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Migration in Punjab and The Sikh Identity

Dr Gurmeet Singh Sidhu

Migration in Punjab presents an exceptional icon because there are both contrary processes of out- migration and in-migration. Thus, the process of migration has served to make the Sikh world both smaller and larger. Smaller in the sense, their sealed identity and traditional socio-religious values are going to turn down and they meet social and political setbacks on different levels in their homeland. On the other side, it serves the large interests in that now Sikhs have an open space to interact with different faiths and communities. The dispersion of Sikh community on globe makes the Sikh identity more liberal and extensive. In contrast to that, Sikh identity in Punjab is going to shrink. This paper examines the role of migration in Punjab and its effects on Sikh identity. Movement in population may be measured on different variables; here we are focusing on out-migration (emigration from Punjab to foreign) countries and in-migration (migration of non-Punjabis from different states to Punjab within India).

Migration is a process of movement of people from one place, region, state, or country to another. When migrants move from one place to another, they clearly make demographic and socio-economic effects on the donor and recipient population (Bertanpetit: 2002; 96). Migration is a major factor that brings drastic changes in society. Not much work has been done to examine the consequences of migration in Punjab. Policy- makers and academician have casual notions about this process. Without any authentic, accurate, and reliable study, there is a general conception about the migration that it enriches the specific society. Generally migration is considered as a natural phenomenon and migrants are often acknowledged as such people who are amongst the most dynamic and entrepreneurial members of society. Largely their roles in society is judged only in economic terms but in some places, migration is becoming a serious problem and even a cause of economic, social and political conflict.

Out- Migration past and present
Historically Punjab has been associated with migration from the earliest due to its geographical set-up. Invaders who came to India from the Northern border had all passed through Punjab. The people of Punjab were confronted with a large range of rulers. Foreign rulers like, Turks( from 11th to the 14th century), Afghans (15th to 16th century) and they were followed by the Mughals till the mid-18th century ruled over the Punjab. The Sikhs ruled over the Punjab only for a period of eighty years after the Mughals and then Punjab came under the British rule in 1849.Thus the land of Punjab was “the meeting ground of different people and races, introducing new culture and new ideas. The people of the Punjab could not, therefore remain exclusive and static. Always up and doing, with increasing fresh contacts and free communication with wave after wave of new immigrants, they were bound to be affected by them. The receptive mind of the Punjabis, ever ready to accept and assimilate new things, became broader and more hospitable (Ganda Singh: 1988; 12)”. Punjab’s interaction with foreigners made its residents more lively, dynamic, and mobile.

In fact, Sikhs also interacted and migrated to different locales; but under the British rule, Punjab experienced tremendous population movement. After the Second World War, a large number of Sikhs emmigrated to UK. The enormous number of the emmigrants in this period who went there, had come from the old British colonies, and those were soldiers and seamen. In first phase, generally insignificant human resources (worker or solders) emmigrated to UK to take advantage of labour or service opportunities in Britain and played a very constructive role in UK. “Britain was not only an attraction to the comparatively lower-income peasants groups, who are after all manual workers with a certain capital and land, but also the middle class school teachers, ex-non- commissioned army and police officers, clerks and ex-university students (sons of rich peasants and big landlords who had not been able to make their mark) were also coming to Britain, knowing full well that they will have to work as common labourers. This can be partly explained on purely economic grounds; the earnings even of unskilled labourers in Britain are better than those of the school-teachers, clerks and petty police offers in India (Aurora: 1967; 30-31)”.Large numbers of Sikhs from rural background, reached UK and settled in industrial sectors in the outside of Landon and in West Midlands. Most of them directly from the Doaba region in Punjab that had more population pressure on land.
The Sikhs who, emmigrated to Britain and other countries had gone for better earnings and largely engaged in hard jobs. They were more mobile and hard workers as compared to the host community. Arthur Wesley Helweg observed the mobility in Sikhs in his sociological study. He noted that, “The Sikh jat went where money and jobs were available-anywhere in the world. Gravesindians, both men and women, commuted to the other side of London to work, while most of their English counterparts preferred jobs in Gravesend. Other Punjabi men left their families in Gravesend and went to Birmingham or Bedford to live with a brother or friend while they worked on a new job or hunted for one. If things worked out, they brought their families. If a brother told of opportunities in the United States, a man willingly gave it to try; bringing his family later, if all went well. Family ties or regional loyalties did not prohibit the Punjabi from leaving everything to seek his fortune (Helweg: 1986; 66)”.Consequently dynamic character of Sikhs makes them adaptable and adjustable with new social conditions. Dr. Ganda Singh observed the adaptability in the Punjabi character in his historical writings he described that, “The Punjabis believe in dignity of labour. To them no profession or work is ignoble and they are not afraid to put their hand to any type of work or vocation required by the exigencies of life. Adaptability to changing times and situations is one of their greatest virtues and this has stood them in good stead in all adverse circumstances (Ganda Singh: 1988; 14)”
In first phase, mainly males migrated to various countries e.g., Britain, U.S.A., Canada, East Africa, Singapore, and Malaysia, and they sent money back to home. Arthur W. Helweg (1986; 94-95) in his study of Jandiali village observed in many cases that monetary aid had given to their families by the migrants. “Of course, migrants living in England brought changes for the village of Jandiali and other parts of Punjab. Without emigration, Jandiali and other part of Punjab might have been the scene of starvation and poverty instead of being prosperous and developed today. He further notes that Jandiali has benefited not only from money, but also from innovative ideas, new farming methods, and new business techniques from abroad. England-returnee Jat often wrote to friends in the United States, England, and Europe for farm journals and new seed varieties. Such type of interaction and connections played a significant role for economic development in Punjab.

