1 SANTS AND MARTYRS IN THE DIASPORA: SIKH IDENTITIES IN POST-COLONIAL SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA TAN LI-JEN B.A. (Hons.), NUS A THESIS SUBMITTED FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE 2006
2 ii Acknowledgements To those who have been involved in my thesis, from its inception to its eagerlyanticipated completion, I thank you all most warmly. My supervisor, Dr Medha Kudaisya has played an integral part in the writing of my thesis. I am deeply indebted to her for her patience, unstinting support and encouragement, and for seeing me through the thesis-writing process. She has always made time for me, and through our discussions she has given me the much-needed confidence in developing the ideas presented my thesis. I am very grateful to Associate Professor Tan Tai Yong, to whom I owe a great intellectual debt. He has very kindly and generously provided me with numerous opportunities to further my research in the area of Sikh studies. I would also like to thank Associate Professor Gyanesh Kudaisya from South Asian Studies Programme, Dr Michael Montensano from Southeast Asian Studies Programme, Dr Stephanie Rupp from the Department of Sociology, Associate Professor Kulwant Singh from the NUS Business School, and Dr Kuldip Singh from the Department of Physics for their time, help and valuable insight. I owe a special thank you to Ms Kelly Lau from the Department of History who has been an indispensable and wonderful source of help and friendship. Thank you, Kelly. Mrs Letha Kumar from the Department of History has also been wonderfully kind and encouraging. I have experienced much kindness and generosity during the course of my research on the Sikh community. I would like to thank several individuals who have been a wonderful source of help: Mr Bhajan Singh from the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation, Mr Dilbagh Singh from the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Mr Harminder Singh (President of Gurdwara Sahib Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha, Singapore), Mr Karam Singh, Mr Rajveer Singh, Mr Balbir Singh (President of Gurdwara Sahib Melaka), and Mr Sukhdev Singh. I have benefited tremendously from their responses to my questions and our discussions. Special thanks are due to Mr Karpal Singh Malhi and the staff at the Sikh Centre, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. I thank the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board for the kind permission to reproduce selected illustrations from various community publications, and also Khalsa Printers for providing me with valuable printed materials. I would also like to thank Ms Sharon Kaur, who came up to me to say hello and who quickly dispelled my initial sense of being a stranger. She has made my fieldwork experience an enjoyable and memorable one.
3 iii As always, my coterie of close friends has been unfailingly supportive. They have been a constant source of encouragement. I ve also had the great pleasure of meeting some wonderful friends during my postgraduate study. It is because of them that I shall remember my life as a postgraduate student with great fondness. I would like to thank my parents whose unconditional love and support have sustained me through this period. My brother has helped me tremendously, especially during the final stages of my thesis-writing. And finally I owe my thanks to Alistair who has been an immense source of love, support, and encouragement. Each of them have borne with great patience the disruption caused by my writing, and each of them, in their own sweet way, have kept me going until the end was in sight. I am deeply grateful and humbled by their unwavering belief in my abilities. It is to them that I dedicate this thesis. I take sole responsibility for any errors and misinterpretations in this thesis. None of the individuals whose assistance I have acknowledged is in any way liable.
4 iv TABLE OF CONTENTS Acknowledgements Summary List of Illustrations List of Maps Glossary ii vi vii ix x INTRODUCTION 1 Approaches to Sikh Studies 3 The Historiography of Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia 9 Sants in the Sikh Tradition 13 Fieldwork Methodology and Sources 17 Structure of Thesis 23 CHAPTER 1. BETWEEN COLONIES: SIKH MIGRATION TO MALAYA 27 Symbols of Imperial Power 30 The Historical Context of Sikh Migration to Malaya 38 Phase One: Jat Sikh Migration 46 Phase Two: The Coming of Commercial Migrants 53 Phase Three: Migration in the Post-War Period 54 Conclusion BHAI MAHARAJ SINGH AND THE MAKING OF A MODEL 62 MINORITY : SIKHS IN SINGAPORE Community Organizations and the Negotiation of Sikh Identity in 63 Post-colonial Singapore Caste and Regional Loyalties 74 Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road 80 Bhai Maharaj Singh 81 Bhai Maharaj Singh as Rebel Against the British Raj 88 Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sikh Sant 90 Bhai Maharaj Singh as The First Sikh to Land Ashore on Singapore Soil 92 Bhai Maharaj Singh and Popular Devotion 101 Conclusion 110
5 v 3. SANT SOHAN SINGH AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF SIKH 116 IDENTITY: SIKHS IN MALAYSIA The Early Life of Sant Sohan Singh 120 Political Influence of Sant Sohan Singh 123 Caste and Regional Loyalties among Sikhs in Malaya 127 The Politics of Commemoration 130 The Experience and Significance of Babaji s Barsi 135 Sant Sohan Singh and the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia 151 Conclusion THE EMERGENCE OF NEW SANTS AND THE ACTIVITIES 159 OF RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA IN THE 1990s Sants in the Diaspora 160 Sikhs with a Mission 163 Sikh Sewaks and 3HO Sikhs 167 Conclusion 173 CONCLUSION 174 Bibliography 181
6 vi SUMMARY The history of Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore can be traced to the period of Sikh migration to Malaya during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the onset of colonialism and the expansion of the British Empire, the first significant international movement of Sikhs was to the British colonies of Burma and Malaya. The enforcement of internal law and order in Malaya served as a crucial catalyst for the beginnings of Sikh migration. Employed as soldiers and policemen in the colonial security forces, Sikhs came to play an important role in the policing of Malaya. The turbaned Sikh police thus became a potent symbol of British imperial power, especially in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. Sikhs were also employed in other occupations as watchmen, labourers on tin mines, dairy farmers and as bullock-cart drivers. The flow of Sikh immigrants into Malaya ceased with the implementation in 1953, and again in 1959, of restrictive immigration laws by the Malayan government. Those who chose to stay on in Malaya in the post-colonial period laid the foundations of the present Sikh community in Singapore and Malaysia. This study seeks to delineate and explore the contexts that frame the construction of Sikh history and identity among Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore since the 1970s. Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore began to devote their efforts to the writing of their histories, and the construction of Malaysian Sikh and Singaporean Sikh identities in the post-colonial period when issues concerning Sikh identity in the diaspora became increasingly important. By focusing on the commemoration of two Sikh religious and historical figures as icons of the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities, this study analyses the complexities involved in the fashioning of Sikh historical narratives and identities. The aim of this study is to present multiple histories and identities of Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore. The roles played by ordinary Sikhs, Sikh community organizations, Sikh community leaders, Sikh Sants, and reformist Sikh religious groups in the construction and negotiation of Sikh history and identity will be explored through the commemorative practices associated with the two prominent Sikh figures. This study concludes by emphasizing that Sikh history and identity are shaped by multiple influences and a multiplicity of actors who are constantly involved in a contest for authority and legitimacy to define what it means to be Sikh.
7 vii LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS CHAPTER 2. BHAI MAHARAJ SINGH AND THE MAKING OF A MODEL MINORITY : SIKHS IN SINGAPORE 2.1 Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, and 84 Sikh Centre in Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Cover of book published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board to 85 commemorate the 150 th Anniversary of Bhai Maharaj Singh. Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji 150 th Anniversary Logo. 86 Logo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier. 97 Book published by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Entrance to the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial. 98 Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Booard, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith. 99 Book published by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1998/ Devotees gathered at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial during Bhai 107 Maharaj Singh s Barsi. Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Devotees at a prayer session held at the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road in 108 conjunction with Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi, Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial with the Guru Granth Sahib in view 109 (Memorial decorated with flowers for Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi, 2004)
8 viii 3. SANT SOHAN SINGH AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF SIKH IDENTITY: SIKHS IN MALAYSIA 3.1 The main darbar of Gurdwara Sahib Melaka Devotees preparing food in the langgar during the Barsi, Sikh ladies helping out in the langgar during the Barsi, Sant Sohan Singh Ji Complex List of Donors to the Sant Sohan Singh Ji Building Fund Sikh devotees gathered outside the Gurdwara Sabib Melaka 150 during the Barsi, Malacca, THE EMERGENCE OF NEW SANTS AND THE ACTIVITIES OF RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN SINGAPORE AND MALAYSIA IN THE 1990s 4.1 Our Honoured Guest Speakers. Camp Miri Piri Leaflet by Sikh 171 Sewaks Singapore, Programme details. Camp Miri Piri Leaflet by Sikh Sewaks 172 Singapore, 2004.
9 ix LIST OF MAPS MAPS 1.1 General Map of the Punjab 40
10 x GLOSSARY Adi Granth: Amrit: Amrit chhakna: Amritdhari: Amrit sanskar: Arora: Baba: Baisakhi: Bhai: Doaba: Granthi: Gurdwara: Gurmat: Izzat: Jat: Kesdhari: Khalsa: The Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs recorded and complied by Guru Arjan in Nectar of immortality ; sweetened water used in the ceremony when Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa To partake of amrit, to undergo initiation into the Khalsa A Sikh who has been initiated into the Khalsa through a baptism ritual. This involves the taking of amrit The initiation ceremony of the Khalsa A mercantile caste of the Punjab Father, a term of respect applied to holy men. Used in other Indian traditions. (McLeod) New Year s Day in Punjab, the first day of the month of Baisakh or Visakh. Also referred to as Vesakhi Brother, a title applied to Sikhs of acknowledged learning and piety. Plains tract of Central Punjab bounded by Beas and Sutlej Rivers. An appointed reader of the Guru Granth Sahib; the custodian of a Gurdwara. Sikh temple. The teachings of the Gurus; Sikhism Prestige; honour; self-respect. Rural agrarian caste, numerically dominant in the Sikh Panth (community) A Sikh who retains uncut hair. The Sikh religious order or brotherhood established by Guru Gobind Singh at the end of the seventeenth century.
11 xi Khalistan: Khalistani: Khanda: Khande di pahul: Khatri: Kirpan: Kirtan: Langar: Mazhabi: Mahja: Malwa: Masand: Mela: panth: Panth: Panj Kakke: Land of the Pure, the name adopted by advocates of an independent homeland for the Sikhs. The Khalistan movement came to the fore (particularly among some groups within the Sikh diaspora) after Operation Blue Star in 1984 when troops from the Indian Army desecrated the Golden Temple at Amritsar in an attempt to flush out Sikh militants. A supporter of the Khalistan movement. Two-edged sword; Khalsa symbol comprising a vertical two edged sword over a quoit with two crossed kirpans. The initiation rite of the Khalsa; Initiation with the two-edged sword. A mercantile caste of the Punjab Sword worn as one of the Five Ks Singing of hymns Kitchen/Refectory attached to every Gurdwara where food is served to all regardless of caste and class and creed. Chuhra or sweeper caste; an Outcaste Sikh. Area of Central Punjab lying between Beas and Ravi Rivers Southern Punjab, comprising Ludhiana, Ferozepur and Patiala districts. Administrative deputies representing the Sikh Guru. Inaugurated by Guru Ram Das; the masands later became corrupt and were dislodged from power by Guru Gobind Singh. Usually taken to mean a religious fair. A path or way, system of religious practice or belief; community observing a particular system of practice or belief. The Sikh community (the word panth spelt with a capital P ). The Five Ks; the five external symbols, each beginning with the initial letter k, which members of the Khalsa must wear. The five symbols are: kes (uncut hair), kangha (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel bangle), and kachh (a pair of breeches).
12 xii Panj Piare: Pir: Rahit: Samadhi: Sant: Sant tradition: The Cherished Five or Five Beloved ; the first five Sikhs who were initiated as members of the Khalsa; five baptised Sikhs of good standing chosen to represent a sangat Spiritual guide, Saint, Sufi mystic, head of a Sufi religious order The code of conduct and belief of the Khalsa Tomb of, or tomb associated with Sikh and Hindu holy men. (Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries) One renowned as a teacher of Gurmat; One who knows the (religious) truth; a pious person; an adherent of the Sant tradition (McLeod) A devotional tradition of North India which stressed the need for interior religion as opposed to external observance Sahaj-dhari: Sangat: Sanatan Sikhs: sewa: Singh Sabha: Sufi: Tat Khalsa: tirath: A non-khalsa Sikh, one who has not been baptised into the Khalsa and does not observe the Khalsa Rahit Congregation, Assembly, group of devotees Conservative members of the Singh Sabha opposed to the Tat Khalsa Service, commonly to a gurdwara Reform movement in the Sikh Panth initiated in The Singh Sabha became the arena for a struggle between the conservative Sanatan Sikhs and the radical Tat Khalsa. A member of one of the Muslim mystical orders. The true Khalsa or pure Khalsa. In the early eighteenth century the immediate followers of Banda Bahadur; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries radical reformist members of the Singh Sabha. A sacred place, a place of pilgrimage
13 1 INTRODUCTION Although the figures vary, there are, at present, an estimated 16 to 20 million Sikhs living worldwide. Of the estimated one to three million Sikhs living abroad currently, approximately three-quarters of them are located in Britain, Canada and the United States while the rest are found in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Southeast Asia. 1 Sikh migration out of the Punjab is part of the large-scale migration of Indians from South Asia in the later half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries during the period of British colonial rule. This migratory flow was part of the larger circulation of men and goods within the vast British imperial system. Malaya, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, and the west coast of North America were among the more prominent destinations attracting the flow of Sikh migrants (and sojourners) in the early stages of Sikh migration. 2 The movement of Indian labour into British colonies such as Malaya accelerated after the consolidation of British rule in Malaya in the late nineteenth century. Along with the large-scale migration of unskilled South Indian labourers into Malaya were Sikh migrants who were highly sought as soldiers and policemen in the security forces and as watchmen and caretakers. Sikh commercial migrants who were petty entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and 1 See Darshan Singh Tatla, The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood, (henceforth The Sikh Diaspora), (UK: University of London (UCL) Press, 1999), p. 41; Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs: (henceforth A History of Sikhs), (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 409; Brian Keith Axel, The Nation s Tortured Body: Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh Diaspora (henceforth The Nation s Tortured Body ), (Durham: Duke University Press), 2001, pp W.H McLeod, The First Forty Years of Sikh Migration: Problems and some Possible Solutions (henceforth First Forty Years of Sikh Migration ), in Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture, and Thought, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 240.
14 2 traders also arrived in Malaya, especially in the twentieth century. 3 In Malaya, Sikhs learned of other destinations like Telia (Australia), Miriken (America) and Kaneida (Canada) and some of them moved on to these countries in search of new economic opportunities. 4 Although Sikh migration into America and Canada was kept in check in the early decades of the twentieth century by discriminatory restrictions imposed by the respective governments, the movement of Sikhs into these countries was not completely stemmed. In fact, the number of Sikh migrants in the United States increased substantially after the implementation of favourable polices on citizenship and immigration in the 1960s. Britain, Canada and North America continued to receive new Sikh immigrants from Punjab in the period after the Second World War up until the present. 5 The flow of Indian immigrants into Malaya was, in general, affected by the implementation of stricter immigration laws by the Malayan government in 1953, and again in The movement into Malaya of unskilled Sikhs as potential recruits for the police force and militia was stymied by the restriction on immigration while the movement of Sikh commercial immigrants also petered out gradually in that period. Thereafter, the Sikh population in this region consisted of Sikhs of Malayan domicile who established themselves and their families in Malaya. 3 K.S Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya during the period of British rule, in Jerome Ch en and Nicholas Tarling (eds.), Studies in the Social History of China and Southeast Asia (henceforth Sikh Immigration into Malaya ), (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp McLeod, First Forty Years of Sikh Migration, p See, Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p ; Karen Leonard, Flawed Transmission? Punjabi Pioneers in California, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora, (New Delhi: Manohar 1996), pp. 97-9; Bruce LaBrack, The New Patrons: Sikhs Overseas, in N. Gerald Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery (eds.), The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience beyond Punjab, (Delhi: Chanakya Publication,1989), pp
15 3 This thesis seeks to delineate and explore the contexts which frame the construction and negotiation of Sikh history and identity by Sikh communities in Singapore and Malaysia in the post-colonial period since the 1970s. I hope to combine a historical perspective with ethnographic research by exploring the connections between historically forged and newly formed networks, as well as the invention and adaptation of Sikh cultural practices and beliefs as Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia shape and define their identities. Approaches to Sikh Studies Over the past three decades, Sikh studies have emerged as a lively and contested academic field. 6 Topics of research ranging from Sikhism to Sikh history and identity to the Sikh diaspora have become increasingly popular and important, especially after a period of political unrest in the Punjab brought international attention to the Sikh community in the 1980s. The establishment of Sikh chairs at universities in the North American and British universities, academic programmes, and conferences have contributed by the furthering of research; it also reflects the growing interest in this area by members of the Sikh diaspora, particularly those living in Britain, Canada and the United States. 7 6 Tony Ballantyne, Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Historiography of Sikhism (henceforth Historiography of Sikhism, in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4, 1, (June, 2002), p N. Gerald Barrier, Introduction-II: Sikhism in the Light of History, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikhism and History, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp
16 4 The relationship between academic studies and popular Sikh discourse is, however, fraught with ambiguity and at times animosity. This is especially so after Operation Bluestar in 1984, during which the Indian Army laid siege to the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the anti-sikh Delhi riots that erupted subsequently after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards in October Sikhs living in the Punjab and abroad were greatly angered by these events and the support for Khalistan a separate state for Sikhs in India gained considerable ground among Sikhs living in the West during this turbulent period. 8 A sense of persecution among Sikhs heightened their perception of attacks from academics and politicians where the topic of Sikhism and Sikh identity is concerned. Themes pertaining to the origins of Sikhism, the interpretation of key religious texts (the Adi Granth and Dasam Granth), and the definition of Sikh identity and history have become potential flashpoints between scholars and a certain section of the Sikh community. 9 The field of Sikh studies has increasingly produced works on the emergence of a Sikh diaspora, especially in the past three decades. It would be useful to situate this development within the broader trends in diaspora studies and South Asian historiography. The question of what constitutes a diaspora remains a pertinent one in diaspora studies. Steven Vertovec in his work on South Asian religious diasporas observes that diaspora is the term often used at present to describe practically any population that is considered deterritorialised or transnational that is, which has 8 Khushwant Singh, A History of Sikhs, pp The groundswell of support for Khalistan among Sikhs in these countries petered out gradually after the initial anger over political events in Punjab have subsided somewhat. See, Ibid., pp N. Gerald Barrier, Introduction II Sikhism in the Light of History, p. 21; Ballantyne, Historiography of Sikhism, pp
17 5 originated in a land other than which it currently resides, and whose social, economic and political networks cross the borders of nations, or indeed, span the globe. 10 Vertovec proceeds to discuss the three discernible meanings of the concept diaspora : diaspora as social form, diaspora as type of consciousness, and diaspora as mode of cultural production. As a social form, the term diaspora was originally used to describe Jews and their experience of exile from a historical homeland. It is a well-established analytical category in Jewish studies and is associated with the experience of forced displacement, victimization, alienation and loss ; attached to this diasporic experience is a desire of return to the homeland. The term diaspora has since been adapted to encompass a broader group of people and their experiences in the context of migration, especially that which took place during and after the late nineteenth century. 11 Thus, the study of the South Asian diaspora, though attracting academic interest only fairly recently, is an expanding field in South Asian studies. Some scholars working on South Asia have highlighted the limitations that the unitary notion of a South Asian diaspora imposes on new and potential areas of research and have argued for an approach that focuses on the regional identities of South Asians in the diaspora. 12 Others have also pointed out that the academic focus on Hindus in the South Asian diaspora has created an uneven production of knowledge about other diaspora, in this case, the Sikh diaspora Steven Vertovec, Three meanings of diaspora exemplified among South Asian Religions, in Diaspora, 7(2), 1999, p Khachig Toloyan, The Nation-State and Its Others: In Lieu of a Preface, in Diaspora 1, 1, (Spring, 1991), pp Claude Markovits, The Global World of Indian Merchants, : Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000). See also, Nation and Migration: The Politics of Space in the South Asian Diaspora, Peter van der Veer, (ed.), (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995) 13 Axel, The Nation s Tortured Body, p. 9.
18 6 Existing works on the Sikh diaspora have dealt mainly with themes and issues affecting Sikh communities in Canada, the UK and America. The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience beyond the Punjab, which was published in 1989, is one of the earlier studies done on the history of Sikh communities living overseas. 14 Various aspects of Punjabi-Sikh migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were explored in the essays. The different phases of migration; the diverse experiences of Sikhs who lived in different countries (United States, Canada, and Britain); and the types of links Sikh migrants maintained with the Punjab and the nature of their relationship with the host nation were among some of the topics covered. More recent studies have focused on the emergence of a Sikh diaspora in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar in Darshan Singh Tatla s study on The Sikh Diaspora traces the emergence of a Sikh diaspora and development of Sikh political institutions in the United Kingdom, Canada and North America, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Tatla argues that the early migratory experiences of Punjabi-Sikhs was voluntary rather than forced, and, therefore, did not quite fit into the classic mould of a diaspora. He goes on to argue that Sikhs abroad did not fully constitute a diaspora until June Tatla s study explores the links (economic, social, religious, and political) between Sikhs living in Britain, Canada, and North America with the Punjab, and the rise of community organizations that connected various Sikh communities into 14 N.G Barrier and Verne Dusenbery, (eds.), The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience Beyond the Punjab, (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989).
19 7 a shared diasporic network. A large part of his research is also devoted to the mobilisation and politicisation of the Sikh diaspora after Operation Bluestar. 15 Another work written using the diasporic framework is Brian Keith Axel s The Nation s Tortured Body, which was published in The main thrust of Axel s argument is that the idea of the Sikh homeland is a product of the diasporic experiences and imagination of Sikh migrants rather than the common perception that the fight for Khalistan has stemmed unidirectionally from Sikh practices within India. 16 He argues that the circulation (through the Internet) of images of Maharaja Dalip Singh, maps projecting the imagined state of Khalistan, and graphic pictures of tortured bodies of Sikh militants and Khalistanis have created potent linkages which connect various Sikh communities from different sites in Britain, United States and India. Axel, therefore, explores the manner in which media and communications have transformed Sikh diasporic space and Sikh identities and shaped the idea of a Sikh homeland. Although recent studies on the Sikh diaspora provide valuable insights into the networks and organisation of Sikh communities in Britain, Canada and North America, the experiences of Sikh communities living in Southeast Asia remain an under-explored area in Sikh studies. Also, Tony Ballantyne points out, aptly, that as the foundational category underpinning Tatla s and Axel s works, diaspora remains a 15 Tatla, The Sikh Diaspora, pp Axel, The Nation s Tortured Body, p. 4.
20 8 contested term in the case of Sikhs. 17 The emergence of a Sikh diaspora post-1984 occurred against a backdrop of violence and a strong sense of threat and persecution. The attack on the Golden Temple was an affront to Sikhs in the Punjab and abroad, and it served to reinforce their sense of belonging to a larger transnational Sikh Panth (community; also, path or way). While the study of the emergence of Sikh diaspora is undoubtedly important, there is a danger in this approach of distorting the historical experiences and identities of different Sikh communities living overseas through the lens of a single event and its ramifications. A main issue highlighted in The Sikh Diaspora concerns the use of the concept of a Sikh diaspora as an analytical category, especially in studies on the early migration of Punjabi-Sikhs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. W.H. McLeod and Karen Leonard point out that that the use of the term, Sikh diaspora, inaccurately privileges a religious identity over other crucial factors like economic, caste and kinship networks linking the early migrants. 18 The question of whether and when it is appropriate to speak of a Sikh diaspora was raised, given the historical context of early migration where there appears to have been neither clear-cut religious identities nor religiously-restricted social networks among the Punjabi emigrants at the turn of the century Tony Ballantyne, Framing the Sikh Past, in International Journal of Punjab Studies, 10, 1&2, (January-December 2003), p W.H. McLeod, The First Forty Years of Sikh Migration: Problems and Possible Solutions, in The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience Beyond the Punjab, in N.G Barrier and Verne Dusenbery, (eds.), (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989), pp ; Karen Leonard, Pioneer Voices from California: Reflections on Race, Religion and Ethnicity, in The Sikh Diaspora, pp Verne A. Dusenbery, Introduction: A Century of Sikhs Beyond the Punjab, N. Gerald Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery (eds.), The Sikh Diaspora, (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989) in The Sikh Diaspora, p. 18.
21 9 While the earlier emphasis was on establishing the reasons behind Sikh immigration and the study of Sikh immigrant communities in relation to their host country, the focus has since shifted to the diasporic approach where Sikhs (in North America, Canada and Britain) are increasingly studied as a transnational and diasporic social formation linked by social networks and cultural exchanges. 20 It is, however, important to note that the circulation of information, ideas, and images is not always even and consistent, and that some groups have greater access to flows of information than others. Verne A. Dusenbery, in his article on Sikh communities in Southeast Asia, argues that the very different experiences of Sikhs in post-colonial Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, despite historical commonalities, demonstrates the power of the state in Southeast Asia to impose conditions of possibility upon Sikh selfrepresentations. At the same time these experiences demonstrate the creative abilities of Sikhs to fashion self-identities in different fields of power. 21 While Sikhs living in Singapore and Malaysia are concerned with positioning themselves as part of the transnational Sikh Panth, they are also keenly aware of the need to align their interests and identities with their respective nation-states. The Historiography of Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia The issues highlighted in the foregoing paragraph set the context for a study of Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia. In the post-colonial period Sikhs have been studied as separate communities through the framework of their nation-states Malaysia and 20 Ballantyne, Historiography of Sikhism, p Verne A. Dusenbery, Diasporic Imagings and the Conditions of Possibility: Sikhs and the State in Southeast Asia in Sojourn, Vol. 12, 2, (1997), p. 228.
22 10 Singapore. 22 There are, however, many points of convergence between the Sikh communities in Singapore and Malaysia given their historical connection in the colonial period when the two countries were part of British Malaya. Some of the more prominent of the shared themes include: the history of Sikh immigration to Malaya (particularly as policemen and soldiers in the British colonial security forces), the significance of the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) as a social and religious institution for the Sikh community and its influence on Sikh identity, social change and the construction of Sikh identity, and the transmission of Sikh heritage in the diaspora. The issue of caste and generational differences dividing the Sikh community remains a salient topic and is often discussed in tandem with Sikh identity. 23 K.S. Sandhu s study on Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement ( ), which was published in 1969 remains an important point of reference for the history of Sikh migration to Malaya. 24 As is evident from the title, the focus of his study is on the history of Indian immigration in Malaya during the period of British rule and an important part of his research is based on archival documents as well as oral interviews with Indian immigrants. K.S Sandhu adopts a broad historical framework that sought to capture the fluid nature and unprecedented scale of Indian migration to Malaya during the period of colonial rule. The historical experiences of Sikh immigrants were situated within the larger context of overseas 22 See, K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani, Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, (Singapore: ISEAS and Times Academic Press, 1993); Manjit S. Sidhu, Sikhs in Malaysia, (Malacca: Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society Malaysia, 1991). 23 For a discussion of caste and regional differences among Sikhs in Singapore see, Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community in Singapore, unpublished M. Soc. Sci dissertation, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, K. S. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya: Some Aspects of their Immigration and Settlement ( ), (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
23 11 Indian immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Sandhu also produced an essay on Sikh Immigration into Malaya during the period of British Rule. 25 The essay, based on his earlier research in Indians in Malaya, provides a comprehensive historical background to the different phases of Sikh immigration into Malaya as well as the types of Sikh migrants that arrived during each of these phases. Another historical study in this area is Amarjit Kaur s unpublished thesis on North Indians in Malaya which discusses the social, economic, and political activities of North Indian immigrant communities in Malaya between the 1870s and 1940s, with particular emphasis on the Sikh community in Selangor. 26 Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, a volume of essays edited by K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani is an important source on the history of Indian immigration and settlement in Southeast Asia (which includes Brunei Darussalam, Indochina, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand). Most of the essays are written as immigration histories that focus on the immigration and organization of various South Asian communities in their new country of domicile, and addresses the issue of acculturation among the younger generation. 27 The present scholarship on Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia has a strong institutional focus as a substantial number of historical studies on the Sikhs have focused on the role of Sikh religious institutions / community organizations in shaping 25 K.S. Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, in Jerome Ch en and Nicholas Tarling (eds.), Studies in the Social History of China and Southeast Asia, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press), Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya: A Study of their Economic, Social and Political Activities with Special Reference to Selangor, 1870s-1940s, unpublished M.A dissertation, Department of History, University of Malaya, K.S. Sandhu & A. Mani, Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, 1993.
24 12 the Sikh community and Sikh identities. In the context of Singapore, Tan Tai Yong s Singapore Khalsa Association, Iqbal Singh Seva s The Evolution of Sikh Religious Institutions in Singapore, and Satvinder Singh s Sikh Organizations and Sikh Identity in Singapore are examples of studies on Sikh history and identity with an institutional emphasis. 28 Examples of such histories in the context of Malaysia are provided in an essay by Sarjit Singh Gill on Discourse on Sikh Minority Community in Malaysia: Between a Popular and Academic Analysis. 29 The focus on Sikh institutions is understandable when we take into consideration access to sources. The lack of written records and sources on the Sikh community is often highlighted as a problem hindering academic research on the Sikhs. Rajpal Singh makes the observation that this is a problem shared by minority communities (Sikhs being a minority community) in the writing of their histories. 30 While the storage of records (for example: Gurdwara records, notes of meeting) by Sikh institutions are patchy at best, the availability of at least some research materials is certainly an impetus for adopting an institutional focus in the study of the Sikh community. Besides, the perennial issue of caste and regional differences manifested in the organization of Sikh institutions (given the establishment of regional and caste-based 28 See, Tan Tai Yong, Singapore Khalsa Association, (Singapore: Times Books International and Singapore Khalsa Association, 1988); Iqbal Singh Seva, The Evolution of Sikh Religious Institutions in Singapore, unpublished B.A. (Hons) Academic Exercise, Department of History, National University of Singapore, 1998/1999; Satvinder Singh, Sikh Organizations and Sikh Identity in Singapore, unpublished B.A. (Hons) Academic Exercise, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1993/ See, Sarjit S. Gill, Pembentukan Wacana Mengenai Komuniti Minoriti Sikh di Malaysia: Antara Analisis Popular dan Analisis Ilmiah ( Discourse on Sikh Minority Community in Malaysia: Between a Popular and Academic Analysis ), Seminar Komuniti Sikh di Malaysia, organized by Institut Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA), University Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2002, pp Rajpal Singh, Studying Minority Groups: The case of the Sikhs in Singapore, in The Varsity Sikh Journal, Vol 3. (2000/2001), National University of Singapore, pp. 1-5.
25 13 gurdwaras in Singapore and Malaysia) provides the framework for a study of Sikh identity. The main departure of my study from previous works lies in my approach to the study of Sikh history and identity; I have shifted the focus away from Sikh religious institutions and community organisations. Although these institutions are included in my study as an important part of the Sikh social, religious and cultural landscape, it is studied in tandem with other contexts that shape the construction of Sikh identities. The emergence and commemoration of two Sikh historical and religious figures in Malaysia and Singapore in the postcolonial period sets the framework for my study. One of them is Sant Sohan Singh, a granthi who arrived in Malaya from the Punjab in 1926; while the other is Bhai Maharaj Singh, a Sikh historical figure who gained prominence for his anti-british revolutionary activities and who was exiled to Singapore by the British in These two Sikh figures have been memorialized as icons of the Singaporean and Malaysian Sikh communities and are also widely revered as Sants (highly revered holy men). Sants in the Sikh Tradition To better appreciate the influence wielded by Sant Sohan Singh and Bhai Maharaj Singh among Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs, it would be useful to explore the significance of Sants within Sikh tradition. The role and influence of Sikh Sants remains an under-explored area in Sikh studies despite the contributions of W.H.
