- Swarn’s Profile
- Book- “Sikhs in Latin America-Travels Among Sikh Diaspora”
- Sikh Diaspora Profile and Photos (a)Latin America (b)Asia and Europe
SWARN SINGH KAHLON
After his Masters in Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University, USA and work experience, Swarn returned to India and joined in 1962, Imperial Chemical Industries, a British multinational and the largest foreign Company in India at that time. He worked for three decades with ICI India in Mumbai and Calcutta in Technical Services, Sales, Marketing, Purchasing, Distribution, Exports before being appointed a Divisional General Manager and later President and CEO of Imkemex India Ltd, the International Trading subsidiary. As a part of an MBO, Swarn bought-out Imkemex in 1993 thereby delinking from ICI. Imkemex’s business is being run from Mumbai by son Gurtaj. Swarn and Livleen moved to Chandigarh a few years back where Swarn has returned after 45 years. Their daughter Mini studied at Bryn Mawr before her Doctorate in Neuroscience from UCSF. She lives in San Francisco. Livleen had been teaching in Calcutta and Mumbai, her last appointment was with the American School of Bombay. Swarn was Chairman of Chemicals and Allied Products Export Promotion Council, an Industry-Government body, and also Chairman of Export – Import Council of Eastern India. Swarn visited overseas as a part of various Indian Business Delegations and has been a Management Consultant to European multinationals. His other interest is Golf. The family’s international connections are wide ranging, Gurtaj having married a European, Mini is settled in USA with her husband who is a British born well-known Author. Livleen’s passion is rivers and mountains which criss cross national boundaries.
Swarn has been globetrotting since early 1970′s as he was associated from then onwards with international business. This created an interest in the study of Sikh Immigrants abroad. So a hobby has developed expensive one but very rewarding and exciting. Swarn is now an INDEPENDENT RESEARCHER of SIKH DIASPORA. He is on his 23rd passport and has so far visited 74 countries. Presently he travels to study the Sikh Diaspora and has visited Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in 2005, and Belize, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and Panama in 2006. Subsequent visits have been to countries in Asia Pacific – Japan, South Korea, China, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Myanmar and countries in Europe – Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and Ausria. Further visits are planned to Fiji, Hong Kong, and Malaysia in Asia and Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland in Europe. Time permitting his future travels would be to the West Asian and African countries. Swarn’s focus is on Non-English speaking countries.
Swarn needs help in getting contact addresses of Sikhs in countries about which not much has been written or known. Swarn believes Sikhs are present almost everywhere. The problem is how to locate them. Can you help?
Swarn Singh Kahlon 505 Sector 18B, Chandigarh 160018. Tel: +91 172 2545687; mob. +919815517100. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
SIKHS IN LATIN AMERICA-Travels among the Sikh Diaspora
Publisher:Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 4753/23 Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi email@example.com. Tel: +91 1123284848.
SOME BOOK REVIEWS
The Tribune, Sunday 22 April, 2012. The Spectrum
Taking the road less travelled
Reviewed by Roopinder Singh
Sikhs in Latin America: Travels among the Sikh Diaspora By Swarn Singh Kahlon.
IS it a scholarly work, or is it a travelogue? It’s a bit of both, with historical, ethnographical and geographical strains thrown in for good measure. This is one book that cannot be slotted easily. But then, it is difficult to classify the author too. He is a Punjabi who spent most of his working life in Bombay and Calcutta, studied in the US, and now makes Chandigarh his home. This is his first book, and he has been working on this subject for a long time.
Kahlon is fascinated with early Sikh immigration and he has reached out to an area which has not been the focus of any such study, Latin America. As the author says, “One is unable to fathom how and from where they got the information way back in the end of the 19th century about the existence of some of the countries they migrated to,” yet off they went, in search of a better life for themselves and their families. These immigrants were largely men and most often they married local women, thus their families spoke local languages, maybe some Punjabi for a generation of two, and little or no English.
It was during the British Raj that the Sikhs spread out all over the world, often as a part of the British Army, or police forces. Often they migrated to various British colonies. But this was not always the case. I remember seeing a picture of a turbaned Sikh supervising building the Panama Canal, in an exhibition in the New York. Apparently many spread out from there and for at least a section of them, all they could do was to walk along the railway track till they found food, shelter and eventually work. Many got employment on the railroad, and often set up small business when they had saved enough money to be able to do so.
The author travelled to these Latin American countries. He did a tour of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in 2005. A year later, he did another one in which he covered Belize, Mexico, Cuba, Panama and Ecuador. He met descendants of the original inhabitants in these countries and has examined the Sikh diaspora in each of these nations by giving each a chapter. It is in reaching out to these primary sources that the author strikes his distinctive note. He has got oral accounts, documents, newspaper clippings, passports, etc. which have been appended with the book and which provide fascinating vignettes of pioneer’s lives.
We meet Dan Singh who went from Calcutta, the principal port in India then, to the place he knew as ‘Tina’. An unscrupulous captain took him and his compatriots to Fiji, but they sued him and eventually went to Argentina in 1911, where they faced an adventurous future and a tough life. Then there is George Singh, who became the Chief Justice of Belize in 1998. His father, Bawa Singh Mann had migrated to what was then British Honduras just six decades earlier.
The gurdwara has always been the fulcrum around which the life of Sikhs, especially emigrants,
revolves. Often, it becomes a religious centre, a cultural club and an education centre all rolled into one. The story of how a gurdwara was set up in which nation varies from each group to the next, but the importance that it remains constant.
Early emigrants were overwhelmingly male and there were practically no Punjabi girls they could marry. They married local girls, and although they clung to their Sikh identity, their children and grandchildren were gradually assimilated. However, they retain a keen interest in the culture of their ancestors, as we find from the author’s interviews. Kahlon has written a remarkable book that defies easy slotting. There is, no doubt, that he treads a path seldom travelled, and never with the kind of dedication and resources that Kahlon has invested in the book.
We can expect this volume to spark interest in this long-forgotten Sikh diaspora. It has much that later-day researchers will use for their studies.
INTERNATIONAL INDIAN MAGAZINE
Dubai. 2012 Issue 2, Vol. 19.2 (Mar-Apr)
The global Sikh migration started initially with Sikh men being recruited in the armies of various countries – the valour of their martial race being recognised as early as during the Indian (Sepoy) Mutiny of 1857. Today, even in Latin American countries the Sikh community can proudly boast of professionals and entrepreneurs – as well as someone like Chief Justice George Singh (1998) in Belize, Central America.
This book is obviously a labour of love by Swarn Singh Kahlon who spent almost two years in travelling and researching the migration of the Sikh diaspora in Latin American countries. These are perhaps the farthest Sikh settlements from their original home in Punjab.
What makes the 360+ page book highly readable is the author’s direct simple style. Transcription of interviews where he retains the original wording of each immigrant, results in a range of narrative styles.
Logically, Kahlon includes excerpts from his travel diary which puts a time and place and identifies the people he met. Travel nuggets come in as his personal experiences. As a comparative study, he briefly includes facts and figures about Indian migrants from across the country and where they went to. This is helpful information.
The global Sikh migration started initially with these men being recruited in the armies of various countries – the valour of this martial race being recognised as early as during the Indian (Sepoy) Mutiny of 1857. Subsequently they went as farm labour, construction workers, then moved into transport services and further into owning stores, minimarts or supermarts.
Today, even in Latin American countries the Sikh community can proudly boast of professionals and entrepreneurs – as well as someone like Chief Justice George Singh (1998) in Belize, Central America.
