July 4, 2017: The latest Australian Census (2016), shows officially, that Sikhs in Australia now number ‘Sava Lakh’ – one hundred and twenty-five thousand. Specifically 125.9 thousand. Official figures were released a few days ago and analyses have started flowing in, and being talked about in the mainstream media. I must admit to a sense of pride when Sikhs and Sikhism keep getting mentioned occasionally.
1.32K Punjabi in Australia; Sikhs count at 1.25K: Reveals ABS Data
Hence ‘Sava-lakh se aik ledaun…’ takes on a new meaning for us in Australia because, firstly, we now outnumber the globally prominent and very much older community of Jews – 91,000. This means that whenever major ‘religious groups’ are mentioned in Australia, for the first time ‘we’ shall not fall into the ‘Other’ category. We finally stand on our own two feet!
For those interested, we are now officially at number 5 on the ‘religious groups in Australia’ ladder. Christians are 52.1%. Muslims 2.6%. Buddhists 2.4%. Hindus 1.9%. Sikhs 0.5%. Jews 0.4%. Other – 0.4%. (Over 33% claimed they do not belong to any particular religion).
Those amongst us who subscribe to the mission statement of “Sikh Education Welfare and Advancement” (SEWA) for global Sikh informal networking, and who mounted a strong campaign to encourage Sikhs to state that they are ‘Sikh’ wherever possible, even in the ‘Ethnicity’ Column, must be warmly congratulated. As UK Sikhs realised decades ago following the celebrated House of Lords’ Mandla V Lee case (1983), only statistical monitoring of Sikhs in the diaspora countries can secure Sikh recognition and rights.
Generally, Sikhs, especially in their first generation from India, do have a tendency of considering themselves ‘Indian’ or ‘Punjabi’ over the fact that they are Sikhs first. I know for a fact that concerted efforts were made, especially in Melbourne to educate the Sikh community to put down ‘Sikh’ wherever possible instead of Indian or Punjabi in the census forms. Even last minute phone messages, twittering, whatsapp networking and other forms of electronic communication were sent out reminding Sikhs of this important message. The efforts worked. For a start our ‘official’ population jumped from just over 77,000 five years ago to 125.9 thousand.
This paves the way for Sikhs to be considered in any form of ‘ethnic monitoring’ or when ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ groups are being considered. For those of us who are conscious of this and its long term impact, this is a big deal!
In the past, when we used to attend ‘inter-faith’ or ‘multifaith’ conferences or conventions, more often than not, as Sikhs, we were either omitted or came under the Hindu banner, or squeezed ourselves in with the Bahais, the Jains, Zoroastrians, and sometimes even the Sai Babas (which, as a group, is not even a religion on its own). Sometimes, as a last minute gesture, on-the-spot name tags and placards were hastily scribbled up for us because we had, on creation of the occasion or event, been left out. The Christians, Muslims, Hindus and even Buddhists and Jews never miss out but we Sikhs almost always did. Now we can stand amongst these other ‘major’ religions and make our rightful contribution to championing inter-religious and multicultural recognition.
In the multicultural arena, we, of course, came under the ‘Indian’ banner. I remember an incident in Adelaide where, about two decades ago, I had tried to coax our Sikh ‘leaders’ there that we should proudly call ourselves Sikhs rather than Indians or Punjabis. Generally they insisted that we were Punjabis first. Others, blissfully could not see what the fuss was about. Those directly from India considered my views to be an affront to their ‘Indianness’ or ‘Punjabiness’.
RELIGION IN AUSTRALIA, 2016 – Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2011 and 2016. See here.
I remember a catchcry I used then, fully applicable for the future too – “The Indians, especially the Punjabis were the ones who used to allow their womenfolk to be taken by the marauding Afghans. The Sikhs used to rescue them and bring them back. So decide whether you are Indians, Punjabis or Sikhs!” But it all fell on deaf ears.
That year, the state Multicultural Department organised a Multicultural schools pageant where all such school children and teachers and community members would parade through the main street of Adelaide leading to a fun fair. Through some astute lobbying by the other ‘Indian’ school administrators it was decided that all the ‘Indian’ languages schools would march under the one Indian flag. They objected to the Punjabi school flag because Punjab was merely another state of India. In fact more than half of it was in Pakistan! There was as would be expected, an uproar from the ‘Punjabi’ school who had the biggest contingent of students and who, naturally, were all Sikhs!