26 14 McLeod, Harjot Oberoi, and Darshan Singh Tatla. 31 Darshan Singh Tatla observes that the study of the role of Sikh Sants is a neglected field of Punjab historical and social studies despite the proliferation of the Sant tradition among overseas Sikhs, and the emergence in the twentieth century of Sants as a predominant [political] force within the Sikh Panth. 32 In an effort to address this neglect, Tatla published an article, Mission Abroad: Sant Teja Singh in the Western World, in which he discussed the role of Sant Teja Singh ( ) in defending and promoting the Sikh faith and the interests of Sikhs in Britain, America and Canada. Harjot Oberoi, who contributed significantly to Sikh studies by pushing the study of Sikh history and identity in a new epistemological direction with his work on The Construction of Religious Boundaries, points out that Sants have been part of Punjabi society and a part of Sikh religious hierarchy for a long time. In the nineteenth century, Bhais, Sants and Babas were holy men who were ranked closely with members of guru lineages, who were in turn believed by the Sikh Panth to have descended from the Sikh gurus. Given the degree of respect and veneration these holy men commanded within the Panth, Bhais, Sants and Babas were crucial for the transmission of Sikhism and Sikh tradition, especially to the Sikh peasant masses. 33 The status of holy men and the religious leadership they provide is closely linked to the tradition of, what McLeod terms as, a subsidiary master-disciple relationship 31 W.H. McLeod, The Meaning of Sant in Sikh Usage in Exploring Sikhism: Aspects of Sikh Identity, Culture, and Thought, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000); Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997); Darshan S. Tatla, Mission Abroad: Sant Teja Singh in the Western World, in Reeta Grewal and Sheena Pal (eds.), Five Centuries of Sikh Tradition: Ideology, Society, Politics and Culture, (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005). 32 Darshan S. Tatla, Mission Abroad: Sant Teja Singh in the Western World, p Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, pp
27 15 within the Panth. While the authority of the Gurus and the Guru Granth Sahib remain sacrosanct, it has not displaced the tradition of allegiance to a present and visible master. Associated historically with masands, the role of a present and visible master was inherited by Sants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 34 The role of Sants in Punjabi society is discussed by W. H. McLeod in his article on The Meaning of Sant in Sikh Usage. In it, he traces the etymological lineage behind the title sant and the historical evolution of the Sant movement in the Punjab. 35 The development of the Sant phenomenon can be traced to the historical developments in the Sikh Panth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The trajectory of the Sant movement is shaped by the establishment of the Khalsa in 1699, the increasing dominance of Jats in the social constituency of the Sikh Panth, and the growing militancy of the Panth in the face of threats of persecution and warfare. 36 McLeod argues that these developments led to an emphasis within the Sikh Panth on strongly extrovert forms of piety over the earlier insistence on interior devotion. 37 Such strongly extrovert forms of piety found expression in the type of religious leadership (notably of a militant nature) embodied by Sants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A key aspect of this religious duty involved defending the honour of the Khalsa, and if necessary, taking up arms to do so. Another important aspect to note of the Sant movement is its rural nature: the Sant tradition was, and still is 34 McLeod, The Meaning of Sant, p Masands were representatives appointed by the later Gurus to act and administer on their behalf; the masands became corrupt and were eventually disestablished in the seventeenth century by Guru Gobind Singh. 35 Ibid., pp , p McLeod, The Development of the Sikh Panth in Exploring Sikhism, pp McLeod, The Meaning of Sant, p. 154.
28 16 popular among rural Sikh peasants as most Sants are from the Jat caste. 38 Given that the Sant tradition enjoys a well-established and lengthy historical tradition within the rural constituency of the Sikh Panth, it is unsurprising for the tradition to have taken root among the predominantly Jat Sikh population in Malaysia and Singapore. The modern Sant phenomenon has therefore flourished not only in Punjab but also among Sikh communities overseas. McLeod points out, in the context of the Punjab, that, [the] antecedents of the modern Sants are as ancient as India s reverence for individuals distinguished by their piety, asceticism or supernatural powers. [And that] this traditional reverence for gurus, pirs and mahants is indeed part of the modern Sant development. 39 Not only were such individuals present in the Punjab, they were also found among Sikh communities living outside the Punjab. Sants have come to represent a certain range of religious piety in the Sikh Panth. In various ways and at various times, Sants were responsible for transmitting Sikh tradition through religious instruction, and defending the Khalsa faith in the face of external threats through military and political activity. Prominent examples of Sants involved in the latter activity include: Bhai Maharaj Singh who took up arms against the British in the mid-nineteenth century, Sant Fateh Singh who led the struggle for Punjabi Suba in the 1960s, and the controversial Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who was 38 McLeod, The Meaning of Sant, pp ; See also, Darshan S. Tatla, Mission Abroad: Sant Teja Singh in the Western World, p McLeod, The Meaning of Sant, p. 154.
29 17 involved in Punjab politics and eventually killed when the Indian Army laid siege on the Golden Temple in June While the development and influence of the modern Sant movement in the Punjab and the West is discussed in the works of W.H. McLeod and Darshan Singh Tatla, its establishment among Sikh communities living in Southeast Asia has scarcely received any academic attention and interest. By using the history and development of the Sant tradition to frame my research on the two prominent Sikh Sants in Malaysia and Singapore, I hope to make a contribution in this area by combining the study of Sikh Sants with the study of the construction and negotiation of identities among Sikhs in the diaspora. Fieldwork Methodology and Sources The nature of my research necessitated the use of a variety of considerably dispersed sources. A significant part of my study is based on fieldwork conducted in Singapore and Malaysia between 2004 and Other research materials include community publications in the form of Gurdwara newsletters, pamphlets, tracts, commemorative books, and unpublished academic theses on the history and organization of Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia. Archival records while providing useful information on the historical background of early Sikh migration to Malaya revealed little on the informal social and historical networks established by the Sikhs and were, therefore, of limited 40 Ibid., p.158. See also, Bhagwan Singh Josh, New Dimensions in Sikh Politics in the Economic and Political Weekly 13:4 (7 October 1978), for a discussion on the political role of Sikh Sants.
30 18 use in my study. It is through secondary sources, namely the work of K.S. Sandhu, where I have used archival research to set the historical context for my study. In 2004, I joined a group of Singaporean Sikh devotees on their trip to Malacca for the annual Barsi of Sant Sohan Singh, a highly revered granthi who used to serve at the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca. 41 The group chartered a 30-seater bus for the journey, which included scheduled stops at the Gurdwara Sahib Johor Bahru in Johor, Malaysia and the Gurdwara Sahib Babe Ke in Machap, Malaysia. Organised annually in May since 1973, the Barsi is devoted to the memory of Sohan Singh who was elevated as a Sant by the Sikh community in Malaya. It is a prominent and popular religious event, particularly for Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia, and is considered the largest of such religious commemoration in Southeast Asia. There are, as yet, no historical or ethnographic studies on the significance of the Barsi and the figure of Sant Sohan Singh. Given the dearth of academic sources, printed materials published by the community in the form of the Sant s biography, commemorative books, pamphlets and articles as well as interviews with Sikh devotees and those involved closely involved in the organization of the Barsi are crucial source materials in my study. During the three-day Barsi, which was held within the compound of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca, I gathered a close and detailed observation of the religious commemoration and the manner in which Sikh devotees approached the event. In order to get a more complete understanding of the symbolism of the Barsi and the 41 A Barsi is the religious commemoration of an individual s death anniversary and is regarded as an important Sikh ritual.
31 19 significance of Sant Sohan Singh to the Singaporean and Malaysian Sikh communities, I interviewed a range of devotees from the elderly to the young, males and females, Singaporeans and Malaysians, in groups and individually. I was able to tap into the rich oral history of the Sant, which was built on the memories of Sikh devotees. In 2004, I spent time learning the Hindi language, which shares a close similarity to spoken Punjabi. My basic level of Hindi proved to be useful in establishing a certain level of rapport, particularly in my informal interviews with older Sikh informants Most of my interviews were conducted at the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca where the Barsi was held. Given the scale and nature of the occasion, the interviews were informal and loosely structured and took the form of casual conversations started in the langgar over a meal or during a lull between religious programmes. Many Sikh devotees were happy to explain the history and significance of the Barsi and the importance of Sant Sohan Singh to Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia. It was through these casual conversations that I was introduced to other Sikhs who had known the Sant either personally or through their family. One of my interviewees was an elderly Singapore-domiciled Sikh who arrived in Malaya in 1952 and had known Sant Sohan Singh since With the exception of the few occasions when he was absent, he has attended the Barsi faithfully. 42 Whenever the situation arose where I had to interview some of the elderly Sikh devotees who spoke only Punjabi or Malay, I was always able to secure the assistance of the person who had made the initial introduction, in translating the interview into Punjabi (and occasionally Malay) and English. The rest 42 Interview with Mr Kartar Singh (with the assistance of Mr Inderjit Singh), Malacca, 24 th May 2004.
32 20 of my interviews were conducted in English as my interviewees were conversant and fluent in the language. Although I have tried, where possible, to record the interviews with the permission of my interviewees, many of them were uncomfortable with the idea and declined, opting instead for an informal conversation. 43 I respected their decision and found that I gained much more when I allowed the conversation to flow freely. The notes made after the interviews, along with my personal observations of Barsi, were reviewed at the end of each day. In order to get an understanding of the organization of the Barsi, I interviewed the President of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca Committee which organized the Barsi. 44 Interviews were also conducted with several Sikh devotees who had known the Sant either personally, or through their families. While interviews and participant observation are an important part of my methodology, I am aware that it worked best when supplemented with other materials. Printed materials served as an important complement to my interviews; it provided information and background which oral interviews lacked in some areas. 45 Thus, commemorative books published for important events like Vesakhi, a biography of Sant Sohan Singh (written originally in Punjabi by Tara Singh Hitashi, and which I translated into English with the help of a 43 I encountered similar responses while I was doing interviews during the Barsi of Bhai Maharaj Singh in Singapore in June The interview with Mr Balbir Singh (President of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca) was a thematic interview based on a list of questions relating to the life and history of Sant Sohan Singh, his influence on Singaporean and Malaysian Sikhs, his contributions to the community, the significance and symbolism of the Barsi as an act of commemorating Sant Sohan Singh as an icon for the Sikh Panth (community), the growing prominence of the religious event among Sikhs in Malaysia, Singapore, and even Southeast Asia, and the changes that have taken place over time. Mr Balbir Singh, who was born in Malacca and continues to reside there, and whose family was closely acquainted with Sant Sohan Singh, provided me with valuable information on the background to the Barsi, the history of the small and close-knit Sikh community in Malacca, and the life of Sant Sohan Singh. 45 This also applies to the significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh for the Singaporean Sikh community which will be discussed in Chapter Two.
33 21 translator), and non-academic articles on the life of Sant Sohan Singh provided important background on the Sant and the early Sikh community. 46 I was also granted access to the library in the Sant Sohan Singh Ji Complex, a new annexe to the Gurdwara that was completed in The library had a collection of Punjabi language books and periodicals on Sikhism which belonged to Sant Sohan Singh. Yet another interesting source of research materials, not directly linked to the Sant but important nonetheless, are the pamphlets, flyers, and booklets circulated among devotees during the Barsi by various Sikh religious and youth groups. These materials present the different views and developments currently unfolding in the Malaysian Sikh community. The Barsi of Bhai Maharaj Singh, which is organized annually at the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road in Singapore, is another religious event that was included in my fieldwork. The religious commemoration was held in July at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara located within the compound of the main Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. 47 The local nature of the religious commemoration meant that the community of Sikh devotees was made up mainly of Singaporean Sikhs. Unlike Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi where Sikhs from all over Malaysia and Singapore gather for extended periods of time at the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca, Singaporean Sikh devotees have the flexibility of attending Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi at different times given the close proximity of 46 These articles are re-written in English from parts of the biography, and reproduced in commemorative books, in non-academic histories of the Sikh community in Malaya, in newspapers, and on the website of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca. 47 The Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara, which was built next to the main Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road building was completed in See, Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, (Kuala Lumpur: Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, 2003) p. 99.
34 22 the Gurdwara and their homes. Although Bhai Maharaj s Barsi in Singapore is considerably smaller in scale in comparison to Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi in Malacca, it is nonetheless an important event for the Singaporean Sikh community. The religious commemoration revolves around a Sikh historical figure who was exiled to Singapore by the British in the nineteenth century for his anti-british revolutionary activities in the Punjab. Bhai Maharaj Singh is memorialised by the Singaporean Sikh community as a martyr and revered as a Sant. Popular devotion of Bhai Maharaj Singh can be traced to the 1950s when Sikhs began worshipping at an unmarked samadh (tombstone) which they believed belonged to a Sikh Sant. 48 Over the course of the three-day Barsi, I conducted interviews with devotees, who were mainly Singaporean Sikhs. The interviews were informal and loosely structured, and as was the case with the Barsi in Malacca, meals in the langgar provided opportunities for a casual conversation on the history and significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh. Notes on the interviews and personal observations gathered during the Barsi were recorded and reviewed at the end of each day. My informants were often forthcoming with their answers, although their replies were invariably subjected to varying degrees of self-imposed censorship when the topic turned to the popular devotion of Bhai Maharaj Singh and the miracles associated with the Sant Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier of the Sikh Faith, (Singapore, Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1991), pp Also, personal communication with Sikh informants, Singapore, July, Participant observation and personal communication with Sikh devotees at Gurdwara Silat Road Singapore, July Some Sikh informants couched their replies carefully and offered me official views of Sikhism that discouraged the worship of Sikh Sants.
35 23 Printed materials on Bhai Maharaj Singh and Sikh community organizations were gathered during my visits to the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, Central Sikh Temple, the Singapore Khalsa Association, and Gurdwara Sahib Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha (Gurdwara Sahib Katong) between 2004 and Interviews were conducted with various Sikh community leaders during these visits. In addition, interviews (usually informal) were also conducted with other members of the Sikh community whenever I visited the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road and Central Sikh Temple during major Sikh religious festivals, and birthday celebrations of the Sikh Gurus. It was on my subsequent visits to the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road that I was able to personally observe Sikhs worshipping at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara. 50 Books and magazines published in English by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board to commemorate Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi provided the historical background to the life of Bhai Maharaj Singh. It also makes interesting research material on efforts made by the Singaporean Sikh leadership in memorialising the figure of Bhai Maharaj Singh as a historical icon for the Singaporean Sikh community. Details on Bhai Maharaj Singh s anti-british revolutionary activities in the Punjab, before he was exiled to Singapore in 1850 by his British captors, are supplemented by secondary sources. Structure of Thesis This thesis seeks to contribute to the study of Sikhs in Singapore and Malaysia through the discussion of hitherto unexplored contexts that frame the construction and negotiation of Sikh history and identity in the postcolonial period from the 1970s to 50 I was allowed to enter the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara, and before I did so, I observed the practice of covering my head with a shawl, and of being respectful of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib in the Gurdwara.
36 24 present. My study not intended as a narrative of the Sikh community written in the vein of national histories; rather, it aims to highlight the different facets that have shaped Sikh history and identity over time. The chapters are, therefore, different narratives structured on a thematic rather than chronological approach. Chapter One sets the historical context for Punjabi-Sikh immigration to Malaya in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This movement stems largely from rural Punjab and is characterised by the circulation of young, male, Jat Sikhs who sought employment in the colonial police and military services as well as the private sector in Malaya. K.S. Sandhu highlights the ephemeral character of this movement by noting that of the estimated one hundred thousand Sikhs entering Malaya about seventy five thousand returned to the Punjab in the period between 1850 and Those who remained in Malaya after the implementation of strict immigration laws by the Malayan government in 1953 and 1959 laid the foundations of the present Singaporean and Malaysian Sikh communities. The historical linkages and social networks established among Sikhs in these two countries during the colonial period are also discussed. Chapter Two examines the contexts that frame the construction of Sikh history and identity in Singapore in the post-colonial period. There will be an emphasis on Sikh community institutions, which provide a crucial platform for the articulation and promotion of Sikh interests in Singapore. In fact, government-endorsed Sikh community organizations play a key role in negotiating the confluence of Sikh 51 Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p. 352.
37 25 interests with national interests. Apart from these organizations, this chapter will explore the efforts made by the Singaporean Sikh community at memorializing Bhai Maharaj Singh a prominent figure in Sikh history and religious tradition as an icon to unify a community marked by caste and generational differences. A substantial part of this chapter looks at the ways in which Sikh history and identity are negotiated and constructed through the multiple meanings and symbolism attached to Bhai Maharaj Singh. Chapter Three presents the various ways in which Sikhs in Malaysia construct their histories and identities by exploring the significance of the Sant who inspired the Barsi and the history behind the annual Barsi in Malacca. Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi is arguably the largest religious commemoration in Southeast Asia. The scale of the event and the large numbers of devotees it draws attests to the growing popularity and importance of the Sant for Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore. The prominence and popularity of this religious commemoration among Sikhs living in Malaysia and Singapore warrants a study on its significance and the enduring impact the Sant had on Sikhs during the colonial period and postcolonial period (when Malaysia and Singapore gained independence in 1957 and 1965 respectively). Widely revered for his piety and extensive contributions to the Sikh community in Malaya, the Sant has been memorialised as an icon of community and his figure has come to serve as a rallying point for a community divided along caste and generational lines.
38 26 Chapter Four focuses on new forms of religious expression and religious practices that have emerged within the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities at present. This phenomenon coupled with the emergence of new pilgrimage sites and the proliferation of Sikh Sants is part of the process of cultural reproduction among Sikhs in the diaspora. One of the key concerns for the present generation of Sikhs in the diaspora is to preserve a Punjabi-Sikh heritage and make Sikhism relevant to their respective communities. More importantly, just as Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs are keen to retain their Punjabi-Sikh heritage and promote a deeper engagement with Sikhism, they are also invariably involved in adapting and reinterpreting Sikh tradition and religious practices to suit their needs, and to give meaning to their identities.
39 27 CHAPTER ONE BETWEEN COLONIES: SIKH MIGRATION TO MALAYA The history of Sikh migration to Malaya spans the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the vast expansion of the British Empire brought about the unprecedented and large-scale migration of Indians from South Asia to British colonies in Asia. The movement of Indian labour into British Malaya accelerated after the consolidation of British rule in Malaya in the late nineteenth century. 1 This migratory flow was part of the larger circulation of men and goods within the British imperial system. Vast and intricate, this system was held together by interconnecting trade and communication networks such as steamship routes and telegraph cables. 2 Fuelled by an economic impetus, the process of empire building created new labour markets in colonies, like Malaya and the Straits Settlements, which were filled largely by Indian as well as Chinese migrants. This chapter will provide the historical backdrop against which Sikhs came to establish themselves in Southeast Asia. The main aim is to outline and contextualise the historical trajectories of the early Punjabi- Sikh immigrants within the different phases of migration that took place during the colonial period. The focus will be on what the historian Tony Ballantyne terms as, the horizontal linkages between colonies. He argues that the British empire, as much as a spider s web, was dependent on these inter-colonial exchanges. Important flows 1 The extension of British rule to the west-coast Malay states in the 1870s paved the way for the large scale migration of Indians to Malaya. See Rajeswary Ampalavanar, The Indian Minority and Political Change in Malaya, , (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1981), p See Tony Ballantyne, Introduction: Aryanism and the Webs of Empire in Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire, (henceforth Orientalism and Race), (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp
40 28 of capital, personnel and ideas between colonies energized colonial development and the function of the larger imperial system. 3 The circulation and migration of Sikhs to Malaya and the Straits Settlements was an important part of this flow of personnel between colonies. Three major types of migration among South Asians can be identified: unskilled labourers (mainly agricultural workers), skilled and semi-skilled workers, merchants and commercial employees. Most of the Indian migrants who came to Malaya during the period of British rule were South Indian Tamils employed on sugar, coffee, and rubber estates as unskilled, agricultural labourers. In an annual report submitted by the Colonial Office in 1890, it was observed: If the Malay Peninsula is ever to be a great rubber-growing and exporting country, the importation of labourers from India is a necessity and the Government should do what is possible to facilitate and cheapen immigration. 4 This formed the historical backdrop to the large-scale, government-regulated migration of South Indians to Malaya. A large percentage of the migrants were single male adults who came as indentured labour and later as labourers recruited through the Kangani system. 5 3 Ibid., p Report of the Protected Malay States, 1890 London, H. M. Stationery Office, Nov. 1890, p. 23. Cited from Usha Mahajani, The role of Indian minorities in Burma and Malaya (henceforth The role of Indian minorities), (New York: Vora & Co., Publishers, 1959), p See, K. S. Sandhu, Indians in Malaya: Some aspects of their immigration and settlement ( ) (henceforth Indians in Malaya), (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp ; Usha Mahajani, The role of Indian minorities, pp Indian migrants who came to Malaya first as indentured labour and later as Kangani labour worked under deplorable and highly exploitative conditions on sugar, coffee and rubber estates.
41 29 The migration of semi-skilled or skilled workers, including clerical and technical staff, seeking jobs in government services, made up the second type of migration. A small percentage of South Indian Tamils and Malayalees found employment in government departments as clerks, and administrative and technical assistants. 6 From about the end of the nineteenth century, a small number of English-educated Sikhs also came to Malaya as teachers and clerks. 7 The widespread circulation of security personnel from India and those who sought employment as policemen and militiamen in the British colonies formed part of this stream of migration. A third major type of migration involved commercial migrants such as merchants, petty traders, and commercial employees. Their movement into Southeast Asia was primarily an unregulated, non-labour migration. 8 This migratory flow was characterised by a high level of circulation of men and goods. Among these migrants were Hindu and Muslim traders from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts, and the Chettiar money-lenders from Madras. Until the early years of the twentieth century, Gujaratis, Bengalis and Parsis made up the bulk of the Northern Indian commercial migrants in Malaya before they lost their numerical and commercial advantage to the 6 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, pp , 123. According to Rajeswary Ampalavanar, South Indian Tamils accounted for approximately 77 percent of the total Indian population in Malaya and Singapore in 1947 while other South Indians like the Malayalee and Telegus formed a further 14 percent. See Ampalavanar, The Indian Minority, pp K. S. Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya during the period of British rule, in Studies in the Social History of China and South-East Asia: essays in memory of Victor Purcell, in Jerome Ch en and Nicholas Tarling (eds.) (henceforth Sikh Immigration into Malaya ), (Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya: A study of their economic, social and political activities with special reference to Selangor, 1870s-1940s (henceforth North Indians in Malaya ), unpublished M.A. dissertation, Department of History, Kuala Lumpur, University of Malaya, 1973, pp. 2-3.
42 30 Sikhs and Sindhis, as well as the Marwaris. They were mainly commercial migrants who came as pedlars, shopkeepers, petty entrepreneurs, merchants and traders. 9 Symbols of Imperial Power Prominent among the North Indian migrants in Malaya were the Punjabi Sikhs who served in the colonial military and police forces. During the period of British rule, the famed and much publicised martial races of India namely Pathans, Rajputs, Punjabi Hindus, Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs from North India became a crucial labour commodity for the colonial security forces. With the annexation of the Punjab in 1848, the former state was rapidly integrated into the British Empire. While the policy of demilitarization was enforced in the Punjab in the initial period after annexation, the province was eventually turned into an important recruiting ground for the colonial armed forces following the mutiny of the Bengal Army in 1857, and the onset of the Great Game with Russia in the late nineteenth century. The perception of Russia as a potential threat to British interests in India meant that the function of the Indian army was no longer just that of an internal policing force. Efforts were made to improve the efficiency of the Indian army as a protection force against foreign attack. 10 This led to the systematic recruitment of certain social groups from North India, namely the Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Pathans and Gurkhas whom the British regarded as the martial races. 11 That these northern races were perceived by the British to be 9 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, pp Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State: the Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, (henceforth The Garrison State), (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005), p. 68. Although the Russian threat to British interests was defused with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, the Punjab still retained its military importance as a recruiting ground for the Indian army. 11 Ibid., pp
43 31 inherently better warriors than others was influenced in part by the colonial encounter with the Indian caste system, 12 and to a large degree, by the military experiences gleaned from past encounters with these groups. 13 The preferential recruitment by influential British officers of certain races led to the emergence of a racist recruiting doctrine known as the martial race theory. 14 The Punjab became the principal recruiting ground of the Indian Army from the late nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century (until the end of colonial rule in 1947), and it subsequently came to be referred to as the sword arm of the Raj. 15 Punjabis provided manpower and logistic support to the British on the north-western frontier, which was an active theatre of military action, and also played a prominent role in policing far-flung overseas territories colonised by the British. 16 With the onset of colonialism and the expansion of the British Empire, the first significant international movement of Sikhs as free migrants (as opposed to indentured labour) was to the British colonies of Burma and Malaya. Employed as soldiers and policemen in the colonial security forces, Sikhs came to play an important role in the policing of British Malaya. The British came to possess Penang, Malacca 12 Ibid., p. 60. The Indian caste system placed a heavy emphasis on the division and specialization of labour. The existence of the kshatriya or warrior caste as traditional arm bearers pointed to a distinction between martial and non-martial groups within India. 13 Ibid., pp While the British were engaged, at various times, in military campaigns against the Sikhs (two Anglo-Sikh Wars) and Pathans, they also fought alongside the Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Gurkhas and Pathans, most notably during the 1857 Rebellion. This gave the British the opportunity to observe up close the military capabilities of the northern Indian races. 14 Ibid., pp One prominent example was Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of the Bengal Army in 1885 was a staunch advocate of the martial race theory. 15 Ibid., pp According to the author, Punjabis accounted, on the eve of the First World War, for sixty-six percent of all cavalrymen in the Indian Army, eighty-eight per cent in the artillery and fortyfive percent in the infantry. He goes on to point out that these figures indicate the highest rate of military participation ratio from a particular province ever experienced in colonial India. 16 Imran Ali, The Punjab under Imperialism, , (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 4.
44 32 and Singapore in the first half of the nineteenth century; and by the second half of the nineteenth century British control was extended to the four Federated Malay States of Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negri Sembilan. The economic development of these British-controlled territories hinged upon the maintenance of political stability within these newly dispossessed Malay States. Concerns over the threats to the authority of the colonial government and the enforcement of internal law and order in Malaya served as a crucial catalyst for the beginnings of Sikh migration. 17 While Malaya s migrant population was crucial in driving and sustaining its economic development, the multi-ethnic and multi-faith make-up of the migrants posed significant problems for the colonial government in terms of surveillance and internal security. Malaya s population where Tamils, Punjabis, Sinhalese, Siamese, Europeans, Eurasians, Javanese, Boyanese, Bugis, and Chinese co-existed and where each group subscribed to different religions be it Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism was largely transitory, mobile and highly mixed. Political concerns, including the fear of the potential for revolt among the dispossessed Malay chiefs and anxieties over the criminal and disruptive activities of Chinese secret societies stemmed from the expansion of British hegemony in the Malay states of Selangor, Perak, Pahang and Negri Sembilan and the growing number of Chinese migrants in Malaya. 18 These conditions resulted in extensive debates on the 17 Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, pp The problem of controlling the restive and growing Chinese population was exacerbated by the reduction in the Indian military garrison following the transfer in 1867 of the Straits Settlements from Indian to Colonial Office control.
45 33 organisation of a credible police force for the purpose of defending British political and economic interests within Malaya. The process of recruiting for the police force saw the colonial authorities experimenting with local Malays, Filipinos, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Jawi Pekans (children of Malay and Indian intermarriage), South Indians and Europeans, all of whom were found in some way or other to be unsuitable for police work. The selection of recruits for the colonial police force reflected the racial stereotypes and racial theories which the colonial government subscribed to in its governance of the largely migrant community co-existing within British Malaya. Local Malays who were deemed to have a deep-rooted dislike for regular work, strict discipline and enforced subordination were considered unsuitable for police work. Most of the Malays who did apply (these being a minority as the Malay population generally did not regard police work as an honourable profession) were labelled diminutive and weedy and thus rejected. 19 The Straits Settlements Police Commission appointed in 1879 to oversee the reform of the police force found South Indians and Jawi Pekan to be intelligent but very corrupt, untrustworthy and ineffectual especially when dealing with the Chinese. They were described in official reports as as listless and apathetic as the Malays, [with] any natural sharpness turned away towards undesirable directions. 20 The Chinese were deemed to be unsuitable as police recruits given the fear among British officials of collusion between the local Chinese policemen and Chinese secret society members. A brief experimentation with a group of Chinese 19 Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p Ibid., p. 21.
46 34 police recruits sent to Malaya from Hong Kong in 1891 ended when they were also found to be thoroughly untrustworthy and subsequently dismissed. It was under such circumstances that the colonial government turned to the Punjab and the Northwest Frontier as a recruiting ground for its police force. 21 As mentioned earlier, Punjabis, in particular Sikhs were known and valued within the empire for their martial prowess. The two Anglo-Sikh Wars fought in 1845 and 1848 led the British to hold the military capabilities of the Sikhs in high esteem. This regard was later reinforced by the crucial support rendered by the Sikhs during the 1857 Mutiny of the Bengal Army. 22 Sikhs were deployed as policemen in Hong Kong as early as 1867 and an indication of their success was the respect and fear they inspired amongst the Chinese who referred to the Sikhs as Mungkali kwai (Bengali [sic] devils). 23 The effective employment of Sikh policemen in the surveillance and control of the Chinese in Hong Kong caught the attention of the colonial administration of Malaya who was trying to control its own intractable Chinese migrant population. 24 The martial prowess of Punjabis was first tried and tested in Malaya in the early 1870s when a Malay chief, Ngah Ibrahim, the Mantri of Larut, Perak commissioned Captain Speedy, the former Superintendent of Police in Penang with the task of recruiting 21 Ibid. pp , Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, pp Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, pp The author states that, Even Dalhousie, who deeply distrusted the Sikhs after the annexation of the Punjab, was ready to admit that they were a warlike people who were ready to take up arms at a moment s notice. 23 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p. 73. The racial stereotype of the martial Sikh was popular among the Chinese. There was a common saying among the Chinese that while they could fight the Europeans no man could stand against the Black Devils (Sikhs) for whenever one of them lifted his rifle, a Chinaman fell and they did not know how to miss. Cited from Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p. 25, n Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, pp
47 35 North Indian troops to defend his tin mines against his rivals and to quell the feuding between rival Chinese clans (the Ghee Hins and Hai Sans) working on the tin mines. 25 Captain Speedy returned to Perak in September 1873 with a force of ninety-five men assembled from Sikhs, Pathans and Punjabi Muslims, which proceeded to enforce law and order. A large number of these pioneer North Indian recruits were absorbed into the police force of Perak when the Malay State came under the control of the British in Sikhs were also employed as sentries, escorts and Residency Guards in Jelebu and Sungei Ujong in the 1880s. The Straits Settlements received its first batch of Sikh policemen in 1881 (The Sikh Contingent in Singapore was formed in 1881); the Malay State of Selangor in 1884, and Pahang in This marked the beginning of the successful incorporation of Sikhs into the system of control and surveillance enforced by the colonial government. Pathans from the Hazara and Mardhana areas of the North West Frontier Province, and Punjabi Muslims and Hindus did not, however, fare as well as the Sikhs in terms of employment in the Malayan security forces. Shortly after their arrival in Malaya as part of Captain Speedy s police force, they acquired the unfortunate reputation of being inferior to the Sikhs in terms of general work and discipline. While it is hard to ascertain if this perception was built on specious or valid sources, it certainly diminished the 25 Arunajeet Kaur, The Role of Sikhs in the Policing of British Malaya and the Straits Settlements ( ) (henceforth The Role of Sikhs ), unpublished M.A. dissertation, South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore, 2002, p. 50. The Malay Royalty of Perak who was embroiled in succession disputes also exploited the situation by engaging feuding Chinese clans as proxies in their struggle for power. This resulted in the Larut Wars which were fought in 1861, 1865, 1872, with the fourth civil war fought in 1874 culminating in British Intervention. 26 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p. 73, n.3. Having proved their abilities in policing the recalcitrant Chinese mining community, a large number of these recruits were re-enlisted as Residency Guards, the nucleus of the Perak Police Force. 27 Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, pp
48 36 employment prospects for Pathans, and Punjabi Muslims and Hindus as they were actively replaced by Sikhs in the security forces from as early as the 1890s. 28 As the demand for Sikh security personnel grew, the Malayan government began recruiting Sikhs in India. This was done initially through the Indian Government which was also actively recruiting Sikhs for the Indian Army, and later through its own officers from the Malayan security forces. These were usually Sikh noncommissioned officers on furlough in India. The main channel of recruitment however was in Malaya itself. Sikhs, upon learning of job opportunities in Malaya from their friends and relatives who worked overseas, travelled to Malaya and South-East Asia with their assistance in increasing numbers. The sense of solidarity among the early Sikh sojourners was based on informal familial and village networks; it was these networks which the Malayan Government tapped into for the recruitment of new security personnel. 29 This is clearly illustrated in Inder Singh s narrative on his family history: My family had a strong connection with the Malay States Guides. For us it had become a family regiment. We had about fifty relations and friends i.e. villagers in the Guides. My father had always been a good recruiting sergeant. He always returned from long leaves in India with batches of recruits. 30 For those Sikhs who travelled to Malaya and Singapore on their own and who had qualified for enlistment into the local security forces, there were specific procedures governing their recruitment. The backgrounds and particulars of these recruits were sent back to 28 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides ( ) Malaysian Historical Series, (Penang: Cathy Printers Limited, 1965), p. 116.