Argentina, as compared to its neighbouring countries, attracted the largest number of immigrants because of its prosperity in the early 20th century. Interestingly, the Sikh diaspora in these countries rarely married Sikh women from India. Perhaps due to logistics, as South America is one of the furthest continents from their homes in Punjab. Subsequent generations have taken on local first names while retaining the Singh surname – Dante, Carmen, Esther, Leander and Maria. This perhaps has made assimilation into the local environment easier. It has also helped retain a sense of cohesiveness and communal ties in a strange land. The majority of the 2nd and 3rd generation Singhs are fluent in Spanish, but speak neither English nor Punjabi. The translation of the Guru Granth Sahib into Spanish has in a way helped keep it alive with the younger generation.
As is an obvious precedent, here too Gurdwaras have sprung up in towns and cities where a sizable Sikh population settled, with these temples becoming the contact and networking point for the community and new settlers.
Another interesting revelation is the Singh Family Burial Tombs as cremation for the dead was not permitted in these countries earlier but is now allowed.
Kahlon in many cases has unwittingly provided the impetus to the younger generation of immigrants wanting to meet more of their kind and learn about their parents and grandparents roots and country of origin. This alone is a feather in his cap!
One such family is the mother-son duo, Carmen and Leandra Singh from Cordoba. Almost unbelievably so, Carmen had not seen an Indian for nearly 60 years since the death of her father Muncha Singh in 1943 – till she met the author!
There is an interview with SubaghKaurKhalsa, a convert to Sikhism who runs the Gurdwara in Brazil but her regret is that there aren’t too many followers of the faith in that country. The lady also teaches yoga. rious people.
Kahlon acknowledges all the help he received from various people. “I was lucky to meet in Chandigarh an exchange student from Argentina. I requested her to visit the Sikh community in Salta on return to Argentina as my advance party. She provided useful information which is incorporated in the book. A young friend of mine from London, Arvinder Singh Garcha (met through my website http://www.sikhglobalvillage.com) with interests similar to mine helped with more contacts. An Argentinean scholar Dr.Lia helped me set up my travel itinerary and even offered her apartment for my stay in Buenos Aires. MitKahlon (with whom I share a surname) in Sao Paulo helped me locate a 3rd generation Sikh immigrant in Brazil. In Mexico, Satinder Pal Singh working with Shell Oil and in Belize, Sabbi, working at Tutt Farm introduced me to several people.”
In Mexico too there were more encounters with Sikh converts. While in Panama the author spotted Sikhs in a mural depicting those involved in the construction of the Panama Canal.
An eye-opener in Ecuador was the discovery of the erstwhile Khalistan Embassy which opened there in 1985 and issued passports of the Government of the Khalistan Government in Exile!
Anecdotes pepper the text such as a meal with a family where the parents were eating dal and roti while the teenage son enjoyed beef steak! In Sao Paulo, Brazil he encountered Mit Mohan Singh Kahlon who just happened to share the same surname – and has since become a friend.
To further substantiate and verify his research, Kahlon did his homework on the home front too. He visited villages in Punjab to find out about those who left home and went overseas.
A treasure trove of information for anyone interested in the Sikh community – or for that matter the pattern of migration of one of the most respected communities in
India, Kahlon, with this book, salutes the brave first generation immigrants who faced the hardships of reaching and settling in far flung unfamiliar territory. Their children and grandchildren continue to proudly carry their race and religion further in a foreign land which is now their home.
TII INTERVIEW OF THE AUTHOR:
TII interviewed the author who admits what was finally most rewarding about his book was when someone met him and remarked, “We now have two cultures – South American and Sikh/Punjabi and we feel richer now.”
TII: What inspired you to research and write about the Sikh Diaspora?
Before the 20th century ended, I had moved to Chandigarh (Punjab) after about four decades of living in Kolkata and Mumbai, and prior to that in USA and Bihar. Both my wife Livleen and I are avid global travellers – I am presently on my 23rd passport – and soon it was becoming a bit of ‘I have seen it before’. So the travel had to be anchored with a purpose. Working with the British multinational ICI meant frequent overseas travel. On these trips I often met Sikh migrants; we did not interact much but their ‘images’ lingered in my mind. I wondered what motivated them to move to strange locales especially with turbans which made them stand out as strangers. They were in some ways heroes for me. I had to know more about them. A hobby-interest started developing and in early 2000 I ventured on a round-the-world trip to meet scholars and people researching Sikh immigrants. It was easy to cover Sikh immigrants in Canada, USA and UK. I had to do something different and original. Sikhs, like many other communities, claim they are present everywhere. I decided to prove these claims.
TII: Why Latin American countries first?
In line with the spirit of some migrants – “The Farther the Better”, I decided to start with Argentina, a country farthest away from Punjab and in the wrong (upside down) hemisphere. I had read about GianiZail Singh, President of India’s, visit to Argentina and some mention of Sikhs in Mexico. The downside was that hardly any information was available. I was looking for a challenge – here it was. So like an adventurous Sikh, I just jumped in.
TII: Tell us about some memorable meetings.
As I was wearing a turban, unlike many of the second or third generation Sikh immigrants, it was very exciting for them to meet me. Their love and affection was very heart warming.
Some encounters stand out: Satguru Singh with his ‘patka’-wearing sons, in an area where there are no other Sikhs, several hundred miles from Mexico City. The entry of Sham Kaur in my hotel in La Paz. Donned in her white regalia including turban with a ‘khanda’ emblem on the forehead, I captioned her interview ‘An Angel Walks In’. Others are in the book.
TII: Face any challenges?
Challenges included getting tourist visas (no embassy believed I was going to those countries just for sightseeing) and making air bookings (travel agents are not familiar with that part of the world; and the Custom Department’s unwelcome reception upon
landing in Cuba. My luggage was thoroughly searched because of the NAM Meeting which our President was attending. Then I was told that even prostitutes had been detained and searched! Not a very complimentary comparison!
My lack of knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese was a negative, as was travelling alone into unfamiliar territory. Embassies, both of Latin American countries in India and the Indian Embassies in Latin American countries were either unhelpful or evasive at best. Exceptions have been mentioned in the book. Irritated by their questioning on the purpose of my visit, I had perforce to say: “To spend money”. That got me the visa. Or the Brazil Embassy’s query about why I was travelling alone. My response: “Man, you are crazy! Who goes to Copacabana Beach with his wife?” Visa promptly issued!
Persistence, my conviction and logic paid dividends in Cuba and Ecuador, while the British Library in London unearthed much needed information on Sikh migration to Brazil. Logistics, which look so frivolous or even funny in retrospect, were a nightmare. At times I almost aborted the trip.
TII: Is the older generation still in a time warp?
The countries where Sikh immigrants are present in small numbers and especially in countries which are far away from Punjab, the process of assimilation is very pronounced. There was literally and practically no other way for their survival. Most of the immigrants married locally which combined with the absence of Gurdwaras in earlier days meant the second and third generation are Singhs but they cannot relate to being Sikhs. The comparatively fewer immigrants who married Sikh women from Punjab have retained the Punjabi ethos and customs more strongly. Most immigrants did not/could not visit their hometowns in Punjab, or take their families to connect with families there. Gurdwaras, besides religion, are also exposing the younger generation to Sikh and Punjabi culture. I found younger Sikh women wearing salwarkameez on Graduation Day, probably more as a fashion statement. A wedding photo termed ‘Bridegroom sans Bride’ is very telling where the turbaned Sikh bridegroom is in the Gurdwara without his Argentinian bride. The marriage ceremony was held at the church followed by a reception (langar) at the Gurdwara.
