The Sikh community of Sumatra
One of the most important days for the Sikh community is Gurupurab, the anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, which falls on November 19 of this year. It would be interesting to recall on this occasion the history and development of the Silk community in Sumatra.
The Sikh faith has its origins somewhere around 1500 CE in the Indian subcontinent. Guru Nanak initially proposed it as a separate faith from the other major religions of the time, namely Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, after which nine gurus followed Guru Nanak and developed the faith and Sikh community over the following centuries.
From its inception as a separate religion, the Sikh community turned to the outside world and gradually evolved into a large, globally mobile immigrant community. It is said that Guru Nanak himself was the most traveled personality in his time. Unauthenticated reports from historians mention Guru Nanak’s visit to Sumatra but no date has been given.
The only credible historical note is that of Lieutenant-Colonel Mark Wilks who states in his book published in 1810 that Guru Nanak most likely landed on the shores of Banda Aceh from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but again, no date has been mentioned.
Due to his own travels around the world, Guru Nanak may have inspired frequent followers to travel abroad to seek better livelihoods. But Sikh immigration had more to do with the agrarian nature of their community. At this point in their history, driven by the limited amount of arable land and the increasing population, Sikh farmers and merchants ventured to other countries with the desire to earn a better living.
The migration and settlement of Sikhs to the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia probably began somewhere in the late 1870s. Some historians claim that initially Sikhs were brought to the archipelago for the police and another group was brought to Indonesia as part of the army by the British colonial administration.
They consisted of various Indian ethnic groups, but also included Sikh and Gurkha regiments and traders. The next wave of a few thousand Sikhs arrived in Medan as remnants of the British Indian Army, which had passed to the Indian National Army (INA). An INA garrison was stationed at Medan airfield in Sumatra.
During World War I, just like other Indian ethnic groups such as Tamils, Gujaratis and Sindhis who arrived in Indonesia in the early 1800s, the Sikh community also found itself divided between the two sides of the war. .
On the one hand, several members of the Indian National Army came from Burma to side with the Japanese who had occupied Indonesia. The Indian ethnic groups including Tamils and Sikhs, living in Indonesia, especially in Sumatra, were initially associated with the INA at this time.
However, in the midst of Indonesia’s freedom struggle, disillusioned with the violent behavior of the Dutch and Japanese towards Indonesians, the majority of the Indian ethnic community, including the Sikh community, switched sides and s’ is allied with the Indonesian militias and youth who fought for the freedom of Indonesia.
Former Sikh residents of Indonesia
In North Sumatra, the arrival of Sikhs and Punjabis occurred from Amritsar and Jalandhar in the 18th century. Aceh was the first port of call for most Sikh immigrants, who came as traders and slowly traveled to other parts of Sumatra, especially North Sumatra.
In Medan, they settled in dairy farming, security services and peddling taxi services. Slowly, with increasing prosperity, they diversified into business and commerce, especially in the manufacture of sporting goods and textiles.
Around 1910, many of them migrated to greener pastures in Jakarta, Surabaya, and other parts of Indonesia, where they eventually entrenched themselves in a more diverse and sustainable enterprise. There were at least 100 families in the Tandjung area of Jakarta and around 40 families in Surabaya.
Pritam Singh, a prominent Indian community leader at the time, who participated in both the Indian Independence League and the Indonesian independence struggle, provided much needed leadership. to the entire Indian community in Indonesia. He is credited with liaising with military and civilian authorities to resolve misunderstandings. It is said that due to his tireless efforts, Indian expatriates were granted Indonesian citizenship in 1965.
Since Sikhs are not officially recognized by the Indonesian government as a separate community, but are part of the larger Hindu community, it can be difficult to estimate the current size of the Sikh community in Indonesia. However, according to several accounts, it is estimated at 35,000.
The largest number of Sikh settlers are found in North Sumatra, especially around Medan, but also in Binjai, Sibolga, TadungBalai, PermantangSiantar and some in TebingTinggi.
The advent of the Sikhs from the Punjab to Medan also led to the establishment of several Gurudwaras. Today there are seven in North Sumatra itself, many of which are thriving with increasing membership.
Khalsa High School was founded at the same time as the first Gurudwara in Medan in 1925, with Sirdar Bahadur Singh becoming its first principal. The language of instruction was English. The establishment of an English school was a far-sighted and significant step on the part of the founders, given the low knowledge of English in Indonesia at that time.
The GPC Khalsa school has produced some of Indonesia’s leading Sikh figures, including Thakur Singh, Partap Singh Raniwala, and HS Dillon. Incidentally, HS Dillon became the Secretary of Agriculture of Indonesia, and his brother Raj Kumar Singh became the Secretary of the Indonesian Hockey Federation, both retaining their Sikh identities. Another alumnus was long-distance runner Gurnam Singh, who won a medal at the Asian Games and was honored by President Soekarno.
The Yayasan Missi Gurdwara Medan is another important Gurudwara built in the 1930s with a large number of members. It is scaled with the blessing of the provincial government. This Gurudwara has also been at the forefront in the regular conduct of social, health and charitable activities.
Jakarta’s first Gurdwara was built in Tanjung Priok in 1925. Since then the community has flourished and other community centers have sprung up.
The Indian Consulate in Medan has regularly coordinated several commemorative events with the Gurudwara, the latest significant event being the celebration of the 550th anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Devji in November 2019 at GPC Khalsa Gurudwara.
In 2015, the Supreme Council of the Sikh Religion in Indonesia was founded. Among the people of modern Sikh and Punjabi Indian descent who have succeeded in Indonesia are billionaire businessman Prakash Lohia, TV host Natalie Hussain, media mogul and founder of the production house Multivision Plus Raam Punjabi, film and television producer Manoj Punjabi, and many others.
From the days when the Sikh community in Indonesia reproduced rural life in the Indian Punjab to becoming modern businessmen in Indonesia, they have come a long way. Not only have they prospered individually, but they have also contributed to Indonesian society through their multiple social, educational, charitable, health and other activities.
Today, Indonesia’s Sikh community, particularly in North Sumatra, is one of the most vibrant, cohesive and outgoing.
If today the Sikh community thrives and has developed deep-rooted ties with the government and the people of the island of Sumatra, it is mainly because it is one of the most successful ethnic groups to integrate into the wider fabric of Indonesian society.
Raghu Gururaj is a former Indian Consul General in Sumatra.