In the beginning, the migrants had only purpose i.e. to earn money; and most of them wished to return to their families. However, after some experience they often preferred to invite their family members. “The chance to bring wives and children to join migrants seems to have been caused by two factors. One was to prospect of greatly improved living standards compared with best that India could offer, including education, climate, and occupational opportunities for the next generation. The other was government policies (Cole: 2003; 190).” It is surprising to note that due to migration, women seek to change in their status and roles. Sandhu & others (2007; 32) describe in their study of 80 migrant women at London, that “these women had started to migrating from 1950`s to see better life out side. Whenever they visited country of their origin, they inspired younger lot with their affluent looks. With the result, particularly in rural Punjab it became sole aim of most of eligible brides to marry NRI`s (Non Resident Indians). It did not matter to them whether he was to elder to him not look charming and young. Only thing which mattered was his ability to take her to dazzling lands.” Not only females, males are also inspired by the NRI`s.

Migrant Sikhs have achieved esteemed positions and status in different fields in various countries. “In February 1980 Judge Mota Singh, the first Indian judge appointed in Great Britain, was brought to Gravesend by the Asian Welfare Society. He reiterated one major theme, ‘We are no longer immigrants’. The change of status has not fully comprehended by all Indians and whites, but it is reality-regardless of their desires the Punjabis will not return to their homeland; they are permanent part of English society. The transition is not been easy, but it is successful in that they are highly motivated and innovative community making a tremendous economic and social contribution to Gravesend and other parts of England (Helwege: 1986; 152).” Nowadays, large numbers of Punjabis especially Sikh youth have dreams to settle in the foreign land. “Some estimate the current Eastern Punjabi Diaspora as five million people worldwide, over a quarter of Indian overseas migrants from a region which only constitutes 2 per cent of the national population (Tylor, Manjit Singh and Booth: 2007; 226)”.

In the beginning, (mid-1960s) the population movement among the Sikhs was to the UK, largely to England because they found opportunities. At that time Canada, Australia and New Zealand etc. had heavy restriction on emigrants. In the last decades of 20th century because of the liberalization in economic policies, developed countries have become flexible for immigrants. Thus at this moment highly skilled workers, professionals-academicians, scientists, engineers, doctors, and managers are migrating to their dreamlands. Several of these professionals have made known to themselves as major performers in global large empire. As compared to previous movement, skilled, trained, and talented persons are departing for foreign countries. This is the main difference between in earlier migration and the present population movement in Punjab. The dispersion of rich human resources from Punjab to different countries is draining out good human resources. That will be a dangerous alarm for the Punjab as well as for the Sikhs.

