Sikhism is a small but growing minority religion in Australia, that can trace its origins in the nation to the 1830s. The Sikhs form one of the largest subgroups of Indian Australians with 26,500 adherents according to the 2006 census, having grown from 17,000 in 2001 and 12,000 in 1996. Most adherents can trace their ancestry back to the Punjab region of South Asia, which is currently divided between India and Pakistan.
Whereas, as per anecdotal evidence collected by Sikh Council of Australia inc, there are approximately 100,000 Sikhs in Australia and the number of Punjabi speakers is even higher.
It is difficult to separate the history of early Sikh arrival to Australia from that of the numerous other religious faiths that were represented the people of British India and more specifically the Punjab province. It appears that the first Sikhs arrived in the country somewhere in the late 1830s, when the penal transport of convicts to New South Wales (which at the time also consisted of Queensland and Victoria) was slowing, before being abolished altogether in 1840. The lack of manual labourers from the convict assignment system led to an increase demand for foreign labour, which was partly filled by the arrival of Sikhs. The Sikhs came from an agrarian background in India, and thus fulfilled their tasks as farm labourers on cane fields and shepherds on sheep stations well.
Sikhs were recorded as being present on the gold fields of Victoria during the time of the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s and ’60s. A census from 1857 showed that there were 277 ‘Hindus and Sikhs’ (although they would have mostly been Sikh) in Victoria. From the 1860s onwards, cameleers, commonly called ‘Ghans’ were brought to Australia to help explore and settle Australia’s vast arid interior. While the Ghans consisted mainly of Muslims from Afghanistan and its surrounds, a sizable minority were Sikhs from Punjab. The Ghans set up camel-breeding stations and rest house outposts, known as caravanserai, throughout inland Australia, creating a permanent link between the coastal cities and the remote cattle and sheep grazing stations until about the 1930s, when they were largely replaced by the automobile.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian hawkers, a large number of whom were Sikh, became a common sight in the country regions throughout the country. Peddling was a common occupation in rural India and was readily transplanted to rural Australia, due to its widely dispersed population. Hawking required little capital to begin, with young men travelling on foot until they had enough money to purchase a horse and cart. The hawking system was based on credit, with warehouses selling goods to Indian wholesalers on credit, who provided the hawkers their stock on credit, who in turn sold their goods to the farmers and farmhands on credit. Credit was vital as money was often only available after the harvesting of the crops. The hawkers sold a wide variety of goods from work wear and farming goods for the men of the household, to fashionable clothing, trinkets and sewing needles for the wives and daughters. All hawkers required licenses issued by the state and from the 1890s licenses started to become restricted to British subjects. This denied Afghans, Assyrians and Chinese from renewing their license, giving the Sikhs a monopoly on hawking which they held until the 1930s when new European migrants began to ply the trade. While the hawkers were usually well received by the people of the country, there are many stories of the hawkers cooking curries with the wives and playing cricket with the men, their success worried some politicians. Sikh hawkers sent some of their profits back to their families in the villages of Punjab and invested the rest by building stores and buying land, especially in northern New South Wales, where their continued acquisition caused the minister for of lands, Niel Nielson, to speak out. Two of the most successful Sikh hawkers were Baba Ram Singh and Otim (Uttam) Singh who arrived in 1890 learnt the trade and prospered and in 1907 they established “The People Stores”. Baba Ram Singh lived to be 106 and is thought to have brought the first Guru Granth Sahib to Australia in the early 1920s, while in his lifetime Otim Singh acquired £10,000 and developed a thriving business on Kangaroo Island. As their families were not allowed to join these early pioneers many travelled back and forth finally returning to their original homeland to retire.
