Soldiers, Artisans, Cultivators and Revolutionaries: The Movement of Sikhs in the Indian Ocean

Anjali Gera Roy


Abstract

The geography of Punjab, a land-locked region divided between India and Pakistan, makes it an unlikely player in oceanic sojourns. But imperial interventions in Punjab in the middle of the 19th century triggered movements from Punjab that inserted this region in the littoral narrative of the Indian Ocean. Unlike the movements of lascars and traders, who have been central to the revisionist histories of the Indian Ocean, those from Punjab have not featured in oceanic dialogues. The absence of Sikhs in Indian Ocean studies is largely due to the silence of Sikh soldiers, skilled craftsmen and cultivators with largely rural roots who were uprooted to strange lands. The confusion of Sikhs with Hindus, Muslims and, even Afghans, in the colonial era, as well as the classification of Punjabi Muslims as Pakistani in the post-colonial, further problematizes the Sikh migration narrative. Drawing on a wide range of official and unofficial historical sources, this essay argues that twin developments in Punjab, namely the construction of Sikhs as ‘a martial race’ and their integration into the imperial capitalist economy, connects the movements of soldiers and policemen to Shanghai, Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements and Kenya with those of skilled artisans to Mombasa and Uganda.
Keywords: Sikhs, Indian Ocean, labour migration, cultural identity

Keywords

Sikhs, Indian Ocean, labour migration, cultural identity

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