“To sum up, I hope I have achieved the main point of this book – to highlight that Sikh migration to Latin America was almost as old as that of Sikh migration to North America,” a content Kahlon concludes as he prepares for his next two books.
AmitaSarwal is a freelance writer based in Singapore
Appeared in full in “ABSTRACT OF SIKH STUDIES’, Vol.XIV, Issue 2 (April-June,2012).Abridged version appeared in The Sikh Review,April, 2012 issue.
Sikhs in Latin America: Travels among the Sikh Diaspora
Author: Swarn Singh Kahlon, Chandigarh
Publisher: Monohar Publisher, New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2012; Pages 361; Price. Rs. 1075/- (Hard Bound)
Reviewed by: Dr.Hardev Singh Virk, Professor Emeritus, Eternal University, Baru Sahib, H.P.
The book under review is divided into 13 chapters followed by 10 appendices. A few years back, I was introduced to the author when he called me after reading my travelogue to Uzbekistan and Myanmar published in the Sikh Review, Kolkatta. I found Swarn Singh Kahlon deeply motivated to write about the Sikh Diaspora. He had collected lot of information during his travels abroad, mostly to Europe and America, in connection with his professional career, while working for a multinational company (ICI India). In the preface to his book, the author frankly admits: “My only claim to originality is to introduce Latin America as part of the Sikh Diaspora. In any study of Sikh Diaspora, Latin America has been grossly neglected.” In the introductory chapter, the author gives the background of this study in the following words: “I have been globetrotting since the late 1950s when I went to USA for higher studies and work experience. It was an era when the Sikh was considered either a Maharaja, or a pauper who presumably had no money to shave his beard.” The author’s curiosity to know more about Sikh migrants became a sort of hobby – expensive but very rewarding and exciting in later years. He has frequently traveled to study the Sikh Diaspora. He visited Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in 2005 and Belize, Mexico, Cuba, Panama and Ecuador in 2006. A chapter each is devoted to Sikh Diaspora in these countries.
Chapter 1 with title “Sikhs on the Move” gives a history of the Sikh migration with their founder, Guru Nanak, himself as a prolific traveler of his times. The British encouraged the Sikhs to join the army and for other security duties in the British Empire and thus began their migration to Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong and China. From there, many enterprising Sikhs migrated to British outposts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, while the more ambitious among them ventured out to USA and Canada, the El Dorado of their dreams. The author has given useful data about Sikh migrants, current estimates of global Sikh population, history of migration and establishment of Sikh Gurdwaras in countries of their adoption in tables 5-8 of Chapter 1.
Chapter 2 is devoted to ‘Travels among the Latin American Sikhs’. The author refers to Singhvi High Level Committee Report prepared by Govt. of India for recording Indian Diaspora in Latin American countries. This is the first official survey conducted by the Govt. of India but it fails to highlight the Sikh Diaspora and its problems. Why Sikhs chose to go to Latin America needs to be investigated? The
author has tried to collect information from Sikh migrants on this aspect. It has been revealed that Latin America was not their destination by choice but by default. Latin American governments were not as hostile to Sikhs as other white dominated countries of USA and Canada. Major part of this chapter is covered by Author’s travels dairy and travel nuggets. The author stresses the role of Gurdwara in Sikh Diaspora. The community develops more cohesiveness and closeness with the setting up of a Gurdwara. Some Sindhi migrants supplied a copy of Sri Guru Granth Sahib for setting up the Gurdwara.
Chapter 3 is most elaborate and illustrated with photographs of Sikh Diaspora in Argentina. The author gives some interesting accounts based on his interviews with Diaspora Sikhs. He writes, “The Sikhs in Argentina have been substantially assimilated into the local society and the third and even second generations may not call themselves Sikhs. But emotional bonds exist and a Gurdwara was commissioned in the early 1990s. Fresh immigrants keep coming in small numbers but turbaned Sikhs are a rarity.”
The author met a wide spectrum of Argentinean Sikhs during his sojourn. The names of second generation Sikhs are usually local, e.g., Leandra, Dante, Carmen, Nora, Esther, etc. The author found them very friendly and they wished to know about their Sikh heritage and Punjab culture. Case studies of Sikh Diaspora by the author are interesting as these record trials and tribulations of Sikh migrants to Argentina. The story of Dan Singh and harrowing tale of Sikh migration in 1911 via Fiji is most adventurous and heart rending account of exploitation of illiterate Punjabis.
Chapter 4 is titled ‘Sikhs in Belize”. The original name of Belize was British Honduras. It was a British colony like India but Sikhs when offered immigration to this colony by Canada, they refused. The author describes success story of a Sikh migrant, Bawa Singh Mann, who came to Belize in the early 1930s. His son George Singh rose to the coveted position of Chief Justice of Belize in 1998. Some of the new young immigrants to Belize are using it as a transit point to migrate to North America. Immigration agents in Punjab and Delhi send young students to Belize using fraudulent tricks assuring them admissions in non-existent Belize University.
In Chapter 5, ‘Sikhs in Bolivia’, the author relates some case studies and interviews with Sikh migrants. The reason for Sikh migration to Bolivia is passion for owing farm land at a dirt cheap price of $30 per hectare. During 1980s, Sikhs built a Gurdwara 30 kms. from Santa Cruz. The author records interviews of Amarjit Singh Virdi and Santwant Singh Sandhu who arrived in Bolivia for doing agriculture farming. The author laments that an enterprise by adventurous Sikhs failed causing misery because of lack of professionalism, in-fighting, back-biting and downright meanness by many of them in times of adversity. But the author also interviewed Gisela (Sham Kaur) who offered a ray of hope for the Sikh Dharma to flourish in Bolivia. The followers of Yogi Bhajan are setting up yoga centres and Gurdwaras in Latin America to promote Sikhism among the local people.
Chapter 6 is devoted to ‘Sikhs in Brazil’. It is one of the biggest countries in the world with vast resources lying untapped. However, the author feels that Sikh presence in Brazil is indeed insignificant and only a few Sikhs have struck permanent roots in
Brazil. The only highlight of this Chapter is the moving story of SubaghKaurKhalsa and her husband, Gursewak Singh Khalsa, who endured all kind of hardships to set up a Gurdwara in Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Chapter 7 and 8 are dedicated to Sikhs in Cuba and Ecuador, respectively. The Sikh migrants use Cuba as a transit camp for catapulting into other Latin American countries. The author has recorded some case histories in both these countries. The story of a ‘Wandering Sikh’, Dilbagh Singh Bhullar, is worth mentioning. Bhullar is a victim of the police terrorism in Punjab but who is desperate to reach North America by any legal or illegal means. His escapades are full of high drama.
Chapter 9 and chapter 10 give us history of Sikh migration to Mexico and Panama, respectively. Case studies of Sikh migrants are there as in other Chapters. Mexico has large presence of Yogi Bhajan’s Sikhs doing business. During my visit to Mexico in 1983, I found a shop in Mexico city selling dairy products under the brand name ‘Satnam’. Arjan Singh Khalsa, a Jat Sikh from Punjab, is a success story in Mexico. He feels happy and secure in Mexico and enjoys patronage of 3HO Sikhs of Yogi Bhajan.
