The Ubiquitous Sikh – A Reminiscence
Mahindar Singh, M.A. (New York)
[Reproduced from The Sikh Review, January 2001]
During my career in Indian foreign service I happened to live in China, USA, West Africa, South East Asia, Central and Northern Europe.
I joined the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India in 1941 and was sent to serve the Indian Embassy in China in 1946. I landed at Shanghai where many Sikhs were employed as policemen in the International Settlement during the World War II. Some served as watchmen with firms and few were doing money-lending business – sadly – exploiting poor Chinese people by charging usurious interest on the sums they lent. I found all those Sikhs well-versed in the spoken Chinese language.
Indian embassy was stationed at Nanking (now called Nanjing), the Capital of the then Chinese Nationalist Government. At Nanking about one hundred Sikhs were employed by American Military Police and they set up a Gurdwara in the American barracks where they were lodged. After the Kuomintang Chinese regime quit, I shifted to Peking (Beijing), the new capital of the present Chinese Communist regime, in 1950. There were no Sikhs there, but only one Sikh, named Mit Singh, came to see me from Irkutsk, East Siberia. He settled in Tienstin, a near port city, and opened a Gurdwara there. His wife was a White Russian and she set up a church in the same compound.
Subsequently, I was stationed in New York from 1954 to 1958 where, then in this sprawling metropolis, were only five Sikhs, including me, working in UN Secretariat Library, and the other three were doctors. I heard there were many Sikhs on the West coast in California. In the earlier years of the 20th century, Sikh peasants, driven by economic conditions in the then Punjab, migrated to United States and Canada, to seek livelihood. At first Sikh migrants worked in Canada Pacific Railways, in lumber mills and mines. As the Canadian Government had imposed restrictions on emigration, the immigrants to the U.S. was a “spillover” from Canada.
Later, the Ghadr party was founded and a large number of Sikhs migrated to Canada, where the Sikh population is now over one percent of the total Canadian population. The current premier of province of British Columbia is a Sikh albeit without a turban.
From 1962 to 1964 I served in the Indian High Commission, Accra, West Africa, where there were many Sindhis; and one, Chela Ram, a leading Sindhi merchant, opened a Gurdwara in his own house. I had toured Liberia, Sierra Leon, Nigeria, Togo and Dhamoy (now called Benin) too but there then were no Sikh settlers.
From 1964 to 1967 I served in Malaysia and Singapore. At Kuala Lumpur, then, there were about six Gurdwaras respectively sponsored by original Punjab region Sikhs, like Malwa, Majha and Doaba, etc. At Singapore too there was a fine Gurdwara for which one Sikh donated his house as “Tera Ghar“.
I served in Poland from 1967 to 1969 where I did not come any Sikh settler. From 1969 to 1971 I served in Sweden, at Stockholm, the capital, there were a few Sikh students and some more in the neighbouring Uppsala.
Now, of course, thousands of Sikhs are settled all over North America and there is a Sikh settlement in Argentina too. There may be Sikhs in other South American countries too and also in various Pacific islands. I hear that a Sikh was raised in Osaka – his father probably the first Sikh immigrant to Japan – landed there from Basra, via Moscow, and Vladivostok. So turbaned Sikhs now can be seen almost all over the world.