Migration in the large section of population and the permanent change in residence possibly have opened up very serious conflicts and challenges for the survival of any culture. As a human being, everyone wants live in his or her social environment but the adverse situations of life push him or her to other social milieus. Thus, the movement from one area to another is painful course of action. However, high levels of aspirations make this movement enjoyable. Consequently, pull and push both factors are leading to the mass migration of the Sikhs.

In-migration present and future
Out-migration (emigration) and in-migration in Punjab, both contrary processes are going strong and are upsetting its demographic composition. The movement of population in Punjab is not only changing the life of its people but also badly affecting the identity of Sikhs and their culture. The nature of this migration is an exclusive phenomenon that demands serious academic notice. However, scholars have not shown their serious concern in it, only handful studies came out from this field in Punjab as well as in India. The major components in population change, the migration is one to which the least attention has been given (Kosinski&Prothero: 1975; 14). “Despite its immense economic, social, and political significance, internal migration in India has received inadequate attention from scholars (Gosal&Krishan: 1975; 193)”

Migrant labour to Punjab had speeded up in 1960s. After Akali Dal’s agitation for Punjabi Suba, the Government of India established Punjab State, in 1966 on the bases of Punjabi language. In the same decade, the state witnessed the arrival of Green Revolution that “brought general prosperity and increased household incomes. The Punjabi farmer no longer had to labour on his own lands, was able to raise the level of mechanization and hire labour. The new agriculture created a new demand for labour, which was met by states across northern and central India (PHDR: 2004; 155)”.Large scale agriculture needs more labour but Punjabi farmers have lost interest in manual labour because all classes gained cash share from huge farm production. For the reason of that Punjab becomes an attraction for the migrant labour from non-Sikhs of other states .As compared to their home states they get high labour rates in seasons and job opportunities in all times. Thus, granted job opportunities for illiterates and unskilled laboures of both sexes in different age groups, the in-migrants are benefiting in Punjab.

In addition to that, out- migration from Punjab also creates space for migrant labour because “the loss of labour through migration may create employment opportunities for others in the source community, and may also push up local wage rates (Parnwell: 1993; 103)”. The small-scale industry in Punjab also largely employs migrant labours because they willingly accept the hard jobs those have rejected by the local laboures also agree to do work on lower wages.

Therefore, the flood of non- Punjabi population mainly from five states e.g. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Rajasthan, and Uttaranchal is continuously coming to Punjab.

Estimation of Inter-State Migration in Punjab in late 1990s
S.no Activity Migrant labour in Punjab
1 Agriculture 7 lakh
2 Brick kiln 2 lakh
Manufacturing Industries:
(a) Textile/ Hosiery Workers 4 lakh
(b) Sports & other industries 2 lakh
(c) Sugarcane industries 15,00
Service industries:
(a) Loading/unloading workers in Mandis
(palledars) 7.5 lakh 1.5 lakh
(7.5 lakh including local and migrant)
(b) Rickshaw pullers 1.5 lakh
(c) Domestic workers 50000
(1 lakh including local & migrant)
Construction industry
(a) Power irrigation and multi- purpose projects 1.5 lakh
(b) House/ building construction 1.5 lakh
(c) Stone construction/Road construction 50,000

Total 21,65 lakh
Source: Punjab Human Development Report, 2004
Dispersion of Sikh identity: some ideological issues
Why people on the move? Leszek A. Kosinski and R.Mansell Prothero (1975; 4), note, “Migration takes place when an individual decides that it is preferable place to move rather than to stay and where the difficulties of moving seem to be more than offset by they expected rewards.” Generally, people migrate in the response of the charm of a more favorable locale or because of some undesirable conditions in their local settings. No doubt, migration is a painful decision for any individual or community and adverse conditions of life compel them to move; these factors might be economic, political, social, cultural, and geographical. When the migration begins on mass level, then it becomes more critical and that is happening in Punjab especially with the Sikhs.