49 37 district officers in the Punjab for the verification of their caste, the region from which they came, and for any previous criminal records. 31 Sikh policemen on furlough in India served as crucial and mobile channels of information linking Malaya with the Punjab. They brought gifts, money, and news of their fellow policemen in Malaya to their kinsmen and friends in the Punjab, and returned to their colleagues in Malaya with news of family and village affairs. Many new Sikhs who arrived in Malaya were brought along by friends and relatives returning from a visit to India, or received financial assistance for the passage to Malaya from family or friends. 32 Employment in the security forces was limited and was, therefore, much coveted among the early Sikh migrants. Not all immigrants who sought employment with the government security forces were successful. Among those who failed to meet the strict requirements for enlistment into the local security forces; some moved on to other countries, namely Indonesia and Thailand while the majority were absorbed into the private sector of the Malayan economy as watchmen, private security guards and caretakers given their favourable reputation as security personnel. Sikhs were recruited into the Tanjong Pagar Dock Police Force (formed by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company in Singapore) to perform guard duties. A substantial number of Sikhs were employed as security guards in the police forces maintained by the Naval Base and the Royal Air Force Base in Singapore. Even wealthy Chinese businessmen were known to employ Sikhs as personal bodyguards. 33 Sikhs also found employment as bullock- 31 Oral interview record of Chanan Singh Sidhu, National Archives of Singapore (NAS), A000432/18, Reel Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p Arunajeet Kaur, The Role of Sikhs, pp
50 38 cart drivers, dairy farmers, petty traders, and shopkeepers (in the business of supplying provisions to their countrymen). Among the more successful Sikh immigrants, many ventured into the money-lending business using their savings as capital. 34 The Historical Context of Sikh Migration to Malaya The Punjab had, by the end of the nineteenth century emerged as the main recruiting ground for the Indian Army, and was supplying more than half the recruits for the entire force. It was described in the Eden Commission Report as the home of the most martial races of India and is the nursery of our best soldiers. 35 Potential recruits were subjected to a highly selective and stringent recruitment process that was largely based on the martial class doctrine. This doctrine was essentially a racial theory which associated certain north Indian classes with inherent martial qualities and viewed them as competent warriors ideally suited for warfare and military activities in comparison to other classes. These martial qualities were highly privileged in the imperial imagination and were closely associated with the notions of character, racially determined physique and intelligence, which Sikh soldiers were deemed to possess and showcase to great effect. 36 Given the rigid taxonomies stemming from the martial class doctrine, employment opportunities offered by the military proved to be extremely limited. In the Punjab, Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims were ranked at the top of the list of eligible recruits, while Dogras and Hindu Jats had to contend for lessfavoured positions. All other groups of Punjabis not categorised as martial classes 34 Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p. 124, Amarjit Kaur, Northern Indians in Malaya, pp Report of the Eden Commission, 15 November 1879, cited from Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race, p.113, n Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race, p. 113.
51 39 were automatically excluded from military recruitment. Even among the martial classes, only those from particular sub-castes, clans, tribes and localities qualified for recruitment. In the recruitment manuals produced by the Army for British officers, Sikhs who belonged to the dominant peasant Jat caste and who adhered to the Khalsa creed were earmarked as ideal recruits. The importance of the region and district from which recruits were drawn was also emphasized. An officers recruitment manual written in 1896 by R. W. Falcon suggested that recruitment should be targeted at those Sikh tribes which supplied converts to Sikhism in the time of Guru Gobind Singh, who in fact formed the Singh people ; those tribes who were more recent converts to Sikhism could not be considered as true Sikh tribes and should hence be avoided. Officers were discouraged from recruiting in the eastern and southern regions where the characteristic of the people [were] more of the Hindustani type and were warned against regions where Sikhism had been diluted by Hinduism. 37 It has been pointed out that as a consequence, the recruitment of Sikhs was virtually limited to the Manjha area of central Punjab, and over ninety per cent of Sikhs recruited were listed as Jat Sikhs, [with] Amritsar district [being] at the heart of the Manjha tract [supplying] more than a third of all Sikhs recruited in the Punjab R.W. Falcon, Handbook on Sikhs for the use of Regimental Officers (Allahabad, 1896), Cited from Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race, p. 114, n , and Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, p. 72. n. 3, Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, p Jat Sikhs from Central Punjab were described in the recruitment manuals as hardy, strong, and full of hard work and the best quality Sikhs for military purposes [while] Sikhs from the sub-montane tract, including the districts of Hoshiarpur, Ambala, Gurdaspur, Sialkot and Gujrat, were considered poor types, and not suitable for enlistment. Quoted in The Garrison State, p. 72, (6), Major A.E Barstow, Recruiting Handbooks for the Indian Army: Sikhs, (Calcutta, 1898), pp and Appendix 1, p [See MAP 1.1]
52 MAP 1.1 General Map of the Punjab. Source: Harnik Deol, Religion and Nationalism in India: The Case of the Punjab, (London: Routledge, 2000) 40
53 41 Recruitment for the Malayan security forces was done initially through the Indian government before it was taken over by local officers, namely Sikh non-commissioned officers on furlough in India. As such, the recruitment practices adopted by the Malayan government were similar to that of the Indian Army s even after the Indian government ceased recruiting on their behalf. Sikhs who joined the security forces in Malaya were almost all from the Majha, Malwa, and Doaba regions of the Punjab. It is estimated that Sikhs from the Majha and Malwa regions each accounted for about 35 percent of this particular type of migration while Sikhs from the Doaba region made up about 20 percent. 39 A large percentage of these Sikhs were from the peasant Jat caste. The regional and caste composition is highly reflective of British preferential recruitment of Jat Sikhs from the Mahja and Malwa regions into the security forces. Sikhs who travelled to Malaya as hopeful potential recruits for the local security forces formed the bulk of all Sikh immigration until the 1930s when they were edged out of their numerical majority by other Sikh immigrants, namely Sikh commercial immigrants. 40 The choice of Khalsa Jat Sikhs as ideal military and police recruits stemmed from the British belief that the socially dominant Jat peasantry found in the heart of Punjab was naturally inclined in terms of physique and character to military service. Sikhism was militarized with the influx of Jat peasants into the Sikh faith in the seventeenth century: the incorporation of the notion of izzat (honour, face, selfrespect) and warrior values (the readiness to bear arms) both highly privileged in 39 Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, pp Ibid., p. 343.
54 42 Punjabi, especially Jat culture gave the religion a militaristic edge. 41 This martial aspect of Sikhism was embodied in the Khalsa, a religious order established by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, and codified in the Rahit, the Khalsa code of belief and conduct promulgated by the Guru. As part of the Rahit, those who were initiated into the Khalsa were expected to maintain the external symbols of their Khalsa identity: the Five Ks (panj kakar) to mark them out, especially males, as Sikhs; and to embrace the call to arms to defend the Guru and the Khalsa should the need arise. The historical context behind the creation of the Khalsa was the Sikh struggle against Mughal persecution in the seventeenth century. As McLeod points out, the origin may have been the need to defend the Guru, but the long-term purpose was to smite and destroy the Mughal Empire. For this reason they were to be imbued with a new and unique spirit [ ]. Later, with the fighting against the Afghans in the middle of the eighteen century, the role of adversary was extended to all Muslims. All Muslims (not just the Mughals or their servants) thus became the enemies of the Khalsa. 42 By recruiting along caste and class lines and encouraging the Khalsa Sikh identity within the Punjab Contingent, the British administration hoped to cultivate a distinctly martial but loyal community while nurturing the historical animosity between the Sikhs and the Muslims. The injunction for Khalsa Sikhs to maintain the external symbols of their identity was reinforced by the British who made this and the Khalsa s khande di pahul initiation rite a mandatory requirement for all Sikh troops. McLeod makes the argument that, around 1860 or 1870 [ ] many of those who lived in the villages (in the Punjab) were very relaxed about questions of identity. Muslims might be easier to 41 Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, p Hew McLeod, Sikhism, (England: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 53.
55 43 distinguish, but the difference between Sikh and Hindu was much more difficult to discern [ ]. It seemed that only in the Indian Army were the Khalsa symbols adequately maintained, the British requiring all Sikh recruits to observe them scrupulously. 43 The British practice of compartmentalising troops according to religious, caste, ethnic and geographical differences was a strategy of keeping the Indian Army pliant. Closely modelled on the recruiting practices formerly used in Ranjit Singh s Sikh army, the British system of recruitment sought to exploit and leverage in their interests the historical cleavages that existed within Punjabi society : Khalsa Jat Sikhs who harboured a historical animosity towards Muslims since the period of Mughal persecution and Muslim tribes of the Salt Range tract who were reduced to destitution during the reign of the Sikhs made the perfect counterpoise against each other. 44 The policy of organising the Malayan security forces along class, caste, religious and geographical (namely regional) identities was similar to that employed by the Indian Army: the Malay States Guides (M.S.G.), which was a main source of employment for Sikhs in Malaya, was organized along such lines. 45 This is highlighted in the following description, The M.S.G. was a show regiment. About one third of the men were six-footers or more. The minimum height was 5 9. The Subedar-Major (1915) 43 Ibid., p Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, pp Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides, pp. 12 & 39. The M.S.G. was a paramilitary regiment formed in 1896 from the Police Forces of Perak, Selangor and Pahang. During the First World War, the M.S.G. had the experience of serving with the Aden Field Force (made up of units from the Indian Army and British Army) when it fought the Turkish Army in Yemen.
56 44 named Jag Singh was nearly six and a half feet in height and broad in proportion. The four companies of Sikhs would take pride in their curled beards. The E and F Coys composed of Punjabi Muslims and Frontier Pathans from the borders of India and Afghanistan were clean shaven. A few Muslim soldiers were allowed to wear clipped beards with special permission. E Coy had also a proportion of Punjabi Hindus. At the beginning of a march the Sikh companies would shout the war cry of Sat-Sri-Akal and the Muslim companies would echo Allah-Hu-Akbar. 46 The religious and martial identities of the soldiers were clearly encouraged: Khalsa Sikhs with their curled beards and their war cry of Sat-Sri-Akal served alongside, but were kept separate from clean shaven Punjabi Muslims and Pathans who rallied around the cry of Allah-Hu-Akbar. Sikhs were recruited by the Malayan government to serve as a counterpoise against the Chinese and Malay populations as feuding Chinese secret societies and the presence of dispossessed Malay rulers were perceived as threats to the political stability of Malaya. In Malaya and the Straits Settlements, Sikh recruits in the M. S. G. and Straits Settlements Police Contingent, like their counterparts in the Indian Army, were expected to adhere to the Khalsa creed. Those enlisted into the local security forces were required within a week of their recruitment to undergo the Khalsa initiation rite the khande di pahul (initiation with the two-edged sword) ceremony held at the depot Gurdwara. Baptised Sikh recruits were expected to maintain the external symbols of their Khalsa Sikh identity and were specifically not permitted to cut their 46 Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides, p. 19.
57 45 hair or remove their beards. 47 They also had to accept the religious authority of granthis (interpreters of the Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib) who were recruited from the Punjab to perform Sikh rituals, such as the Khalsa initiation rite, for the local police and regimental forces. 48 The assertion of the Khalsa Sikh identity among those enlisted into the colonial security forces was calculated to reinforce the martial values of the Khalsa, and to keep them distinct from the rest of the local migrant population. This was essential, given their key role in the maintenance of law and order in Malaya, as the authority of the Sikh policemen and the Malay States Guides hinged upon their distinct martial deportment and physical superiority. As a result of colonial recruitment policies, recruits in Sikh companies were grouped according to caste and the region from which they came. This led to the reinforcement of traditional caste identity (especially that of the dominant peasant Jat caste) and the sharpening of regional differences into significant social cleavages among Jat Sikhs. As regional loyalties and alliances were reinforced and forged, an intense sense of rivalry emerged between the Mahja Sikhs and Malwa Sikhs as these region-based regiments competed against each other for promotions, privileges and military honours. Matters concerning the honour of the regional regiments were also 47 Prior to the Khalsa initiation ceremony, Sikh recruits were instructed to have in hand the Five Ks the panj kakar (or the Five items) which included the kes (uncut hair), kangha (wooden comb), kachh: a pair of breeches that does not extend below the knees, kara (Steel wrist-bracelet), and the kirpan (sword or short dagger). In this case, the kirpan was excluded as the government-issued rifles were used as a substitute. See, Arunajeet Kaur, The Role of Sikhs, p It seems that even the granthis who were appointed to serve the security forces came from the three main regions from which Sikhs were recruited. See, Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides, p. 43. According to the author, the first regimental granthi (of the Malay States Guides) was a Malwa Sikh from the district of Ambala, while the next granthi was from the Doab.
58 46 potentially divisive. 49 The regional rivalry among Jat Sikhs extended beyond the security forces to become a recurring motif in community politics: it was attributed as the root cause of factional wrangling over control of key Sikh Gurdwaras, organisations, and societies; and it has been the source of much debate, especially among reformist Sikh groups in Singapore and Malaysia that view the Malwa-Mahja rivalry as a parochial and divisive social practice undermining the unity of their communities. The continuing push to unify the Sikh community is a reflection of the insecurity over the perennial minority status of Sikhs both in the Punjab and abroad. 50 However, it should be highlighted that it was a common practice for early Sikh migrants to define and organize themselves according to caste and regional identities rather than a collective Sikh identity defined by nationality, or ethnicity. Phase One: Jat Sikh Migration Although much research remains to be done on the demographic profile of early Punjabi-Sikh migrants, and the motivations behind their movement, there are some basic patterns which can be established. W.H. McLeod, in his paper on the early phase of Sikh migration points out that, [there] appears to be no doubt that the desire to purchase land prompted much of the emigration which took place during this early period (the early twentieth century). [ ] It required a particular range of aspirations, 49 Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community in Singapore (henceforth A Study of the Sikh Community ), unpublished M. Soc. Sci dissertation, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1981, p. 33. For a more detailed account of the regional divisions among Sikhs in M.S.G., See, Inder Singh, History of the Malay States Guides, pp This unity is proving, however, to be elusive in the face of struggles over resources, legitimacy and authority among Sikhs in the Punjab and abroad. See N. Gerald Barrier, Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism: The Akal Takht, the SGPC, Rahit Maryada, and the Law, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikhism and History, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp
59 47 together with access to the limited capital which was needed in order to finance overseas travel [ ]. Emigration, it seems, was typically a strategy adopted by those who might traditionally expect to be small land-owners but who needed financial supplements in order to attain this objective. Neither the truly affluent nor the truly poor are likely to figure prominently among overseas emigrants. 51 A main characteristic of this movement was the circulation of young male Sikhs who travelled overseas in search of job opportunities; very few female Sikhs were involved. Some of these migrants capitalised on the mobility afforded them by the networks especially information and transportation networks created by the imperial system: the promise of new opportunities held out by new destinations created a situation where it was not uncommon for Sikh sojourners to settle temporarily in more than one overseas destination. In the brief biography of his family, Inder Singh notes that his youngest uncle who was from the village of Ajitwal, in Ferozepur district, became a policeman in the International Police Force in Shanghai before he immigrated to California. 52 The exact and total number of Sikh migrants who arrived in Malaya between the 1850s and 1950s is unknown due to the fragmentary nature of archival records pertaining to Indian migration as a whole. This movement, however, was not a large one (as compared to their South Indian counterparts) and was primarily of a transitory nature. 53 According to K. S. Sandhu, the number of Sikh migrants entering and leaving 51 W. H. McLeod, First Forty Years of Sikh Migration in The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience Beyond the Punjab, N. Gerald Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery (eds.), (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989), pp Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides, p Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p. 335
60 48 Malaya between 1850 and 1959 can be estimated at about one hundred thousand and seventy five thousand respectively. 54 The historical trajectory of early Sikh migration to Southeast Asia is dominated by Jat Sikhs who were recruited into the local security forces during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The majority of Sikh sojourners were from rural Punjab; being unlettered and unskilled they had little to offer beyond their martial bearing, physical strength and willingness to be trained. 55 Their martial deportment made them choice recruits for the Malayan security forces. For these Sikhs, the prospect of serving in the local police and military forces the Malay States Guides and the Straits Settlements Sikh Contingent was an attractive one. It has been pointed out that the position of a police constable was, for new Sikh arrivals in Malaya, a prized job in those days [the 1920s and 1930s] for it not only provided relatively high wages, but it also gave them prestige; additionally, it assured them of a regular-once every five years-paid holiday to the Punjab. The emphasis on high wages and prestige underscores the economic and cultural interests shared by the Sikhs and the British colonial administration in military and police service. 56 The emergence of Punjab as the main recruiting ground for the Indian Army by the end of the nineteenth century, and the privileging of Sikhs as choice recruits by the British administration forged a contractual relationship which was mutually beneficial 54 Ibid., p. 348 & 352. According to Sandhu, Sikh migration to Malaya amounted to less than five percent of the total Sikh population of India in Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race, p. 114.
61 49 for both parties. This development was a marked reversal in the policy of demilitarization implemented in the Punjab after its annexation by the British in The re-enlistment of Sikhs into the military provided the platform from which the community asserted a renewed sense of their traditional martial identity. The representation of Sikhs as a masculine and martial group within the colonial imagination was to have a significant influence on the employment of Sikhs in the maintenance of law and order in British colonies overseas. The turbaned kesdhari Sikh police became a potent symbol of British imperial power, especially in Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore. 57 The willingness of Sikhs to enlist with the Indian Army was also significantly bolstered by the economic incentives offered by military service. The regular pay offered by the Indian Army made it an attractive choice in the late nineteenth century. Apart from the salary of seven rupees a month, other perks included: foreign service batta (bonus), good conduct pay and free travel on railways. During his travels through the Punjab in 1929, Malcolm Darling posed to those who joined the army a choice of two motivations: shauq (keenness), or bhuq (hunger); most ranked the latter over the former. 58 Although this offers a limited explanation for the inclination towards military service; it serves nonetheless to highlight the economic impetus of military service. 57 Tony Ballantyne, Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Historiography of Sikhism, in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4, 1 (June, 2002), p Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, pp
62 50 Employment overseas was another viable economic strategy pursued by Sikh males at the height of British imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Being sufficiently mobile [and] poor at home, [these Sikhs] were quite prepared to migrate and work for three to five years for such low wages as M$9-15 per month, in the hope of living frugally and saving enough to return home to buy new land or redeem the mortgaged family plot. 59 News of opportunities available in British colonies like Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore offered sojourning Sikhs prospects for economic advancement beyond their villages in the Punjab. 60 These British colonies were among the first to receive significant numbers of Jat Sikhs who found employment in the local police and security forces. Although this category of Sikhs dominated early Sikh migration to Malaya and the Straits Settlements, the migratory pattern soon broadened over time to include Sikhs (among them were low caste Mazhbi Sikhs) who became labourers in tin and iron mines, railway construction workers, bullock-cart drivers, dairy farmers, money-lenders, watchmen and security guards in the private sector. Non-Jat Sikhs also came as tailors (Sikhs from the rural Chimba caste) and businessmen (Arora and Khatri Sikhs). There was a significant increase in the number of urban Arora and Khatri Sikhs who relocated to Malaya, Thailand Singapore as refugees in the aftermath of the partition in The prestige (izzat, which also translates as honour) associated with service in the military and police forces appealed to the martial values valourised in Sikh, especially Jat culture. Another important aspect of this notion of prestige was that employment 59 Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community in Singapore, pp
63 51 overseas provided Sikhs with the pecuniary means to acquire, and sustain their personal and family izzat. Service in the local security forces, though highly coveted, was just one out of such overseas job opportunities. The primary source of izzat was derived from the ownership of land. Those who owned land were able to pledge it as collateral to finance the construction of a pakka brick house, or pay for extravagant marriage ceremonies; both of which were standard symbols of prestige in the Punjab. As such, the income provided by military service and employment overseas was used to supplement the family wealth, and to finance the acquisition of more land. 62 In the rural agrarian society of Punjab, a high premium was placed on fertile and cultivable agricultural land; this was especially so in central Punjab where the Mahja region was the most heavily cultivated area in the Punjab. The flat terrain and fertile soil of central Punjab, coupled with the extensive irrigation system built originally by the Mughals in the eighteenth century, and inherited by the British after they annexed Punjab in 1849 made it a region particularly favourable for extensive cultivation. This agricultural potential brought with it inherent problems: intense population pressure on the soil and fragmentation of agricultural land. In the 1920s, Malcolm Darling observed that the Jat custom of dividing up family estates between sons led progressively to a situation were it became a common occurrence for male members of the family to own small, uneconomic landholdings which hardly yielded any substantial returns. This meant that young Jat Sikhs turned increasingly to alternative sources of employment to earn enough money to purchase larger and more productive plots of land. 62 W.H. McLeod, First Forty Years of Sikh Migration, pp
64 52 Malcolm Darling s observation is borne out by the personal histories of migrant Sikh families. The biography of Inder Singh, the author of History of Malay States Guides, serves as an important example: I am descended from a family of agriculturists from the village of Ajitwal, District Ferozepur, Punjab [ ] My father and his brothers could not become farmers when they grew up for there was not enough land to be farmed. So they had to seek their fortunes elsewhere. At that period (the reign of Queen Victoria) the British Empire was expanding. Sikhs were welcomed as soldiers and military policemen in the newly founded colonies and protectorates [ ]. After about two years service in the 15 th Sikhs my father heard of Larut where the Perak Sikhs were in need of recruits. My father asked for discharge from the Indian Army to seek service in the Perak Sikhs. Needless to say the pay in Perak was very attractive and payment was made in big silver Mexican dollars worth about two and a quarter times the value of an Indian rupee. 63 In his research on the history of early Sikh migration into Malaya and the settlement of Sikhs in Malaysia, Manjit Singh Sidhu provided twelve case studies of Malaysiadomiciled Sikhs who arrived in Malaya in the early twentieth century. Most of these personal histories share two main themes: the economically untenable position of the migrant (or the migrant s family) resulting from small, uneconomic landholdings in the Punjab; and migration as a strategy to improve the family s economic position. 64 The means of supplementing the family income was provided by service in the Indian Army as well as employment in overseas destinations such as America, Canada, Thailand, Australia, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. 65 Over time, overseas 63 Inder Singh, History of Malay States Guides, p Manjit Singh Sidhu, Sikhs in Malaysia, (Malacca: Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society, 1991), pp The author s research on the early Sikh migration into Malaya was based on a questionnaire survey involving 100 Malaysia-domiciled Sikhs born in India and Pakistan. Half of the informants came to Malaya during the 1930s; 30 percent arrived in earlier period between ; 20 percent arrived post-1940s with the majority having done so in the three years leading up to the restriction on immigration imposed by the Malayan government in See pp W.H. McLeod, First Forty Years of Sikh Migration, p. 35
65 53 remittances and military income (from the Indian Army) became an indispensable part of the agrarian economy in Punjab. 66 Phase Two: The Coming of Commercial Migrants The 1920s and the 1930s witnessed an increasing number of Sikh and Sindhi commercial immigrants who made their way to Malaya and Singapore. Prior to their arrival, the dominant South Asian commercial groups in Malaya were the Gujeratis, Parsis, Bengalis, and the Marwaris. Sikh and Sindhi commercial immigrants gradually replaced them in terms of numbers and the scale of business. They established themselves prominently as wholesalers and retailers in the thriving textile trade by catering mainly to the Indian and European communities. 67 While most commercial Sikh immigrants came directly from India, mainly from and around the urban centres of Punjab, namely Rawalpindi, Lahore, Ludhiana, Jullundur and Amritsar, substantial numbers also arrived from Rangoon and Bangkok to Malaya. 68 The history of the early migration of the Sikh business community remains patchy due to the paucity of colonial records. The bulk of Sikh commercial immigrants were made up of salesmen, pedlars, petty entrepreneurs, traders and shopkeepers. Like the earlier Jat Sikh migrants, these Arora and Khatri Sikh commercial migrants and sojourners were predominantly males who travelled without their families Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State, pp See, Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p. 121; Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p Sandhu, Indians in Malaya, p This was to change after the partition of India in 1947 when those who were displaced from their homes and businesses (a substantial number being Arora and Khatri Sikh business families living in west Punjab) migrated abroad on a permanent basis with their families.
66 54 According to Sandhu, it is impossible to arrive at an exact figure for Sikh commercial immigrants who arrived in Malaya during the period of British rule as no attempts were made at recording the movement and numbers of such migrants in India or Malaya. He did, however, provide an estimate in the region of a few hundred in any one year by basing it on interviews and statistical data gathered on other types of Indian immigrants. Phase Three: Migration in the Post-War Period The movement of immigrants into Malaya ceased completely during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya and resumed only in the post-war period. It was in this period that a significant movement of Sikh commercial migrants into Malaya and Singapore took place. The were several catalysts for this movement: the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947; the trade boom resulting from the Korean War in the early 1950s; and the passing of restrictive immigration laws by the Malayan government, which took effect on 1 August 1953 and further tightened in During the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, many Sikhs were displaced from their businesses and properties which were located in the urban centres of western Punjab. As part of the political settlement governing India s independence from British colonial rule, the Punjab was partitioned along an east-west divide and western Punjab was absorbed into the newly created Islamic state of Pakistan. This resulted in the eruption of widespread communal and religious hostilities among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, which reduced Punjab to a state of lawless turmoil. The 70 Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p. 345.
67 55 Punjab was the region worst affected during the hastily orchestrated dismantling of the British Indian Empire: the violence committed by and against Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus alike; and the scale of human dislocation resulting from partition was greater than that experienced in any other part of South Asia. 71 Those who were affected by the political upheaval sought to rehabilitate their families and businesses in the aftermath of partition by relocating to East Punjab and various parts of India. For a large number of individuals and families, the success of their rehabilitation in East Punjab was hindered by their deep sense of displacement. Those with the means and connections had the option of migrating overseas with their families to re-establish themselves. A fairly significant number of displaced Sikh families chose to migrate overseas to Malaya, Singapore and Thailand where they had family and friends. 72 In his study on the Sikhs in Thailand, Manjit Singh Sidhu notes that in the aftermath of partition, at least a few hundred families who had relatives in Thailand and Singapore made their way to these places. 73 The presence of already established Sikh communities in Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand provided familial and kinship networks which facilitated the migration overseas of displaced Sikh refugees, and their settlement in their new environments See, Tan Tai Yong & Gyanesh Kudaisya, The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, (London: Routledge, 2000). 72 See, Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Vol. 2: , (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp ; Tan Tai Yong & Gyanesh Kudaisya, The Aftermath of Partition, pp Manjit Singh Sidhu, Sikhs in Thailand, (Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 1993), p Rajvinder Singh Pannu, Migrants to Merchants: The Dynamics of Sikh Entrepreneurship in Singapore, unpublished B.A. (Hons) Academic Exercise, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1998/99, pp This is borne out in a number of oral interviews conducted with Sikh migrants who came to Singapore in the aftermath of partition. See also Manjit Singh Sidhu, Sikhs in Thailand, pp The author points out that nearly a third of the Sikhs whom he interviewed migrated to Thailand in 1947 and 1948 after the partition of India in 1947 (of the fifty Sikhs
68 56 The trade boom generated in the 1950s by the war in Korea attracted a second wave of North Indian businessmen from Bangkok, particularly Sikhs and Sindhis who profited financially from this trade boom and stayed on in the commercial centres of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The implementation of laws restricting immigration in August 1953 resulted in a third, and final, influx of commercial immigrants to Malaya in the colonial period. Under the 1959 amendment of legislation on immigration, one key criterion for immigrants seeking entry into Malaya was to prove that he was entitled to a salary of not less than one thousand and two hundred dollars a month ; even then the final decision to grant an immigrant entry lay with the Malayan government. This, in effect, limited the flow of immigration to a few wealthy merchants and highly paid specialists. 75 The migration of significant numbers of Sikhs and Sindhis to Southeast Asia resulted in the forging of links between the two communities in a new environment. Of particular importance were the religious links maintained between the two communities. Due to long-standing historical links with Sikhism, a significant number of Sindhis were Nanak-panthis who were accustomed to worshipping at Sikh gurdwaras as well as at Hindu temples. 76 In the early stages of South Asian migration, Sindhi merchants played an important role in contributing financially to the building interviewed, 90 percent were Aroras from the trader caste). These Sikh political refugees constituted the second wave of migration into Thailand in the post-second world war period. 75 See, Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya, p. 6; Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p Nanak-panthis are those who follow the teachings of Guru Nanak.
69 57 of gurdwaras in Southeast Asia. 77 One notable example is the Central Sikh Temple in Singapore which was built in 1912 with funds donated by a Sindhi merchant, Wassiamall Assomull. 78 Gurdwaras were an integral part of the Sikh immigrant community as they catered to the religious and social needs of new immigrants and provided them with a social network. Currently, Sikh and Sindhi communities still worship together at the Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha in Katong (also known as Gurdwara Sahib Katong), which was established by the Sikh business community in Members of the Sindhi community are also known to hold prayers at the Gurdwara Sahib Katong during special religious and social events. 79 In Singapore, caste differences between the Sikh commercial castes and Sikhs from the predominant Jat (peasant) caste led to the establishment of separate Gurdwaras by the two groups in the twentieth century. 80 While attendance at Gurdwara Sahib Katong is not exclusive to the Sikh and Sindhi business classes, it is attended mainly by Sikh Khatri and Arora business families. 77 Claude Markovits, The Global World of Indian Merchants, , (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p Tan Tai Yong, Singapore Khalsa Association, (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), p Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, (Kuala Lumpur: Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, 2003), pp From my personal communication with Sikh informants, I learnt that a number of Sindhis have their marriages solemnised at the Gurdwara Sahib Katong. 80 For a detailed study of caste differences within the Sikh community in Singapore, see Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community, pp Caste differences between Khatri and Arora Sikhs, who came from the urban areas of North West Punjab and Jat, Chimba, and Mazhbi Sikhs, who came from around Central Punjab are manifested in certain aspects like occupation (even though there are exceptions to the rule in the case of Jat and Chimba business families), language and social networks.
70 58 Conclusion The unprecedented scale of movement of Punjabis and Punjabi-Sikhs out of the Punjab during the period of British colonial rule was a response to developments in the world political economy as well as changing economic and political conditions in the Punjab. The period between 1880 and 1920 witnessed the movement of Sikhs out of the Punjab on an international scale. Given their relative accessibility, destinations in Southeast Asia and the East such as Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Hong Kong and China were the first to receive significant Sikh migration. Through the circulation of news and information among Sikh sojourners, Sikhs subsequently learnt about new destinations which offered even greater economic opportunities: Telia (Australia), Kaneida (Canada), and Mitkan or Miriken (America). 81 Sikhs were incorporated in significant numbers by the Malayan government into the colonial state machinery as security personnel from the 1880s. The Malay States Guides and the Straits Settlements Sikh Police Contingent were two prominent sources of employment for Sikhs during the colonial period. With the disbanding of the Malay States Guides, a predominantly Sikh force of about 700 men in 1919, and the Straits Settlements Sikh Contingent in 1946, employment opportunities open to Sikhs were significantly reduced. 82 Nevertheless, through the familial and village networks established between the growing community of Sikh immigrants and sojourners, and their friends and relatives in the Punjab, Sikhs continued to arrive in Malaya in search of job opportunities. 81 Dusenbery, Introduction: A Century of Sikhs Beyond the Punjab, p. 6; McLeod, Sikhism, pp Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, p. 351.
