Sikhs, as we have seen, came to Britain in the early years of the century, many more, particularly after the First World War and the near famine conditions in the Punjab, left India to seek exciting new opportunities in commerce and the railway and other service industries of East Africa. Here, Sikhs and other Indians were surprised to find, that in the rigid political hierarchy of the British Empire, it was not they but the native Africans that were at the bottom of the social pile. This gave Sikhs and others from the sub-continent the confidence to keep their religion; to open schools, colleges and charitable institutions, and to be proud of their faith. Almost overnight, they achieved a prosperity status, and standard of living far higher than they could have hoped for in either the Punjab or the United Kingdom.

The anti-colonial movement and a growing enlightenment in Britain, which had resulted in the transfer of power in India, led naturally and inevitably to the collapse of British rule in East Africa in the early ‘60s. Africans, particularly in Uganda, under the instigation of Idi Amin, resented their Indian colonisers even more than their former British masters. This led to the well-known mass expulsion of Asians, including many Sikhs, from Uganda and a more voluntary migration from a worsening racial climate from other parts of East Africa. The majority came to Britain.

Unlike the earlier migrations of the ’50s and ’60s, this new influx comprised many from the middle classes with employment and business skills. Instead of the factories of the North and Midlands, they went to the more commercial centres of cities and urban areas.

It is important to note in any study of Sikh youth in Britain, that this latter migration was of whole families as opposed to the earlier migration of mainly men from Punjab, who briefly returned to India to marry within the community after attaining a measure of economic security in Britain.

Sikh Youth in Britain

In the ’60s and ’70s, there were then two distinct groups of Sikh youths in Britain. The first were the children of largely uneducated Sikhs from Punjab. They were in the main born in this country, and, for this reason and because of the limited religious understanding of their own parents, they often felt more at home in the culture of the West than in the Gurdwara.

The second group of children had, in the main, spent their formative years in East Africa where Sikh religion and culture had been allowed to flourish. Their parents quickly established new Gurdwaras and, though the pull of western culture was strong, these youngsters felt equally at home in the disco and the Gurdwara.

The Politics of the Gurdwaras

The role of the Gurdwara is important in any study of the social and cultural identity of Sikh youth. In the ’50s and ’60s the number of Sikhs in the country was comparatively low, the religion largely unknown, and the community felt the need to interest non-Sikhs in their faith. For some years, from the mid-’50s to the early ’70s, the central Gurdwara in Shepherds Bush used to have an English language service once a month for the benefit of non-Sikhs and young Sikhs who knew little Punjabi. Positive efforts were made in some Gurdwaras to acquaint young Sikhs with the main principles of their faith using the English medium.

All this was swept aside with the arrival of better educated Sikh families from East Africa. The isolation of the community was reduced and need for outside contact lessened. Secure in large families and old social friendships, the community became increasingly inward-looking.

The use of English in the Gurdwaras lessened in the ’70s, although many of the younger brothers and sisters of those who came from East Africa, and most of the children of immigrants from the Punjab understood English far better than Punjabi.

The strong pull of Western materialism attracted many of these young Sikhs and undoubtedly, induced many of them to move away from the religion and culture of their parents. Another factor that affected young Sikhs as it affects all other cultures was the natural rebellion of teenagers against the views of their parents. Young Sikhs in schools and colleges and many seeking employment, ignorant of their own faith and wishing to assert their individuality, adopted many of the traits of British teenage culture notably the addiction of pop music (often Indianised), alcohol and dress designed to shock and underline individuality).

All too often these youngsters, who discarded the symbols of their faith in their attempt to gain the acceptance of the native British, met continuing prejudice; and many Sikhs, like other Asians, moved into the sad twilight world between two cultures.

A majority of young Sikhs, particularly those of East African origin in colleges and universities, were, however, sufficiently confident in their faith to look to their own religion and culture. Sikh societies flourished in many universities and a national Sikh Students Federation organised impressive seminars and social events.

The Gurdwaras were increasingly becoming social clubs for the older generation of Sikhs; a place which afforded opportunities to listen to Kirtan (hymns), chat about old times and enjoy langar (a communal meal). Some of the more progressive Gurdwaras organised Punjabi classes, but little attempt was made to teach Sikh youngsters about the richness of their language. When children complained about lengthy services in a language they couldn’t understand, they were told ‘Punjabi Sikho’ (learn Punjabi), and it will all become clear. What they were not told was that the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Scriptures) was not in spoken Punjabi as it is understood today, but in numerous dialects of 15th and 16th century India and was almost a language in itself, that required separate and dedicated study.