Migration among the Sikhs is not only because of their adverse economic conditions, for the reasons that of the charm of money and advance in life are playing an important role especially among the Sikh youth. No doubt, Sikhs are dynamic by nature, but why they are moving from Punjab? This question demands serious attention. In contemporary world, almost every religious community occupies autonomous space. Sikhism has originated and grown on the land of Punjab; but from its birth to date, the non-Sikh rulers, except the eighty years period of Khalsa Raj, have ruled over the Sikhs. The Sikh community has passed through the bloody battles to maintain their identity. Their geographical and political conditions have made the Sikhs bold to face any situation. The land of Punjab has made a significant contribution in the construction of Sikh identity and they are continuingly fighting for sensible social milieu on this land. However, Sikhs has not tied- up to any specific area because of in Sikh thought, the entire world is a creation of God and He lives in it. “Sikhism believes in one God and the brotherhood of man. Sikh history is full of pacifist martyrs and at the same time, righteous fighters in defence of the faith. Ideologically Sikhism is closer to Islam and Christianity than Hinduism. Organizationally too, the Sikh religion is far more cohesive than orthodox Hinduism (Aurora: 1967; 33-34)”. Religion and space both are vital to shape the identity. The founder of the Sikh identity; Guru Nanak (1469-1539 A.D) depicted the unity of God. The Guru discovered that God is one, which is Creator of colourful world. Guru Nanak, explains that God have a single colour as well as multi-colour in his nature. Himself the Lord is near and Himself far. He himself is fulfilling all (GGS; 876) .The Sikh belief system and instability in life make the Sikh community more mobile and dynamic. Their beliefs and religious practices do not become barrier in migration. After the political defeat in Indian Punjab, they started to migrate across the globe in the search for contentment. Economic stagnation after the green revolution is now becoming a forceful push factor. In addition to that, other social and cultural factors are also facilitating the out-migrants. Because of such factors, Sikhs are dispersing widely to different countries.

Sikh Identity: New Possibilities and Challenges
The Sikhs have their own rules and regulation that shapes its distinct identity. Common normative patterns of Sikh behavior has constructed by the teachings and practices of ten Gurus. The founder of Sikh faith “Guru Nanak and his nine successors who nurtured the community during the first two centuries of its existence, not only set for their followers a strict moral standard, but also a distinctive patterns of personal appearance and social behavior (Premka Kaur: 1997; 424)”. Thus, Sikh identity has strongly related with Guru (creator) and that is central to it, their practices are belong to Him. “The Sikh doctrine had always emphasized the unity and identity of God, word, Guru and King. It seems that with the compilation of the Adi Granth and the institution of hereditary guruship, the kingly, real, or sovereign aspect of the Guru and God became pronounced (Bhupinder Singh: 1995; 105)”. As per Sikh Rahit Maryada, published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee the Sikh is ‘a person who has faith in the one Timeless Being, the Ten Gurus(from Sri Guru Nanak to Sri Guru Gobind Singh), Sri Guru Granth Sahib, their bani( Sikh scripture) and in the amrit of Tenth Guru, and who does not follow any other religion.
In its thought, Sikh identity has a cosmic vision but it covers small size of population also not widely known to entire world. The dispersion of Sikhs is making it broader. Thus, at global level, migration from the Punjab plays vital role in reshaping the Sikh identity that is emerging in various forms. In day-to-day practice, Sikhs are becoming more open and they are trying to accommodate with diverse social, religious, economic, and political settings. In the course of this process, age-old categories and traditional boundaries are getting demolished e.g. dogmatic attitude towards others and irrational religious practices are declining. Distance from their community and challenges they are facing in new social environments and minority feelings, make them conscious to their distinctive identity. They are interacting with different faith communities and are learning new experiences that are very significant to extend the Sikh identity. . No doubt, Sikhs are migrating from Punjab but even than they have also emotional concerns to it. The Sikh Diaspora has their deep association with Punjab because it is a birthplace of the Sikh faith.

In contrasts to that in Punjab, Sikhs are facing new challenges and problems for the reason of migration. The Sikh community derives its sovereign power from the Guru in their thought process but at same time, they are bound to Indian political system for their practical and political requirements. Politically migration is becoming very serious challenge for the Sikh identity because in this era numbers are important and Sikh population is going to reduce in Punjab. The Sikh identity has closely interrelated with its institutions and Punjabi Language. The scripture of Sikhs is in Gurmukhi (Punjabi) and their social life and religious practices has very much connected with it but, due to migration, Punjabi-speaking population is declining and Hindi is going to dominate it. Hindi literature and newspapers are gaining more and more ground in Punjab from last few decades.