During the White Australia Policy: 1901-1973
From federation in 1901 until the 1973 immigration of non-whites, including Sikhs, into Australia was restricted due to the enactment of the White Australia policy. The laws made it impossible for Sikhs to enter the country unless they were merchants or students, who themselves were only allowed in for short periods of time, it also made it impossible for Sikhs who already lived in the country from returning to the motherland, as they would be barred re-entry. Historians place the number of Indians in Australia at federation in 1901 somewhere between 4700 and 7600. According to the 1911 census, there was only 3698 ‘Hindoos’ (mostly Sikh) signifying a large decrease, with the trend continuing, with only approximately 2200 ‘Hindoos’ in the country in 1921.
Open discrimination of non-whites before the passing of the laws was also widespread. After the conclusion of World War I, however, the stance of Australia on Sikhs shifted. Sikhs were classified as a martial race by the officials of the British Empire, who believed they were brave, loyal and well-built for fighting. As such they were preferentially recruited to the British armed forces as part of the Sikh Regiment, which quickly became the most decorated regiment in the Empire. They fought side by side with the ANZAC battalions in the battle of Gallipoli and earned the respect of many Australians. This combined the need to strengthen links to counter the growing threat of an expansionist and industrialised Japan saw Indians of Australia given rights far greater than that of other Asian groups through a series of steps between 1925 and 1929, Indians in Australia were allowed limited property rights, were given the right to vote and allowed a pension.
The Sikhs began to utilise their new found rights in the 1930s when the early pioneers begun to bring their ‘sons of working age’ to Australia. Initially they had a strong presence in the Atherton Tableland region of Queensland and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, especially Maclean, Harwood and Clarence, where they worked as manual labourers, mainly working on the sugar cane fields, but also finding work in other industries such as the construction of railways. During World War II, Australia suffered from a dearth of labourers as the White population was recruited into the army and sent overseas, where they fought side by side with the Sikhs in the Battle of Malaya, Battle of Singapore and numerous other hostilities. This allowed Indians to work in many agricultural sectors which they had previously been barred from working in due to protests by agricultural unions. One of the opened industries was the banana industry, leading to the Sikhs in Australia migrating from to the banana growing areas of Woolgoolga to fill the shortage, forming a Sikh community that still exists to this day.
The Partition of India occurred in 1947, with the state of Punjab, the home to the majority of the Sikh community in Australia, being divided between the Islamic Pakistan in the west, and the Secular Hindu, Sikh, Muslim India in the east. As a result of the upheaval, many of the Sikh father and sons returned to the Punjab to protect their family, assets and land from the turmoil, however many of them arrived back in Punjab to find that they had lost everything. Those young and fit enough to still work in Australia returned, mainly to work on the banana farms in Woolgoolga, although some ended up working in Northern Queensland.
In the 1950s and ’60s the Sikhs worked hard and started to purchase land and start their own banana farms. With steady work and income, the Sikh men started to bring their wives from Punjab to Australia. In 1961 there were six Sikh women in Woolgoolga, creating Sikh households and Sikh children born in Australia. As Indians were allowed naturalisation, the first true Sikh Australians came into being. The pull of the Sikh community in Woolgoolga led to Sikhs from other areas of the country migrating to Woolgoolga in the hope they could follow their kinsmen to a banana led success. In 1968 the First Sikh Temple was opened in Woolgoolga, becoming the first Gurdwara to be opened in the country.
Post White Australia Policy: 1973-Present
With the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act by the Whitlam government, Sikh migration to Australia dramatically increased. While most Sikh immigrants can trace their heritage to Punjab, many come from countries other than India including Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Sikhs migrate to Australia because it is a free stable country with economic opportunities. In many cases Sikhs suffered injustices in their home country, and in the case of Uganda, open persecution.
Whereas early immigration was mainly as labourers working in the country, new migrants are now mainly based around the major cities, working in a variety of fields from driving taxis to health professionals. Melbourne is now home to the largest Sikh population. Since 2000, there has been a great increase in the number of Sikh students studying in Australia, with many staying on in the country after the completion of their studies. In May and June 2009, a number of Sikhs victims of a spate of attacks on Indians studying in the country, leading to protests in Melbourne and Sydney.