Sikh immigration to Panama started when the US Government began construction of the Panama Canal. After the construction of Canal in 1914, many Sikh migrants took up jobs in American Fruit Company, some became pedlers, while others started driving pick up vans called ‘Cheevas’. Some of them moved to other Latin American countries for better avenues. There are many success stories from Panama in Chapter 10. Dhaliwal brothers have a flourishing business and ‘Sher-e-Punjab’ farm in Panama.
Chapter 11 recounts some stories of Diaspora Sikhs in Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Surinam, Venezuela and Costa Rica in Latin America. Some of the stories narrated by Khuswant Singh, United Sikhs and collected from Newspapers and Internet are recorded by the author in this Chapter. I find stories of Partap Singh of Peru and J.P. Singh of Chile quite devastating. Both of them became victims of hate crime in Latin America. J.P. Singh, a graduate from Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar, is the lone Sikh living in Chile. Being a turbaned Sikh, he is facing taunts from the locals, who call him ‘Bin Laden’ or ‘terrorist’. He had been attacked in the street and confronts racism and discrimination in Chile, being a Sikh but misunderstood as a Muslim. It is unfortunate that Sikhs have been victims of hate crime in both North America and Latin America.
The author recounts his own story in chapter 12. He earned Graduate Assistantship in the Mining department of Pennsylvania University of USA in 1958 and after completing his Masters in Mining, he joined as Efficiency Engineer in Hanna Coal Company, Ohio. He returned to India in 1961. The author sums up his experience of student life as wonderful: “A Sikh was somewhat of a curiosity, to say the least. Americans were by and large generous, welcoming and curious.” I am not inclined to discuss author’s personal episodes as his visit to USA does not fall into the territory and regime of Latin America. But I do appreciate that the author maintained his Sikh identity and values in a most dignified manner in United States of America.
Chapter 13 ‘Conclusions’ is the most important Chapter of this book. Swarn Singh Kahlon brings into focus the reasons of Sikh migration. According to the author, “It is the frustration from rampant unemployment among rural Sikh youth that has given rise to this obsession of going abroad at any cost. The state has to create jobs for the semi-literate rural youth. Rural life in Punjab is in crisis and Sikh youths are seeking migration out of India as their only way of survival.” The author laments that Punjab has lost out to other states in economic, industrial, social, and services fronts. The author displays his professional wisdom in analyzing the Punjab crisis. I fully agree with author’s concluding remarks (p. 305): “While Sikhs have done a good job to survive they need a strategy to thrive. Nothing less than a total revamp at a political, social and religious level is required.”
I hope that the Sikh youth and Social Scientists will find lot of useful information about Sikh Diaspora in this book authored by Swarn Singh Kahlon.
I also learn from the views expressed on the blurb of this book that he intends to bring out a series of books on Sikh Diaspora in coming years. I wish him success in his mission.
THE SIKH REVIEW,
Review by Sardar Saran Singh
PUNJABI – SIKH MIGRATION
It is almost amazing how the Sikh-Punjabi villagers decided to migrate to a continent farthest from Punjab and about which very little was known. The number of immigrants is small and many are totally assimilated with marriages to local spouses. In the last two to three decades Sikhs have built Gurdwaras in several countries which is helping re-energize their linkage with Punjab and Sikhi. The preferred target countries were Argentina, a relatively prosperous country in early 20th century. Choice of other two countries was also understandable – Panama because of the Canal construction and Mexico because of its land border with USA providing an opportunity to cross over. The first migration was in late 19th century but majority migration was during the first three decades of the 20th century. The Bolivian experiment in 1980’s of setting up large scale farming conglomerate, though well-conceived, could not succeed. The setting up of so called Khalistan HQ in Ecuador in 1985 was more a myth than a reality. The ex-Chief Justice of Belize was son of a Sikh Immigrant. The paper is based on authors’ travels to eight countries. The history of migration, social and cultural scene and broad economic parameters and the recent forays by illegals have been discussed. A large majority of Punjabi immigrants are Sikhs whereby the study is titled Punjabi-Sikh Migration.
Background – A Study of Sikh Global Village:
In his spare time, the author wanted to contribute to the field of Punjabi – Sikh Diaspora. He wanted to do something out of the routine which could be more original and contribute to the hitherto not-so-well known. A study of Sikhs in Northern America, UK, S.E.A., and Australasia was ruled out as a lot has been written about the Sikh presence in these areas. Furthermore, it was thought that focus on “success” stories alone would not be a true and total representation of Sikhs settled overseas. So in order to complete the MAP OF SIKH MIGRATION from Punjab and
to fill in the gaps in Diaspora knowledge, the following geographical areas were prioritized:
CWE (Continental Western Europe).
It was decided to make a start with Latin America. This was to honour the “Farther the Better” spirit of early migrants and accordingly Argentina was the first country to be visited.
One cannot do better than quote from the High Level Committee Report of December, 2001 set up by Government of India which when referring to Latin America and nearby island countries says: “We have added brief sketches here about many of the countries of Central and South (or Latin) America, where there is even a small Indian presence. In doing so, out purpose has been to pay our tribute to the relentless spirit of the ‘Overseas Indian’ who has ventured forth to remote corners of the world in search of adventure or profit, whatever the impediments or challenges he or she has had to encounter. There are relatively few PIOs and NRIs in most of these countries. But their achievements in what may sometimes have been hostile or unwelcome milieu must command our respect and admiration.”
The study is author’s personal tribute to a forgotten Diaspora.
It was felt necessary to complete the Sikh migration map. Out of the three broad geographical areas mentioned earlier where limited knowledge of Sikh Diaspora exists, the author decided to focus on Latin America. Latin America can be defined in several ways but the author has confined himself to mainland South and Central American countries which are Spanish or Portuguese speaking. The Caribbean and other Islands which are sometimes included under Latin America have not been considered except for Cuba, This is a vast geographical area to cover. The choice was to focus on one or two countries or to extend the study to of a number of countries even though it meant merely scratching the surface. Since no existing study was available the latter option was felt more appropriate so as to create an interest amongst scholars for encouraging in-depth studies country wise or for detailed examination of a specific topic or specialization across countries and for Punjabis to get a feel of the geographical extent of their Diaspora. If this paper can whet the appetite for further study or create public curiosity at large, the author would feel that the effort has been worthwhile. On latter the author has been receiving several responses to his website especially from younger generation who want to pursue such a study.
History of Migration and General Profile:
In South American countries, Sikhs were pioneer immigrants except for Chile where Sindhis were the first. In Central America including the Caribbean’s, Surinam and Guinea, the first Indians were from UP, Bihar and possibly South India as indentured labour. Migration in several countries of Latin America has been traced to the first two to three decades of the Twentieth Century. Courtesy late Hew McLeod a reference is available of a Sikh’s arrival in Argentina in 1890’s. Sikhs came either as direct passengers mainly on ships via Europe or because they were not allowed to disembark at the USA ports. The later resulted in transit stay in various intermediate destinations before settling down in the final destination of their choice. Many Sikhs
walked from Brazil to Argentina while others walked still longer distances from Panama to Argentina via Peru and Bolivia. This phase of travel in several cases was even tougher than the sea voyage. It involved walking over thousands of miles in tough terrain with little familiarity of local language and customs and with limited funds. One has to look at the map and the terrain to understand the hardship involved – it really sends shivers down the spine.
In Latin America, the more popular destinations for long term settlement were Argentina, and Panama. Mexico was always a target country for temporary settlement with the aim of crossing the Rio Grande at the first possible opportunity. USA was and still is the “El Dorado” for almost all Punjabi-Sikh migrants.