71 59 Sikh immigration into Malaya and Singapore petered out in the 1950s due to the political developments in Southeast Asia. Besides the passing of immigration laws by the Malayan government to discourage further immigration, the political landscape in Southeast Asia was markedly changed by the creation of new nation-states. The year 1953 marked a significant point in the history of Sikh migration into Malaya and the Straits Settlements. With the passage, in 1953 and again in 1959, of restrictive immigration polices on the entry of migrants into Malaya, Sikhs who were then employed in Malaya, or who were contemplating a move to Malaya, had to choose between India or Malaya as their country of domicile. 83 Those who chose to stay on in Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s subsequently become citizens of the emerging nation-states of Malaysia and Singapore. These Sikhs laid the foundation of the present Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities. From the 1960s to the 1970s, the Sikh communities in these countries devoted themselves to local political concerns and economic advancement. Capitalizing on the opportunities afforded by their access to the education system, the younger generation of Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore gained a measure of social and economic mobility in their countries. Many of these Sikhs became middle-class professionals who took on leadership roles within the community. 84 The Sikh business community has also attained economic success in the early post-colonial period, notably in Singapore. High Street Plaza in Singapore has 83 Ibid, pp Verne A. Dusenbery, Diasporic Imagings and the Conditions of Possibility: Sikhs and the State in Southeast Asia, in Sojourn Vol. 12, No.2 (1997): pp
72 60 become a well-established landmark where many Sikh and Sindhi business are located. 85 Despite the presence of Sikh commercial immigrants, the migration of Sikhs into Malaya was predominantly a Jat Sikh movement because of the recruitment polices (into the security forces) of the Malayan government. As such, the regional and caste differences that existed among the early Sikh community were closely linked to the social organization of Jat Sikhs in their new environment. These differences have emerged as a main concern for the younger generation of Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs, especially the more educated and progressive segment of the community, who view these region and caste-based divisions as an impediment to the unity and progress of Sikhs. The concerns of the younger generation of Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs who were born in the postcolonial period were, inevitably, different from that of the previous generation of Sikhs. In the past three decades, the transmission of Sikh tradition and the revival of Sikhism among Sikh youth have emerged as important issues for the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities. Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore are linked by close familial and social networks given the shared colonial past of the two countries; these networks were retained in the postcolonial period even with the independence of Singapore from Malaysia in The next two chapters will explore the various contexts which frame the construction 85 Mr Kartar Singh Thakral is a prominent member of the Sikh business community in Singapore. He was initially from Thailand where his family was involved in the textile business since the early 1990s. Mr Kartar Singh was sent to Singapore in 1952 to establish a branch of the family textile business. This business has since expanded to include electronics, real estate, financial and consultancy services, and the business networks of Thakral Brothers are spanned globally. See, Gurmukh Singh, The Global Indian: The Rise of Sikhs Abroad, (New Delhi: Rupna & Co, 2003), pp
73 61 of Sikh identities and histories among the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities.
74 62 CHAPTER TWO BHAI MAHARAJ SINGH AND THE MAKING OF A MODEL MINORITY : SIKHS IN SINGAPORE Since the early migration of Sikhs most notably as recruits in the security forces into Singapore and Malaya during the colonial period, the present generation of Sikhs in Singapore have established themselves as a successful minority group characterized by a sizeable and prominent group of Sikh middle-class professionals who enjoy economic success and social mobility. This chapter examines the various contexts that frame the construction of Sikh history and identity in Singapore in the post-colonial period. The historian Tony Ballantyne argues that, Sikh identity is constantly remade through encounters with other communities (whether of faith, ethnicity, or allegiance) and access to public institutions and the machinery of government. 1 This is applicable in the case of the Singaporean Sikh community where Governmentendorsed community organizations provide a crucial platform for the articulation and promotion of Sikh interests, and play a key role in negotiating the confluence of Sikh interests with national interests. It is, therefore, unsurprising that one of the main themes in the studies of Sikhs in Singapore focuses on the role of Sikh religious institutions and community organizations in fostering Sikh identities. Another theme often discussed concerns the impact of regional and caste differences on the shaping of Sikh identities. 2 1 Tony Ballantyne, Maharaja Dalip Singh, History and Negotiation of Sikh Identity (henceforth Maharaja Dalip Singh ), in Pashaura Singh & n. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikhism and History, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p See, Satvinder Singh, Sikh Organisations and Sikh Identity in Singapore, unpublished B.A. (Hons) Academic Exercise, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1994; Iqbal Singh, The Evolution of Sikh Religious Institutions in Singapore, unpublished B.A. (Hons) Academic
75 63 Apart from a discussion of these main themes, this chapter will also explore an often overlooked facet in the construction of Singaporean Sikh historical narratives and identities. This is related to the efforts at memorializing Bhai Maharaj Singh a prominent figure in Sikh history and religious tradition as a historical icon for the Singaporean Sikh community. There are, as yet, no historical studies of the significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh for the Singaporean Sikh community. This chapter examines the ways in which Sikh history and identities are shaped and constructed through the multiple meanings and symbolism attached to the figure of Bhai Maharaj Singh. Community Organizations and the Negotiation of Sikh Identity in Post-colonial Singapore In the period following Singapore s separation from Malaysia in 1965, the People s Action Party (PAP) government embarked on an intensive nation-building project aimed at constructing a post-colonial national identity. 3 This project was based on the conceptualization of a National Ideology to bind Singapore-domiciled immigrants from different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds together. This diversity is a legacy of the colonial experience as the integrative power of the [British] empire drew previously disparate immigrant communities into new labour markets and colonies. 4 The aim of the state was to reinforce a collective Singaporean identity, and ensure that its citizens did not look to their ancestral homeland or motherland as the main point of reference in the construction of their identities. As a former colony with Exercise, Department of History, National University of Singapore, 1998, and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore Khalsa Association, (Singapore: Singapore Khalsa Association, 1988). 3 The PAP is the governing party since the independence of Singapore in Tony Ballantyne, Systematizing Religion: From Tahiti to the Tat Khalsa, in Orientalism and Race: Aryanism in the British Empire, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), pp
76 64 a largely immigrant population much effort is channelled to the writing of national history and national education among the young in Singapore. This National Ideology is based on a set of abstract values common to and capable of being shared by all Singaporeans ; as such, the tenets of pluralism, multiculturalism, and multiracialism form the bedrock of the nation-building process in Singapore. 5 One of the key strategies employed by the government in its negotiation with the complex social make-up of the different ethnic groups in Singapore is to organize them into four main racial categories: Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Others. This mode of governance hinges upon clear taxonomies and the view of communities as bounded entities distinguished by characteristics like race/ethnicity, language, culture, and religion. It is clear though that these categories do not reflect adequately the actual differences which exist, and have resulted in the misrepresentation, and the underrepresentation, especially of minority groups. 6 State attempts to pigeon-hole the Singaporean Sikh community under the broad category Indian, which is largely 5 Minister takes the debate on the National Ideology to a new phase: BG Lee zeroes in on the core issues, Straits Times, 12 January, See, Verne A. Dusenbery, Socializing Sikhs in Singapore: Soliciting the State s Support (henceforth Socializing Sikhs in Singapore ), in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora, (New Delhi: Manohar, 1996); Nirmala PuruShotam, Negotiating Multiculturalism: Disciplining Difference in Singapore (Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000), The People s Action Party (PAP) government is cognizant of the differences inherent in the social make-up of the people; the Singaporean national identity is therefore constructed on the concepts of multiracialism and multi-ethnicity to encompass these differences. Its ideological and political strategies are attempts to simplify this social complex into manageable imaginary entities. See also Chua Beng Huat and Kwok Kian Woon, Social Pluralism in Singapore, in Robert W. Hefner (ed.), The Politics of Multiculturalism: Pluralism and Citizenship in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, (Honolulu: University of Hawai i Press, 2001)
77 65 representative of the South Indian Tamil community in Singapore, has been met with resistance from the Sikh community. 7 The dissonance between the state s management of ethnicity and the Sikh community s assertion of their identity surfaced in the early 1980s over the implementation of the two-language policy in schools. While English is a compulsory language of instruction in schools, Singaporean Indians were officially required to take Tamil as a mother tongue or second language just as all Chinese students were required to learn Mandarin, and Malay students Malay. The constant emphasis on the proficiency in a second language stemmed from the government s view that the mother tongue Mandarin, Malay and Tamil is essential for the transmission of Asian cultural values and heritage to Singaporeans. These set of values were thought to provide the necessary cultural ballast as a buffer against encroaching westernization. 8 Such concerns were also reflected in the Sikh community s worry over the loss of their cultural and religious heritage especially among the youth; and the subsequent initiatives taken by various groups within the community in the organization of Punjabi-language classes for Sikh children. 9 Even though they are grouped under the racial category Indian, Sikhs, Bengalis, and the Sindhis have 7 Tamils form the biggest ethno-linguistic group among the South Indian population in Singapore. In 1980, Tamils made up more than 75 percent of the South Indian population and 62 percent of the total Indian population in Singapore. Punjabis form the majority group among the North Indian population. They numbered 12, 025 in 1980 (more than 51 percent of the total North Indian population); Sikhs are a prominent group among the Punjabis. See, K. S. Sandhu, Indian Immigration and Settlement in Singapore, in K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani (eds.), Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, (Singapore: Times Academic Press and ISEAS, 1993), p See, Nirmala PuruShotam, Language and Linguistic Policy, in K.S. Sandhu and P. Wheatley (eds.) Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989); Dusenbery, Socialising Sikhs in Singapore, pp Dusenbery, Socialising Sikhs in Singapore, p. 127.
78 66 historically viewed themselves as different from South Indians in culture, religion, and language. 10 The learning of Tamil as a mother tongue language was, therefore, met with resistance by Sikhs who were keen to differentiate themselves from the South Indian majority in Singapore. 11 Apart from these local issues concerning Sikh identity, Sikhs in Singapore were greatly affected by political developments in the Punjab during the 1980s. Two major destabilizing events in India, Operation Blue Star in 1984 and the Hindu-Sikh riots following the assassination, within that same year, of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, dramatically changed the outlook of Sikhs in the Punjab and the diaspora. These events have been seen as having a significant and drastic impact on Sikh diaspora politics, especially in North America and the UK. 12 Many Sikhs quit cutting their hair, rallied around urgent calls of Sikhism in danger and became involved with militant organizations based in the Punjab and abroad. 13 Outrage against the actions of the Indian government led to a general hardening of differences between Sikhs and Hindus and an increased vigilance in keeping the Sikh religion, identity and culture distinct. Sikhs in the Punjab and the diaspora became acutely aware of their status as a minority group in the aftermath of A. Mani, Indians in Singapore Society, in K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani (eds.), Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, p Dusenbery, Socializing Sikhs in Singapore, p N Gerald Barrier, Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism: The Akal Takht, the SGPC, Rahit Maryada, and the Law, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikhism and History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p For a detailed discussion on the political mobilization of the Sikh diaspora in North America and the UK in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, see, Darshan Singh Tatla, The Sikh Diaspora, (London: UCL Press, 1999), pp In an interview with Christopher Lockwood, the South-east Asia correspondent with the Daily Telegraph, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew made the following observation in justification of
79 67 Singaporean Sikhs who regard the Punjab as their spiritual homeland and the Golden Temple in Amritsar as the holiest of Sikh shrines were outraged by Operation Blue Star and viewed the assault on the Golden Temple as a sacrilegious act. This, however, did not necessarily translate into sustained support for, and involvement with the pro- Khalistan movement among Singaporean Sikhs. 15 The eruption of Hindu-Sikh riots in India following the assassination of Indira Gandhi resulted in tensions between the Hindu and Sikh communities in Singapore and created a sense of threat and persecution among Sikhs. 16 The acrimonious breakdown of Hindu-Sikh relations and the escalation of violence and rioting between the two communities emerged in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar in The ramifications of these events extended beyond India and became a source of tension between the Hindu and Sikh communities in Singapore. During this period, surveillance of these two communities by the Internal Security Department (ISD) in Singapore pointed to a heightened sense of affinity and involvement with the politics of the homeland among some Hindu and Sikh groups in Singapore. These developments were brought up in a detailed report complied by the ISD following the government White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony. Among the cases highlighted under the section on Mixing religion and politics were Hindu and Sikh organisations that were involved with political developments in India: Singapore s Internal Security Act (ISA), Sikhs in Singapore were outraged because the Golden Temple was attacked. We had to protect the Indian High Commissioner here from 40,000 [sic] Sikhs who would have bludgeoned him., Singaporeans expect Firm and Strong Government, Straits Times, October 22, 1989, p Personal communication with Mr K. Singh, February Personal communication with Mr M. Singh and Mrs M. Kaur, Singapore, February Mrs M. Kaur s family in India experienced the riots in Delhi, and she highlighted the acute sense of persecution felt by Sikhs in the aftermath of these events.
80 68 There were four reported cases of assault on Sikhs, acts of vandalism on Sikh properties, and a few threatening phone calls to Sikh individuals and institutions. Some Indian stall-holders refused to serve Sikh customers. Anticipating trouble, some Sikhs closed their shops in Serangoon Road and High Street. Against this background, some Hindu temples and organisations made plans to hold condolence gatherings for the late Indian leader. [ ] On their part, since 1984 Sikh temples in Singapore have been commemorating the anniversary of the storming of the Golden Temple by Indian troops by Indian troops by holding prayer vigils for the Sikh martyrs. During some of these functions, temple officials made emotional speeches condemning the Indian government and exhorting local Sikhs to support the Sikhs struggle for an independent state and to emulate the Sikh martyrs. In January 1989, a few Sikh temples held requiems for the two Sikhs executed by the Indian government for the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi. [ ] A small local Sikh group has been providing funds and logistics support to militant Sikh separatist groups in India and the UK, which are fighting for an independent Khalistan state in Punjab. It usually raises funds discreetly through personal approaches, but on several occasions made emotional appeals to congregations at Sikh temples for donations, either for the Khalistan cause, or to help the families of Sikh martyrs in India. 17 With boundaries between Hindu and Sikh communities sharpened against a backdrop of violence, Singaporean Sikhs were reinforced in their sense of belonging to a larger transnational Sikh Panth (community). Like others in the diaspora, they developed a far more pronounced sense of their perceived religious and historical roots. 18 The desire to claim and assert a distinctive Punjabi-Sikh identity among Sikhs overseas is a reflection of a marked resurgence of Punjabi culture and pride. 19 However, leaders of the Singaporean Sikh community are mindful of balancing this resurgent Punjabi- Sikh pride with the aim of projecting a positive image of the community and maintaining a distinctively Sikh yet Singaporean identity. This was articulated in public speeches by Sikh community leaders and demonstrated in the efforts made by 17 Stopping the over-zealous before they cause strife: Annex to Government White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony, Straits Times, 30 Dec N. Gerald Barrier, Introduction II: Recent Developments in the Transmission of Sikh/Punjabi Culture Beyond the Punjab, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora, (New Delhi: Manohar, 1996), pp N. Gerald Barrier, Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism, p. 221.
81 69 the Singaporean Sikh leadership to engage the attention of the government through community events and organizations. These events created opportunities for the Sikh leadership to highlight the positive contributions made by Sikhs in Singapore and the recognition by the government of such efforts. Amidst the political turmoil in Punjab and the radicalization of the pro-khalistan movement in the wake of Operation Blue Star, a group of Singaporean Sikhs began in the late 1980s, to systematically project an image of the Singaporean Sikh community as one that was keen to align its interests with that of the Singaporean government. Led by Bhajan Singh, this group of twelve Sikh professionals represented themselves as moderate voices holding positions of leadership and authority within the community. 20 The 1990s is considered an important decade for the Singaporean Sikh community as a series of major projects undertaken in that period by the Singaporean Sikh community placed the community in the spotlight of the national media. One was the launching of the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation (henceforth SSEF) in December It was the culmination of concerted efforts made by Bhajan Singh and his group of Sikh professionals in lobbying the Government for the recognition of Punjabi as an examinable Second Language in the school curriculum. The 20 Bhajan Singh, who was elected as the Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board in 1989 and the Chairman of the Singapore Sikh Education Foundation in 1990, is a prominent member of the Singaporean Sikh community. Given his position as a second-generation Singaporean Sikh professional (he was a school principal), Bhajan Singh recruited a group of Sikh professionals who shared similar views on the organization of the community. Among this group of Sikh professionals were prominent Sikhs in Singapore such as Davinder Singh Sachdev and Dr Kanwaljit Soin. Davinder Singh Sachdev is a Sikh lawyer and a former Member of Parliament who was elected in 1988 to represent the Toa Payoh constituency. His successful career in the political and legal circles has made him an important public figure on the national level as well as within the Sikh community. Dr Kanwaljit Soin, is an orthopaedic surgeon and a former Nominated Member of Parliament from 1992 to She is also a founding member and former President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). Dr Kanwaljit Soin is an important public figure who is well-known for her active involvement with issues concerning women and the elderly in Singapore.
82 70 establishment of the SSEF was hailed by Singaporean Sikh community leaders as an important milestone for the community. In an article featured in the community newsletter, The Singapore Sikh, it was noted that, It was the first time the Sikh Institutions in Singapore were unified in one national body the Foundation. 21 The aim of the SSEF was to address a number of serious concerns that emerged in the Sikh community in the 1980s, namely, a decline in educational standards, insufficient mechanisms to provide meaningful focus and direction for Sikh youth, and a decline in the understanding and appreciation of traditional, cultural and moral values. 22 The other event was The International Conference cum Exhibition on Punjabi/Sikh Heritage, held in Singapore in June 1992 and described in The Straits Times as the first of its kind in the world. The profile of the Singaporean Sikh community was given a further boost when the Guest of Honour, BG Lee Hsien Loong, who was then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade and Industry, delivered a positive assessment of the Sikhs. 23 Both of these events drew a public show of support and endorsement from prominent members of the PAP government. The contribution by the Punjabi-Sikh community to Singapore was highlighted by BG Lee in his opening address: In Singapore, the Sikhs and the Punjabis form one of the smallest communities in our multi-racial society. You are few, but have contributed to our society out of proportion to your numbers. You have done well in many areas. You have preserved your distinctive identity in the multi-racial, multi- 21 Dr Bilveer Singh, The Foundation A Historic Moment for the Singapore Sikhs, The Singapore Sikh, September 1991, MITA (P308/A/91), (Singapore: The Sikh Advisory Board, 1991), pp The answer to Our Success in The Future, The Singapore Sikh, December 1990, (Singapore: The Sikh Advisory Board), p Sikh concerns, Straits Times, May 29, 1992, p. 18.
83 71 cultural and multi-religious environment, because you realize the importance of transmitting your heritage to the younger generation. 24 Having employed community organizations effectively to address Sikh-related issues and promote Sikh interests in Singapore, Sikh leaders have also used these community events to showcase the loyalty and contributions made by Sikhs in Singapore. An important link between the state and the Sikh community is the Sikh Advisory Board (henceforth SAB). The SAB was set up by British colonial authorities in 1915 to advise the government on all matters affecting the Sikh religion and custom. Still retaining its original function after independence, the SAB became a statutory board established under the Ministry of Community Development to advise the Minister on matters concerning the Sikh religion and customs and the general welfare of the Sikh community. 25 As one of the government appointees to the SAB, Bhajan Singh was elected its Chairman in In that same year, the Singapore Sikh Resource Panel (henceforth SSRP) was formally placed under the auspices of the SAB by the state. First conceived in 1986 by the same group of Sikh professionals, the aim of the panel was to address grave concerns plaguing the Sikh community since the 1980s. The list of concerns included: a decline in the educational standards among Sikh students, an increase in the Sikh juvenile offenders, an erosion of Asian (Sikh) values among Sikh youth, and a relatively high incidence of serious drug offences among the 24 A momentous occasion: International Conference on Punjabi/Sikh Heritage, 5-7 June, 1992, in The Singapore Sikh, November 1992, p Choor Singh, The Sikh Advisory Board, in The Singapore Sikh, December 1990, p. 4.
84 72 Sikh male youth. 26 This move was meant as an important gesture of the community s resolve to focus on, and deal with community issues within the framework prescribed by the government in Singapore. Verne Dusenbery argues that this initiative is consistent with the government s policy of encouraging the different racial groups to take responsibility for their own educational and social welfare programmes through their own community institutions. 27 The SAB gave these Sikh professionals access to the machinery of government and served as a channel through which Sikh leaders and government officials could work with each other. 28 The presence of senior ministers at community functions such as popular religious festivals, heritage events, and the opening of new community institutions created positive publicity for the Sikh community in the national media. 29 This was crucial as Sikh leaders were fully cognizant of the consequences of alienating the community through involvement with foreign and radical politics. 26 The Singapore Sikh Resource Panel and the Sikh Community, in The Singapore Sikh, November 1992, pp Dusenbery, Socializing Sikhs in Singapore, p Details of the programmes organized by the SAB and its affiliate organization, SSEF can be gleaned from the following magazines published by the SAB: The First Punjabi/Sikh Literary and Drama Nite by The National Punjabi Language Programme, Guest of Honour: Mr Abdullah Tarmugi, Minister for Community Development, 22 June Organized by the SAB, SSEF and SSRP, pp. 1-10; Punjabi/Sikh Heritage Dinner, 15 November 1993, Mandarin Hotel, Singapore. Organized by the SAB, SSEF, and SSRP, pp. 1-20; 30 th Anniversary Celebration of the Republic of Singapore and The Launching of the Punjabi/Sikh Welfare Council, 14 October 1995, p. 7-11; Singapore Sikh Education Foundation Choir: Punjabi/Sikh Heritage Tour, 1997, Sikh Heritage Inculcation (Sikhi) Programme, p See The 5 th Punjabi/Sikh Heritage Dinner, Friday 12 November 1999, Ritz Carlton, Singapore. Organized by the SSEF. Messages by Tan Soo Koon, Speaker of Parliament, Davinder Singh, (former) Member of Parliament for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Mr Inderjit Singh, Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC, Mr Bhajan Singh, Chairman of Singapore Sikh Education Foundation, pp. 1-7; 10 th Anniversary & Awards Presentation, Thursday, 28 December, 2000, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore organized by the SSEF, pp The presence of the Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at community Sikh events in 1990, and the presence of the next Prime Minster Goh Chok Tong in 1991 were featured in a magazine published by the Sikh Advisory Board, 30 th Anniversary Celebration of the Republic of Singapore and the Launching of the Punjabi/Sikh Welfare Council 14 October 1995, pp. 1-6.
85 73 Any suggestion of pro-khalistan separatist tendencies among Singaporean Sikhs in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star was refuted by Sikh leaders who sought to distance the community from the radicalization of (Sikh) diaspora politics and keep the politicization of Sikhism among Singaporean Sikhs in check. This was further reinforced during the Seminar on Sikh Youth & Nation Building organized by the Sikh Advisory Board in In his views on the direction of Sikh youth organisations in Singapore, Davinder Singh who is a prominent member of the Singaporean Sikh community and its leadership stated that: Religion and politics just do not mix in Singapore. And I hope it will be non controversial over time. To me the most important is that if the Sikh youth in Singapore are to follow the examples of anybody else [ ] then that other person must be a Singaporean who has worked in the interest of Singapore. 30 The need to adapt Sikh identities to suit the context of Singapore was also emphasized in his speech on The role and potential for Sikh Youth Organizations in Singapore : We have not only to compete amongst each other, we have to compete against other races and if we all back down we will never catch up, not in one lifetime. [ ] We have very deep and great respect and close religious and cultural ties with Sikhs in other countries and we learn a lot from them [ ], [but] we live as a minority in different circumstances. Whilst Sikhs elsewhere have their own problems and their means of solving them, we ought to understand that we too have our own problems but they are different and the solutions in most instances cannot be the same. [ ] 31 Given that issues of religion, race and ethnicity are carefully managed and closely monitored by the government, attempts by the Singaporean Sikh community to assert 30 Davinder Singh Sachdev, The Role and the Potential for Sikh Youth Organizations in Singapore (henceforth Role and Potential for Sikh Youth Organizations Singapore ), in Seminar Report on Sikh Youth & Nation Building, organised by The Sikh Advisory Board in association with Sikh Organisations in Singapore, Regional English Language Centre, Singapore, 19 th March 1989, pp For a background of Davinder Singh Sachdev, see footnote Ibid., pp
86 74 a distinctive and prominent identity are carefully couched in non-political terms prescribed by the government. Caste and Regional Loyalties The desire to maintain and assert a distinctive Singaporean Sikh identity stems largely from the constant insecurity, shared in general by Sikhs in the Punjab and abroad, over the minority status of Sikhs. In 1989, there were an estimated Sikhs in Singapore, and the figure is currently estimated at about Sikhs. 32 This insecurity is further heightened by concerns over the marked generational, regional and caste divisions within the community, and the absence of neutral figures of authority and symbols that could rally and unify the community. The proliferation of various Sikh groups and community organizations, each with their own (and often conflicting) agendas have resulted in divisive struggles for authority, legitimacy and resources within the Sikh community; this is regarded by a growing segment of the community as being anathema to the long-term survival and progress of the Singaporean Sikh community. These sentiments were voiced by Kernial Singh Sandhu, a prominent member of the Sikh community during the Seminar on Sikh Youth & Nation Building, organised by the Sikh Advisory Board in March In his paper, he discussed the (social and political) changes affecting the community and described the community as a fragmented Sikh society, in which fissiparous and centrifugal tendencies are, if 32 The 1989 figure was provided by K. S. Sandhu in his paper on Historical Role of the Sikhs in the Development of Singapore in Seminar Report on Sikh Youth &Nation Building, p. 25. The estimate of the present Singaporean Sikh population is provided by Mr Dilbagh Singh, Singapore, 28 July 2006.
87 75 anything, on the increase in the wake of petty personal feuds and parochial rivalries, and in the absence of any obvious cohesive or centripetal force. And this at a time when Sikhs need at least a modicum of unity to attain and safeguard their legitimate cultural, social, economic and political requirements to ensure their longer-term survival and progress as a community. 33 [word originally underlined.] These concerns can be contextualized against the historical developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Large scale immigration from the Punjab to Southeast Asia took place in the colonial period when economic and political changes brought about by the running of the British empire led male Sikhs from the landowning Jat caste to supplement family incomes through employment in the British Indian Army, or through work overseas. From , Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma and China began to draw significant numbers of Sikh migrants who came in search of job opportunities. 34 By the turn of the twentieth century, Sikhs in Malaya and Singapore were already well-ensconced in niche occupations as policemen, watchmen, and small-time moneylenders. As we have seen Chapter One, a large number of Sikhs came to Malaya and Singapore in search of employment with the Sikh Police Contingent, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Police Force or as militiamen in the Malay States Guides, while others found work as private watchmen, moneylenders and cattle farmers. The recruitment practices adopted by the British for the police and military service were based on their preference of Jat Sikhs 33 Sandhu, Historical Role of Sikhs in Singapore, pp Verne A. Dusenbery, Introduction: A Century of Sikhs Beyond Punjab, in N. Gerald Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery (eds.), The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience Beyond Punjab, (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989), pp. 5-7.
88 76 from the Malwa and Mahja regions over those from the Doaba region in Punjab. This accounted for the predominance of Jat Sikhs from the Malwa and Mahja regions in Malaya and Singapore. 35 Among the predominant Jat Sikhs, regional loyalties dominated the organization and control of key gurdwaras and issues concerning the community. Caste and regional identities were much more pronounced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries among Punjabi-Sikh immigrants. This was most clearly manifested in the factional rivalry between Sikhs from the Malwa, Mahja and Doaba regions over control and leadership of the Central Sikh Temple, one of the first gurdwaras established in Singapore. 36 The fallout between the rival groups led to the establishment, in the 1920s and 1930s, of region-specific gurdwaras among Jat Sikhs: Sri Guru Singh Sabha on Wilkie Road was established in 1918 by Sikhs from the Mahja region in Punjab; Khalsa Dharmak Sabha at Niven Road was formed in 1923 by Sikhs from the Malwa region; and Pardesi Khalsa Dharmak Diwan at Kirk Terrace was established in 1929 by Sikhs from the Doaba region. Apart from region-based gurdwaras, caste-based gurdwaras also emerged: Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha on Wilkinson Road in Katong was established in the early 1950s by Khatris and Aroras (mercantile castes commonly referred to as the business community) who migrated to Singapore following the partition of India in 1947, and 35 Sikhs from Malwa region in Punjab formed the largest group followed by Sikhs from the Majha region while Sikhs from Doaba formed the third smallest group. 36 Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community in Singapore, unpublished M. Soc. Sci Dissertation, National University of Singapore, 1982, pp. 36-8
89 77 the erstwhile Khalsa Jiwan Sudhar Sabha on Buffalo Road was set up by Mazhabi Sikhs (low-caste Sikhs who were originally Chuhras, a sweeper caste) who felt marginalized in the Jat-dominated gurdwaras. 37 The migration of land-owning Jat Sikhs to Malaya and Singapore tapered off in the 1950s with the tightening of immigration laws. Since then, Singapore has not received any significant Sikh immigration in the post-colonial period. The social make-up of the Sikh community at present consists of second and third generation Singaporean Sikhs who grew up outside the Punjab. Schooled in the Western education system, these Sikhs operated in a milieu different from that to which their parents belonged. Education has given them social mobility, and this has in turn conferred prominent social and political status upon some of them. The younger generation of Sikhs who have taken up positions of community leadership are keen to steer the Singaporean Sikh community beyond what they regard as a divisive and parochial mindset among those Sikhs who still persist in maintaining caste and regional allegiances in community affairs. Their aim is to construct and assert a progressive and collective Singaporean Sikh identity defined variously by religion, nationality and ethnicity within the framework prescribed by the state. Besides the Sikh leadership, younger Singaporean Sikhs are also exploring and turning to new avenues for the construction of Sikh identities. As seen by the proliferation of pamphlets, articles and tracts produced by the community, the medium of print still 37 Dusenbery, Socialising Sikhs in Singapore, p. 117; see also, Bibijan Ibrahim, A Study of the Sikh Community in Singapore, pp ; Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West, (Singapore: Mehervan Singh, 1979), pp
90 78 serves as an important tool for the transmission of ideas and the definition of community and identity. Community publications, which feature both English and Punjabi language articles on Sikh religion and culture alongside highlights on community events, are published and distributed to the Sikh congregation at gurdwaras. 38 Examples of such publications include: The Singapore Sikh, a community newsletter published monthly in the early 1990s by The Sikh Advisory Board, and more recently Highlights, a monthly newsletter published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board. 39 Attempts are also made to involve Sikh youth in samelans (youth camps) where they are exposed to various aspects of Punjabi-Sikh culture and Sikhism. 40 The translation of Sikh scriptures and hymns from Gurmukhi to English is becoming a common practice aimed at drawing Sikhs Sikh youth in particular back to the gurdwaras by adapting religious practices to new conditions since the majority of Singaporean Sikhs are more fluent in English than Punjabi See, CST NEWSBYTES, a newsletter published by the Central Sikh Temple, (Singapore: Central Sikh Temple, September/October 2004). This issue of the CST newsletter covered the visit by President S.R. Nathan to the Central Sikh Temple during the celebration of the 400 th Anniversary of the installation of the Guru Granth Sahib. The Sewak, a half yearly newsletter published by Sikh Sewaks Singapore, a Sikh youth group formed in 1978: The Sewak a Vaisakhi issue, (Singapore: Sikh Sewaks Singapore, June 1992); The Sewak an issue to mark Guru Nanak Dev Ji s Birthday celebrations, Singapore: Sikh Sewaks Singapore, Various articles on Awakening the Mind to Prayer, Amrit What is the Head Worth?, Young Sikh Have Their Say, Youth Development Programmes, Junior Samelan 96, and Martyrdom of Guru Arjan were featured in issue of The Sewak. Khalsa News. See also, newsletters published by the Singapore Khalsa Association (SKA): Khalsa News: Basking in Mela Celebrations, Singapore: SKA, July/October 2001; Khalsa News: Presentation to the Minister of State, My Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore: SKA, January 2002; Khalsa News: Annual Report Edition, Singapore: SKA, October/December See for example, Highlights, Issue 7, July This recent publication is a newsletter issued monthly by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board. It features announcements on community events and promotes the activities (Bhangra class, Giddha class, screenings of Sikh movies) organized by the Sikh Centre at Gurdwara Silat Road. 40 The Sikh Sewaks Singapore (Sikh Youth Group) is actively involved in organizing these samelans. 41 Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji 150 th Anniversary 2006 & Official Opening of the Sikh Centre, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006), p. 21. A magazine issued to commemorate the 150 th Anniversary Celebrations of Bhai Maharaj Singh in 2006.
