Ethnicity, Law, and Human Rights: The English Experience

By Sebastian Poulter | Go to book overview

8
Sikhs: Tussles over Beards and Turbans

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Although the establishment of a Sikh community in England is a comparatively recent phenomenon, with the main thrust of immigration occurring from the 1950s onwards in the wake of the disruptive effects upon the Punjab of the partition of India in 1947 1, a small number of Sikhs had lived here well before this time. The 1920s and 1930s had witnessed the arrival of Sikh pedlars and hawkers, who became a familiar sight selling their wares in Oxford Street and Hyde Park, as well as in Liverpool and the Midlands. 2 Probably, many of them had been soldiers fighting in the British army in France during the First World War, who had stayed on here afterwards rather than return to India. 3 Earlier still, one notable individual made his own distinct mark on English society through his rank and personality. The life of Maharajah Duleep Singh 4 provides a pertinent historical link with one of the principal features of the relationship which developed over many years between the Sikhs and the British and which (as we shall see) is still alluded to today, namely the military connection.

Duleep was an 'acknowledged son' 5 of Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh nation and 'Lion of the Punjab', who had built up a formidable modern military machine in North West India during the early part of the nineteenth century. Ranjit had driven out the Mughal emperor, but he had carefully avoided direct conflict with British forces. 6 After his death in 1839 rival factions reduced the Punjab to chaos and anarchy, hostilities broke out between his successors and British forces, and two 'Anglo-Sikh Wars' were fought in 1845-6 and 1848-9. After defeat in the first war the Sikhs were allowed to retain formal sovereignty over the

____________________
1
See Rose, E., Colour and Citizenship (London, 1969), 70-3.
2
See Desai, R., Indian Immigrants in Britain (London, 1963), 5, 64-5.
3
See Ballard, R., 'Differentiation and Disjunction among the Sikhs' in Ballard, R. (ed), Desh Pardesh (London, 1994), 93.
4
See generally, Alexander, M. and Anand, S., Queen Victoria's Maharajah Duleep Singh, 1838-93 (London, 1980).
5
It seems highly unlikely that Ranjit Singh himself fathered Duleep—see Alexander and Anand, 2.
6
Mason, P., A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, its Officers and Men (London, 1974), 228-9.

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