There are several illegal immigrants in recent years and some have been fraudulently brought to South American destinations against the promised North America entry. In 1990’s Belize became a popular destination for migration. Since Belize is not very well connected for air travel, some of these migrants had to charter small aircraft (from Cuba) to reach Belize. What enterprise! Single girls are also venturing out where ever opportunity arises. Two young girls from Punjab have gone to Belize as students but are now running a sort of a ‘dhabha’ in a small town hoping to migrate to USA one day. There are instances of high handedness by the police and immigration authorities but once you have left the country, there is no turning back in most of the cases whether the immigrant likes the situation he or she has got into. There is an instance of a Sikh who had been sponsored by his brothers from USA. This guy was asked to come to Belize where a white woman came from USA for less than a day. In a few hours after arrival, she got married to the Sikh based on which she sought his immigration to USA. This was achieved after prolonged legal battle.
The immigrants’ preferred profession originally was to work on farms graduating in time to buying their own farm land. Others worked in Railways in various capacities or in Sugar Mills or as in Panama, at the Canal. Some of them drove vehicles and taxis eventually buying their own wheels eventually setting up transport conglomerates. Still others carried out ‘Pheri’ i.e. retail as peddlers by going door to door to sell items of common use and in time set up small size super markets. Others took to money lending and in due course dabbled in real estate. Several members of second and third generation are becoming professionals and entrepreneurs.
Turban, Marriages and Linkage with Punjab
There had been a lot of to and fro traffic of Sikhs between countries they settled in and Punjab. For early migrants the first visit home took several years to materialize. Some even returned permanently to India. Most of them migrated as single males and some returned to get a wife. Others who had left their wives called for them as soon as they were in a position to receive the family. Yet others who were single (and even some who were married in India) decided to take on local wives. In some cases this could have been even the maid working in the house. Acceptance was a critical issue and local marriage was the first step in the process of assimilation. It wasn’t an easy choice though. One hears only good things about Punjabi-Sikh parents (fathers in most cases) once they settled down. The general comments from their siblings and others was that the Sikhs were hard working, honest, generous but rather strict with the family in terms of the siblings’ upbringing. Several of them sent money home, at least, in earlier years of settling down before their local families’ needs became more pressing. Money transfers for “izzat” or philanthropy was not as significant feature compared to the migrants to North America and UK the Twentieth Century. Courtesy late Hew McLeod a reference is available of a Sikh’s arrival in Argentina in 1890’s. Sikhs came either as direct passengers mainly on ships via Europe or because they were not allowed to disembark at the USA ports. The later resulted in transit stay in various intermediate destinations before settling down in the final destination of their choice. Many Sikhs
The effort of each migrant was to continue to keep Sikh symbols specially the turban. The British encouraged the post war disbanded Sikhs soldiers to migrate and in some cases paid for their voyages. So far as the British employers were concerned, it was easier to maintain Sikh identity but in other situations it was a problem. There was also security in numbers but those who were isolated had to give up the turban sooner than later. Those immigrants who had spouses from Punjab, persevered with the turban for a longer period. Very few, if any, in second and third generation kept the turban in order to get better social acceptance. Local wives either encouraged or demanded greater assimilation and the men could not put up much of a resistance to what was becoming inevitable. In earlier years cremating the dead was not possible. The dead had to be buried as per the local custom. Some Sikhs in deference to family expectations had elaborate family burial tombs.
Some immigrants called for their relatives in due course when they were in a position to sponsor. Some even sent their children to visit and in one case to study for a short period. But vast distance and expense deterred many others. Almost all expressed a wish to visit Punjab. The Punjabi language has almost died out with second and third generations as they need to know English and proficiency in local language. Recent migration, though not very common, helps keep interest and contacts with back home alive. The illegal migrants, having landed amidst them, are helped out to some extent but these migrants have their own agenda, at times causing embarrassment to the locals. Events of 1980’s certainly had an emotional impact on immigrants but because of small numbers they had no involvement or support for Punjabis in India. Migration to Bolivia in the 1980’s was however substantially triggered by the events in Punjab at that time.
Many second and third generation migrants are availing opportunities that come their way to migrate to North America as a first priority and UK/Australasia as second option. They maintain contacts with friends, relatives in these countries.
Due to the influence of mothers who in many cases are locals the children tend to visit the church and follow Christianity. But with the setting up of Gurdwaras the younger generation is developing some emotional ties for Sikhism. Some of the mothers though married to non Singhs have kept Singh surname for their children. For younger generation, it is the western dress which is the norm but on Gurdwara days the dress worn tends to be Punjabi. Children’s names can be both Western and Punjabi. The linkage with India, Punjab and the Sikhs is, naturally, better where the parents have taken the children to India for varying periods of time. At least the second generation then has some exposure to things Indian. The nostalgia for homeland continues, as is natural, but better living conditions and financial prosperity is an important compensating factor. It is not easy to return to Punjab especially if you have to accept lack of success. The individual and sometimes family ‘izzat’ is at stake. Migration of relatives, village mates, and other friends or known persons was encouraged and facilitated to the maximum extent feasible. It is a sight to see signboard on a supermarket of “DasmeshpitaNorteSupermercados” or “Despensa Singh” or “Amacen Singh Khalsa” or “Sher E Punjab Farm”.
In the countries visited, most of the Sikhs do not wear turbans. However, the most impressive sight was that of Yogi Bhajan’s followers with full Sikh identity symbols. They are the local converts to Sikhism. These Sikhs generally have a surname of ‘Khalsa’ and keep the five K’s. The 3HO (Holy, Healthy, Happy Organization) members are a study in itself. Their devotion to Sikhism against heavy personal, rs i�rs �@���nce they settled down. The general comments from their siblings and others was that the Sikhs were hard working, honest, generous but rather strict with the family in terms of the siblings’ upbringing. Several of them sent money home, at least, in earlier years of settling down before their local families’ needs became more pressing. Money transfers for “izzat” or philanthropy was not as significant feature compared to the migrants to North America and UK the Twentieth Century. Courtesy late Hew McLeod a reference is available of a Sikh’s arrival in Argentina in 1890’s. Sikhs came either as direct passengers mainly on ships via Europe or because they were not allowed to disembark at the USA ports. The later resulted in transit stay in various intermediate destinations before settling down in the final destination of their choice. Many Sikhs family and social odds is very admirable. The 3HO followers form a significant part of Sikhs in Latin America.
Gurdwara is a great institution and is the anchor around which the Punjabi Diaspora constructs its religious, social, emotional identity and provides an important link amongst the immigrants. Gurdwara Sikh websites give slightly exaggerated presence of Gurdwaras globally and at time include Gurdwaras in devout Sikhs’ homes. These also include rented premises where Sikhs gather on Sundays/Holidays and important religious days. The Gurdwara and the so called Khalistan Head Quarters in Quito, Ecuador do not exist. In some countries such as Bolivia, the Sikh Sangat is so small that they cannot afford to keep a ‘granthi’ and yet the place is well maintained. It provides a venue for social gatherings and helps retain linkage with religion, community and heritage of ‘Punjabiat’. It was interesting to learn that post setting up of the Gurdwara in Argentina, the community has got more connected and the younger generation is getting to develop better linkage with Punjab, Punjabis, Sikhs and Sikhi. For early migrants, Gurdwaras were a useful contact and resting point. Gurdwaras in places like Calcutta and Singapore were a savior as they could stay there, sometimes for long periods, before catching a boat to their destination country. The stay provided information which otherwise was scanty and emotional succour to the migrants venturing into distant lands bereft of their own countrymen.