91 79 The internet has emerged as a new and highly effective medium harnessed by various Sikh groups (in Singapore and Malaysia) to reach a broader and younger Sikh audience. Sikhnet.com and SikhNation.com are popular and widely accessed Englishlanguage websites featuring articles on Sikh religion, history, culture, and news on the latest (political and social) events in the Sikh Panth. Set up by Sikhs living in North America, the websites have a strong religious overtone and can be described as Khalsa-centric. SikhNation.com is designed as a website providing Sikh Khalsa Resource & Information on the Global Sikh Community ; while Sikhnet.com, which is run by Sikh members of the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy Organization) movement in New Mexico, serves as the Sikhnetwork connecting Sikhs worldwide. 42 The aim is to connect the transnational Sikh Panth and promote a normative Sikh identity that is based on the religious doctrines and practices of the Sikh Khalsa. Central to this project is the constant recourse to the teachings and authority of the Guru Granth Sahib and the ten Sikh Gurus, and interpretation of the Khalsa code of conduct laid out in the Rahit. 43 Like other Sikhs in the diaspora, Singaporean Sikhs are experiencing a resurgence of Sikhism and Punjabi-Sikh culture, especially in the past three decades. 44 Efforts at remaking Sikh identities in response to external circumstances and influences (such as governmental policies, political developments in the Punjab, and the influence wielded 42 <www.sikhnet.com>; <www.sikhnation.com>. Kirtan, Gurbani and the English audio translation of the daily Hukamnama broadcast from Sri Harimandir Sahib are available on these websites. The 3HO movement was founded by the late Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji (or Yogi Bhajan) in the United States in The 3HO Sikhs will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter Four. 43 W.H. McLeod, Researching the Rahit, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), Sikhism and History, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 33. Rahit designates the code of belief and conduct which all the members of the Sikh Khalsa are required to obey. 44 Barrier, Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism in Sikhism and History, pp
92 80 by Sants) have inevitably altered the dynamics internal to the community. Against this crucial backdrop of external developments, Singaporean Sikhs are constantly in the process of inventing and appropriating symbols and institutions which are meant to bind the community together as well as define and represent their version of Sikh history and tradition. Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road An institution that has become synonymous with the Sikh community in Singapore is the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road (henceforth Gurdwara Silat Road). Gurdwara Silat Road has emerged in the postcolonial period as a crucial site for the construction of Sikh history and identity. Along with the Central Sikh Gurdwara, the Gurdwara Silat Road is regarded as an important historic Gurdwara. Built in the early decades of the twentieth century during the colonial period, the two Gurdwaras played a crucial part in community-building among early Sikh immigrants as they catered to their religious and social needs. The Gurdwaras provided these migrants an access to a network of Sikh migrants based overseas. The Gurdwara Silat Road served originally to provide food and accommodation for new Sikh (and non-sikh) immigrants as well as those passing in transit through Singapore to other destinations like Malaya, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Manila. It was established at Silat Road by Sikhs in the Tanjong Pagar Dock Police Contingent after they were resettled from their former barracks at Anson Road. The cost of building the Gurdwara, which was completed in 1924, was funded largely by members of the Sikh police forces, many of whom pledged a month s salary to the project. Bhai Wasawa Singh, a member of the Sikh Police Contingent in
93 81 Singapore was also given leave to embark on a fund-raising campaign which took him to countries like Malaya, Hong Kong and Shanghai. 45 While Gurdwaras served as a focal point for the early Sikh community to conduct religious and community affairs, this function has since diminished, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. The establishment of Gudwaras along regional lines, and the reluctance of granthis and temple functionaries to adapt Sikh religious ceremonies and practices to the needs of Singaporean Sikhs led to the alienation, since the 1980s, of a younger generation of Sikhs from the gurdwaras, especially regionspecific ones. 46 However, unlike the later gurdwaras which were established along regional and caste lines, Gurdwara Silat Road is not seen to represent any particular regional interests and is regarded by many Singaporean Sikhs as a religious institution that has remained relatively unscathed by the politics of regional rivalry. As an important historic Gurdwara, it is a key landmark in the religious and cultural landscape of the Singaporean Sikh community. 47 Bhai Maharaj Singh Another reason for the gurdwara s centrality in the Sikh community is the association between Gurdwara Silat Road and a Sikh religious and historical figure, Bhai Maharaj Singh. The link was first forged in 1966 when the samadh (tombstone) of a Sikh Sant 45 See Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, (Malaysia: Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, 2003), pp ; Tan Tai Yong, Singapore Khalsa Association, pp It has been suggested that one of the causes behind this alienation is the continued usage of Punjabi as a principal mode of religious instruction by granthis, who are usually employed from the Punjab on a contractual basis, even as Punjabi was increasingly replaced by English as a language of communication among Singaporean Sikhs. See K. S. Sandhu, Historical Role of Sikhs in Singapore, pp [See Illustration 2.1]
94 82 was moved from the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital to Gurdwara Silat Road. In the period after the Second World War, Sikh devotees started worshipping at what they believed was the samadh of a Sant. The size of the Sikh congregation grew as stories of the miraculous powers of the Sant were circulated. The hospital grounds where the samadh was located became a popular religious site for Sikh devotees who held regular prayer sessions and religious functions there. The government eventually requested the Sikh community to remove the samadh because it felt that the hospital grounds were an inappropriate site for religious worship; there were also plans to expand the Singapore General Hospital. In October 1966, the samadh was relocated to Gurdwara Silat Road in compliance with the government s request and has remained there since. 48 Prior to this, the Gurdwara had suffered a period of neglect as Sikhs turned to region-based gurdwaras in the 1930s. However, with the transfer of the Sant s samadh in 1966, the Gurdwara became increasingly popular among Sikh devotees. Various written narratives on the history and origins of the samadh were constructed and circulated in the Sikh community: some linked the samadh to Bhai Maharaj Singh, while others linked it to Baba Karam Singh. Some of the oral narratives constructed by Sikh devotees refer interchangeably to the Sant as Baba Ji (a title of respect), Baba Karam Singh and Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji. Despite a certain degree of factual ambiguity surrounding the historical background of the Sant, a 48 Seva Singh Gandharab, Early Pioneers in Singapore, (Singapore: Seva Singh Gandharab, 1986), pp. 2-3; Choor Singh Sidhu, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1991), pp
95 83 common thread running through these narratives establishes his status as a political prisoner exiled by the British to Malaya in the mid-nineteenth century. 49 The samadh at Gurdwara Silat Road has been a crucial site for the construction of Sikh history and identity in Singapore since the 1970s. Given the importance attached to Bhai Maharaj Singh by Sikh devotees, religious prayers and commemorations were held regularly at Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. In July 2006, special commemorative activities were planned at Gurdwara Silat Road to celebrate the 150 th Barsi Anniversary of Bhai Maharaj Singh and an advertisement was placed in The Straits Times to generate publicity for the event. 50 A book on the life of Bhai Maharaj Singh was published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board under the title, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road: A Historical Journey See Seva Singh Gandharab, Early Pioneers in Singapore, pp. 2-3; Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West, p. 44; Bhai Karam Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji : Glimpses of his life, (Singapore: Bhai Karam Singh, 1998); Surjan Singh (ed.), They Died For All Free Men, (Singapore: Sikh Missionary Society Malaya, date of publication not given), p. 18; Surjan Singh, Saint Soldier Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board and Sikh Missionary Society Malaya, 2001) 50 Singapore Sikh Community Celebrates 150 th Anniversary of Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji, advertisement in The Straits Times, Wednesday, June 21, 2006, p [See Illustrations 2.2 and 2.3]
96 ILLUSTRATION 2.1 Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, and Sikh Centre in 2006 (Left to Right). Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board,
97 85 ILLUSTRATION 2.2 Cover of book published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board to commemorate the 150 th Anniversary of Bhai Maharaj Singh in Singapore. Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006.
98 86 ILLUSTRATION 2.3 Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji 150 th Anniversary Logo. Logo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006
99 87 Copies of the book were printed and circulated within the community to commemorate the 150 th Barsi (Anniversary) of Bhai Maharaj Singh. To underscore the significance of the anniversary, a set of commemorative coins bearing a specially designed 150 th Anniversary Logo were minted to mark the event. 52 The official opening of the Gurdwara Silat Road Sikh Centre by President, S.R Nathan on 30 th July 2006 was also organized in conjunction with the 150 th Anniversary celebrations. The official opening of a community institution was a key highlight of the 150 th anniversary celebrations, and it can be seen as another community effort at showcasing to the government their organization and self-help initiatives. Efforts at constructing a verifiable history of Bhai Maharaj Singh involved the reproduction of printed images and photographs related to Bhai Maharaj Singh, and the use of previously published documents, specifically British colonial records, to lend historical veracity to the narratives produced by the Singaporean Sikh community. Among the activities organized for the special anniversary celebrations in 2006 was a plan to exhibit (for the first time) some of the personal artefacts of Bhai Maharaj Singh from the Dera Bhai Maharaj Singh in Amritsar. Although this project did not come to fruition, photographs of the khanga, kara, kirpan, chakras and gutkas that belonged to Bhai Maharaj Singh and some of the weapons supposedly used in his struggles against the British were reproduced in print and serves as an alternative form of exhibition. 53 The commemorative practices associated with Bhai Maharaj Singh 52 The logo on the coins depicts Bhai Maharaj Singh (on horseback) at the entrance of the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara. See Bhai Maharaj Singh & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006), pp Ibid., pp
100 88 thus provide an avenue for Sikh leadership to reinforce the relatively recent historical links established between the Singaporean Sikh community and the Sikh historicalreligious figure. Bhai Maharaj Singh as Rebel Against the British Raj While little is known of the history of Baba Karam Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh occupies an important position in Sikh history and religious tradition. Bhai Maharaj Singh is situated in historical narratives as a prominent figure who led the resistance movement against British annexation of the Punjab in Details of Bhai Maharaj s role in the resistance against British expansion in the Punjab can be gleaned from a number of publications produced by authors based in India: Kirpal Singh and M.L. Ahluwalia s text on Punjab s Pioneer Freedom Fighters published in 1963; and a collection of archival documents on Bhai Maharaj Singh, edited and published by Nahar Singh in 1968 are important sources of information. Another significant historical source is M.L. Ahluwalia s study on Bhai Maharaj Singh published in A publication containing documents on Bhai Maharaj Singh was again published by Nahar Singh and Kirpal Singh in 1990 as the second volume in Rebels against the British Raj: Bhai Maharaj Singh ( ) See Kirpal Singh and M.L. Ahluwalia, Punjab s Freedom Fighters, Calcutta, 1963; Nahar Singh, ed., Documents relating to Bhai Maharaj Singh, (Punjab: Sikh History Source Material Search Association, 1968); M.L. Ahluwalia, Bhai Maharaj Singh, (Patiala: Punjabi University, 1972); and Nahar Singh and Kirpal Singh (eds.), Rebels against the British Raj: Bhai Maharaj Singh ( ),Vo.l II (henceforth Rebels against the British Raj), Second edition, (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 1990).
101 89 These publications cast the life and history of Bhai Maharaj Singh in a nationalist vein by emphasizing his role in the anti-british resistance struggle during the period of the Anglo-Sikh Wars. 55 Bhai Maharaj Singh s prominence in Sikh history is traced to his reputation as a great freedom fighter and a shrewd statesman, who mobilised a powerful resistance movement against British expansion in Punjab from 1847 to The figure of Bhai Maharaj Singh resurfaced again in the nationalist discourse of Indian authors based in India with the publication of an article in the Spokesman, Chandigarh in August Written in a strongly nationalist tone, the article lamented the lack of knowledge Punjabis had on Bhai Maharaj Singh as a result of special efforts made by the British rulers to erase the memory of his name from the minds of people and [push] his name to obscure corners of history. The article, therefore, sought to retrieve Bhai Maharaj Singh from historical obscurity by highlighting his role as Punjab s unique saint-soldier, great revolutionary and topmost freedom fighter against British rule The first Anglo-Sikh War in 1846 was triggered by internecine feuding and factional in-fighting in Punjab, as well as the increasing menace posed by the Sikh army. These developments came to the fore amidst a succession crisis which erupted at the Punjab court after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, and subsequently prompted the British situated to the east of the Jumna to intervene. In the aftermath of the first Anglo-Sikh War, the eastern part of the Sikh Kingdom, the trans-sutlej territories of Jullunder and Hoshiarpur were annexed. A revolt started in 1849 by the Sikhs in Multan served as the catalyst for the second Anglo-Sikh War. This conflict led eventually to the final defeat of the Sikh armies and brought about the annexation of the entire Punjab to the British Indian Empire. See Tan Tai Yong, A Return to Arms : Colonial Punjab and the Indian Army, in The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, , (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005), pp M.L Ahluwalia, Foreword, in Rebels against the British Raj, pp. iii-xvi. 57 Harcharan Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh The First Great Warrior who endeavoured to break the shackles of slavery, in Spokesman, Chandigarh, August This article was reproduced with the permission of the publishers of Spokesman in a book published by a Singaporean Sikh, Karam Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh : Some Glimpses of his Life, (Singapore: Bhai Karam Singh, 1998), pp
102 90 Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sikh Sant Bhai Maharaj Singh occupies an important position in yet another context. In his study on the development of the Sant movement in the Punjab, W.H. McLeod mentioned Bhai Maharaj Singh as an example of a militant religious leadership that emerged in the Punjab in the mid-nineteenth century when the Khalsa was perceived to be under serious threat from the British. Men like Bhai Maharaj Singh set a historical precedent for the emergence in the twentieth century of modern Sants who embraced a political and sometimes militant concept of religious duty. The significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh in the history of the Sikh Panth is therefore closely linked to the importance of Sants in Sikh history and the religious tradition of the Khalsa. The significance of Bhai Maharaj within Sikh tradition is also discussed by Harjot Oberoi within the context of the Sanatan Sikh tradition in the nineteenth century. He argues that the potency of Bhai Maharaj as a leader the anti-british struggle stems from his stature as a Bhai in the Sanatan tradition (defined by Oberoi as the pluralistic and polycentric mode of Sikh tradition adopted primarily by Sikh elites in the nineteenth century). In the nineteenth century, the title Bhai, along with other titles like Sant and Baba, was given to those who were revered as holy men of the Sikh Panth. These holy men were crucial for the transmission of Sikhism among the unlettered peasant masses through their role as leaders and masters. Oberoi notes that to qualify for this title [Bhai] a person had to demonstrate a capacity to interpret the Adi Granth, communicate the wisdom of the gurus it enshrined, and be publicly recognized for his piety. If in addition he could work miracles, heal the sick and give
103 91 succour to the distressed, he was sure to occupy a position of considerable reverence and influence within the community. 58 Bhai Maharaj Singh thus came from a long established religious tradition which accorded great respect to men distinguished by their religious piety, asceticism or supernatural powers. In his childhood Bhai Maharaj Singh received instruction from Toota Singh, a Nirmala ascetic and acquired an extensive knowledge of the Adi Granth. He later became a loyal follower of a famous Sikh mystic Bir Singh of Naurangabad ( ) and moved to Bir Singh s dera at Naurangabad in Amritsar district; Bir Singh was himself the disciple of Baba Sahib Singh of Una ( ), a member of a guru lineage linked to Guru Nanak. Bhai Maharaj Singh s prominence also stems from the myths surrounding his supernatural abilities. One popular story illustrates his ability to miraculously increase the quantity of food in the langgar at Bir Singh s dera at Naurangbad. Shortly after the capture of Bhai Maharaj Singh in 1849 for his anti-british activities, Henri Vanisttart, the deputy commissioner of Jalandhur submitted a report in which he made the following observation, The Gooroo [Bhai Maharaj Singh] is not an ordinary man. He is to the Natives what Jesus Christ is to the most zealous of Christians. His miracles were seen by tens of thousands and are more implicitly relied on, than on 58 Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, (henceforth Construction of Religious Boundaries), (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp
104 92 those worked by the ancient prophets. 59 After his arrest by the British, Bhai Maharaj Singh was sent to Singapore as a political exile, where he is believed to have died during his internment. He is lauded in Punjab and Singapore as a Shaheed (martyr) who died trying to save the Sikh Kingdom from the imperialistic ambitions of the British. Bhai Maharaj Singh as The First Sikh to Land Ashore On Singapore Soil If Bhai Maharaj Singh features prominently in the Indian nationalist narratives highlighted above, then his exile to Singapore serves as an important point in the historical narratives of the Singaporean Sikh community. Bhai Maharaj Singh is often mentioned as one of the first Sikhs to arrive in Singapore in 1850 as a political prisoner of the British. 60 Given the emphasis placed by the Singaporean government on the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage and history among the different ethnic communities, the Singaporean Sikh community has turned to the fashioning of historical narratives and the appropriation of symbols and historical icons to define themselves. The move to memorialize Bhai Maharaj Singh as a historical icon of the Sikh community began in the early 1990s. The process of inventing the rich spiritual and historical legacy left by Bhai Maharaj Singh for the Singaporean Sikh community was initiated with the proposal to construct a Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial within the 59 Document No.13, Henri Vanisttart to D.F. McLeod, 30 December 1849, in Nahar Singh & Kirpal Singh (eds.), Rebels Against the British Raj, pp K. S. Sandhu, Sikh immigration into Malaya, in Jerome Ch en & Nicholas Tarling (eds.), Studies in the Social History of China and Southeast Asia, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 347
105 93 compound of Gurdwara Silat Road. Prominent members of the Sikh community were involved in a fund-raising campaign to finance the project, which cost an estimated three million dollars. In 1991, a book entitled Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier was written by Choor Singh Sidhu and published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board as an effort to generate greater awareness for the project. 61 One of the aims of the memorial project was to fashion a long and illustrious history for the community. This can be gleaned from the foreword in Choor Singh s book on Bhai Maharaj Singh: The Sikhs in Singapore are going through an extremely interesting phase in this country. The Government has recently recognized our contribution to the development of Singapore, and to her unique flavour. Like other communities we are encouraged to preserve our cultural heritage. This requires us to delve into our past to understand who we are, and what we stand for, and how and when Sikhs came to Singapore. [ ] Justice Choor Singh s article on Bhai Maharaj Singh is timely. It is a succinct, well-researched and highly readable account of an honourable and admirable Sikh whose heroic and saintly deeds have left an indelible impression on the hearts and minds of Singapore Sikhs. Bhai Maharaj Singh is particularly special to us because of his brief residence in this country. 62 Choor Singh s version of the history and significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh for Singaporean Sikhs is commonly accepted as an official narrative and serves as an important appendage to the history of Gurdwara Silat Road. Colonial records of Bhai Maharaj s capture by the British in Punjab and his subsequent internment in Singapore are cited in Choor Singh s narrative to provide historical verification. Even the 61 See Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier (henceforth Saint-Soldier), (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1991). Choor Singh is a prominent member of the Singaporean Sikh community who represents the older generation of Sikhs in Singapore. He was born in India in 1911 and arrived in Singapore when he was six. Through his education, Choor Singh eventually became the first Sikh judge of the Singapore Supreme Court and retired in He is a founding member and former President of the Singapore Khalsa Association, a Sikh community organization, and a former Chairman of the Sikh Advisory Board in the 1950s. [See Illustration 2.4] 62 Davinder Singh, Foreword, in Saint-Soldier, p. 2.
106 94 pictorial illustration of Bhai Maharaj Singh on Choor Singh s book is replicated from that found in the collection of documents published by Nahar Singh and Kirpal Singh. 63 A revised and updated version of Choor Singh s article was re-published by the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board after the completion of the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Shrine, which was officially declared open on 23 October What is particularly interesting about this reprint is the addition made to the pictorial illustration of Bhai Maharaj Singh. The Khalsa symbol, which was not previously included in the first publication, was added to the flag staff held by the Saint. Also, the title of the publication was changed from Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier to Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith. 65 As Bhai Maharaj Singh s historical trajectory spans both the Punjab and Singapore in the colonial period, his exile in Singapore offers the Singaporean Sikh community an important justification to stake a claim on him. The following is a paragraph from the preface of Rebels against the British Raj: Bhaie [sic] Maharaj Singh was arrested in December 1849 and ordered to be sent to Singapore (China) [ ] Bhaie Maharaj Singh ( ) died a miserable death on 5 th July 1857, almost blind on account of cataract. His strong body was reduced to a skeleton and a bundle of bones on account of sufferings. At that time there were no Hindus or Sikhs in Singapore to cremate the body. No body knows what became of it. Soon after his death his companion Khurruck Singh was transferred to Penang Malasia. [sic] We earnestly request the Sikh residents of Singapore and Malaysia to collect and send us more material about Bhaie Maharaj Singh and his associate Khurruck Singh See, Nahar Singh & Kirpal Singh (eds.), Rebels Against the British Raj, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road: A Historical Journey, Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006, p. 70. [See Illustration 2.5] 65 Choor Singh Sidhu, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1998/9). [See Illustration 2.6] 66 Nahar Singh & Kirpal Singh (eds.), Rebels Against the British Raj., p. xx.
107 95 The lacuna surrounding Bhai Maharaj Singh and his companion Khurruck Singh after their exile to Malaya is particularly conducive for myth-making and the fashioning of historical narratives. 67 Official correspondence ceased after the death of Bhai Maharaj Singh and nothing is known of the fate of his companion, Khurruck Singh. Details regarding the burial of Bhai Maharaj Singh remain vague due to the absence of any written records and are, hence, open to conjecture. Choor Singh attempts to construct a sense of historic continuity in his narrative by explaining how this lacuna dovetails with a popular belief, among Sikh devotees, that an unmarked tombstone located formerly at the grounds of the Singapore General Hospital belonged to a Sikh Sant imprisoned in Singapore by the British in the midnineteenth century. 68 Bhai Maharaj Singh is valourised in Choor Singh s narrative as a Shaheed (martyr) and a Saint-Soldier who effectively galvanized the resistance movement against the British. He is, therefore, portrayed as a heroic figure worthy of commemoration by the Singaporean Sikh community: [It] must not be forgotten that Bhai Maharaj Singh was also the Head of the Religious Order, now known as the Hoti Mardan Vali Sant Khalsa Sampardai, which had been established by Bhai Daya Singh, one of the five Panj Payaras of Guru Gobind Singh [ ] Bhai Maharaj Singh was therefore not only a revolutionary fighter who tried to save the Sikh Kingdom but also a recognized religious personage of very high standing, a true Saint of the Sikh Faith who died the death of a martyr. Some Sikhs, both in India and Singapore, even believe that he was a Karniwala (possessor of supernatural powers). [ ] Bhai Maharaj was undoubtedly one the great Saint-Soldiers of the Sikh faith, who has left behind a rich spiritual legacy and merits a memorial in Singapore, if for no other reason, then, for the simple reason that 67 The last written record on Bhai Maharaj was sent by G.M Blundel, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, to the colonial office in British India. Dated 12 th July, 1856, the dispatch conveyed news of the death of Bhai Maharaj. I have the honour to report to you for the information of the Right Hon ble the Governor General of India-in-Council, that the State Prisoner, Bhaie Maharaj Singh died on the 5 th instant. Cited from Rebels Against the British Raj, Document No Choor Singh, Saint-Soldier, p. 17.
108 96 he died in Singapore. Many Singapore Sikhs unfortunately are not aware of this. 69 The emphasis on the religious and historical lineage of Bhai Maharaj Singh places him within a potent and evocative past. It is one which conjures memories of the political might of the Sikh Kingdom before the Punjab was annexed by the British in 1849; invokes the sacred/religious legacy of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh who instituted the Khalsa and the symbolism of the Panj Pyare (the Five Beloved); and celebrates the act of martyrdom which is highly privileged within the Sikh tradition. Bhai Maharaj Singh, therefore, acts as a conduit linking Singaporean Sikhs to these historical and religious narratives that are central within Sikh history and iconography. The building of a memorial gurdwara to memorialize Bhai Maharaj Singh helps foster collective memory and identity for it involves the construction of a physical landmark around which Sikhs can gather for religious purposes and identify as belonging to the community. This project is also an attempt to draw the attention of the government and other communities in Singapore to the iconic status of Bhai Maharaj Singh and history behind the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. The efforts of the Sikh community at promoting a national recognition of Punjabi/Sikh heritage in Singapore reaped success when Gurdwara Silat Road was designated as a Historical Site by the National Heritage Board on 14 th November Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith, p Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006), p. 70.
109 97 ILLUSTRATION 2.4 Gurdwara Board, 1991 Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint Soldier. Book published by Central Sikh
110 ILLUSTRATION 2.5 Entrance of the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial. Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board,
111 99 ILLUSTRATION 2.6 Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith. Book published by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 1998/9.
112 100 The choice of Bhai Maharaj Singh as an icon to represent the Singaporean Sikh community is motivated by the hope, on the part of community leaders, of finding a unifying symbol for Singaporean Sikhs. Bhai Maharaj Singh is believed to be one of the first Sikhs to arrive in Singapore. As a political prisoner of the British, Bhai Maharaj Singh was exiled to Singapore in His historical trajectory is set apart from the large-scale migration and circulation of Sikhs from Punjab to Malaya in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth century. The figure of Bhai Maharaj Singh is, therefore, removed from the regional factions prevalent among the early Sikh immigrants, particularly Sikhs from the Jat caste. Though region-based identities and differences have gradually lost some of its currency among the younger generation of Singaporean Sikhs, the community is still differentiated along regional and caste lines and is also grappling with generational divisions that have emerged. 71 Given his prominent status within Sikh history, Bhai Maharaj is thus seen as an ideal figure to be memorialised as a historical icon to represent the Singaporean Sikh community. 72 The significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh as an anti-british Sikh martyr and a political exile is, however, downplayed by Davinder Singh in his foreword written for Choor Singh s book. Given his position then as a Member of Parliament, and a prominent member of the Sikh community, Davinder Singh was careful not to portray Bhai 71 Caste differences within the Sikh community are sometimes manifested in the divide between the business-class and non-business class. Sikhs who belong to the business class are from the Khatri and Arora castes, and they usually worship at the Katong Road Gurdwara. Sikhs belonging to the nonbusiness class are mainly Jat Sikhs who form the majority in the Singaporean Sikh community. These categories are used by Sikhs themselves to refer to different groups within the community. 72 British Sikhs too have appropriated the figure of Maharaja Dalip Singh, the last sovereign ruler of the Sikh Kingdom of Punjab, as a symbol to unify a community plagued by caste and generational divisions. See Tony Ballantyne, Maharaja Dalip Singh, p. 162
113 101 Maharaj Singh as a potential symbol for radical political activities within Singapore. The anti-british political stance and the miraculous powers for which Bhai Maharaj is celebrated and revered, is merely hinted at in a laudatory but politically neutral acknowledgement of his heroic and saintly deeds as a honourable and admirable Sikh. 73 Bhai Maharaj Singh and Popular Devotion Besides the official narrative on Bhai Maharaj Singh written by Choor Singh in 1991, there was another book published in 1996 by a Singaporean Sikh devotee. Written originally in Punjabi, parts of the book were subsequently translated into English and published under the title, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji, : Some Glimpses of his Life. It is a hagiographic account of the significance of Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sant and martyr who sacrificed all his life to free his country and people from foreign rule. 74 The book was written for a specific readership: one that regarded Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sikh Sant, and shared a religious worldview in which the belief in miracles and the worship of Sikh Sants co-existed with the tenets of Sikhism. 75 What is particularly interesting about this publication is the section documenting the miracles related to Bhai Maharaj Singh, also referred to as Baba Ji. The miracles 73 Davinder Singh, Foreword, in Saint-Soldier, p Bhai Karam Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh, : Some Glimpses of His Life (henceforth Bhai Maharaj Singh ), (Singapore, 1998), p The cost of publishing was funded by donations from Sikh devotees. One thousand copies of the translated version was published in 1998 and circulated among the Sikh congregation. Free copies of the book written in Punjabi were also distributed to devotees during the Barsi in Malacca in 2004.
114 102 documented (there are seven in all) are drawn from an existing oral tradition which serves as a rich repository of myths and stories related to Maharaj Singh. Clearly, the belief in miracles and the supernatural is still very much alive among Sikh devotees of Bhai Maharaj Singh and is, in fact, interwoven with their belief in the Sikh Gurus and the sanctity of the Guru Granth Sahib. This is underscored in the preface by the author who is himself a staunch devotee of Bhai Maharaj Singh: Just as those who receive grace by truly believing in Waheguru or Guru, Baba Ji s followers who witnessed his miracles received his help. Baba Ji fulfils the requests of those who regarding him as omnipresent, continue to serve him. [ ] The miracles connected with Baba Ji are related in this handbook so that there will be a record for the benefit of future generations. The miracles narrated here have been witnessed by Baba Ji s followers [ ] It is not a question of being Sikh or non-sikh. It is a matter of love. Therefore those Sikhs who do not adorn long hair but make sincere requests with love have their prayers and requests answered. Then such devotees present flowers and make obeisance at his tomb as a mark of gratitude. 76 Among the miracles documented are accounts of non-believers (a Muslim, a North Indian Hindu, and an Englishman) who became devotees after supernatural encounters with the Sant as well as accounts of the exorcism of evil spirits through the invocation of Baba Ji. 77 In the realm of popular devotion, the memory of Bhai Maharaj Singh is invoked in his capacity as a tutelary Sant or a Karniwala (possessor of special powers). 78 There exists among many Sikh devotees a popular belief in the miraculous powers of Bhai Maharaj Singh. Sikhs of the older generation, especially Sikh ladies, pay homage to the Sant for their personal well-being, and for their supplications to be granted. This community of devotees gather frequently at the Bhai Maharaj Singh 76 Bhai Karam Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh, pp Ibid, pp These miracles are recounted in a section titled Baba Ji s Miracles As Seen By His Devotees. 78 Personal communication with Sikh devotees at the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road between 2004 and Most devotees attest to the power of Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sant by citing their personal experiences as an example.
