Book Review : Sikhs in Britain

Peter Bance’s new book,  The Sikhs in Britain, by concerns itself with the primary outcome of the long period of British occupation of India, namely that of a creation of a diaspora community in the UK. Bance, traces the history of the British and Sikh relationship from its origins in the East India Company to the remarkable success story of Sikhs living in modern Britain through a series of compact essays and richly illustrated with hundreds of black and white photographs. The photographs are central to Bance’s presentation of the story and are accompanied by well-researched and detailed captions, useful endnotes and references serve the scholarly reader for more information.

The opening chapter charts the story of the deposed boy-king Duleep Singh which seems appropriate as he is often referred to as Britain’s first Sikh settler. Peter Bance is a recognised authority in this topic having previously published on this very topic (The Duleep Singhs, Sutton Publishing). The narrative is tight and packed with detail and Peter Bance has been careful not to recreate an abridged version of his earlier work. The peculiarity in this opening chapter is obvious to t readers, and that is that Duleep Singh was not a Sikh when he came to UK, he had converted to Christianity in 1853, and remained a Christian throughout his entire life in England as did his children. The appellation of being the first Sikh settler in Great Britain is therefore an uneasy one. Unfortunately the book does not dwell on the more modest stories of the Sikh servants who accompanied the deposed prince who have a stronger claim to that title. 

 Convalescent Sikhs in Brighton, 1916.

The early history of the Sikhs in Britain is full of the privileged few. Deposed kings on hefty pensions, visiting princes and their debauched lifestyles, sons of near-aristocracy in India who were sent to England to study, just as the sons of the British beaurocrats in India were sent back to England to boarding school. This is a colourful period and one that is covered in The Sikhs in Britain with fabulous Victorian photography and a detailed commentary that is often overlooked in works that focus on the post war immigration.

One of the real gems in this work lies in the chapters that deal with the early migrants from the Bhatra community. This is the book’s unique selling point as very little has been published about the early settled community in the UK and hardly any visual material is available in published form. Bance’s insight into the history of the community and the establishment of early communities in the port towns of the UK is notable. In a similar vein Bance also charts the establishment of the major Sikh gurdwaras in the UK with some of the key milestones in their development over the past 40 years. This is a welcome chapter in this work as it subconsciously recognises the contribution of the thousands of ordinary Sikhs in building these community centres in a book that otherwise makes great play of the role of a few very prominent Sikh leaders.

The book closes with a view of Sikhs at the turn of the last century celebrating the new millennium in the UK, as equal citizens and with a self confidence that has allowed the community to assert its role in politics, sport the arts and business.

The greatest achievement of this book is the arresting visual imagery and the heritage within these great photographs. The associated commentary and notes are a testament to the tremendous effort of the author to explicate these images.

The book is essentially a celebration of the role and contribution of the Sikhs in Britain. It will be enjoyed by Sikhs who want to illuminate their histories as a diaspora community. It will be especially useful to parents and educators as the work is rich with illustrations and the text is unchallenging. However, it is that unchallenging nature that is its greatest failing. Bance writes glowingly of the Sikhs; Sikh Maharajahs grace the presence of London, Sikh soldiers are loyal stalwarts. However, he fails to mention the darker and richer narrative of Sikhs that have failed to live up to that radiant description. There is no recognition of the stories of social reformers who challenged the sinister side of Sikh social practice or those whose prominence was due to their criminality – even Udham Singh, the assassin is referred, rather uncomfortably, as a shaheed (martyr). The events of 1984 and operation Bluestar and the assassination of Indira Ghandi are brushed over as footnotes despite their central role in politicising a generation, marking the schism of Sikh-Hindu relations in the UK and ushering in a new generation of Sikh political leaders. The proscription of UK based Sikh organisations in 2001 by the Home Secretary is equally not mentioned. Similarly the Bezhti affair which dominated the news agenda for over a week and generated more column inches in the national press than any other Sikh story in history hardly warrants a mention.

 The khanda of Guru Gobind Singh brought over from India in 1967.

These shortcomings notwithstanding, The Sikhs in Britain is a fine piece of work that will be of great interest to parents, educators, life long learners and libraries. As the anniversary of partition draws near and interest in the subject of the relationship between Great Britain and the subcontinent is explored by Britons and Sikhs alike, this work is a helpful accompaniment to that shared history.

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