On mediation, the matter was resolved and the Punjabi school was allowed to march as the ‘Sikh’ school, just like the Islamic school was allowed to march in their own right!
I remember a saying from UK which my older brother Pr. Gurmukh Singh OBE used, “if we are not counted, then we do not count”. We are now being counted and we are ‘sava-lakh’ – we have come of age. As Punjabis we lose our very special identity as Sikhs, but as Sikhs we take on a global identity based on a life philosophy with which we identify and shall do so into the future.
Sava-lakh optimistically means ‘One’ in our ‘Gurgajj Bola’– language of thunder, traditionally used by the Nihang Sikhs. To us Sikhs in Australia, this means that we are now ‘One’- a unit, statistically. We count. We matter. We now sit in a category of our own, not under the Punjabi label, nor the Indian label, and certainly not under the Hindu label. For too long we have been held as a Hindu sub-sect. Towards a distinct global Sikh identity, this is a giant step forward. We have finally come of age.
It has been exhilerating to observe the advancement of the positive global Sikh identity especially over the last decade or so, especially after the nightmare of 1984 Ghalughara in Punjab. It started with Dr. Manmohan Singh Ji as Prime Minister of India, though one must admit that he did practically nothing for the Sikhs, except that he is a full-fledged recognisable Sikh! Then it was the rise to Lordship of Sardar Indarjeet Singh Ji in UK and his impactive voice for the Sikhs and Human Rights in Punjab, in the British Parliament. (Now recently we have two new Sikh MP’s in the House of Commons. They are yet to make their mark.)
On our side of the planet we have had opposition MP Karpal Singh in Malaysia and MP’s Jagdev Singh and Inderjeet Singh in Singapore. There is MP Bakhshi in New Zealand. Then of note was the explosion of MP’s in the Federal Canadian Parliament led by Harjit Singh Sajjan as Defence Minister. All this with plenty of adversity from the likes of the RSS in India but also from within the Sikh Quom, and the inertia and sterility of the Akal Takhat.
Now it is up to our Sikh ‘leaders’ in Australia to take advantage of this momentous point in Australian Sikh history to establish ‘Sikhs’ as a prominently recognisable dynamic, law abiding and progressive ‘group’ which is an asset to the country. We want to be involved, as distinctly Sikhs, in all inter-religious dialogue and events; multifaith education in schools; opening ceremonies where all major faiths are involved; inter-faith prayers for special occasions – in short in any commentary or occasions involving ‘faiths’, ‘religions’, ‘minorities’ and ‘ethnic communities’. We might be 0.5% of the population of Australia, but we are ‘sava-lakh’!
It is also up to the astute leaders of our ‘Quom’ to ensure that future census forms are more ‘Sikh-friendly’ so that we do not have to write down that we are Sikhs but just have to tick a column marked Sikh or Sikhism, for religion, for culture, for ethnicity and anyhere else where Sikh or Sikhism is relevant without having to tick the ‘Other’ column.
For me personally it is easy to consider myself a Sikh. I was virtually born in a gurdwara in Malaysia. My venerable father was a brahmgiani ‘vedhvaan’, a Sikh missionary and Granthi Sahib. I studied Gurmukhi as my mother tongue. My culture, if culture means the way one lives, is Sikh. Hence my ethnicity is Sikh, especially as I was born in Malaysia. My flag has been the Nishan Sahib. My National Anthem which traditionally used to be ‘Deh Shiva’ is now ‘Jo Thao Prem Khelan Ka Chao’ – directly from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. In short my life has revolved around Sikhi and Sikh institutions and Sikhi ‘rehni-behni’.
Finally I belong to the international Sikh ‘quom’. I am not overly fixated towards a geographical region but the whole planet. My loyalties lie in the country I call home. Wherever my Guru is in ‘parkash’, (Jithe jae bahay mera Satguru…) is my sanctuary.
Regards to all and love,
This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar or SikhNet