115 103 Memorial and prayer sessions are held regularly at the Memorial where devotees offer flowers and money as a token of their devotion. Prior to efforts by the Sikh leadership to fashion a history behind the samadh by linking it to the figure of Bhai Maharaj Singh, Sikh devotees, who were motivated by different concerns, had already ascribed religious significance to the samadh. This was highlighted in Choor Singh s narrative on Bhai Maharaj Singh: After the Second World War, some Tamils started putting flowers at the foot of this tombstone. Some Sikhs followed suit but it was the Tamils who put up some masonry on the ground around it and made it look like a tombstone. Some green flags on poles were also stuck around it, probably by Muslims who believed the tombstone was a Kramat (memorial for a Muslim Saint). Some Sikhs started believing that it was the tombstone of Bhai Maharaj Singh while others believed it was of Baba Karam Singh. Nothing is known of this Baba Karam Singh. [ ] The Sikhs went one step further than the Tamils. They put up a structure over the tombstone in the grounds of the General Hospital. Very soon they installed the Granth Sahib there and the place became a full-fledged Gurdwara. Regular prayer sessions and functions were held with large crowds of devotees in attendance. Eventually the Government decided that it was no place for a regular Gurdwara and requested the Sikhs to demolish the structure [ ] Accordingly, on Wednesday, the 12 th of October 1966, at 7.30 pm after an Ardas by Bachan Singh Brahmpura, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib together with the Nishan-Sahib (Gurdwara Flag) were, with due respect, taken in a procession of motorcars, escorted by the police, to the Silat Road Gurdwara. There, near the entrance was re-established by the devotees exactly what had been erected in the grounds of the General Hospital, but without installing the Granth Sahib in the new structure. 79 The above observation underscores the religious belief in saints shared by other communities of faith along with the Sikhs. Far from being exclusive to the Sikhs, the former site of the samadh was shared by Hindus and Muslims who grafted onto this nondescript tombstone their respective religious beliefs and symbols. Previously an open and contested site, the tombstone was eventually appropriated by Sikh devotees when they installed the Guru Granth Sahib at the samadh and held regular prayer 79 Choor Singh, Saint-Soldier, pp
116 104 sessions there. When the samadh was relocated to Gurdwara Silat Road in 1966, it effectively became a religious symbol of the Sikh community. Construction of the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial within Gurdwara Silat Road compound took place in the early 1990s and it was officially declared open on October 1995 by Kartar Singh Thakral, a prominent member of the Sikh business community who donated generously to the renovation of the Gurdwara Silat Road. 80 His involvement in the memorial project is symbolically significant as it is a gesture of co-operation and unity between the Sikh business community and Sikhs from the non-business class. The Barsi of Bhai Maharaj Singh is an important religious and social event held annually at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial at Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. During the Barsi, the akhand path prayer ceremony is offered in memory of the Sant. It is a major religious event at the Gurdwara and there are often other programmes such as kirtan and prayer sessions organized in conjunction with the Barsi. 81 The Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road is considered an important landmark in the network of Sikh religious sites that have emerged in Malaysia and Singapore. These religious sites are usually gurdwaras associated with popular Sikh Sants. The Gurdwara Sahib Malacca where devotees gather annually for the Barsi of the famous Sant Sohan Singh is another important religious site. It has become an increasingly common practice for Sikh devotees to undertake a pilgrimage of popular religious sites in Malaysia and Singapore, especially during major religious festivals for the benefits of darsan and seva. Although the Barsi of Bhai Maharaj Singh is a significant event for Singaporean 80 Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, p [See Illustrations 2.7 and 2.8]
117 105 Sikh devotees, the scale of the religious commemoration in Singapore is considerably smaller in comparison to the Barsi in Malacca. The community of Bhai Maharaj Singh devotees is not made up exclusively of Punjabi-Sikhs: it also includes non-sikhs, namely Chinese and North Indian devotees who have been known to offer prayers and offerings at the Memorial. 82 Older Sikh ladies who form the core of Bhai Maharaj devotees serve as keepers of an oral tradition built on the myths and stories of the Sant. It was noted that, Bhai Maharaj Singh is the favourite Saint of Sikh ladies. Some of them light candles at the back of the shrine and seek his intercession in their prayers. 83 The belief that prayers are answered by his intercession is very strong, so much so that Ten Thousand Dollar notes and even jewellery, such as gold bangles, have on some occasions been found in the donation box of the shrine. This is ample proof that some grateful devotee s prayers have been answered by the intercession of Bhai Maharaj Singh. 84 The belief in the miraculous powers of Sants and the religious merit of making pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with Sants is regarded with ambivalence by some of the more educated Sikhs (mainly well-educated professionals). The worship of Sants is regarded by reformist elements within the Sikh community as being 82 Interviews with Sikh devotees on the popularity of Bhai Maharaj Singh as a Sikh Sant held at the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road between 2004 and A story often narrated by Sikh devotees tells of a Chinese husband and wife couple who supposedly became devotees of Bhai Maharaj Singh ever since the lady was cured of her illness after praying to Bhai Maharaj Singh. Although none of the Sikh devotees have actually met the Chinese couple personally, this story has become a popular myth and is told as a testimony to the benevolence and supernatural powers of the Sant. 83 Personal observation made during my visits to the Silat Road Gurdwara between 2004 and A group of elderly and middle-aged Sikh ladies would gather regularly at the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Shrine during the week to interact with each other and offer their prayers to Bhai Maharaj Singh and the Guru Granth Sahib. 84 Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Martyr of the Sikh Faith, p. 28.
118 106 distinctly Hindu and hence un-sikh religious practice which goes against the orthodox tenets of Sikhism. This reformist impulse is articulated by Choor Singh: It will be remembered that there are several small Gurdwaras built in the Golden Temple Complex at Amritsar in memory of Sikh martyrs, e.g. Baba Deep Singh Gurdwara. It is of fundamental importance that Sikhs who believe that prayers are granted when intercession of Bhai Maharaj Singh is invoked, should worship in his Gurdwara and not at his samadh (tombstone). The practice of worshipping at a samadh of a Saint, no matter how holy, is gross violation of the tenets of the Sikh faith. This is [why] it is imperative that there should be a Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara in Singapore. It will enable and hopefully encourage those seeking his intercession, to pray in his Gurdwara instead of his samadh. 85 The push for the construction of a Memorial Gurdwara to house the samadh of the Sant can be seen as an attempt by the leaders of the community to discipline and standardise religious practices according to the religious tenets of Khalsa Sikhism. What is striking about this project is the creative manner in which a rapprochement is established between the modernist approach of the Sikh leadership and the popular devotional practices of Sikh devotees. Through the imaginative use of important religious symbols like the Guru Granth Sahib to delineate Sikh sacred space, the worship of Bhai Maharaj Singh by devotees is justified as an accepted Sikh religious practice. 85 Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier, p. 17
119 107 ILLUSTRATION 2.7 Devotees gathered outside the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial for a kirtan session during Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi. Photo by Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006.
120 ILLUSTRATION 2.8 Devotees at a prayer session held at the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road in conjunction with the Barsi of Bhai Maharaj Singh,
121 109 ILLUSTRATION 2.9 A clear view of the Guru Granth Sahib from the entrance of the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial. (The entrance of the Memorial was decorated with flowers for Bhai Maharaj Singh s Barsi in 2004).
122 110 Attempts to address the contention surrounding the practice of worshipping at the samadh resulted in the housing of the samadh in a memorial where the Guru Granth Sahib occupies a central position. 86 In a clever organization of sacred space, the dais bearing the Guru Granth Sahib is specially constructed to hold and display the samadh of Bhai Maharaj Singh in an unobtrusive manner. Devotees who worship at the memorial pay homage first to the Guru Granth Sahib (which is placed prominently at the entrance of the memorial) before they circumambulate the dais in order to pay homage to Bhai Maharaj Singh as his samadh is placed at the back of the dais, facing away from the memorial s entrance. 87 Conclusion In his study of the transmission of Sikh identity and cultural heritage among Sikhs in Singapore, Verne Dusenbery makes the observation that Singaporean Sikhs are a community of Sikhs who have come of age in the diaspora. 88 Unlike Britain, Canada and the United States which, at present, still receives new Sikh immigrants the movement of Sikh immigrants into Singapore was kept in check with the tightening of immigration laws in 1953 and Subsequent additions to the local Singaporean Sikh community consisted largely of female spouses from the Punjab and middle-class Sikh professionals from the Punjab, the United States, or Britain who stay only for the duration of their employment contracts. A number of Sikhs from the Punjab who are 86 [See Illustration 2.9] 87 Personal observations made during my visits to the Bhai Maharaj Singh Memorial Gurdwara, Silat Road between 2004 and Dusenbery, Socializing Sikhs in Singapore, p
123 111 employed in Singapore as unskilled contract labourers are a more recent, though separate, presence within the community. During the colonial period (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century), Sikhism was exported along with its adherents, to new territories where Sikh communities settled and took root. The idea of Sikhs as a martial race, popularised in British colonial discourse, served as an important channel through which Sikhs were able to take advantage of the economic opportunities offered through military service. Once recruited into Sikh regiments and Sikh Police Contingents, Sikhs were required to undergo the Khalsa s khande ki pahul initiation rite and to maintain the external symbols of their Sikh identity which are commonly referred to as the Five Ks. 89 They also had to accept the religious authority of granthis (reciters and interpreters of holy texts and scriptures) installed by the colonial authorities. 90 These measures were implemented by the British and were meant to foster and preserve a distinctly martial Khalsa Sikh identity. 91 Sikhs who served in the colonial security forces often served as the standard measure to represent the Sikh community, especially those communities based in British colonies. 89 Hew McLeod, Sikhism, (England: Penguin Books, 1997), p Verne Dusenbery, Socialising Sikhs in Singapore, p Tony Ballantyne, Orientalism and Race, p The martial and manly nature commonly associated with Sikhs is closely linked to British colonial perceptions of them as one of the martial races in India. The Martial Race Theory was put into practice with the opening of the Punjab as the main recruiting ground for the Indian Army by the end of the nineteenth century. See also Tan Tai Yong, Recruiting in the Punjab: Martial Races and the Military Districts in The Garrison State, p. 70.
124 112 The martial nature of Sikhs, which was such an important trope in British colonial discourse, has been supplemented by new discursive tropes in the national discourse on the Singaporean Sikh community: the success of Sikhs as a minority group in Singapore; their contribution to Singapore, notably through military service; their dynamism and progressive approach towards the transmission of Punjabi-Sikh heritage to the younger generation of Singaporean Sikhs. The majority of Sikhs who came to Singapore and Malaya during the colonial period were of peasant background from the Mahja, Malwa and Doaba regions of Punjab, and those who stayed on after the tightening of immigration laws in the 1950s laid the foundations of the Singaporean and Malaysian Sikh communities. Regional and caste loyalties formed a key aspect in the delineation of Sikh identities among the earlier generation of Singapore-domiciled Sikhs and this was manifested in the establishment of Gurdwaras where networks based on historically rooted regional and caste affiliations were forged and maintained. A younger generation of Sikhs have emerged in post-colonial Singapore to assume leadership positions within the community: they are mainly middle-class, Singaporeborn, male, English-educated professionals bearing a distinct kesdhari Sikh identity. 92 This Sikh identity has its historic antecedent in the distinctive image of the turbaned Sikh policeman represented in historical narratives on Singapore and its colonial past as a symbol of the British Empire. Even in the post-colonial period, the martial nature 92 A kesdhari Sikh is defined as a Sikh with uncut hair. Having uncut hair (kes) is one of the five markers of the Khalsa identity. It is important to note that a kesdhari Sikh is not necessarily an initiated member of the Khalsa. An amritdhari Sikh, on the other hand, is an initiated member of the Khalsa who adheres to the religious practices and external markers of the Khalsa. Hew McLeod, Sikhism, pp. xiiixv.
125 113 of Sikhs continued to hold currency in public life and Sikhs were closely associated with military service in Singapore. This has often been highlighted as a notable contribution made by Sikhs to Singapore and nation-building. The recent achievements of Sikhs in the political and legal sectors in Singapore have also cast the community in a positive light. Bhajan Singh and Davinder Singh serve as prominent examples of this new generation of Singaporean Sikhs. In the course of working with the government through community initiatives to advance Sikh interests in Singapore, notable efforts were also made to construct a normative and collective Singaporean Sikh identity variously defined by nationality, religion and ethnicity. The projects initiated by the Sikh leadership in the early 1990s such as the launching of the SSEF in 1990 to advance Punjabi language education among Sikh youth and the organization of The International Conference cum Exhibition on Punjabi/Sikh Heritage in June 1992 to raise public awareness of Sikh religion and tradition are attempts by the Sikh community to construct a version of Punjabi-Sikh heritage that reflected the particular needs and concerns of a generation of Singaporean Sikhs who have come of age in the diaspora. An important concern is the construction of a collective Singaporean Sikh identity. The appropriation of Bhai Maharaj Singh as an icon of the Singaporean Sikh community serves as an illustration of the dynamics involved in the fashioning of Sikh history and identities. From his position as a political prisoner exiled to Singapore in 1850 by the British, Bhai Maharaj Singh was rehabilitated as a Sikh martyr and
126 114 memorialised as a heroic Saint of the Sikh faith by the Singaporean Sikh community. 93 By recounting the martyrdom of Bhai Maharaj Singh and establishing his significance in the history of Sikhs in Singapore, the Sikh leadership is attaching to their community the same qualities of heroism, fortitude, and piety associated with Bhai Maharaj Singh. The appropriation of a prominent historical and religious figure in Sikh history also allows for the construction of a long and illustrious historical narrative for the Singaporean Sikh community. The act of memorializing of Bhai Maharaj Singh is in tandem with efforts to revive the historic significance of the Gurdwara Silat Road in the Sikh community. The designation of Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road as a historical site by the National Heritage Board in 1999 was considered an important milestone for the Singaporean Sikh community. It was highlighted by the Sikh community as an important acknowledgement on the national level of the strong historical contribution of Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji and the contribution of the Sikh Police Contingent to nation building. 94 This chapter, by focusing on the role of Sikh community organizations and the links forged between Bhai Maharaj Singh, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, and the Singaporean Sikh community, seeks to illustrate the complex and creative ways in which members of the community negotiate the colonial past and the postcolonial present in the construction of Sikh historical narratives and identities. 95 A key concern shaping the construction of Singaporean Sikh identities lies in transforming the image of Sikhs from just providers of security and defence of the nation (Singapore) to that of being 93 Choor Singh, Bhai Maharaj Singh: Saint-Soldier, p Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, p Tony Ballantyne, Maharaja Dalip Singh, p. 171.
127 115 successful in any career from defence to academics and from medicine to international entrepreneurs. 96 Singaporean Sikhs will constantly be fashioning and rewriting historical narratives and appropriating new symbols to reflect this transformation. 96 Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, p. 69
128 116 CHAPTER THREE SANT SOHAN SINGH AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF SIKH IDENTITY: SIKHS IN MALAYSIA While Sikhs in Singapore are involved in the construction and negotiation of their history and identities, similar efforts have also been initiated by Sikhs in Malaysia since the 1970s. The town of Malacca in Malaysia serves as the backdrop for a threeday event which features prominently on the Sikh social and religious landscape in Malaysia. The venue for the event is the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca, which is at present the only Gurdwara in Malacca. Held annually in May, the event is a religious commemoration of the death anniversary of a revered Sikh religious figure who served for forty-five years as the resident granthi of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca. Sant Sohan Singh (or Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji) was a prominent figure in the Sikh community from the early 1900s up until the 1970s, and continues to hold a special importance for Sikhs in Malaysia. The present Sikh population in Malaysia, which is estimated to number about 40,000, can be traced to the migration of Sikhs into British Malaya in the colonial period as discussed in Chapter One 1 Many of the early Sikh migrants served as policemen and militiamen in the security forces, or found employment as watchmen, bullock-cart drivers or dairy farmers. The flow of Sikh immigration into Malaya ceased after the 1 K. S. Sandhu, Sikhs in Malaysia: A Society in Transition, in K.S. Sandhu and A. Mani (eds.), Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, (Singapore: Times Academic Press and ISEAS, 1993), p. 558
129 117 independence of Malaysia in 1957 and the Sikh population consisted of those who chose to stay on in Malaysia as Malaysian citizens and local born Sikhs. 2 The distribution of Sikhs across Malaysia in the post-colonial period was largely shaped by their social and economic roles in the colonial period. The majority of Sikhs were concentrated in urban centres of Kuala Lumpur, Johore Bahru, Ipoh, Penang, and Malacca given that a sizeable number of Sikhs were employed in the security forces that were formed specifically to defend the colonial administration based in the federal and state capitals. Sikhs who were employed as watchmen, unskilled labour on tin mines and dairy farms were also found in these urban centres. In the period after Malaysia s independence, local born Sikhs formed approximately three quarters of the total Sikh population in Malaysia and there is no doubt that this percentage has increased. 3 From the 1960s to the 1970s, a younger generation of local born Sikhs in Malaysia gradually gained economic success and social (and occupational) mobility through their access to an English education at missionary and government schools. Of these Sikhs, those who became professionals formed the emerging middle-class within the Malaysian Sikh community. The Sikh community in Malaysia is currently made up of a significant number of middle-class Sikh professionals who have grown up in post-colonial Malaysia, but who have also inherited the colonial past of Sikh migrants in Malaya. 4 2 Ibid., p For a demographic survey of the Malaysian Sikh population (with a special focus on the 1970s) see Manjit Singh Sidhu, Sikhs in Malaysia, (Malacca: Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society, 1991), pp Sandhu, Sikhs in Malaysia, p. 561
130 118 It is against this backdrop that the history of Sant Sohan Singh and the significance of his Barsi (also popularly known among Sikh devotees as Babaji s Barsi) have evolved. The annual Barsi in Malacca has become an important pilgrimage event for Sikhs in Malaysia and also Singapore (given the close historical links between these two countries in the colonial period). It is even considered by many Sikhs to be one of the most prominent annual religious events in Southeast Asia. 5 The study of the emergence of religious sites and religious communities outside India where South Asian communities have settled in significant numbers is a growing area of research in the studies of the South Asian diaspora. These are mainly anthropological works exploring the manner in which the South Asian diaspora in Britain and America sacralize their social landscape: from the construction, in America, of Hindu temples devoted to the deity Lord Vishnu, to the performance of religious processions through immigrant neighbourhoods in London, Manchester, and Birmingham in commemoration of the birth and death anniversaries of the Prophet and Sufi saints. Such practices are an expression of the attempts by South Asian immigrant communities at constructing and asserting their religious and cultural identity. 6 5 Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore: An Illustrated History (henceforth Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore), (Kuala Lumpur: Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, 2003), p The term sacralize is often used in anthropological studies of religion. See for example Vasudha Narayan, Victory to Govinda who Lives in America : Hindu Rituals to Sacralize the American Landscape, Draft paper presented at the American Academy of Religion, Annual/National Meeting, November 1999; Pnina Werbner, Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult, (London: Hurst & Company, 2003); Diana L. Eck, The Imagined landscape: Patterns in the construction of Hindu sacred geography, in Veena Das, Dipankar Gupta & Patricia Oberoi (eds.), Tradition, Pluralism and Iidentity:Essays in honour of T. N Madan, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1999), pp
131 119 There has been interesting research done on the creative adaptation of Hinduism by the (predominantly South Indian Tamil) Hindu population in Singapore. Vineeta Sinha s study of the making of a new Hindu religious deity by a certain segment of the Singaporean South Indian Tamil community, and the emergence of religious sites where the deity is worshipped is a good example. 7 In comparison, few studies on Sikhs in Southeast Asia have used the emergence of new pilgrimage sites and the contribution and influence of Sikh Sants as a framework to explore the various ways in which Sikhs living in the diaspora construct and perform their religious and social identities. This study explores the significance and symbolism of the Barsi and the man who inspired the Barsi, Sant Sohan Singh. The act of memorializing Sant Sohan Singh through an annual religious commemoration provides the context which frames the construction of Sikh identities. To better appreciate the influence and prominence of Sant Sohan Singh among Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs, it would be useful to situate him within the Sant tradition in Sikh history as discussed in my Introduction. 8 Sant Sohan Singh was part of the modern Sant tradition that emerged in Malaysia and Singapore. He had a reputation for self-denying piety and was well-versed in Sikh Scriptures. 9 He played an active role in the transmission of Sikh culture and tradition among the Sikh immigrant community, and was a staunch advocate of the Khalsa faith through the 7 Vineeta Sinha, A New God in the Diaspora? (Singapore: Singapore University Press), See my Introduction, pp Sant Sohan Singh left for India in 1932 to further his religious education with Pandit Kartar Singh of Dakha, a famous scholar of Sikh scriptures, at Gurmat College, Damdama Sahib. See Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West (henceforth Sikhism), (Singapore: Mehervan Singh, 1979), pp. 77-8
132 120 teaching of religious doctrine and kirtan. He was also believed to possess supernatural powers; a trait perceived by Sikh devotees as a manifestation of his piety and sanctity. Sant Sohan Singh has been described in the following terms: He devoted a great deal of time in jap and tap to develop himself spiritually. He did not achieve this in the hermit s retreat or in intellectual insularity. He moved about freely among Sikh families as a true religious person, as advocated by the Gurus. Giani Sohan Singh was in the true sense, physically distinctive, mentally alert and spiritually enlightened Many persons began to visit him as they would a saint; they made clean breast of their problems. He succeeded in helping some alcoholics break their habit. He helped settle many family quarrels. 10 This eulogy clearly shows that the Sikhs identified closely with Sant Sohan Singh because he was a present and visible leader and master to them. The Early Life of Sant Sohan Singh Sant Sohan Singh was born in Phool Nagar in Punjab in Like many of the Sikh immigrants who made the passage to Malaya with the assistance of friends or family during the period of British colonial rule, Sohan Singh came to Malaya with the assistance of his family. In 1926, he arrived in Malaya with his niece and her husband, who was a policeman stationed in Seremban. In 1927, Sohan Singh was appointed as the granthi (custodian of a Gurdwara; trained reader of the Guru Granth Sahib) of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca which was built in 1925 by the Sikh migrant community in 10 Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka in Birth of the Khalsa (henceforth Sant Sohan Singh Melaka ), a commemorative tract published by the Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society, 150-B, Jalan Temenggong, Melaka, Malaysia, P.O. Box No.115, Melaka, pp. 32-4
133 121 Malacca. He also entrusted with the care of the erstwhile Sikh Police Gurdwara in Malacca. 11 From his role as a granthi, Sohan Singh went on to assume a prominent position within the Sikh community in Malaya, and was subsequently appropriated and revered as an icon of the Sikh Panth. His immense popularity among Sikh devotees remained undiminished even during the politically turbulent period of Malaya s independence from British colonial rule in 1959, and the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in The emergence of new national boundaries and newly created national communities in the postcolonial period had little impact on the influence of the Sant who continued to travel frequently between Malaysia and Singapore where he would conduct prayers at various Gurdwaras as well as pay personal visits to Sikh families who often sought his company and presence. Sohan Singh was elevated as a Sant by devotees after the period of Japanese Occupation in Malaya from 1942 to While the Barsi started as a religious commemoration initiated spontaneously among those who had known the Sant during his lifetime, it has currently become a popular pilgrimage drawing large numbers of devotees. The first Barsi was held in 1973 in Kuala Lumpur to pay homage to the memory of Sant Sohan Singh and it drew large numbers of Sikh devotees from all over Malaysia and Singapore. In the following year, the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka where Sant Sohan Singh served as resident granthi, 11 Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka, pp This article is adapted and reproduced from Tara Singh Hitaishi Gujaranwalia, Safal Jivan Sant Sohan Singh Ji Malacca or Biography of Saint Sohan Singh Malacca, (Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society, 1977).
134 122 was chosen as the venue of the Barsi and it has remained so since. 12 Over time, different groups have evolved around the event: devotees who comprised initially of Sikh migrant families who had known the Sant personally during his lifetime gradually expanded to encompass a new group of Malaysian and Singaporean-born Sikh devotees from the middle and working classes. Given its scale and prominence, the annual Barsi is at present the largest pilgrimage event in Southeast Asia. The most recent Barsi (21 May 2004 to 23 May 2004) drew an estimated thirty thousand Sikhs. 13 Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs form the majority of devotees at the annual Barsi, although a handful of Sikhs from overseas are also known to attend the Barsi. 14 The Gurdwara has become a prominent local pilgrimage site and is the focal point for the annual gathering of large numbers of Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh devotees. Apart from its reputation as an important pilgrimage site, the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca also serves as a physical memory site for Sikh devotees. 15 The Gurdwara provides the place where devotees of Sant Sohan Singh gather and reinforce their sense of community. Memories and stories of the Sant are passed on and circulated among 12 Interview with Mr H. Singh, Singapore, Sikh Centre, 28 July, This figure was provided by Mr Balbir Singh, President of the Melaka Gurdwara Committee that organized the event, 25 May The committee had made provisions for an estimated crowd of thirty thousand devotees. 14 These overseas Sikhs come from countries like Brunei, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, UK and America. Most of those from Australia, America, and UK, are former Malaysian citizens who are familiar with the Barsi. 15 The notion of memory sites as discussed by John R. Gillis, Memory and History: The History of a Relationship, in John R. Gillis (ed.), Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp These sites include physical sites (monuments, buildings), images, and mementoes.
135 123 family, friends, acquaintances, and fellow devotees through a constantly evolving oral tradition. 16 Political Influence of Sant Sohan Singh Sant Sohan Singh was also known for his political convictions and activities, most notably, through his staunch support of the Punjabi Suba movement. First launched in 1955 by the Sikh political party, the Akali Dal, the Pujabi Suba movement was a campaign to create a Punjabi-speaking state. After a series of political compromises and thwarted demands, the movement gathered momentum in the 1960s when Sant Fateh Singh took over the reins of leadership. Under his leadership, the motive for Punjabi Suba was couched ostensibly as a linguistic demand rather than a struggle for political independence. The Punjabi Suba movement captured the attention of Sikhs in Punjab and abroad. Along with many Sikhs in Malaya and Singapore, Sant Sohan Singh took a keen interest in the movement. He was openly supportive of, and actively involved with the Punjabi Suba Movement. Details of Sant Sohan Singh s political activities can be gleaned from a collection of essays written in English, and published by a Singaporedomiciled Sikh, Mehervan Singh. In an essay on the Sant, the author points out that, Sant Sohan Singh also took keen interest in the Punjabi Suba Movement, in common 16 I gathered from my interviews with devotees at the Barsi, that a number of them (mostly middle-aged and elderly Sikhs) have personally known Sant Sohan Singh, while others know him through parents, family and also friends, Malacca, May 2006.
136 124 with most Sikhs of this region. This he did for no political reasons, but only for the development of the Punjabi language. 17 One of the threads holding together the community of Sikhs living and working abroad was the political, social, and economic links with the Punjab. Links with Punjab were maintained through various means: one important aspect was the financial contributions made by overseas Sikh communities. Various social and economic projects in the Punjab were funded by Sikhs living and working abroad: hospitals, gurdwaras, schools, charities, village infrastructure (irrigation wells, brick houses, new agricultural machinery) and small industries around towns like Jullundur, Ludhiana, and Amritsar benefited from the remittances of overseas Sikhs. Mehervan Singh s collection of essays is a valuable source for the study of the early Sikh community in Malaya as it offers interesting insights into the networks and links maintained with the Punjab by the community. He notes that, Invisible financial aid is provided by the Punjabis abroad in gifts to Indian sadhus, sants, maulanas, swamis, parchariks, ragis, dhadis, kavishars and professional singers visiting foreign lands. These funds are absorbed in the development of the Punjab. 18 Granthis and Sants played a crucial role in the channeling of funds from overseas Sikh communities to Punjab. This is due in no small part to their mobility given their frequent travels to Gurdwaras and religious institutions and the respect they 17 Mehervan Singh, Sikhism, pp It is interesting to note that the author was careful to highlight that Sant Sohan Singh s support of the Punjab Suba Movement was not politically motivated but was driven by an interest in the development of the Punjabi language. 18 Ibid., pp ; see also Darshan Singh Tatla, The Sikh Diaspora: The Search for Statehood, (UK: UCL Press, 1999), pp
137 125 commanded, especially among the early Sikh immigrants. Granthis and Sants were also involved with politics in the Punjab and the diaspora and they exerted considerable influence on the political views and inclinations of Sikh devotees. An important aspect of political involvement is the raising and donating of funds to political causes as a significant and symbolic gesture of panthic support. Sant Sohan Singh s involvement in the Punjabi Suba movement and his influence on the Sikh community serves as a good illustration. The authors of a five-volume series on the history and culture of the Sikh community in Malaya published in 1971 to commemorate the Centenary of Sikhs in Malaysia noted that, the most respected granthi in Malaysia today is undoubtedly Sri Maan Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji of Malacca. The Reverend Sant Baba ji has devoted his entire life for missionary work not only in Malacca but also in other countries. It was a source of great pride for Malayan Sikhs to unanimously nominate the Sant Baba Ji as chairman of the all Malaya Punjabi Suba Convention in His tours to various parts of the country have become historic events. 19 Sant Sohan left for India in August 1964 and during his stay there (he returned to Malaya in September 1965), Sant Sohan Singh met with Sant Chanan Singh and Sant Fateh Singh, the leader of the Punjabi Suba movement. In August 1966, Sant Fateh Singh visited Malaysia and went on a tour of various gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore in the company of Sant Sohan Singh. During his tour, Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs were mobilized for a fund-raising drive, and 19 Malkiat Singh & Mukhtiar Kaur, Sikhs in Malaysia Series, Vol. 3: Some Sikh Cultural Customs and Traditions in Malaysia, (Penang: Lopo-Ghar, 1971), pp
138 126 the funds collected were presented to Sant Fateh Singh as siropao (tokens of esteem). 20 Sant Sohan Singh s unequivocal support of Sant Fateh Singh, who was renowned in the Sikh Panth for his struggle for Punjabi Suba, was an important illustration of the involvement and influence of Sants in the politics of Punjab and the Sikh diaspora. The visit by Sant Fateh Singh was regarded by the Sikh community as a historic tour, and the event was captured on photographs and reported in community news. 21 The constant presence of Sant Sohan Singh at the side of Sant Fateh Singh during the latter s tour of Malaysia and Singapore was highly symbolic: it was a strong gesture of support for the Punjabi Suba movement by the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities and it demonstrated the strong links that existed between the Punjab and the Sikh community. However, it is crucial to highlight that this support for events in the Punjab co-existed with other important concerns. The following views on the visit by Sant Fateh Singh were made in a community publication by Malkiat Singh and Mukhtiar Kaur: The Sikhs of Malaysia celebrating their centenary can look back with justified pride for they have never broken the community s patriotic traditions. It was and has always been the policy of Sikh leaders from Punjab to advise the local resident Sikhs to become patriotic nationals and citizens of this country. A typical comment is that of the spiritual leader, the Very Rev. Sant Baba Fateh Singhji, President of the Shiromani Akali Dal, who toured Malaysia in August On his arrival at Subang International Airport the Sant spoke at a press conference and said: Sikhs are patriots by tradition; therefore, it is my earnest desire that all the Sikhs living here in Malaysia should dedicate their 20 Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West, pp Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, pp
139 127 entire energy towards the welfare and uplifting of the Malaysia and treat Malaysia as their homeland. 22 This statement, coupled with the quote by Sant Fateh Singh is symbolically significant: it reflects the desire of a Sikh migrant community determined to highlight their contribution and loyalty to their country of domicile, while maintaining links with their land of birth through their support of important political developments in the Punjab. The emergence in the early post-colonial period of a nascent Malaysian national identity brought about a new set of concerns for the Sikh community. One major concern was related to the desire to construct a distinctive and unified community identity that represented a new generation of Malaysian Sikhs. Caste and Regional Loyalties among Sikhs in Malaya Early Sikh immigrants in Malaya identified and organized themselves along regional, village and caste lines, and this was clearly reflected in the various interest groups that emerged during the period from the early 1900s until the onset of World War Two. During this time, various Sikh groups in Malaya started forming and officially registering organizations through which social issues concerning Sikhs were articulated and represented. The rapidity and frequency at which new organizations were formed (these were usually splinter groups set up by dissenting members of an existing group) meant that no one particular organization fully represented the Sikh community in Malaya. These groups went about garnering support and expanding their influence at the local level through various means. The control of Sikh gurdwaras and cremation grounds; the management and control of Gurdwara funds; debates over 22 Malkiat Singh & Mukhtiar Kaur, Sikhs in Malaysia, Vol. 3, pp. 10-1
140 128 Sikh beliefs, rituals and practices; the education of Sikh youth in the Punjabi language and the Sikh religion; and the publication and circulation of newspapers, tracts, and magazines became main sites where contests over resources, legitimacy and authority were waged. 23 The Malwa-Mahja rivalry is often seen as the main source of contention dividing the Malaysian Sikh community. It was observed that, As most of the [Malwa-Mahja] rivalry has not been healthy it has caused limitless harm and damage to the Malaysian Sikh community as a whole. Since then no major constructive plan on a national scale has been successfully implemented. Every effort [ ] to bring good results for the Sikh community has been foiled by the adherents to the Majah-Malwa conflict. 24 Sikh migrants who came to Malaya to join the military and police forces were almost all from the Mahja, Malwa and Doaba regions in the Punjab, although Sikhs from the Mahja and Malwa regions were in the numerical majority as compared to their counterparts from the Doaba region. 25 The traditional historical rivalry between Mahja and Malwa Sikhs in the Punjab took on a new significance in Malaya. This was evident especially among Sikh recruits in the Malay States Guides who were often divided over the prospect of promotion and the honour of regional regiments. This regional rivalry was to pervade the rest of the community as the establishment of Sikh gurdwaras, Khalsa Diwans and Singh Sabhas in Malaya and Singapore were largely 23 For more details on the factional divisions in the early Sikh community see Amarjit Kaur, North Indians in Malaya: A Study of their economic, social and political activities with special reference to Selangor, 1870s-1940s, unpublished M.A. dissertation, Department of History, Kuala Lumpur, University of Malaya, 1973, pp , and also Malkiat Singh & Mukhtiar Kaur, Sikhs in Malaysia Series Vol. 1: Some Historical Notes, (Penang: Lopo-Ghar, 1971), pp Malkiat Singh & Mukhtiar Kaur, Sikhs in Malaysia, Vol. I, p K.S Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya during the period of British rule, in Jerome Ch en and Nicholas Tarling (eds.), Studies in the Social History of China and Southeast Asia (henceforth Sikh Immigration into Malaya ), (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp
141 129 initiated and bankrolled by Sikhs serving in the M.S.G. and in the Sikh Police Contingent. 26 As a younger generation of Malaysian Sikhs assumed leadership positions in the Sikh community, disputes caused by regional and caste differences among the older Sikhs were increasingly regarded as anathema to the unity and progress of the community. The construction of Sikh identities came to be shaped by different needs and aims. The younger Sikh leadership was more concerned with promoting a positive image of Sikhism and the Sikh community in Malaysia. Efforts were made at fashioning historical narratives that reflected the contribution and loyalty of Sikhs to Malaysia, especially through military service. There was also a search for a community icon that was capable of rallying the Sikh community and reinforcing a collective Malaysian Sikh identity. The choice of Sant Sohan Singh as a community icon is a politically symbolic one: he was a religious and historical figure who shared a close affinity with many members of the Sikh community; he was also a charismatic personality who was widely respected for his extensive contributions to the Sikh community and for assiduously removing himself from the factionalism plaguing the community. A member of the Sikh community noted that, Within Malacca, Sant Sohan Singh exercised great influence in the Sikh community in settling family quarrels. He successfully settled some business disputes of Sikhs. As far as possible no Sikh dispute went to Court. He 26 Malkiat Singh & Mukhtiar Kaur, Sikhs in Malaysia, Vol. I, pp The M.S.G and the Sikh Police Contingent also contributed financially to the building of schools and Gurdwaras in the Punjab.