In the first phase visits were made to Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil in the summer of 2005 followed by travel to Belize, Mexico, Cuba, Panama and Ecuador in 2006.Only one or two significant or interesting features are given against each country write up.
In the early Twentieth Century, Argentina was a prosperous country of South America, earning a sobriquet as ‘Europe’ of South America. So if a Sikh could not get entry into USA and Canada, Argentina was the next best alternative. Spanish language was a barrier but not a major constraint as most of the migrants were probably equally unfamiliar with English language. Hew McLeod, tells of one Ram Singh, who came to Australia in 1894 at age 14 years but returned to India soon afterwards. He came back to Australia in 1998 and in the intervening period had been to Argentina. An Argentinean census shows the presence of five Indians in Buenos Aires in 1890’s. However the main migration took place in the first two decades of Twentieth century. There are several interesting stories of Sikh migrants including the ones who could not pronounce the name of the country which they called “Tina”. Some of them were mistakenly or purposely taken in 1914 by a ship from Singapore to Fiji. These Sikhs had to hire an Australian lawyer to fight their case in courts of Fiji – an example of “Never Give Up” spirit. Besides coming as direct migrants, several of them came to Argentina with interim stops in Cuba, Panama and other Central American countries. Their walkathon has been mentioned earlier on. Sikhs arriving by boat found work in the Railway workshop in Buenos Aires while others moved upcountry to Cordoba and further north. Opportunities were found in the interior towns like Tucuman and still further in Salta area where good agricultural land was available. Compared to Buenos Aires, there was less competition upcountry, and hence majority of the immigrants settled there. Sugar mills run by the British willingly employed the Sikhs. Small communities started developing in these areas. At Esperenza Sugar Mill there is a commemorative stone for the World War Dead and prominently engraved is the name of Arjan Singh along with other British soldiers.
In Cordoba, the second largest city of Argentina, there are about 25 ‘Singhs’ listed in the telephone directory. When contacted, all except one did not know either English or Punjabi. The only English speaking family was of Carmen Singh, 65 years age whose father Muncha (Munsha) Singh died when she was 6 years old. Her son Leandra, a law graduate, is named Singh also. Muncha Singh passport indicates his arrival in January, 1927. He worked with the Railways and married locally. Since her father’s death, Carmen had not met an Indian and was understandably excited to meet a turbaned Sikh from Punjab. Tucuman has a small population of second generation Sikhs, some of them being professionals.
A Gurdwara was built in mid Eighties at Rosario de la Frontiers. Several Sikhs live in the area and are involved in agriculture, transport, retailing and real estate. Besides the religious ceremonies on Sundays and important religious occasions, services are popular on deaths, marriages,and births. Devotees from distances visit the Gurdwara on these special occasions. San Pedro, Guemes and city of Salta each have pockets of Sikh families. It is a sight to see signboard on a supermarket of “DasmeshpitaNorteSupermercados”or “DespensaSingh”or “Amacen Singh Khalsa”.
Original migrants’ crossing over by land generally settled in these Northern towns.
The migration here is of comparatively recent vintage. In the early 1980’s, Bolivia advertised in world’s leading magazines about the sale of agricultural land at cheap price. It coincided with the period of turmoil for the Sikhs in Punjab and elsewhere. Many of the Sikh workers in the Middle East were earning good wages and were interested to migrate to the western hemisphere. A group of them gathered together and set about buying land in Bolivia in Santa Cruz area. At the peak time in late Eighties there would be about fifty of them. Large investment were made in earth moving equipment to make the forest areas cultivable in the same way the Sikhs settlers had done in ‘Terai’ area of UP in India.. The working conditions were tough but that was no deterrent. Irrigation was problematic. Large investments were made in fertilizers and crop protection chemicals. Major suppliers were impressed with the entrepreneurship of the Sikhs and extended credit liberally. Encouraged by first results, the Sikh settlers started to buy more land. However within a few years due to lack of irrigation, crop returns became meager. Soon repayment of credit became difficult. As the problems got compounded, there were internal dissensions and quarrels. One or two parties started to siphon money, fairly or unfairly, into other investments such as gas station. The financial situation of a number of migrants became precarious and they were forced to leave for other countries. Some even returned to Punjab penniless. Now only a handful of them are left behind who are eking out a living through some agricultural efforts and running odd businesses. The housewives try to add to family income through small scale retailing from outlets attached to their homes. Some of the Sikhs had to go to jail for reneging on credit payments. In recent times some youngsters interested in migrating to USA had landed up in Bolivia and local Sikhs (including a widow with limited resources) helped them through financial guarantees. When these youngsters reneged on their payments and left the country, the old migrants were saddled with payments against these guarantees.
The Sikhs on arrival had set up a Gurdwara on the Santa Cruz-Brazil road a few miles from Santa Cruz. For a few years they had a regular ‘granthi’ but now they are without one due financial constraint. However they do meet on occasions and more importantly whenever a visitor comes.
In the capital city La Paz, there is a small community of Yogi Bhajan’s followers headed by Sham KaurKhalsa (Gazelle). It was interesting meeting her, hearing her life story and how she became a devout Sikh with white turban and all. She is a senior Government Official and is an MBA from an American University. A complete transcript of her interview is available.
Several references mention that Sikhs who wanted to immigrate to USA were made to disembark at the North Eastern ports of Brazil from where many of them traveled overland to Argentina. Similarly some of them from Panama headed for Argentina via Brazil. The British Library, London has on record old newspaper clippings of 1927wherein Brazil was advertising in India for encouraging immigrants especially for farming. There are reports of the British Ambassador in Sao Paulo indicating arrival of a group of Sikhs in Brazil by a shipin — from Bombay. Some of them subsequently sought repatriation to India while whereabouts of others could not be traced. Why Sikhs did not establish roots in Brazil (as opposed to Argentina) is not clear. Some accounts say that land and climate of Brazil was not found conducive enough for the Indians.
Gadhar Party had many of their leaders visit and temporarily stay in Rio de Janeiro. It would appear no Branch of the Party was set up in Brazil (Argentina had a significant presence of Gadharites) presumably because no supporters or cadres were available. Bhagat Singh Bilka in his account mentions that their leaders had good influence with the Ruling Party in Brazil which helped them get export agency for coffee to the Middle Eastern countries. This is around the 1930’s.
Older Sikh migrants are difficult to locate but their siblings are very much there and are totally assimilated with local population. I could locate one Wagner Sansara (Sansar) Singh in a town about 400kms North West from Sao Paulo. His grandfather Sansar Singh came to Brazil in 1927 at age 25. It seems Sansar came along with three others Ram, Rattan, and Wattan Singh. On arrival Sansar was fascinated with Brazil and decided to stay back permanently. Initially he started working with the (British) Railways in Sao Paulo but later moved up country to Olympia where he decided to start his own business of grocery retailing. According to Wagner, he was always very subdued and made no effort to teach Punjabi to his children. But he used to pray frequently which the children couldn’t understand. He was married locally and had two sons, Walter and Sansara Jr. Walter married IracemaBafero and had seven children. Wagner, whom I met, was the second born and is now 49 years old and is married to Neyla. Wagner is presently Director of the local commercial association, while Nyela is the President. They know very little about India and were delighted to know that the Sikhs are prosperous and well educated. They were very interested to learn about their Punjab-Sikh culture and heritage and are keen to visit India.
