From the authors of “Warrior Saints” and “Sicques, Tigers or Thieves” comes a major new on-line exhibtion exploring 150 years of the Anglo-Sikh relationship.”Empire, Faith and Kinship” is an exhibtion that speaks volumes of a fascinating relationship that has touched and shaped the lives of millions. Through illustrations and detailed captions, the key events and people concerned are presented in eight sections, from the rise of the Sikh kingdom of Lahore in 1801 to the settling of the Sikh Diaspora in Britain in the twentieth century. Sometimes as friends, other times as foes, the Sikhs and the British have had one of the most rich and intriguing of partnerships.Long before the two World Wars, the Punjab had earned a reputation among army recruiters as being the best area for recruiting ‘jawans ‘ or young men to fill the ranks of the military. At the time, it was generally accepted that Punjabi ethnic groups possessed a superior military prowess in comparison with other Indians from less military-inclined backgrounds. This ‘martial races’ theory gave due recognition to the widely regarded military tradition of the Sikhs. Thus favoured by the imperial military service, large numbers of them served in the regiments that saw action in the European theatres of war during both World Wars. As a direct result, many Sikhs were exposed to overseas experience that would later facilitate their migration to Britain.
Among the first Sikhs to arrive on British shores after the Second World War were ex-soldiers and their families. Labour shortages, caused in part by the need for more labour to reconstruct the infrastructure and the development of post-war Britain, together with the emergence of the National Health Service and rapid industrial growth, led to an active recruitment of labour from overseas colonies. During this period a small minority of ex-soldiers and other Sikhs came to settle in the UK. These early settlers filled the manual jobs available in the foundries and factories, most notably the Woolf Rubber Company near Southall in West London.
In 1962 Britain’s Conservative government passed the first Act restricting the entry of Commonwealth citizens to Britain. Intending immigrants were henceforth required to obtain work vouchers and these were not to exceed a figure of 30,000 annually.
Although the Labour Party opposed restrictions as being “disastrous to [Britain’s] status in the Commonwealth,” it introduced even tougher measures of its own after winning the 1964 election. Work vouchers were reduced to 8,500 a year and were made available only to those Commonwealth citizens with industrial skills or professional qualifications.
An Act outlawing racial discrimination in public places was passed in 1965, but Kenya’s decision to expel Asians (including many Sikhs) who preferred to retain their British citizenship led to the erection of fresh barriers. Perturbed at the possible consequences of another large immigrant influx, the government allowed free entry only to those Commonwealth citizens whose grandparents had been born in Britain.
Despite the application of rigorous immigration controls, the contentious issue of coloured immigration continued to dominate British politics in the late 1960s.
In 1972, further fuel was added to the debate when the British government decided to admit Ugandan Asians expelled by the Ugandan leader General Idi Amin only if they held British passports. By the end of the year nearly 30,000 Ugandan Asians, including many Sikhs forced to leave the bulk of their assets and possessions in Uganda, were enduring their first British winter.
Today, more than 300,000 Sikhs live in the United Kingdom, and Sikh connections to the country date back to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The Sikhs are a community that have always strived to contribute to whichever society they live in. Be it as policemen, teachers, businessmen and women, in the media, sports and entertainment industries or in the charity sector, the living principles that underpin the faith of a Sikh shine through – love for others, respect for the truth, personal courage, and the ever-positive spirit of determination.
To recognise good in every person or situation, and to maintain the highest of spiritual standards established by their forefathers for the greater good of society, this is the legacy that the Sikhs will always be compelled to protect and to live by.
“Empire, Faith and Kinship” can be accessed through www.efk.ukpha.org and the on-line exhibtion is accompanied by a professional print ready download that community groups, student bodies, parents and educators can use to display the exhibtion at their venues.