Punjabi Diaspora`s Religious and Political Engagements in Homeland: A Critical Assessment

Author:   Rahul Kumar

Punjabi Diaspora`s Religious and Political Engagements in Homeland: A Critical Assessment

By Rahul Kumar


Overview of Punjabi Migration

Since 19th century Punjabis have been migrating to different parts of the world p owning to push factor and partly due to pull factor. During the First World War, Punjab province become the principal recruiting ground for the Indian Army. By the end of the century  Punjab   formed 50% strength of the Indian Army, and out of this component Sikhs constituted about 25 percent (Singh & Tatla,2006:33). During British rule, Sikhs craftsmen were recruited to work in the East African colonies, Modern Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are living examples of their contribution.

The first wave of migration began between the 1860s & 1890s when the favoured position of Sikhs in the Indian Army attracted them to foreign lands(Singh & Tatla,2006:15).

The first wave of migration began between the 1860s & 1890s when the favoured position of Sikhs in the Indian Army attracted them to foreign lands(Singh & Tatla,2006:15). This can be termed as the push factor to migrate. The second wave of migration began in 20th century to the developed countries  in search for better economic opportunities or to join families. This pull factor in gaining living standard of life plays a significant role in attracting migrants from Punjab. The Emigration from Punjab was not indentured labour but Free.The Punjabis never worked like a slave. Studies observe that the Punjabis believe in dignity of labour. To them no profession or work is ignoble & they are not afraid to put their hand to any type of work or vocation required by the exigencies of life. Adaptability to changing times & situations is one of their greatest virtues and this has stood them in good stead in all adverse circumstances. According to an estimated figure, there are approximately 24 million Sikhs in the world; thus, the formation of Punjabi Diaspora. The concept of diaspora, according to (Avtar Brah,1996:193) inscribes a homing desire. The homing desire of the Sikh diaspora can be seen in the variety of linkages that exists between diaspora Sikhs & the `ancestral homeland`.


Religious Engagements

Sikh is a homogenous but a distinctive community. There are many divisions into sub-castes. There are clear divisions among Sikhs of upper castes called Jats and the lower, inequality ridden, oppressed class of untouchables among them and among the Hindus. The Jat Sikhs constitute the majority and own over ninety five percent of agricultural land in the state.

Punjabi Diaspora has been actively engaged in homeland in funding the religious institutions. Jat Sikhs have been supporting financially in the establishment of Sikh temples (Gurudwara) in homeland. Similarly, Ravidassis, Ambedkarites/Buddhists, Radhasoamis, Namdharis, Narankaris extend financial support to their sects or groups in building temples. More trusts and charities are on the rise in the state of Punjab because of huge financial contributions by Punjabi Diaspora to these bodies. All religious sects or groups are deeply segregated. Ideological differences among these religious sects or groups are predictable. It is generally done to assert separate caste identity in the face of prevailing caste system among the Sikhs. Despite Sikh Gurus teachings against caste and inequality, caste discrimination is practised amongst Sikhs. According to Vivek Kumar (2004:114-116) when migrants migrate, they do not migrate only as biological souls, they migrate with social-cultural baggage. Caste has been a part of their cultural baggage and has been taken into Diaspora. Punjabi Diaspora is no exception.

On 24 May2009, chief priest Ramanand, a follower of Guru Ravidass Dera Sach Khand(at Ballan near Jalandhar) was shot dead  in  Rudolfshim Vienna by six Sikhs attackers who were later arrested by the commandos of the Austrian police. Some argued that killing took place because of Ramanand`s soaring popularity among the Dalits. The Vienna bloodshed ignited communal fire resulting into huge loss of life and property particularly in Jalandhar district.of Punjab Voluntary cash donations to the Sikh temples from abroad are huge hence fight among the various stakeholders in Sikh temple is quite predominant. Abel Chikanda (2006:90-91)states that a great amount of diasporic donations are also aimed at religious places of worship. Functions and conferences would be hosted where people belonging to the same caste would network & exchange ideas. Sikhs diaspora normally prefer to conduct business with people of their own caste, rather than people of other castes.  Hence, caste and casteism remain evident in the Indian Diaspora. According to a media report, a gruesome fight between two Sikh factional groups in Golden temple occurred which left at 10 injured. The social and religious segregation among various castes and sub-castes has pushed the state to the back foot resulting into perpetual social disturbance. After such gruesome incidents, the social standings of the Jat Sikhs at large suffered and people branded them a violent community. Dhesi (2009:219-35) critiques the diaspora’s role in Punjab’s rural development, argues that diaspora interventions often ignore cultural sensitivities and may give “further impetus to caste-based political and social divides by institutionalizing communalism.”

