Sikh diaspora vie to preserve identity

There is an old joke that potatoes and Sikhs are found everywhere in the world. This may not be an exaggeration given the presence of Sikh diaspora in every nook and cranny of the globe.

Estimated to be well over 35 lakh worldwide, the enterprising and hard-working Sikh diaspora is fairly conspicuous in the demographic construct of the UK, Canada and the USA and play an important role in the economic, social and political life in their adopted countries. In the UK and Canada, several Sikhs have been elected to the national assemblies, besides several others becoming heads of city councils. In the USA, Sikhs are big entrepreneurs and businessmen.

Sikhs, a minority in India constituting about two per cent of its population, have always been conscious about their identity and religion. The Sikh diaspora abroad entertains similar concerns and has been at the forefront of several battles to safeguard separate Sikh identity in the new cultural milieu.

The Sikhs in Britain, Canada and US have fought to wear their symbol of religious faith, especially turban, at workplace. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police allowed Sikhs into the force after a protracted legal battle. The Sikhs are now part of the police force in the UK, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Holland, Tanzania etc. Sikhs in Britain fought against wearing of helmets citing turban as their article of religious faith and won. They are fighting a similar battle in France where the government banned wearing of turban in French schools. A Sikh girl recently fought and won her legal battle against British authorities for wearing a bracelet, one of the five essential symbols of Sikh faith.
A Sikh student fought a protracted legal battle in Denmark after he was arrested with a “Kirpan” (small knife slung across chest) at the airport.

In the wake of 9/11 in the US, Sikh diaspora has often become victim of hate crimes as they have been confused with radical Islamic groups because of their turbans and flowing beard. The younger generations of diasporic Sikhs though, are shedding the Sikh symbols by shaving off hair and beard in an attempt to assimilate with local populations.
Gurdwara, the Sikh temple, has played an important role in the social and political life of the Sikh diaspora. There are over 200 gurdwaras in the UK, home to the largest Sikh diaspora numbering over five lakh, and over 100 in Canada and the USA - where Sikhs number over  four lakh.

During the Sikh separatist movement for a new homeland, Khalistan, gurdwaras abroad became important sites for political organisation. Often, gurdwaras were also sites of bloody tussles for their control between the pro and anti-Khalistan groups.

After the Khalistan movement petered out, the control of most of the gurdwaras abroad has been restored to moderate Sikhs. However, separate sect gurdwaras have appeared at many places as in Punjab, which are often source of conflict between the radical Sikhs and the sect followers. Besides the recent Vienna incident, such skirmishes have occurred in the UK and North American gurdwaras too. From the economic point of view, the Sikh diaspora has played a huge role in the economy of Punjab through their remittances.

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