There are some other Sikhs in Brazil but of comparatively recent vintage. Most of them are either professionals or traders (mainly garments business). Mit Mohan Singh Kahlon has been in SaoPaulo ever since he graduated in Chemical Engineering from UCLA over thirty years ago. He is presently a Consultant in Marketing and General Management. He visits Chandigarh at least once a year.
Heading the Yogi Bhajan’s followers is SubhagKaurKhalsa, originally a USA citizen and married to a Brazilian Sikh. The late Gurusewak’s story is a fascinating one of devotion to Sikhism. Despite heavy odds of suffering from terminal illness, he set up a Gurdwara in his residential premises. As fate would have it he died immediately after the inauguration of the Gurdwarea. Subhag’s two sons are studying at the MiriPiri School in Amritsar. They have been the honoured guests of the author in Chandigarh.
What was once called British Honduras is now Belize. The country has an old connection with Sikh migration. Early twentieth century when Sikhs started arriving on West Coast of Canada, the Canadian Government got a bit worried about the emerging problem. Sikhs being British subjects, the Canadian Authorities did not wish to out rightly deny immigration. So they thought of a subtle approach to settle Sikhs in British Honduras now called Belize. The Sikhs refused to bite the bait. Thereafter, some Sikhs did come to Belize but as direct migrants from India.
Late George Singh (converted to Christianity) son of a Sikh immigrant reached the high office of the Chief Justice of Belize. His son Douglas Singh is the Chairman of the Opposition political party of Belize. There are supposed to be three Sikhs who came in early1920’s, Praphael Singh in Pentagora, ChananSingh in Belize and Lal Singh in Corozol. The Belize Singhs, some of whom seem to have Negroid features are aware of their Punjabi heritage e.g. Phillip Singh, who is an IT technocrat. Except for some recent immigrants, most Sikhs and their siblings are assimilated with the local population.
Big Falls Ranch – now Tut Farm: The Tuts of California purchased the farm (37,000acres) in 1992. The Tuts interest was in rice cultivation as the country’s requirements were being imported. Tuts were sposors of “KarSewa” of water purification project at the Golden Temple some time ago. They belong to village Paragpur of Jullundhar. To start with the Tuts appointed a Belize national as CEO till 2000 when Sabbi from Jullundhar took over as the MD. A number of Sikhs went to Belize in the 1990’s for the purpose of crossing over to USA. More details are given in earlier pages.
Earlier Sikh migration was connected with the aim of crossing over to USA. This continued till recent times but with greater and greater difficulty. In earlier times a number of Sikhs married Mexican women as it was not possible to marry whites. Karen Leonard and others have covered this aspect of Sikh-Mexican connection in great detail. Some Sikhs settled down in Northern States of Mexico but most of them migrated to USA. Another major development has been the conversion of 100 or more Mexicans to Sikhism through the efforts of Late Yogi HarbhajanSingh’s 3HO via yoga. These Khalsa surnamed Sikhs are indeed devout Sikhs and were the first to set up Gurdwara in Mexico City. Presently there are some older generation of Sikhs largely assimilated with the local population in two of the Northern Provinces. A few of the recent immigrants since 1990′s are into business (mainly garments). It would appear Nancy Craft of Delhi promoted by Narinder Pal Singh (Pali) was the fountainhead of many businesses. Besides Mexico City, Sikhs are present in Cancun, Guadalajara. There are a few expatriate professionals and one old immigrant, Arjan Singh who has grown with the 3HO movement of Yogi Harbhajan. Jassie, owner of the Indian Restaurant, Koh-E-Noor had generously invited the Sikh Sangat to dinner to meet with the author.
I cannot forget Satguru Singh Khalsa, a handsome 32 years old Sikh who drove in with his son in “Patka” to pick me up in Xalapa, capital of Vera Cruz Province. His is a fascinating story of how he became a Sikh and despite the heavy odds has stood up for Sikh symbols. His son was refused admission in a Private School but he fought his case through the Human Rights Commission. A full transcript of his interview is available.
The book “India-Mexico”, by Eva Alexandra Uchmany, has some interesting stories about Sikh immigrants in the North. In early 1920’s President Obregon was keen to colonize certain regions of the country. The Sikhs took advantage of this and set about into agriculture. However with the regime change ten years later, the Sikhs were found unwanted. On a technicality the government confiscated their crops in 1932. All this contributed to the migration of these farmers from the State of Sonora to Sinaloa and from there, once again to the United States. One survivor is Gurmit Singh, resident of Culiacan, Sinaloa, native of Jullunder, Punjab, where he was born in 1911.
There is evidence that Sikhs did go to Cuba in early twentieth century but that they found tough going in the country because of the heat, humidity and fever. So, most of them stayed short periods, a couple of years or so and then looked for better alternatives for settling down. As in other countries, some got left behind who settled down and have got assimilated. I was told that there are some old settlers or at least their siblings in the western province of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo. A name of a TV Announcer, Castillo Singh was mentioned but in the short period I was there, contact could not be established. However the Indian Embassy did mention that some years ago there were a few Sikhs, including one JagtarSingh, who contacted the Embassy to examine how they could claim their ancestral lands in Punjab. Details were not available.
An old immigrant AjitSingh gave some information about himself on the telephone. He came to Cuba in 1955 through his uncle Udham Singh who had migrated in 1923-24 (died in 1961). Uncle had sent him an air ticket and he travelled New Delhi/Karachi/London/New York/ Havana. Udham Singh came to Cuba along with 30-35 persons from Punjab and worked in the sugar cane farms in the province of Santiago de Cuba. Most of them had tough life. Udham Singh later on got into cloth business “pheri” in Havana. Udham never married and never visited India. However he helped his family through money remittances including educating Ajit. One Sikh Asa Singh however became prosperous and subsequently migrated to USA. A friend of Udham, Late Dasondi Singh, gave him his house on his departure to India around 1952-53. Ajit continues to live in this house till today. In fact looking for Singhs in the Telephone Directory, I came across Dasondi’s name. Dasondi’s sons Darshan Singh and Bhag Singh, though very old, live in Mahlpur. Ajit had seen Dasondi in the village prior to his departure for Cuba. . Ajit hails from village ManakDeri on Hoshaiarput-Jullundur border. Amongst five brothers, he was the youngest. He studied upto Middle School in Bhogpur, graduating with a B.Sc. in 1953 from DAV College, Jullundur. He has a brother in Delhi and several nephews in Canada, USA and UK. On arrival he started studying Medicine but he was required to go through a Spanish language course. Those days Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C. used to look after Cuba. During the 1956-57 revolution, the University got closed. He had rough time making both ends meet. All he could do was odd jobs as no permanent positions were available. He then decided to do a Technical Diploma at the Radio & TV Institute and became there after, a Technical Apprentice. When the University re-opened, he was advised to continue with the job rather than go for a long duration study at the University even though education was free. When he was 32 years, he got married to a Cuban and has a 35 year old son who is a Doctor. Ajit was basically unhappy living in Cuba but had no where else to go and envies others who moved on and succeeded.
Another young Sikh entrepreneur, a Stephanian from Delhi but now a Canadian citizen is doing well business-wise in Havana. In Argentina, I had seen some old passports with Cuba Immigration stamp. While visiting Panama later on, Prakash Singh told me that two Sikhs from Cuba had visited Panama eight years ago when they called on him as the President of the Indian Society.
