Sikhs have always been adventurous people, so it is not surprising to note that the overwhelming majority of immigrants first coming to the U.S. from India, were Sikhs. America is known as the “melting pot,” where all nationalities and cultures merge to create the so-called American. Although the first. Sikhs settled at the turn of the century, they stand out as the one group that resisted the “melting pot” syndrome, and won. There is no injunction in the philosophy of Sikhism to avoid society, and that was not the intention of the Sikh people. Rather it was to take part in society, but to retain the form of a Sikh as ordained by the tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singhji. The Sikh community successfully fought for four centuries to retain their identity, and will continue this effort in any situation. Let us examine briefly the history of Indian immigration in the U.S. Many poor Hindus had been drafted for work in the West Indies in sugar plantations by the British by the turn of the century. This system of indentured laborer was simply another form of slavery. The Indians who migrated to North America differed greatly. They were predominantly Sikhs of Punjab. Unlike the Hindus forced t the West Indies plantations, the Sikhs came voluntarily, with the vision to farm the rich land. U.S. immigration records show that prior to 1946, the overwhelming majority of immigrants from India were Sikhs.
According to a government survey of a representative 2,600 Indians in California as late as 1920 shows 2,000 Sikhs, 500 Muslims, and 100 Hindus.
Indian immigration began in the 1900’s. By 1907 increasing numbers arrived in Washington, Oregon, and eventually, California. The problem of American racism became a severe problem for the Sikhs. Period photos show that the majority of Indian immigrants were Keshdhari Sikhs. The hostility of the Canadians and Americans to the turban wearing Sikhs was astounding. Somehow because the Sikhs would not bow to accept the cut haired looks of their host countries, people took it as an affront, and dealt severely with the Sikhs. In 1908, Canada sent a representative to England in an effort to halt Indian migration to Canada. England used the Indian Immigration law of 1885 to prohibit Indian migration. The law worked well. In 1908, 3,623 Indians, mostly Sikh, were admitted to Canada. The following year, only 9 were successful. Subsequently, some Sikhs went to the U.S. from Canada, and some from England. The vast majority. Of Indian immigrants were Sikh agricultural laborers. Discrimination in the U.S. reached an ugly high in 1911 when the Official U.S. Immigration Commission made its report, as follows: The assimilative qualities of the East Indians appear to be the lowest of any race in the West. The strong influence of custom, caste, and taboo, as well as their religion, dark skins, filthy appearances, and dress, stand in the way of association with other races.” There was pressure from the public, who, according to the secretary of the “Asiatic Exclusion League,” called Indians, “unsanitary, insolent, and untrustworthy.” Immigration officials in the U.S. began to reject Indians. The Immigration Act of 1917 appeased the racist populace by barring several Asian areas to the US. Which amounted to an effect on 500 million people. By the early 1900, only two racial groups were entitled to US. Citizenship, the Caucasian and Negro. The question of citizenship grew as a consequence to the large number of Asians in California. Several cases went to court, and were unsuccessful, but that can be the subject of an extensive study. We may briefly note that as late as 1926 the Alien Land Law forced many Sikh land owners to relinquish their land and become migrant workers. These were some of the hardships facing early Sikh immigrants. The discrimination that was faced by all Asians was amplified in the case of the Sikhs due to their distinct appearance. The pressure to assimilate into American society came even from resentful fellow Indians such as S. Chandrasekhar who wrote in 1944, “The Sikh’s turban colored the attitude of American immigration officials towards all Indians.” Earlier reports on the so called “Hindoo Invasion,” (any Indian was considered to be a Hindoo), were entitled “The Tide of the Turbans,” “Rag heads, a picture of America’s East Indians,” and similar titles. Particularly in the early years of Indian immigration, the wearing of the turban was almost universal. Immigration officials referred to Indians as the “Turbanned Class.” In 1910, Herman Scheffaurer reported, “Always the turban remains as the badge and symbol of their native land, religion, and customs. Whether repairing tracks on the long stretches of Canadian or North Pacific railways, feeding logs into the screaming rotary saws of the lumbermills, picking fruit in the luxuriant orchards of California, the trusted turban shows white or billiant, a strange, exotic thing in the Western landscape.”
By 1900, the Sikhs had fought for centuries assimilation into Hinduism, now in America, there was no reason to give up that fight. Many Sikhs did bow to the pressure of racism of the time, and cut their hair. They could then be mistaken for Mexicans or Italians. They preferred this to the constant ridicule they got for being “rag heads.” They were even subjected to the all American racism epithet “Nigger.” Added to this was the ethnocentric attitude of the Christians, as superior to all other religions, especially the Indian religions which have no ties with the Judeo Christian traditions. Conversion to Christianity was considered a prerequisite to assimilation into the American society. Mills attempted to explain the hostile reception of the Indian immigrant by the Americans, “Their strange appearances and peculiar habits and customs precluded them from finding a place as an integral part of the community.” He further refers to their “uncleanliness and outlandish looks, wearing as they do the turban.” He tried to explain away the hostility; however he did a good job in explaining only that the attitude of the Americans was based on blind racism. The Sikhs were the least receptive of immigrant groups to Christian proselytizing. Their fierce battle of over 400 years in India to retain their religious identity made them poor candidates for conversion to Christianity.
Times have changed and today we find the number of Sikh immigrants as compared to Hindus and others from India has evened out. However we have made the case that the pioneers of Indian immigration to the U.S. were most certainly the Sikhs of Punjab, They endured much hardship in the discrimination they found in America. Today the Sikhs are amongst the wealthiest farmers of California and have established themselves as patriotic Americans. The real success is that the pride in the form of a Sikh has not diminished in their minds, but rather has found a revival. There had been a gradual trend towards the cutting of hair amongst Sikhs, especially the young Ameri’ can born Sikhs. As late as 1980, researchers on the subject of Sikh assimilation into the American society reported that they could not document any cases of second generation non Keshdhari Sikhs who had actually taken the commitment of Sikh baptism, which would of course, mean that they would take on the Sikh symbols and turban. After the brutal attack by Indian troops on the Golden Temple, many such Sikhs were jolted into awareness of their tremendous loss of the Sikh form and religion. Although the attack took place far away from the Sikh community in America, the spirit that kept them fighting for centuries in India to preserve them from absorption into Hindusim, was still alive, and many came forth to reassert their lost identity. New research will show that there is a clear revival in all sectors of Sikh society. It is a triumph of the indefatigable Sikh spirit over tremendous odds.
Article extracted from this publication >> January 20, 1989