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
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
A. PRE-IMMIGRATION DETAILS
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
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.
B. IMMIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT
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.
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
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
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 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.