If the process of migration goes on with such a speed then it will reduce the Sikhs into minority also Punjabi speaking population will go to the minority in this state. “If that will happen, then with the support of non Punjabi population anti- Punjabi faction wilt be try again to oppose the Punjabi language, that was done by them before the few decades in Punjab. That trend might be a dangerous in the social and political life (Gill: 2003; 5)”. The domination of non-Punjabi population in Punjab might be a threat to Sikh culture over and above to Sikh identity because their cultural traditions and practices are entirely different from them.

In economic field, Punjab is losing its expensive human resources. Skilled and trained professionals (craftspeople, doctors teachers engineers etc.) are replaced by the manual labour those are illiterates and unskilled. Labours who are migrating to Punjab are socially backward and belong to very poor families. “Not only are they burdened with their own indebtedness and poverty but their nutritional levels are very low, their bodies are weak and they are overwhelmingly illiterate (PHDR: 2004; 165)”. Lower living conditions of the migrant labour are badly effecting the social life of Punjab also disturbing its social norms and values. In addition to that, they are the main carrier of cheap drugs and different types of diseases and infections and uneven forms of crime.

It is responsibility of Punjab government to make its overall development also to maintain its demographic balance and to regulate the migrants.

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2.      Bertranpetit,Jaume& Francese Calafell (2002) “From Genetic Variation to Population Dynamics: Insights into the Biological Understanding of Humans”, In, Human Population Dynamics: Cross- Disciplinary Perspectives, eds., Helen Macbeth & Paul Collinson, Cambridge University Press, pp., 83-102.

3.      Bhupinder Singh (1995) “Raj Karega Khalsa: Understanding The Sikh Theory of Religion And Politics,” in, The Journal Of Religious Studies, Vol.26Nos 1&2,pp-99-113.

4.      Cole,W. Owen(2003) Sikhism: teach yourself ,Hodder Headline Ltd.,London.

5.      Ganda Singh (1988) “The History and Culture of Panjab Through the Age”, in, History and Culture of Panjab,ed., Mohinder Singh, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, pp.1-15.

6.      Gill, Mihar Singh(2003)Punjab vall ho rahe gerr jurari prvas di smasia,in, Samundron Paar,Jully issue,pp-4-5

7.      Gosal,G.S& Krishan,G.(1975) “ Patterns of internal migration in India”, In, People on the Move:Studies on internal migration,eds.,Leszek A Kosinski& R. Mansell Prothero, Methuen& Co Ltd, London, pp.193-206

8.      Helweg,Arthur W.(1986)Sikhs in England, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

9.      Kosinski, Leszek A.&Prothero,R.Mansell,eds.(1975)People on the Move Studies on internal migration, Methuen &Co Ltd, London.

10.  Parnwell, Mike (1993) Population Movements and the Third World, Routledge, London.

11.  PHDR,” Punjab Human Development Report”,(2004)The Government of Punjab,

12.  Premka Kaur, Sardarni(1997) “ Rahit Maryada”, In,The Encyclopaedia Of Sikhism,ed., Harbans Singh, Punjabi University, Patiala,pp-424-26.

13.  Robert Attenborough (2002) “Ecology, homeostasis and survival in human population dynamics”, In, Human Population Dynamics: Cross- Disciplinary Perspectives, eds., Helen Macbeth & Paul Collinson, Cambridge University Press, pp., 186-208

14.  Sabdarth, Shri Guru Granth Sahib, Shromni Gurudwara Prabdhk Committee, Amritsar.

15.  Sandhu,p.,M.Sidhu, Harshpinder and Sharanbir(2007) “Migration to Foreign Lands: its its Impact on Position of Migrated Women”,in, Indian Journal of Social Research,Vol.,48(1),pp-31-39.

16.  Taylor Steve., Manjit Singh, and Deborah Booth (2007) “A Diasporic Indian Community: Re-Imangining Punjab”, Sociological Bulletin, 56(2) May-August, pp-221-242.



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