The net result of a combination of ordinary teenage rebellion combined with genuine difficulties experienced by young Sikhs in following the service in Punjabi, was that while children up to the age of eight or nine were often seen in Gurdwaras, their elder sisters and particularly brothers, were frequently absent. The Punjab, the birthplace of Sikhism, had, by the early ’80s, become increasingly distant to young Sikhs born in this country.

The June 1984 attack on the Golden Temple dramatically affected Sikh attitudes, particularly those of young Sikhs to their religion and land of origin. While it is not the purpose of this paper to dwell on the politics of the sub-continent, it is necessary to look briefly at the circumstances surrounding this attack to get an understanding of the explosive reaction of Sikh youth.

The Golden Temple, founded by the 5th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev, is the most famous Sikh shrine in India, and is considered both the spiritual and temporal centre of Sikhs. Any attack on this temple was bound to cause indignation but when it came, ostensibly to arrest wanted people within, the outcome was far worse. The timing of the attack on the important martyrdom anniversary of Guru Arjan Dev, could not have been worse. The temple was filled to overflowing with thousands of pilgrims from all over India and abroad. More than 2.000 died in the attack. Many had relatives in Britain.

The anger of the Sikh community in India was magnified by stories of atrocities against innocent pilgrims even after capture. As news trickled from Punjab to Britain, it was found that much that had been rumoured was in fact true. It was not only the loss of life that agitated Sikhs but also what seemed deliberate acts of desecration — not least the burning after capture of the Central Reference Library containing priceless manuscripts, including writings of the Gurus themselves.

Whilst the entire Sikh population of Britain felt a sense of outrage at these events, it was particularly pronounced in young Sikhs, including many who had previously turned their backs on the Sikh religion. Those who had been drifting unhappily between cultures were suddenly reminded of their roots and were fired by a determination to defend a religion — their religion — from brutal attack. Immediate anger was vented in angry processions and demonstrations outside the Indian High Commission and other Indian Government agencies. Inevitably the anger subsided only to find a new focus against those who had allowed it to happen. The Indian High Commission was an obvious target, but Sikh youth also vented their anger on the older generation of Sikhs who had not only failed to safeguard their religion, but had also failed to initiate them, the young Sikhs, into the teachings of their faith.

Young Sikhs, many previously clean shaven, grew beards and wore turbans; only now, as if in compensation, the turban was larger — usually saffron, the colour of the Sikh flag, and now the colour of protest. Similarly, the kera that Sikhs wear on the wrist, was heavier as if to emphasise a new-found allegiance. Sikh Gurdwaras are democratically managed with both the difficulties and opportunities that democracy provides. Now the Gurdwaras experienced a massive influx of militant young Sikhs who soon outvoted and out-manoeuvred the old guard Sikh politicians. Within months the International Sikh Youth Federation became the major Sikh organisation in the country. Today, while many young Sikhs have come back to the centre stage of Sikh life, behind the meetings and demonstrations there is a continuing search for identity. Young Sikhs have identified themselves with the Sikh community but many have still to look closely at the religious teachings of the Gurus.

Looking to the Future

Although years have elapsed since the attack on the Golden Temple the situation in Punjab has not become any easier. Those in India and abroad advocating a separate Sikh state, a tiny minority in 1984, are now far more numerous. At the same time government repression, as Amnesty International acknowledges, has becme far more active.

The effect on young Sikhs in Britain has varied with the passage of time. Some of those who came back to the fold in 1984 have already shed the symbols of their new-found allegiance. Many others, on the other hand, have become firmer and less emotional in their beliefs. They are doing valuable work, both in the Gurdwara and outside, and are a real credit to the community. Overall, the proportion of young Sikhs now to be found in the Gurdwaras has shown a considerable increase.

One valuable gain from the world-wide reporting of events in Punjab is a heightened interest in Sikhism among non-Sikhs, and this has further increased with the growth of inter-faith dialogue. Sikhs, mindful of Guru Nanak’s teachings that no one faith has a monopoly of truth, have always been reluctant to indulge in prosletysing activities; but real opportunities now exist to show the world and Sikhs themselves — particularly young Sikhs — the power and guidance contained in a faith dedicated to the oneness of the human race, the equality of women and men and service to society. If young Sikhs can make the pursuit of these ideals their raison d’etre, they can make a major contribution, not only to their own community, but to society at large in today’s troubled times.

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