There is a newspaper clipping (provided courtesy Prof. Pimental) which gives details of Indian/Sikh immigration to Cuba. The interesting bits are that Amar Singh came in 1917 and worked at La Isabel Sugar Mill and married Felipe Esteria Ibanez. One lady Susana (Punjabi name could have been different?) Singh came in 1917 with others and married B(V)attanSingh who presumably had come earlier on. When interviewed in 1966 she said that when coming to Cuba she had brought along with her a “Dopatta of the Sikhs”. Battan was in Central Romelia and acted as the Head of about 30-40 Indians workers. He later moved to Cruce de Benito. Post her husband’s death in 1959, Susana Singh has been wearing black dresses only
At the Panama Canal, Mira Flores Visitors Centre, there is a large wall mural which has the following inscription:
“CANAL HEROES – They came from many places and spoke different languages. Bringing with them nothing but their desire to work and their hopes, they came together to build the engineering feat that still marvels the world. Most came from Barbodas, but also from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Jamaica. Spanish, Italians, Greeks, HINDUS (zzzcapitals mine – early Sikh immigrants were called Hindoos in USA also), Americans, Armenians, Cubans, Costa Ricans, Colombians and Panaminians also contributed to the effort. They managed to understand each other, started families, made fortunes and exalted the country”.
The mural shows some turbaned workers. The story of early Sikh Immigrants to Panama is connected with the construction of the Canal 1904-14 by the US Government. There seems to be no evidence that Sikh workers were involved in the earlier effort by the French in 19th century which had to be given up. The Central and South American Sikh migration is intertwined with Panama because of its strategic location. Post completion of the Canal, some restrictions were imposed on foreign workers. Sikhs had to look for new job avenues. Some of them became peddlers called ‘pheri’ and others started driving locally assembled small pick-ups called ‘cheevas’. Some of them left for other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina. Others returned home either temporarily or permanently. I was told that about 10-20 Singhs are presently working with the Canal as Director, Pilot or in IT Department. There does not seem to be much recent immigration
An impressive Gurdwara was inaugrated in 1986 and the present President is a Sindhi. During my visit on a Sunday about 100 people attended, only a handful with turbans. Gurdwara’s constitution is registered as “La SociedadCivica Guru Nanak Sahib”. One of the Sikh immigrants owns “Sher e Punjab” farm not far from Panama City.
The main interest in visiting Ecuador was to check on the so called formation of Khalistan Head Quarters in Quito in 1985. The address given in various Gurdwara web sites is “KhalistanCouncil,Khalistan House P O Box 193-C Quito, Ecuador Tel: 458 799″. KC is nonexistent. Enquiries with the Ministry of External Affairs in Quito met with a complete surprise. They agreed to look up old files in the archives. The search did not show up any correspondence on the subject between their representative in India and the Ministry in Quito during this period. However there were some indirect reference on the subject between Ecuador’s Ambassador in London and their Ministry in Quito.
An internet version states that on October 3, 1985, an Embassy of Khalistan was established in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. About 70 officials of the Ecuador participated in the inauguration ceremony. This Embassy was called Casa de Khalistan(Khalistan House). BhaiBalbir Singh Nijjar of Toronto was appointed the Ambassador. Passports of Government of Khalistan in Exile were also issued. According to the Indian Government sources, Indo-Ecuadorian relations suffered a jolt in July 1985 when, during the height of terrorism in the Punjab, news about Ecuador granting recognition to the so-called ‘Khalistan’ came to light. A high level delegation from Ecuador that included a former President of the country who was also the chairman of the ruling party held discussions in London with various self proclaimed ‘Khalistani’ leaders and allegedly offered to give agricultural land and settlement to apparent ‘Khalistani refugees’ in exchange for substantial financial inducement. However, on account of diplomatic pressure from India, President León Febres Cordero formally announced within a few days that the team that had met with ‘Khalistani’ leaders was a private delegation and that there was no official support to the idea. Relations since then have been normal and cordial between India and Ecuador. Another uncorroborated version is that Indian Govt sent its commandos, with Ecuador Govt’s concurrence, to get the Sikhs to move out from Quito. This story seems a bit unlikely. At present there are hardly any Sikh immigrants. Inquiries with them could not throw any light on the subject.
Various web sites mention that Sikhs from countries whose nationals do not require visa but who belong to Sikh religion do have to apply for a visa. This needs to be set right. In my own case, Ecuador Embassy insisted on police clearance but (as a saving grace), I was told this procedure applies to all Indians visiting Ecuador. It was intriguing to say the least to hear from some Sikh immigrants that once a person arrives in Ecuador getting a residence permit is not difficult. Ecuadorians are quite friendly but opportunities for jobs and business seem to be somewhat limited.
There are 4-5 Sikhs in Chile and one in Peru. The later has returned to India because of problems of education and discrimination possibly due confusion of being treated as followers of “Bin Laden”. I am told there are a few families in Venezuela, Surinam, Guinea and some Central American countries e.g. Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and others. In the Caribbean Islands, Trinidad & Tobago has a recently constructed a Gurdwara. Venezuela has A Sikh family
Population estimates are extremely difficult and problematic for any Diaspora country and more so in Latin America for obvious reasons. The problem of who is a Sikh always crops up. Also the illegal immigrants, who in some Diaspora countries can be quite a significant number especially in Europe, In the country census in most cases, Sikh as a religion is not categorized.
The attached table by the High Level Committee is indicative of small number of Indians and much more so for the Sikhs.
Gurharpal and DarshanTatla have been brave enough to mention in their book ”Sikhs in Britain- The Making of A community ”the population of Sikhs in 2005 of Mexico 5000 and Argentina 1000.
Some Sikh websites give figures but how reliable these are is a matter of concern. (1)The website sikhphilosophy.net has an email by DhartPanjNadDi@a..of 22nd August, 2004 which says:
“South American countries of Argentina /Venuezuela 20,000.There are two Gurduaras in Caracas,and a third being built in another city Cobota, I think.
Brazil, Chile,and Bolivia are also known to have Sikh communities. Mexico has two Gurduaras”. (2)In Sikh Net website, an email by BikDhillon on 4/02/2000: “Americas -Mexico about 1000. There was a report about the sikhs of mexico mainly native mexicans converted to sikhism during the tercentenary celebrations”.(3)The SikhiWikiwebsite:”Sikh population of Mexico as 8000 and South America as 2000. Rest of South America – There have been reports from travel writers and newspaper correspondents about a number of Sikhs in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Nicaragua etc who are successful businessmen owning mainly hotels.”
The above would indicate difficulty and scant or no information on Sikhs in Latin America.
Trust the Punjabis-Sikhs to go anywhere and everywhere, an example of undaunting spirit of adventure. But then the founder of the Sikh faith Guru Nanak was a great traveler of the era himself. In the earlier migration of Sikhs to Latin America, British were very helpful as they were for the Sikh migration to other countries especially the South East Asia and the Far East. Sikhs have not been able to set up any major settlements in Latin America. In fact Latin American settlements are a case of assimilation into the local population. Small numbers in isolated places and local marriages are major contributory factors. However many of the immigrants keep in touch with Punjab especially those who have Sikh marriage partners from India. New arrivals keep providing incentive for linkage with Punjab Gurdwaras are a great institution builder and help retain connection with Sikhi and Sikhs within the country and outside. For most immigrants the final El-Dorado still remains North America and whenever opportunity arises the younger generation migrates to North America.
It must be stated that this study is a mere introduction to the subject and does not cover any aspect in great detail because the scope of the exercise was limited. More detailed work needs to be undertaken by scholars with more time, expertise and resources.