142 130 also settled a few factional disputes of committee members of different gurdwaras throughout Malaya and Singapore. On the national level, he represented the Sikh community as a member of the Malaysian Inter-Religious Organization. 27 Given his influence and contributions, it was hoped that Sant Sohan Singh would serve as a unifying symbol for a community divided along regional and caste lines. The Politics of Commemoration After Sant Sohan Singh s demise in 1972, religious commemorations were crucial (especially given his role as a granthi) in fostering a collective memory of the Sant. The process of memorializing Sant Sohan Singh as a community icon began almost immediately with his grand funeral cortege. The large numbers of Sikhs from Malaysia and Singapore who attended the cortege underscored the great respect and affection the Sikh community had for the Sant: In the eyes of the Sikhs in this region Sant Sohan Singh was no common man. The news of his death spread very fast, and Sikhs came to Ipoh from distant towns as far north as Penang. Under normal circumstances, his remains would have been cremated in Ipoh soon after he passed away. But the community decided that the cremation should take place in Malacca, which was more or less his headquarters for a period of 45 years. The cortege started on the last journey of 225 miles at 1.00am.on 25 th May At every town on the way, Sikhs of all ages and both sexes came out in large numbers to pay homage to the man who had been with them, many of whom he knew by name. From every town cars joined the great procession, the like of which had not been known in the Sikh community. The cortege reached Malacca at about midday. Meanwhile large numbers of Sikhs converged on Malacca from all towns in the South including Singapore 150 miles away. The cremation over, for the first time the Sikh community felt a vacuum around them. Soon they were convinced that no other person could fill that vacuum. They stopped looking for a man to take the place of Sant Sohan Singh. Instead, gradually they developed the attitude that they could show his 27 Mehervan Singh, Sikhism East and West, p. 83
143 131 living spirit in a practical manner. They appreciated that the body dies, not the soul. 28 In 1973, a Mela (a religious event/fair) was organized in Kuala Lumpur, at Brickfields in memory of the Sant. Although the venue for the subsequent religious commemoration of Sant Sohan Singh s death anniversary was shifted to the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka in the following year (and has remained unchanged since), this marked the start of the tradition of the Sant s Barsi. Initial efforts at memorializing the Sant have become part of the collective memory of Sikhs in Malaysia and Singapore, especially among the older Sikhs: Sant Sohan Singh was born in Punjab in He came to Malaya at the young age of 24 and became involved in community affairs almost immediately. [ ] A major part of his life was spent in Gurdwara Malacca as a preacher. His life story contains an array of benevolent, charitable and noble deeds. [ ] The sangat was more than convinced that they had among them a Sant. [ ] Sant Ji left us in Almost every temple in the country held prayers for him. A big Jor Mela in the open grounds at Brickfields attended by tens of thousands of Malaysian and Singaporean Sikhs, including Saints from India was held in his memory. 29 Sikh devotees bound by the experience and memory of the funeral ceremony and the Jor Mela at Brickfields were those who, along with Sant Sohan Singh, shared similar historical trajectories which straddled the British colonial period and the postcolonial period. In the 1950s, the flow of immigrants into Malaya, particularly of unskilled labour, was restricted by the stringent immigration laws passed by the Malayan Government. 30 The Sikh immigrant community, which was made up largely of unskilled Jat Sikhs employed as policemen, militiamen and watchmen, was affected as a consequence. Those who remained in Malaya after the 1950s laid the foundations of 28 Sant Sohan Singh Melaka, pp Our Patrons under SNSM History 30 Sandhu, Sikh Immigration into Malaya, pp
144 132 the present Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities. The sum of their hyphenated identities were made up in parts from their roles as Sikhs with strong links to the Punjab (maintained through family and village ties ), subjects of the British Empire, immigrants in Malaya, and citizens of their countries of domicile, Malaysia and Singapore. It was against such a backdrop that Sant Sohan Singh emerged as a prominent figure in the community. The exemplary life of Sant Sohan Singh and his importance for the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities remains an important thread in the historical narratives of Sikh community. Other steps were also taken to memorialize the Sant: a religious school named Sant Sohan Singh Dharmak Vidyalia was built at the rear of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca for training young boys willing to adopt the religious path and work as granthis, parcharaks and ragis. The purpose was to groom granthis who, because of their local training, are well-tuned to the needs and problems of local Sikhs. 31 The project floundered from a lack of interest from Malaysian Sikh youth, who were increasingly educated in a Western and secular education system, and who chose to be professionals. 32 Nevertheless, it was an important reflection of the growing attempts by the Malaysian Sikh community to address social concerns and religious issues through local initiatives and solutions. A Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka Memorial Society (henceforth Melaka Memorial Society) was also established and registered in Malaysia and Singapore in the early 31 Sant Sohan Singh Melaka, pp Personal communication with a Sikh informant who lives in Malacca and who was involved in this project, May 2004
145 s. The Melaka Memorial Society commissioned a biography of Sant Sohan Singh shortly after his death in The historical and biographical account of Sant Sohan Singh s life in Malaya was first recorded in Punjabi by Sardar Tara Singh Hitaishi, a Singapore-domiciled Sikh, and published in 1977 by the Melaka Memorial Society. The biography was the first concerted attempt to write a non-academic piece of community history by piecing together various aspects of Sant Sohan Singh s life: his contribution to the Sikh community, his travels throughout Malaya and Singapore, his visits to the Punjab, and personal accounts of the miracles he performed for the benefit of his devotees. Based on oral interviews conducted by the author with Sikhs living in Malaysia and Singapore, the biographical narrative tapped into the living memories of Sikhs who had known the Sant during his lifetime. 33 Oral tradition and written narratives play an important part in the reproduction of memories and myths surrounding Sant Sohan Singh; and in sustaining the Sant s popularity among Malaysian and Singapore Sikhs even till this day. The oral tradition that exists among devotees serves as a repository for personal and collective memories of the Sant. Featuring prominently in this tradition are stories eulogizing the heroic and miraculous qualities displayed by Sant Sohan Singh. 34 These accounts are recorded in the biography by Tara Singh as important testimonies to the piety and 33 The oral interviews conducted by the author were recorded on cassette tapes. A secretariat was assigned by the Melaka Memorial Society to accompany and assist the author during the interviews. Personal communication, Mr Harinderpal Singh, Singapore, Sikh Centre, 28 July, There are a number of stories on the miracles associated with the Sant. A story often narrated by Sikh informants is the incident where Sant Sohan Singh was on a flight to Calcutta when technical faults surfaced in mid-flight. The Sant led his fellow passengers in prayers and eventually the engine problem ceased and the flight landed safely. Another story is related to a Sikh cattle wallah who approached the Sant for help as his cattle was not providing milk. Sant Sohan Singh was known to have blessed his cattle and soon after, the cattle wallah s problem was solved. Stories narrated by Sikh devotees during the Sant s Barsi at the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca, May 2004.
146 134 potency of the Sant. An important episode marking the elevation of Sohan Singh as Sant is often recounted by devotees to highlight the piety, valour, and respect commanded by the Sant: Until the War [Japanese Occupation] broke out in the East, Sohan Singh continued to be called Giani. It is not clear when he was first referred to as Sant. Very likely it happened some time during the war, when the Japanese forces captured Malaya. [ ] When the Japanese occupied Malacca and as a matter of routine examined all buildings, it is said Giani Sohan Singh was reading the Guru Granth Sahib. He did not stop reading when the Japanese party came at the main door of the temple. The Japanese to did not disturb him and went off after doing obeisance. During the Japanese occupation period from 1942 to 1945, Giani Sohan Singh faced no problem. The Guru s kitchen continued to function though only porridge or even tapioca was served. Many widows and orphans were accommodated in the Gurdwara premises, until the war ended in The Indian Independence League branch officials in Malacca gave due respect to Sant Sohan Singh. They supplied him with food materials and clothing, which were distributed to needy people of all races who came to the temple. Some time in 1942 people began to address Sohan Singh as Santji. 35 Written narratives on Sant Sohan Singh have attempted to situate the Sant phenomenon within orthodox Sikh religious doctrine and tradition. The qualities of Sohan Singh s Sant-hood are valourised through a constant recourse to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. This is evident in the following paragraph from an article on the Sant: In the Sikh community, there is no institution awarding the title of Sant, which is the equivalent of Saint. There is no course of study to entitle anyone to use the word with his name. But in the Guru Granth Sahib a great deal is said about the Sant. Saint is he, by associating with whom one is saved. The saints are people who have overcome lust, anger and greed. [ ] The more intimate the association with the saints, more the love of God is attained. [ ] So the title Sant is given by the community with no particular ceremony. It is a recognition by the community in a person of traits expected of a sant. This generally happens spontaneously, at first usually by an individual, and gradually it spreads to the whole community Sant Sohan Singh Melaka, pp Ibid., pp. 33-4
147 135 The biography of Sant Sohan Singh written by Tara Singh Hitaishi is regarded as the official written narrative detailing the life and contribution of the Sant and has served as the main template for subsequent reproductions. Parts of the biography have been translated into English from Punjabi and reproduced in books, commemorative tracts and booklets, and the Malaya Samachar, an English and Punjabi language community newspaper. 37 It is also posted as the official biography of Sant Sohan Singh Ji Melaka on the website of the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka. 38 New efforts have been initiated by the current committee of the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka to memorialize the legacy of Sant Sohan Singh. Given that the production of non-academic historical narratives are an effective means of building community history and identity, the gurdwara committee has commissioned another memoir on Sant Sohan Singh to be written. 39 The Experience and Significance of Babaji s Barsi Responses to Sikh Sants range from fervent devotion to indifference to unequivocal criticism and skepticism. Those who question the belief in Sants and who are critical of the practice of Sant worship usually represent the more educated segment of the Sikh middle-class, such as professionals. They are, however, a minority as there is no 37 The Malaya Samachar was established in 1960 as a Punjabi-language newspaper for Sikh immigrants in Southeast Asia, namely Malaya. It featured news from Malaya and Punjab and was a good source of community news for Sikhs. Its readership dwindled in the postcolonial period as Malaysia-born Sikhs, who were educated in English (and, hence, more fluent in English than Punjabi/Gurmukhi) turned to the local Malaysian newspaper, The New Straits Times. The Malaya Samachar has since started, in recent years, to publish articles in English and Punjabi, and focus on promoting Gurmukhi among young Malaysian Sikhs. A commemorative issue of the newspaper was published for the Barsi in 2004 and it carried an article (written in English) on Sant Sohan Singh, Malaya Samachar: Voice of Sikhs in South East Asia, Saturday 22 May, 2004, pp The website contains information on the Barsi such as recent press releases from The Star and the New Straits Times, the Barsi schedule and a brief history of the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka. 39 Personal communication, Mr Balbir Singh, 25 May, 2004
148 136 indication of a decline in the influence of Sants in Punjab and among the Sikh diaspora. 40 The popularity of Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi in Malacca among devotees bears testimony to this observation. The Barsi keeps alive the memory of Sohan Singh who passed away in May 1972, and is an expression of popular devotion among Sikh devotees from Malaysia and Singapore. The experiences of those who gather at the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca during the annual Barsi defy any easy categorization. As Philip Taylor points out in his study on the emergence of a popular pilgrimage site located at Vietnam s border with Cambodia, [these] people who flood the precincts of these shrines do not necessarily partake of the formal collective rituals. They often do not share ideas about the identity or powers of the spirit with each other It is not easy to dip into the flow of thousands of transient visitors to such sites and emerge with a reading of the collective experience of them or gauge the cumulative meaning of people s participation in such an encounter. 41 As acts of commemoration are shaped by complex class, gender and power relations that determine what is remembered, by whom and for what end, the process of memorializing Sant Sohan Singh is invariably open to multiple interpretations. 42 A study of the symbolic and experiential aspect of a pilgrimage is, therefore, fraught with methodological challenges. Devotees who attend the Barsi cast it in different though not necessarily exclusive contexts and inscribe onto the event their own agendas, values and meaning. 40 N.Gerald Barrier, Authority, Politics, and Contemporary Sikhism, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier, (eds.), Sikhism and History, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p Philip Taylor, Goddess on the Rise: Pilgrimage and Popular Religion in Vietnam, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), p John R. Gillis, Memory and History: The History of a Relationship, pp. 3-4
149 137 When individual devotees at the Barsi are asked about the nature and significance of the event some are comfortable with describing it as a yatra (a pilgrimage to a holy place, in this case the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka), while others adopt an ambiguous stance towards what they view as a Hindu, and therefore, un-sikh practice. Some attend the event devotedly because of their strong belief in the miraculous powers of the Sant, while others are skeptical and dismayed because they regard the popular belief in miracles and worship of Sants as beliefs mired in ignorance and superstition. Despite a certain degree of ambivalence and censure expressed by some Sikhs towards the belief in Sants, the devotion and faith among Sikh devotees of Sant Sohan Singh remain undiminished, and continue to flourish. Many devotees who believe and attest to the efficacy and power of Sant Sohan Singh to grant their requests do so based on their personal experiences or through the experiences of others. This bears great similarity to the emphasis placed on the worship of pirs in Sufi beliefs and rituals. In Sufism, the physical death of a living saint or pir is imbued with great significance for it marks a holy union with God and is ritually celebrated as a holy marriage, an urs with God. 43 Pnina Werbner, whose academic interests lie in the anthropological study of religion, namely Sufism, points out that studies of Islamic pilgrimages have repeatedly stressed the intercessionary role of the saint who mediates between the supplicants and God See Jurgen Wasim Frembgen, The majzub Mama Ji Sarkar: a friend of God moves from one house to another, in Pnina Werbner and Helen Basu, (eds.), Embodying Charisma: Modernity, locality and the performance of emotion in Sufi cults, (London: Routledge, 1998), pp Pnina Werbner, Langar: Pilgrimage, sacred exchange and perpetual sacrifice in a Sufi saint s lodge, in Embodying Charisma, pp. 96-7
150 138 Devotees attend the annual Barsi for the benefits of darsan (defined as audience, appearance before an eminent person, sacred objects) and pray for their personal wellbeing. 45 They invoke the spiritual legacy of the Sant in their prayers and their supplications range from everyday concerns like protection in business, academic success and job advancement to more serious concerns like physical ailments. The image of Sant Sohan Singh printed in colour on A4 size posters that comes attached with a tiny booklet containing the Sant s brief biography are items which are coveted as religious artefacts. Posters advertising the Barsi were also highly coveted because the image of the Sant is printed on them. Such is the potency attached to the image of the Sant that some devotees reportedly resorted to the act of tearing off the portion of the poster with the photo of Sant Sohan Singh. 46 An integral part of the Sant s Barsi is the akhand path prayer ceremony that is performed in his memory: the akhand path involves the uninterrupted reading of the entire contents of the Adi Granth by a relay of granthis and is performed during major religious events. 47 The Akhand Path can be seen as a memorializing practice which invokes the memory and legacy of Sant Sohan Singh among the community of Sikh devotees. The significance of this annual event for both the Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities is reflected in the selection of granthis for the important Akhand Paath ceremony: of the five granthis, one represented the Malacca 45 One of my Sikh informants, Ms S. Kaur explained the significance of darsan of the Guru Granth Sahib at Gurdwaras during religious events, Malacca, May Personal communication with Mr B. Singh, Malacca, 25 May This definition of akhand path is adapted from Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), Glossary p. xvii.
151 139 Sikh Gurdwara, one was from Negri Sembilan, two were from Kuala Lumpur which had a substantial Sikh community, and the last was from the Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sangh Sabha Gurdwara in Singapore. 48 A day of the event was also set aside for the amrit sanskar (the initiation ceremony of the Khalsa) ceremony during which Sikhs are baptized and initiated into the Khalsa. Kirtan diwans (sessions during which hymns were sung by ragi jathas brought in from India for the event), and Gatka (a form of martial art) performances by a Gatka troop brought in from the Punjab were also organized during the Barsi. There was also a blood donation drive organized within the gurdwara compound. The first ritual Sikh devotees perform when inside the main darbar (prayer hall) of the Gurdwara was to pay homage to the Guru Granth Sahib by bowing before the holy book such that the devotee s forehead touches the floor (matha tekna). Offerings of money, usually in small denominations, were then placed before the Guru Granth Sahib. The seating capacity of the main darbar is unable to accommodate the sheer number of devotees who gather at the Gurdwara during the Barsi. After paying homage to the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikh devotees stop by the former room of Sant Sohan Singh for a darsan of the Sant s relics. The room is located right behind the Gurdwara and it is immediately accessible from the rear of the main darbar. 49 The room of the Sant is specially preserved as a sacred area: it contains the Sant s bed, his 48 Personal communication, Mr B. Singh, Malacca, 25 May The Sri Guru Nanak Sat Sang Sabha in Singapore is also commonly referred to as the Wilkinson Road Gurdwara. The gurdwara was set up by Khatri and Arora Sikhs who traditionally belong to the mercantile caste, and is the only Gurdwara in Singapore that is attended by Sindhis, who also belong to the mercantile caste. The Wilkinson Road Gurdwara is one of four region-based Gurdwaras remaining in Singapore. 49 [See Illustration 3.1]
152 140 photograph (which is framed, garlanded and displayed prominently), and some of his books and personal belongings. The Guru Granth Sahib is placed right in front of the Sant s bed. During the Barsi devotees, are as a rule, not encouraged to enter the room. Given the sheer number of people filing pass the Sant s room from the main prayer hall (especially on the first day of the Barsi), each devotee is given a brief darsan of the Sant s relics at the entrance of the room where they pay their homage and leave behind token sums of money offerings. 50 The room has become a site where devotees pay homage and invoke the memory of Sant Sohan Singh. The bed which belonged to Sant Sohan Singh has become a symbolically significant and potent relic as it is closely associated with the memory of the Sant. As such, the bed is draped with rumalas (a cloth for covering the Guru Granth Sahib) and attracts the veneration of devotees who used to worship at the foot of the bed. 51 Some of the more educated segment of the Sikh community such as professionals and community leaders regard the veneration of Sants as a form of superstition while others (usually reformist elements in the Malaysian Sikh community) censure the practice of worshipping the material possessions of the Sant as un-sikh and unorthodox for they view it as a Hindu ritual practice which Sikhs should avoid. 52 This difference in religious beliefs and practices was resolved with 50 Fieldwork observation: The gurdwara was especially packed on the first day of the Barsi as one of the first things devotees did at the religious commemoration was to offer their prayers to the Guru Granth Sahib. The Guru Granth Sahib was placed in both the main darbar hall and in Sant Sohan Singh s room. 51 I learnt of this practice from my personal communication with Sikh informants during the Barsi at Gurdwara Sahib Melaka. 52 These differing opinions were gleaned from my personal communication with Sikh devotees in the course of my fieldwork ( ). I was fully aware that the replies of my informants would
153 141 great ingenuity by the Gurdwara Committee when the Guru Granth Sahib was placed in front of the Sant s bed, thereby sanctifying the bed as a relic as well as legitimizing the actions of those who continue to worship the Sant, for they do so in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. The offering of seva (service; also sewa) to the Gurdwara and the Sikh Panth is an important part of the Barsi as it is popularly believed that the performance of seva during major religious events and festivals is particularly meritorious. 53 Devotees demonstrate their piety and solidarity with the Panth by rendering service through monetary contributions; contributions in kind (supplying provisions like ghee, rice, attar/ flour, sugar); the undertaking of physical chores in the langgar (the kitchen/refectory attached to every Gurdwara) like the preparation of meals, the washing of utensils, the serving of meals; and also the act of tending to the footwear of devotees. 54 The concept and offering of seva is valued highly within the Sikh Panth and is regarded as an important aspect of panthic service. The practice of seva is believed to bring with it divine merit and also offers a channel through which devotees can fulfill their obligations when their supplications are granted. Devotees invariably be subjected to various degrees of self-imposed censorship where a discussion on the popular devotion of Sikhs Sants is concerned. 53 The practice of seva is an integral part of Sikh religious practice. For Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi in Malacca, an unofficial list was created for the large numbers of devotees who wished to perform seva. 54 Service in the langgar is a popular form of seva among devotees. The langgar dispenses free meals throughout the duration of the Barsi and is open to all who wish to partake in the communal act of dining together. The democratic basis for the langgar is grounded in a remonstrance against the traditional laws of commensality in India which discriminated on the basis of caste and it has become one of the key institutions of Sikh beliefs. [See Illustrations 3.2 and 3.3]
154 142 acknowledge and pay homage to the miraculous powers of Sant Sohan Singh through the highly valued and accepted act of seva. 55 Another form of seva is the support of religious institutions. In 1996, plans were made to construct a new building behind the existing Gurdwara in memory of Sant Sohan Singh, and in April 1998 the new three-storey building, named the Sant Sohan Singh Ji Complex, was completed at a cost of RM 2,000, The construction of the new building, which has a langgar hall and kitchen as well as a prayer hall (a Darbar Sahib), was funded by monetary donations from Sikh devotees and the larger Sikh Panth from Malaysia, Singapore, and even Brunei. The names of Sikh devotees from Malaysia and Singapore who made substantial financial contributions to the building of the Complex are inscribed on plaques which are placed prominently on the wall of the langgar hall next to a large framed portrait of Sant Sohan Singh. 57 This form of religious gifting is a form of seva commonly expected of, and performed by the wealthier members of the Sikh Panth who hope to acquire merit, build their repute, and establish their identity within the community. It has become a practice for the names of donors who make sizeable monetary donations during the Barsi to be publicly announced on the last day of the religious commemoration. This is done in acknowledgement of their seva and the result of this is twofold: it effectively grants 55 There was a Malaysian Sikh devotee, who attended Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi two years ago and prayed for a male child. His supplication was granted and he has since returned yearly to the Barsi to perform seva in the langgar by making Punjabi sweets for Sikh devotees. 56 Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, p. 99. [See Illustration 3.4] 57 [See Illustrations 3.5]
155 143 these individuals with an elevated social position, and it reifies their membership in the Sikh Panth. 58 The growing importance of Sant Sohan Singh s legacy is mirrored by the expansion in scale of the annual Barsi and the extension of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca to accommodate the growing number of devotees who come for the annual Barsi. 59 Pilgrimage sites are shaped by modern processes of touristic consumption, cultural and religious commmodification, entrepreneurship and mass culture; the Barsi is no exception. 60 Just outside the precinct of the Gurdwara, a mela (a fair) is run independently from the Barsi. Vendors from Malacca and Kuala Lumpur set up stalls to sell Punjabi suits, Punjabi sweets, and an wide assortment of religious accoutrements like steel karas (the steel bangle worn by Khalsa Sikhs), steel and plastic kandas (a ubiquitous Khalsa symbol) of various sizes meant as display items, and rings mounted with the khalsa symbol. Also on sale are CD recordings of kirtan (hymns) and gurbani which involves the recitation of morning, evening and night prayers (referred to as Japji Sahib, Rehraas Sahib, and Sohila respectively), and framed portraits, in varying sizes, of Guru Nanak in a benevolent and contemplative pose, and that of the princely Guru Gobind Singh clothed in luxurious raiment, his 58 The practice of religious gifting is historically linked to the importance of gift giving in Indian ethical traditions. The politics of gift giving among South Asian merchants was discussed by the historian Douglas E. Haynes who based his study on the case of Surat merchants operating during the late nineteenth century. There are interesting parallels to be drawn, especially the act of seva and its importance in the negotiation of Sikh religious beliefs and identity. See Douglas E. Haynes, From Tribute to Philanthropy: The Politics of Gift Giving in a Western Indian City, in The Journal of Asian Studies 46, 2 (May, 1987): pp ; and also Douglas E. Haynes, Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India: The Shaping of a Public Culture in Surat City, , (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 59 [See Illustration 3.6] 60 Philip Taylor, Goddess on the Rise, p.15
156 144 turban adorned with a plume, armed with his sword and his hawk perched on his left hand. A tour agency specializing in gurdwara yatra tours (Yatra as a pilgrimage to a holy place) was distributing pamphlets advertising tours like the Grand Yatra to Pakistan 2004 and the Shri Hemkunt Sahib Yatra. Main features of the travel itineraries include visits to prominent Sikh historic gurdwaras in India and Pakistan, and key pilgrimage sites, namely Hem Kunt Sahib where Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have performed pre-birth austerities. 61 The annual Barsi is also well-known among the local residents of Malacca, especially those who live in the vicinity of the Gurdwara. A small local industry (within Malacca) driven by religious tourism has emerged over time. Hotels within the vicinity of the Gurdwara are usually booked a year in advance by groups of Sikh devotees who either charter buses for the trip or drive to Malacca, and during the Barsi hotel accommodation is priced at peak period rates. 62 A small coffee-shop located across the street from the Gurdwara has also profited from the Barsi: it is closed during the Barsi, and the shop space is rented to vendors at the mela. Other social events cashing in on the Barsi include Bhangra Nites which are organized to cater to the younger Sikh devotees. The mini mela and Bhangra Nite events have emerged as a point of contention for the Gurdwara committee as well as for Sikh devotees who view such activities as undermining the religiosity of the Barsi This religious site was discovered in the Garhwal region during the 1930s. This site, which is accessible only during the summer months, attracts many Sikh pilgrims in India and from abroad. See W. H. McLeod, Sikhism (London: Penguin Books, 1997), pp At least four to five buses were chartered by devotees from the Gurdwara Silat Road, Singapore for the trip to Malacca. Devotees also did likewise at the other gurdwaras in Singapore. 63 Personal communication, Mr Balbir Singh, Malacca, 25 May, I was informed that the Gurdwara Committee was not in any way involved in the running of the mela.