Political Engagements

Several studies suggest that political interests and activities within Indian Diaspora is certainly not a new phenomena. Sikh NRIs as well as the Sikhs of Punjab believe that it is their destiny to rule in their homeland. At every Ardas (supplication), the recital by the congregation of Raj Karega Khalsa (the Khalsa shall Rule) echoes and resonates within the four walls of every gurudwara in the world. This belief is an affirmation of their faith in the words of their last Guru. It could be a wishful thinking.

In a globalised world, the internet has enabled the migrants to have quick access to all the national and international news, therefore, can communicate swiftly to the people remain in the homeland and influence their voting behaviour. Involvement of Punjabi Diaspora in the homeland politics is quite evident. Gurharpal Singh (1999:293-307) has argued that at least in the politics of the Sikh diaspora since 1984 the wind has been blowing from India and  Punjab. Internationally dispersed groups mobilise and  undertake a range of electoral & non-electoral political activities. The migrants give financial and other support to the political parties back in India. The political parties attract Punjabis to come back to the homeland and fight election on their tickets. The Shiromni Akali Dal (SAG), predominantly run by the upper caste Sikhs, has been inviting Punjabi NRIs to support the party during the elections. In past elections, some of NRI candidates from both the Congress and the SAD won the elections. NRI Punjabis have been seeking tickets to contest the elections, have contributed to election funds & participated in election campaigns. Recently, the NRI supporters from Canada unleashed a “Chalo Punjab: campaign to bolster support for   Aam Admi Party(AAP). Similarly, the Dalits extend financial and other support to the Republican Party of India (RPI) and the Bhujan Samaj Party(BSP). From Doaba region in Punjab, almost every family has its members living outside India. NRIs can request relatives, friends in campaigning to vote for a particular candidate or political party. People living abroad can vote as per their choice to any candidate or party by using E-ballot procedure from outside India. The impact of remittances in domestic politics of Punjab is quite visible.

According to media reports, a new upcoming political party in Punjab have been wooing NRI Punjabis for donations. Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) Punjabi want good governance in Punjab. They want better protection of their interest when it comes to land property, false FIRs, and general litigation (Economic Times, 2016). Corruption and red tapism is quite prevalent in the state of Punjab. NRI Punjabis wants to get rid of these hurdles in exchange for their votes.



Punjabi diaspora having huge social and economic capital can play a very constructive role in building up the homeland but it is not happening due to sectarian religious and political engagements. Caste is one of the major factor creating hurdles in the path of an egalitarian development in the state of Punjab. Once economically prospered Punjab is now under debt. Peace and harmony is disturbed. There is an urgency to relook at the current scenario. Every diasporic community must play a catalyst role in social and religious cohesion in order to save Punjab from further communal divide. Punjabi Diaspora particularly the Sikhs need to go back to the teachings of their Gurus which prohibits idolatry, hypocrisy, caste-exclusiveness, the concremation of widows and the immurement of women.



Abel Chikanda, (Eds)(2006), Diaspora, Development & Governance, NY.

Avtar Brah, (1996). Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting identifies, London, Routledge

Dhesi, Autar S. (2009). “Diaspora Intervention in Rural Development: Boon or Bane?” In Sikh Diaspora Philanthropy in Punjab: Global Giving for Local Good, ed. Verne A. Dusenbery and Darsham S. Tatla. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Gurharpal Singh & Darshan Singh Tatla,(2006)The Sikhs in Britain: The making of a community,London,Zed Books.

Singh Gurharpal,(1999). “ A Victim Diaspora ?The case of the Sikhs”,Diaspora, Vol.8.No.3.

Vivek Kumar,(2004), Understanding Dalit Diaspora, Economic and Political Weekly,Vol.39, No.1


Rahul Kumar, PhD scholar, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU



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