157 ILLUSTRATION 3.1 The main darbar of the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka. (Sant Sohan Singh s room is accessible from the left doorway) 145
158 146 ILLUSTRATION 3.2 Malacca, Devotees involved in the preparation of food during the Barsi,
159 ILLUSTRATION 3.3 Sikh ladies helping out in the langgar during the Barsi, Malacca,
160 ILLUSTRATION 3.4 Sant Sohan Singh Ji Complex 148
161 ILLUSTRATION 3.5 List of Donors to the Sant Sohan Singh Ji Building Fund. 149
162 ILLUSTRATION 3.6 Sikh devotees gathered outside the Gurdwara Sabib Melaka during the Barsi, Malacca,
163 151 Sant Sohan Singh and the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia The figure of Sant Sohan Singh has been appropriated by various Malaysian Sikh groups, and the symbolic significance he holds for these groups differ according to their needs and agenda. The annual Barsi provides a public and popular platform for Sikh interest groups to reach a wide Sikh audience and promote their programmes on a variety of issues concerning Sikh identity and the transmission of Sikh culture and religion. Prominent among them are reformist Sikh youth groups concerned with promoting Sikhism in ways younger, English-educated Malaysian Sikhs can relate to, especially those who have felt alienated from the community and its religious institutions by the power struggles waged by Sikh elders holding leadership positions in the gurdwaras. Another reason attributed for the loss of Sikh religion among Malaysian Sikh youth is the failure to make religious beliefs and practices relevant to the needs of the younger generation of Malaysian Sikhs. Verne. A. Dusenbery notes that Malaysian Sikhs enjoy more freedom from direct state intervention in their religious organizations and activities as compared to Singaporean and Indonesian Sikhs. This has given the Malaysian Sikh community organizations and youth groups more space to discuss issues related to Sikhism and promote their visions of a Malaysian Sikh identity; this in turn has lent a certain measure of religious dynamism to the Malaysian Sikh community. 64 The Malaysian Sikh Youth Organization, better known as Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia (hereafter SNSM) is a prominent Sikh youth group that professes to be the 64 Verne A. Dusenbery, Diasporic Imagings and the Conditions of Possibility: Sikhs and the State in Southeast Asia, in Sojourn Vol. 12, No. 2 (1997), pp
164 152 bloodline of Malaysian Sikh youth. 65 The SNSM started organizing Samelans youth camps focused on imparting knowledge about Sikhism for Malaysian Sikh children across Malaysia in the early 1960s. It was officially registered in 1967, and over time the organization sought to establish its presence in Malaysia through religious, social and cultural programmes. The SNSM is currently a well-established religious youth group with a strong organizational structure and a strong presence at the national level. The importance of the SNSM as one of the main representatives of the Malaysian Sikh community is illustrated by the participation of the former SNSM President, Mr Autar Singh, in a seminar on the Sikh community in Malaysia that was organized by the Institut Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA) in Details on the history of the SNSM and the aims and activities of the organization (such as annual religious seminars to provide for Sikhs youths in Malaysia and overseas to be together, youth prayer sessions, and youth leadership and training camps ) can be found on a website run by the SNSM. 67 Besides the more conventional medium of print (the SNSM publishes The Sikh, a quarterly newsletter), the organization has also harnessed mobile technology to expand its network and reach its target group Malaysian Sikh youth. A Sikh Messaging Service with the slogan: 10 cents a day, hear the Guru say was set up by the SNSM to offer subscribers Gurbani quotes, Sikh Gurpurab Information, National Sikh events, SNSM activities, World Sikh News, and Malaysian Sikh news through short message service (SMS) technology <www.snsm.org.my/> About Us under SNSM Home 66 Autar Singh, The Past Present and Future of Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia, presented at the Seminar Komuniti Sikh di Malaysia: Dahulu, kini dan masa depan, Institut Alam Dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA), University Kebangsaan Malaysia, 21 January, 2002, pp <www.snsm.org.my/>, About Us under SNSM Home 68 SNSM leaflet Sikh Messaging Service, See also <www.snsm.org.my/>, Community Info
165 153 The core agenda of the SNSM is built on the premise that Sikh youth are essential in the process of identity formation and the organization is a vocal advocate of educating Malaysian Sikh youth on Sikhism. On the SNSM s website the following is written in the section on SNSM History : Sikhs were brought from India by the British rulers to Taiping and Penang to serve as policemen to maintain law and order there. [ ] Wherever they settled down, they built Gurdwaras. Most of them were simple folks, not lettered too well. Gurdwaras of the time served them well. However, as time passed the Sikhs settled down for good in Malaya (as Malaysia was known then) with their families. [ ] The educated lot among them, strangely, adopted English over their mother tongue (Punjabi) even to converse at home. Gurdwaras continued to function in (strictly) Punjabi, with the older generation in full control. Semi literate Granthis and Gianis were employed. As they were well versed in Punjabi, but not English, they could not reach the young. A lot of time in Gurdwaras was (and is) wasted in carrying on unnecessary conflict of Mahja, Malwa or Doaba divisions. [ ] No effort was even considered to reach out to the now nearly absent young from the Guru Ghars. [ ] Some of the above shortcomings resulted in giving birth to Sabha as we know it today. 69 The passage clearly highlights the generational divisions within the Malaysian Sikh community, especially on the issue of the transmission of Sikh identity and history among Sikhs in the diaspora. Shaped by different circumstances and operating on a different temporal logic from an earlier generation of Sikhs who formed the foundations of the Malaysian Sikh community, a younger generation of Malaysian Sikhs who have come of age in the diaspora are reinventing their interpretations of what constitutes Sikh heritage and culture, and are involved in the construction of new Sikh identities. The organization has memorialized Sant Sohan Singh as one of its patrons and as The Father of the Sabha. Sant Sohan Singh was regarded as a staunch advocate of the 69 <www.snsm.org.my/, SNSM History
166 154 Khalsa faith and was actively involved in promoting the Punjabi language and Sikhism among Sikhs in Malaya in the twentieth century. His social contributions to the Malaysian Sikh community and his role in the formation of the SNSM were highlighted on the organization s website. 70 The choice of Sant Sohan Singh for the highly symbolic role as patron of the organization defines the identity and aims of the SNSM. A recent effort at commemorating and cementing the symbolic link between the organization and the iconic figure of the Sant was the Barsi in 2004: it marked the collaboration between the SNSM and the Gurdwara Committee on the organization of the religious event, especially in the area of publicity and logistics. 71 During the Barsi, the SNSM were given a prominent spot within the Gurdwara compound where the Sabha Shoppe, a bookshop run by the SNSM, set up stall and sold religious books on Sikhism. On sale were the Sikh Holy Books (Guru Granth Sahib), and a variety of books on Sikh religion and history, published mainly in India and written in English and Punjabi. Also available were illustrated books featuring hagiographic accounts on the lives of the Sikh Gurus and the Sikh tradition of martyrdom. Books on the latter theme carried titles like Illustrated Martyrdom Tradition, and Supreme Sacrifice of Young Souls: The Martyrdom of the younger Sahibzadas, and are published by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Sri Amritsar. 72 Another notable publication that was promoted and sold was 70 Our Patrons 71 Personal communication, Mr Balbir Singh, Malacca, 24 May, These books were supplied by a Singaporean Sikh businessman, Mr G. Singh. He attends the Barsi in Malacca faithfully and attributes his success to the blessings of Sant Sohan Singh, whom he knew personally. As an act of seva, he chartered two buses to take devotees to the Barsi at his own expense and also made donations to the Gurdwara. Personal communication, Mrs G. Singh, Malacca, 21 May, 2004
167 155 Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore: An Illustrated History by Saran Singh Sidhu, a Malaysian Sikh. This work, commissioned and published in 2003 by the SNSM, is a narrative on the history of the early Sikhs in Malaya and its main focus is on their achievements, particularly in the upkeep of the Sikh religion. In the Foreword, the Jathedar of the SNSM explains the particular importance of the work as a historical narrative produced by a member of the Sikh community: In this millennium, Sikhs in Malaysia are connected with Sikhs from all over the world and having said that, it is also seen that the community of Sikhs in each country have done a marvelous job of adapting themselves to the local environment. [ ] The challenge has been and still is how do we maintain our uniqueness, individuality and single-minded pursuit of spiritual bliss while accommodating the needs of the environment. To this end, Gurdwaras have been the oasis where a Sikh can come home and connect with the culture and heritage that came forth from the land of the Gurus - Punjab. [ ] As the publisher of this work, [we] hope that this will be a trailblazer that will encourage other Sikh Institutions to publish their history in a comprehensive manner so that forthcoming generations of Sikhs will not have to depend on third party accounts when delving into our history. 73 This is a definition of Sikh identity and history that privileges the Sikh religious identity over other aspects. While the book serves well as a non-academic narrative of the Sikh community and its history, it is also essential to note the biases present in such a narrative. The call for Sikh institutions to write their own history so that forthcoming generations of Sikhs will not have to depend on third party accounts reflects what the historian Tony Ballantyne has termed as an internalist approach to the writing of Sikh history. Such an approach focuses on internal developments within the Sikh Panth to the exclusion of broader political and cultural forces that shape the 73 Forward by Harwinder Singh (Jathedar of the SNSM), in Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, p. xv.
168 156 community. 74 A historical narrative based mainly on the religious aspect of Sikh community life effaces the different facets of a historical trajectory that was shaped by other political, social and economic factors resulting from the colonial encounter between the Sikhs, the British, and other immigrant communities. The aim of the SNSM is to promote a distinctly amritdhari Sikh identity among Malaysian Sikhs. Only amritdhari and kesdhari Sikhs are eligible for top leadership positions in the SNSM. The following is stated on the SNSM website: To qualify for the post of Sabha s Jathedar, one must be an amritdhari. The committee members are required to be amritdharis too where possible. However, if not, then they at least must be keshadharis. 75 The samelans organized by the SNSM are focused on cultivating an amritdhari Sikh identity among Sikh youth: Annual Gurmat Parchar Samelans and Mini Samelans have always been one of the many activities of the Sabha. Speakers are free to speak in English or Bahasa Malaysia in addition to simple Punjabi to reach the target group. [ ] Annual samelans have been concentrated along the west of Peninsular Malaysia. Sabha also ventured into Sabah and Sarawak to reach our brethren there. In June 2001, Sabha was invited to help run a Samelan in Jakarta. 15 of Sabha s sevadaars went there and participated in a very successful 5 day samelan there. Surprisingly 15 ablaakhis partook amrit. There were others too wanting to become amritdhaaris but for shortage of ready kakaars, they couldn t. This amrit sanchar ceremony took place after a lapse of 30 years, according to some Gurdwara parbhandiks there. 76 These efforts at promoting an amritdhari Sikh identity, not only in Malaysia but also in Indonesia, can be interpreted as part of a broader religious resurgence in Sikhism among Sikhs in the Punjab and the diaspora since the 1980s. It is reminiscent of the 74 Tony Ballantyne, Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Historiography of Sikhism, in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4, 1 (June, 2002), p Source: See, SNSM History 76 Source: Ibid., Our History
169 157 Singh Sabha movement launched in last quarter of the nineteenth century over the construction of a Sikh identity based on the doctrines, practices and external symbols of the Khalsa. 77 Conclusion There are, as yet, no historical studies on the role and contributions of Sikh Sants to Sikh communities in Southeast Asia. Sikh holy men like Sants and granthis are an important, if overlooked, group in the history of Sikh immigration to the British colonies of Malaya, the Straits Settlements, and Hong Kong. There was a circulation of both Sikh soldiers and granthis within the imperial network in the nineteenth century; granthis were present where Sikh soldiers and policemen were stationed. The British who took on the role of protecting Sikhism from the all-consuming jungle of popular Hinduism were especially vigilant in maintaining the martial Khalsa Sikh identity among Sikh soldiers. 78 Once recruited into Sikh regiments and Sikh Police Contingents, Sikhs were required to undergo the Khalsa s khande ki pahul initiation rite and to maintain the external markers of their Sikh identity. They also had to accept the religious authority of granthis (interpreters of holy texts and scriptures) appointed by the colonial authorities. 79 Granthis, therefore, took on a significant role in the transmission of Sikh religion and were sources of authority especially in the maintenance of rahit (the code of belief and conduct of the Khalsa) among early Sikh immigrants. 77 Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Tony Ballantyne, Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Historiography of Sikhism, in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 4, 1 (June, 2002): pp 5-29, p Verne A. Dusenbery, Socialising Sikhs in Singapore, in Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.), The Transmission of Sikh Heritage in the Diaspora, (New Delhi: Manohar, 1996), p. 119.
170 158 Sant Sohan Singh s movement into Malaya in the early twentieth century can be situated in this context. Sant Sohan Singh served as a granthi of the Gurdwara Sahib Malacca and the erstwhile Police Gurdwara in Malacca, and he was actively involved in the social and religious life of Sikhs in Malaya and Singapore. He was often invited to important religious and social functions, and was frequently asked to officiate at the opening ceremony of new Gurdwaras. 80 While Sant Sohan Singh maintained close social and political ties with the Punjab and made frequent visits to the Punjab, he established himself as a prominent figure among the Sikh community in Malaya. He traveled extensively and frequently to various Gurdwaras in Malaya and Singapore and became an important point of reference in the individual and collective memories of Singaporean and Malaysian Sikhs. It is from these memories, individual and collective, that groups and communities construct their identities and fashion historical narratives. The production, and reproduction, of images and photos, written narratives, and various commemorative practices associated with Sant Sohan Singh are building blocks on which Sikh social and religious identities are constructed. The commemoration of a religious and historical figure from the local Sikh immigrant community is an important aspect in the construction of Sikh identities as the annual Barsi of the Sant provides Sikh devotees with an opportunity to gather, re-negotiate their identities, and reinforce their sense of community. 80 Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, pp
171 159 CHAPTER FOUR THE EMERGENCE OF NEW SANTS AND THE ACTIVITIES OF RELIGIOUS GROUPS IN MALAYSIA AND SINGAPORE IN THE 1990s A survey of the Sikh religious landscape in Malaysia and Singapore has revealed a network of popular Gurdwaras that are also sites of pilgrimage, and the circulation of Sikh devotees between these sites. These Gurdwaras are associated with Sikh Sants, renowned for their piety and miraculous powers, and have become important pilgrimage sites for local Sikhs. Gurdwara Sahib Malacca in Malaysia and Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road in Singapore, which are linked to Sant Sohan Singh and Bhai Maharaj Singh respectively, are examples of such Gurdwara-based pilgrimage sites discussed in Chapters Two and Three. Apart from these more established sites of pilgrimage, new sites associated with new Sants have also emerged in the local Sikh religious landscape. Besides this, new religious practices and expressions of piety based on the adaptation of Sikh tradition have been introduced by religious youth groups in Malaysia and Singapore, particularly in the past decade. This chapter will discuss the development of a new Gurdwara project in Machap, Malaysia by a Sant (from the Punjab). The recent activities of Sikh religious youth groups, namely Sikhs with a Mission in Malaysia and Sikh Sewaks in Singapore, and the links between these groups and the 3HO Sikh community in North America will also be explored.
172 160 Sants in the Diaspora While Sant Sohan Singh and Bhai Maharaj Singh remain prominent figures within the Sant tradition in Malaysia and Singapore, other Sants have also established their presence among Sikh devotees in recent years. An interesting example of the modern Sant movement in Malaysia is Sant Baba Nahar Singh Ji Sunheranwale. The Sant is based in the Punjab but travels widely and frequently within India, and also to countries like England, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Bahrain, Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore. A website on Sant Nahar Singh provides information on his religious lineage and his philanthropic activities: His Holiness Sant Baba Nahar Singh Ji Sunheranwale, grandson of His Holiness Sant Baba Nand Singh Ji Kaleranwale, was born in the village of Daudhar, District Moga, Punjab, India. From his early days he has been involved with community and religious projects. He received the Social Worker of the year award from the Government of India in 1988 for his outstanding contribution over the decades for helping the underprivileged and socially disadvantaged. His Holiness has been instrumental in building numerous schools, colleges, hospitals, roads and Gurdwaras, not only in India but also in many other countries. 1 Sant Nahar Singh established his presence in Malaysia by initiating the construction of a Gurdwara Gurdwara Babe Ke: Guru Ramdas Shrine in Machap, Malaysia. A similar project was also launched in Sydney, Australia. 2 Devotees acting as representatives of the Sant in Australia and Malaysia/Singapore are responsible for publicizing the Sant s visits, and managing the gurdwara-construction project, namely through creating publicity for the project and raising funds from Sikh devotees. 3 The 1 Source: 2 See Australia, Press release for Annual Samagam, 2005, Guru Teg Bahadur Shrine, Annual Samagam to be held at Goulbourn, 19 April to 23 April, Source: 3 The contact details of these representatives are available on programme announcements that are posted on the Babe ke website.
173 161 details and significance of the project in Malaysia are highlighted in the Sant s website as well as on leaflets distributed during the Barsi of Sant Sohan Singh in Malacca: Fifteen acres of land have been acquired in Machap, Johor, West Malaysia for an exceptional project, by Sant Nahar Singh Ji Sunheranwale, to share Sikh history, religion and culture with all communities. The project will detail the journeys by the Second, Third and Fourth Sikh Gurus; Guru Angad Dev Ji, Guru Amar Das Ji and Guru Ramdas Ji respectively, commencing from their birthplace to their final destination. There will be paths as walkways and cities/villages denoted by ancient huts with multimedia system encompassing audio and visual aids, narrating Sikh history and traditions in 5 main languages i.e, Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese, Hindi, and Gurmukhi. 4 The project in Machap is still in its nascent stage: the Gurdwara is a zinc and concrete construction and the land behind the gurdwara remains undeveloped. With its location near a slip road off an expressway, the gurdwara is not easily accessible and it is the only building in an otherwise undeveloped area. This, however, has not deterred Sikh devotees from making trips to the gurdwara for darsan during the Sant s visits. It is not uncommon for devotees who attend the annual Barsi of Sant Sohan Singh to organize a yatra to various gurdwaras on their way to Malacca. 5 In the religious landscape marked by important historical gurdwaras like Gurdwara Sahib Malacca, Mantin Gurdwara, and Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road, Singapore, Gurdwara Babe Ke Machap is gradually emerging as a site of pilgrimage for Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh devotees, even though it is located on the fringe of the Sikh religious landscape. 4 Babe Ke Machap leaflet, May 2004; 5 Fieldwork observation: I attended the Barsi in May 2004 with a group of Singaporean Sikh devotees who chartered a 30-seater bus and went on a Gurdwara yatra to Gurdwara Babeke Machap, Gurdwara Sahib Malacca and Mantin Gurdwara. It is interesting to note that the organizer, who is Singaporean and Hindu, worships regularly at Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road and makes pilgrimages to important Sikh gurdwaras in Malaysia. This raises the question of whether it is more appropriate to speak here of a Punjabi identity rather than a Sikh identity.
174 162 A key aspect of the modern Sant movement in Punjab is its rural nature and the proliferation of Sants across rural Punjab. In Southeast Asia, the movement has flourished among the working and middle-classes of the Jat-dominated Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh communities. The Sant tradition embodied by Sant Nahar Singh is an interesting syncretism of orthodox Khalsa Sikhism and elements of rural spiritual beliefs. 6 Besides Nahar Singh s piety and philanthropic contribution, part of his appeal and influence lies in the belief among devotees in his miraculous powers to heal the sick and provide succour to his devotees. Sant Sohan Singh, a prominent Sant in Malaysia, is also renowned for his ability to work miracles for the benefit of the Sikh sangat (congregation, group of devotee). This trait of the Sant is regarded by devotees as a manifestation of his exceptional piety. 7 Many of Sant Sant Sohan Singh s devotees are also devotees of Sant Nahar Singh. Akhand Paath prayer sessions are held at Gurdwara Babeke Machap in memory of Sant Sohan Singh, and are scheduled in close proximity to the annual Barsi, which is an important religious event and draws large numbers of Malaysian and Singaporean Sikh devotees. 8 Despite the emergence of new Sants, the Sant tradition in Malaysia and Singapore is still very much dominated by the legacy of Sant Sohan Singh. 9 6 I visited Gurdwara Babe Ke Machap in 2004 on my way to Malacca for Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi. On the wall behind the dais where the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is placed, a large painting of the Sant is displayed right next to a painting of the Sant s maternal uncle, Sant Nand Singh. 7 A Sikh devotee at the Barsi in Malacca narrated a story of how a friend s child who was plagued by ill health was cured after his friend approached Sant Nahar Singh for divine help during one of the Sant s visits to Machap, May Announcements on Akhand Paath prayer sessions are posted on the Babeke website, 9 This is because of Sant Sohan Singh s close interaction with the Sikh community in Malaya for many years. He was also known for his contributions to the community. In the 1950s, Sant Sohan Singh
175 163 Sikhs with a Mission Besides the appearance of new Sikh Sants in recent years, Sikh religious groups have also asserted a growing presence within the Singaporean and Malaysia Sikh communities. The activities of Sikhs with a Mission, a Sikh religious group in Malaysia embody new expressions of piety which have emerged, notably in the past decade. Led by Sukhdev Singh Khalsa, a Malaysian Sikh professional in his early forties, the group comprising of other educated, middle-class professionals has actively positioned itself within the Malaysian Sikh community as a reformist group promoting a Khalsa Sikh identity, more specifically, an amritdhari Malaysian Sikh identity. Sukhdev Singh Khalsa is a prominent figure in the Malaysian Sikh community not least because of the manner in which he asserts his amritdhari Khalsa Sikh identity: besides the symbolic gesture of using Khalsa as a patronymic and maintaining the external markers of a Khalsa Sikh identity; he also dresses in a distinctive custom-made white Punjabi suit and a white turban bearing the khanda (a symbol of the Khalsa) for major religious events. Sukhdev Singh s beliefs and identity must be contextualised against his past experiences. He notes in one of this tracts that, every single person I met in my life initiated a series of seminars (Granthi Parcharak Samelans) for Sikh granthis, which was held for the first time in Malaya. It sought to address issues on the development of Punjabi education among Sikh youths in Malaya, the need to ensure a standardized religious instruction based on the Rahit (the code of belief and conduct which all the members of the Sikh Khalsa are required to obey), and the relationship between granthis and the Sikh sangat in Malaya. Sant Sohan Singh was also a patron of the Sikh Naujawan Sabha, a Sikh youth organization in Malaya. Following his death in 1972, Sikh devotees have made concerted efforts to memorialize the Sant as a respected Sikh religious figure through popular devotion as well as in non-academic historical narratives of the Sikh community. See, Saran Singh Sidhu, Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore, (Malaysia: Sikh Naujawan Sahba Malaysia, 2003), p. 376.
176 164 since I returned as an Amritdhari from the UK in 1978 is still a special friend today. 10 The historical context behind this statement can be traced to the late 1970s when political and religious unrest in Punjab gave rise to calls of Sikhism in danger and led to a wave of activism among Sikhs in North America and the UK. Political developments in the Punjab culminated in the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian Army in 1984 and the subsequent spate of anti-sikh violence ignited by the assassination of Indira Gandhi in that same year by two of her Sikh bodyguards revived historically ingrained fears of persecution among Sikhs all over and led to a deep sense of betrayal by the Indian government. 11 Operation Blue Star in 1984 led to a world-wide politicization of Sikh identity. In the immediate aftermath of the event, calls for Khalistan (a separate and sovereign Sikh state) were intensified and this led to a radicalization of Sikh diaspora politics in North America and the UK. For many Sikhs in the diaspora, maintaining an amritdhari Sikh identity took on a new and potent significance. 12 It is against such a backdrop that Sukhdev Singh Khalsa shaped his amritdhari identity and formulated his religious beliefs. Sant Sohan Singh s Barsi in Malacca serves as a platform for Sikhs with a Mission to promote their religious programmes. While attempting to carve out a sphere of influence for themselves in the Sikh community, the group has associated themselves with the symbolism of established and popular icons (Sant Sohan Singh) and religious sites (Mantin Gurdwara) in order to gain legitimacy and reach out to a wider Sikh 10 Sikhs with a Mission tract, Navee Zindagi, Navaa Jeevan, May For a detailed account of these developments, see, Khushwant Singh, A History of the Sikhs, Volume 2: , (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp ; see also N. Gerald Barrier, Authority, Politics and Contemporary Sikhism, pp Darshan S. Tatla, The Sikh Diaspora, pp
177 165 audience. Sukhdev Singh Khalsa and other members of Sikhs with a Mission attended the Barsi in Malacca and circulated pamphlets and tracts espousing the benefits of taking amrit among Sikh devotees. 13 The following is written on one of the pamphlets: Mantin Gurdwara is known for its curative powers. Many miracles have been witnessed by those who have prayed here. People come here from far and near. Even the great Sant Sohan Singh ji of Melaka used to pray here. This makes it the perfect place for A Day of Healing [ ] Congregational prayer multiples the power of your individual prayer. A special Healing Meditation of 111 minutes, performed in Malaysia for the first time. 14 [Sentences underlined in the original passage] Describing himself as a lay minister of the faith, Sukhdev Singh travels to various gurdwaras to deliver katha (homily) and is known for his rather unconventional and sometimes polemical interpretations of Sikh religious practices and doctrines to suit the current needs of Malaysian Sikhs. In one of his tracts, Sukhdev Singh makes the following argument: Taking Amrit today should be about adopting a Sikhi lifestyle practicing goodwill towards all, good neighbourliness, charity and forgiveness, kindness and humility. That s what being an Amritdhari is all about. Many people have all kinds of amazing ideas about what taking Amrit is. And that is why Sikhs shun Amrit. No one has simplified it for them and they wander in confusion, adding their own frightening myths to an already frightened community. [ ] Everything you have heard is to be ignored or treated with extreme caution, whether you are hearing it from a friend, relative, an elder, a granthi or a Sant. Some of these practices these good people with perfectly good intentions are preaching are simply cultural baggage, remnants and leftovers of our recent past as Hindus. None of these outdated beliefs have any place in the universal Sikhi that Guur Nanak came to introduce to the world. 15 [Sentences originally underlined] 13 I was able to schedule an informal interview with Mr Sukhdev Singh Khalsa during the Barsi at the Gurdwara Sahib Melaka. Articulate and confident, he discussed his involvement in community activities and expressed his desire to educate more Malaysian Sikh youths on Sikhism. Malacca, 22 May, Sikhs with a Mission leaflet, A Day of Healing, May Sikhs with a Mission tract, Yes! I am a Sikh!, May, 2004.
178 166 Articulate in English and Punjabi, Sukhdev Singh Khalsa is a prolific pamphleteer who often draws on his personal experiences, alludes to Sikh history, and makes references to other religions (notably Christianity and Islam) in his exhortation to Sikhs to become amritdharis: The issue of salvation of salvation doesn t require a discussion. Our Guru is our saviour. He has vowed to save us from hell and purgatory. The Christians like to say that Jesus died for their sins. Then every Sikh must know that Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur, and the whole family of Guru Gobind Singh died for our sins. The Christians say that if you believe in Christ, you shall be saved. I am happy to bring you this news that if you believe in our Gurus, you too shall have everlasting life in heaven. Your sins shall be forgiven and you too shall be saved! 16 The group is known for introducing new methods of preaching and worship based on congregational worship (with an emphasis on meditation and healing sessions); it shares similar methods of religious mobilization and proselytizing and religious/symbolic vocabulary employed by a resurgent evangelical Christianity, added with a dash of new age spiritualism. Events such as 4 Roses Day and Festival of Light (at Mantin Gurdwara) involve the construction of new religious practices and the novel re-invention of Sikh religious tradition. The particular significance of 4 Roses Day was explained in a pamphlet distributed by the group: 1 st Jan New Years Day. In 1705, 4 little boys sacrificed their lives so that we may live in freedom. Refusing to give up their religion, their deaths shook the Mughal kingdom by its roots. In their death, the Khalsa found life. They raised great armies and destroyed the Mughals. Besides our Sikh Gurpurabs, this is the most important day in the Sikh calendar. This year we celebrate the 300 th anniversary of that fateful day, making it even more significant. Come join us to hear the whole story, and honour our brave sons in a unique way never done before. Every family is invited to pay tribute to the 4 sons of Guru Gobind Singh by offering 4 Roses. (Florists will be in attendance to offer roses of all colours for sale). Highlights include: 111 Minute Meditation and Amrit Ceremony. [Sentence originally highlighted] Sikhs with a Mission tract, Navee Zindagi, Navaa Jeevan, May Sikhs with a Mission leaflet, 4 Roses Day, May 2004.
179 167 This re-invention of Sikh religious tradition invoked the Sikh tradition of martyrdom in defence of the Khalsa and emphasized the role of Sikh youth in Sikh religion and history. Like the SNSM, Sikhs with a Mission believe that Sikh youth are a crucial category in the construction of Sikh identities and the transmission of an amritdhari Sikh identity and the above example serves as an excellent illustration of the novel adaptation of Sikh religious tradition. 18 As an extension of the group s programme, the Sri Dasmesh Academy a private school for Sikh children in Malaysia was established in January 2001 with Sukhdev Singh at the helm of the project. 19 Sikh Sewaks and 3HO Sikhs The Sikh Sewaks is a Singaporean Sikh youth group formed in 1978 and in recent years, some members of the youth group have forged links with Sukhdev Singh from Sikhs with a Mission and members of the 3HO (Healthy Happy Holy Organization) in the United States. The 3HO movement was founded the late Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji (or Yogi Bhajan) in the United States in This movement is made up of Sikh converts in the West who distinguish themselves as Sikhs by their mode of attire (both women and men wear turbans and are dressed fully in white) and who devote a substantial part of their lives to the practice of Kundalini Yoga and meditation. 20 Although some Sikhs remain ambivalent towards the religious practices 18 For an interesting discussion on the invention and adaptation of tradition, see, Eric Hobsbawm, Introduction: Inventing Traditions, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp Spirit Born People, Official Newsletter of Youth with a Mission, Vol. 1, June 2001, (Kuala Lumpur: Sri Dasmesh Community Centre, 2001), (Sukhdev Singh, Editor) 20 See, W.H. McLeod, Who is a Sikh? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 118; Verne A. Dusenbery, Of Singh Sabhas, Sri Singh Sabhas and Sikh Scholars: Sikh Discourse From North America in the 1970s, in N. Gerald Barrier and Verne A. Dusenbery (eds.), The Sikh Diaspora: Migration and Experience Beyond Punjab, (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1989), pp As a result
180 168 of 3HO Sikhs, particularly their emphasis on Kundalini Yoga, and are, in general, uncertain as to how they should place the 3HO movement, the group has established a distinctive presence among Sikhs in the diaspora. Their presence has also challenged the attempts of those who insist on the privileging of an exclusive, homogenous Punjabi-Sikh identity as the normative Sikh identity. 21 W.H McLeod has noted that while the obedience of 3HO Sikhs to panthic ideals seems highly commendable and their loyalty to Khalsa observance appears to be beyond question, they exist rather separately from the Punjabi-Sikh community. 22 Through some members of the Sikh Sewaks who share with the 3HO Sikhs, a belief in the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, yoga and meditation classes were introduced to the Singaporean Sikh community. 23 Members of the 3HO community have been invited on numerous occasions to Singapore to perform kirtan as well as conduct meditation and Kundalini Yoga classes. An example of these activities is the Kundalini Yoga & Meditation: Yoga of Sound Current and Shabad Guru workshop that was conducted recently at the Gurdwara Silat Road Sikh Centre. The instructor of this yoga and meditation workshop, Sunder Singh Khalsa, is an ethnic Chinese whose family migrated to the United States from Taiwan. When living in the United States, he of Yogi Bhajan s proselytizing, around three to five thousand North Americans converted to Sikhism in the 1970s. These new converts are sometimes known as Gora (white) Sikhs. 21 Verne A. Dusenbery, A Sikh Diaspora? Contested Identities and Constructed Realities, in Peter Van der Veer (ed.), Nation and Migration: The Politics of Space in the South Asian Diaspora, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), p W.H. McLeod, Who is a Sikh?, p This information on newly introduced religious practices was garnered from interviews with Sikh informants who are personally involved in organizing yoga and meditation classes. I was informed that yoga classes have become increasingly popular among Sikh ladies in recent years.
181 169 became a Sikh convert after being introduced to the teachings of Yogi Bhajan and received training in yoga from the late Yogi Bhajan. 24 The importance of holding these yoga and kirtan sessions by members of the 3HO community at the Silat Road Sikh Centre should be emphasized. Given its history as one of the oldest Sikh Gurdwaras built in Singapore in 1924, and its association with a popular Sikh Sant, Bhai Maharaj Singh since 1966, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road has become a popular religious institution that is attended by a large number of Singaporean Sikhs. 25 Besides its prominence as a religious landmark for Singaporean Sikhs, efforts are also made to ensure that the Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road is able to meet the current needs of Singaporean Sikhs. As a result, the Sikh Centre was established in 2000 as an adjunct building to the main Gurdwara. Described by the president of the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, Mr Dilbagh Singh, as [probably] Asia s first Sikh Community Centre, the Sikh Centre is seen as significant in augmenting the Gurdwara s role in propagating Sikhism through the range of social, cultural and religious activities it offers. 26 The Centre also boasts of a library, an IT room, a gym, a Senior Citizens Lounge and an auditorium where seminars and lectures (on Sikhism and Sikh history and identity) organized by the Sikh Centre are held. Mighty Khalsa classes for Sikh children aged 4 to 12 years of age, Yoga, 24 This workshop was featured, along with a brief profile of Sunder Singh Khalsa, as one of the recent events held at the Sikh Centre. See, Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji 150 th Anniversary 2006 & Official Opening of the Sikh Centre, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006), p Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji & Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road: A Historical Journey, (Singapore: Central Sikh Gurdwara Board, 2006), pp A book published to commemorate the 150 th Anniversary Celebrations. 26 Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji 150 th Anniversary 2006 & Official Opening of the Sikh Centre, pp. 5, 29.
182 170 Bhangra and Tae Kwon-Do lessons are also held at the Sikh Centre. 27 The profile of the 3HO Sikhs are, thus, given a wide exposure among local Singaporean Sikhs when they are invited to conduct their religious programmes at the Silat Road Sikh Centre. During a samelan (Camp Miri Piri) organized in 2004 by the Sikh Sewaks for both Sikh youths and adults, Shanti Kaur Khalsa, who is a 3HO Sikh and renowned for her kirtan sessions, and Sukhdev Singh Khalsa from Sikhs with a Mission in Malaysia were involved as guest speakers. 28 Given their strong Khalsa Sikh identity and interpretations of Sikhism, the participation of Sukhdev Singh Khalsa and Shanti Kaur Khalsa in the samelan organised by the Sikh Sewaks is symbolically important as it reflects the tenor of the samelan. 29 These programmes were meant to introduce a new perspective on Sikh religion and identity and the new expressions of religious identity and piety are strongly influenced by Khalsa Sikhism. The main impetus behind these changes stems from the efforts of a number of young Singaporean Sikhs who see a need to engage the interest of Sikh youths who have been alienated from the community by re-fashioning existing religious practices to suit, as well as shape the lives of Sikhs in the diaspora. 27 Ibid, pp An example of the seminars held at the Sikh Centre is the Seminar on Sikhism in Contemporary Times, organized by the Sikh Centre as part of the New Millennium Sikhism Seminars, Saturday 26 February 2005, Sikh Centre Auditorium, Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road. 28 I was invited to Camp Miri Piri in June 2004 and I attended some of the workshops and meditation sessions conducted by Sukhdev Singh Khalsa and Shanti Kaur Khalsa. [See Illustrations 4.1 and 4.2] 29 Despite close similarities with 3HO Sikhs in the use of Khalsa as a patronymic and his mode of attire, Sukhdev Singh Khalsa is not a practicing member of the 3HO movement. It is quite evident, however, that there has been an exchange and adaptation of religious influences between them.
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