ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

The Sikh Community in Myanmar

Past and Present

Tridivesh Singh Maini (tsinghmanini2012@gmail.com) is with the Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.

The tiny Sikh community living in Myanmar today, though not as visible as the Sikh diaspora in other countries, has managed to preserve its heritage and culture and battled the odds to ensure that it is self-sufficient. The article examines the present status of this community, whose presence in the country dates back to the 19th century.

Introduction

The main focus of this article is on the economic and social status of the Sikh community in Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). While there is very little scholarship available on persons of Indian origin (PIOs) in general, the Sikh community of Myanmar has drawn even lesser attention. Before discussing the current position of Sikhs in Myanmar, a brief background to India’s increasing engagement with Myanmar in both the economic and non-economic sphere is given. It also briefly discusses the position of other PIOs in Myanmar, before moving to the discussion on the Sikh community in Myanmar.

India in Myanmar

In recent years, Myanmar has been in the news for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is in the process of shifting from authoritarianism to democracy, and secondly, it is emerging as an important destination with immense economic potential. It is especially well endowed with natural resources. A number of countries including China, Singapore and Japan have invested in Myanmar. They have been seeking to cash in on the vast economic potential which the country possesses.

India too has begun to pay more attention to Myanmar, since it realises that for a successful Look East policy, or what has been dubbed as “Act East” by the current government, it is important to expand ties with Myanmar. Myanmar is India’s only gateway—by land—to Southeast Asia (Bhatia 2014). The former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Myanmar twice, once for a bilateral visit in 2011 and then for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) Summit in March 2014. In November 2014, Prime Minister Modi visited Myanmar for the 12th ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)–Indian Summit as well as the East Asian Summit.

If one were to look at bilateral trade between India and Myanmar, it was estimated at $2,182 million for the year 2013–2014, though this is well below the actual potential of bilateral trade between both countries.[1] India’s investments in Myanmar too have increased and are estimated at about $508.43 million as of December 2014. Both India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar, as well as its investments are likely to witness an increase due to India’s increasing emphasis on Southeast Asia, in general, and Myanmar, in particular (IANS 2015).

Currently, bilateral trade between both countries is carried out through two borderland crossings—Moreh (Manipur)–Tamu (Myanmar) and Zowkhatar (Mizoram)­­–Rhi (Myanmar), both border points. A biweekly shipping service from Chennai to Yangon via Krishnapatnam was launched in October 2014 by the Shipping Corporation of India (Bhalla 2014). In addition to increasing its economic presence in Myanmar, India is assisting Myanmar in a number of other areas such as development of its border infrastructure, agricultural research, information technology and English language training.[2]

India’s engagement with PIOs

In addition to enhancing economic links with Myanmar and assisting with institution building, India is also now beginning to focus on PIOs in Myanmar. Modi has focused on reaching out to the diaspora in various countries, including the United States (US) and Australia. He has also made efforts to ensure that Indians settled in countries like Fiji are given an opportunity to rekindle ties with their homeland. Currently, the total number of Indians in Myanmar is estimated at 2.5 million. PIOs in Myanmar hail from a number of Indian states, mainly from West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Punjab. A large number of these PIOs—between 2,00,000 and 4,00,000—do not have citizenship. They are also barred from applying for government jobs and services in Myanmar. By contrast, the Sino–Burmese are economically affluent and are employed in a number of professions (Chaturvedi 2011).

This neglect of PIOs can be attributed to a number of reasons. Firstly, until the 1990s, there was virtually no engagement between the two countries for nearly three decades, since India had suspended political ties after military dictatorship was established in 1962. There was no real scope for the Indian government to raise issues concerning these PIOs. Secondly, unlike Indians in other parts of the world, those in Myanmar did not possess either economic or political clout to draw attention to themselves.

Sikhs in Myanmar

The Sikh population in Myanmar draws even lesser attention, especially when compared  not only to other ethnic groups in Myanmar but also Sikhs settled in other parts of the world including Southeast Asia. Estimates of the total Sikh population in the country vary. The current population of Sikhs in Myanmar is not significant (estimated in a journal article at anywhere between 2,000 and 3,000). There are around 48 Sikh Temples in Myanmar, including one in downtown Yangon (erstwhile Rangoon) (“Road to Mandalay” 2014).

Most Sikhs had migrated to Myanmar during the late 19th century as part of the Burma military police. This was unlike other communities such as the Tamil Chettiars, who had come in search of potential business opportunities around the mid-19th century and were able to emerge as successful moneylenders as well as landowners.

The first Sikh temple in Myanmar was inaugurated in 1897 by Captain H Parkin, the deputy inspector general of military police, while the opening ceremony of the temple was performed in 1899 by the Lieutenant Governor of Burma. The integration of the Sikh community and its relevance to the British Raj is clearly evident from the interactions between senior British officials and the local Sikh population. Before leaving Myanmar, Reginald Craddock sent a message to the Sikh community and tried to allay their fears with regard to the restrictions imposed on the kirpan (dagger) as well as the general attitude of the British Raj towards Sikhs in Punjab. His message to the Sikh community was translated into Urdu by the Khalsa Diwan Burma. The translation says:[3]

His honour admits that of all Indian communities Sikhs in Burma have remained the most loyal and law abiding. Many of these serve in Army and Military Police and some are Government Pensioners. They are also found in Civil Police Departments, Higher Engineering Services, Medical Department and other Government and private services. Some are contractors and merchants only. (1923:8)

As of 1931, there were over 10,000 Sikhs in Myanmar, while the total population of Indians in Myanmar was estimated at a million. Apart from the military, the Sikhs did distinguish themselves in other walks of life. One of the prominent members of the community was Raghbir Singh Dugal who had immigrated from Rawalpindi (now Pakistan). Dugal was active in the Sikh community, and was head of the Sikh temple as well as a number of other organisations such as the Sikh Educational Committee, and the Khalsa Diwan. Dugal also held important positions and was the first Indian to become mayor of Rangoon. He was also a member of the Burma Medical Council (Dugal 1950).

World War II and the Role of the Sikhs

During the British campaign against Japan to reconquer Myanmar, in World War II, Sikh regiments played a crucial role. Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, who led the campaign against the Japanese to reconquer Myanmar, acknowledged that the best battalions were Gurkha and Sikh. The bravery of Naik Nand Singh of the 1st battalion, who was later on awarded a Victoria Cross, is in fact well recognised. Singh single-handedly cleared three trenches of the Japanese, in spite of being injured, and wrested a position at the Maungdaw-Buthidaung Road which had been taken over by the Japanese (Luto 2013).

Post-war Period

A number of Sikhs were forced to leave Myanmar first after the Japanese takeover, and then after the arrival of dictatorship in 1962. Some Sikhs chose to remain in Myanmar however, and interestingly one of the prominent Sikhs, U Balwant Singh, was even Myanmar’s representative to the United Nations. The condition of most Sikhs was dismal, since they were not permitted to study any professional courses, such as medicine, engineering and law.

Currently, Sikhs residing in Myanmar run businesses, mostly automotive parts, while a minuscule minority are engaged in farming. With an increasing interest in Myanmar, it is likely that Sikhs in the country might get more attention (“Road To Mandalay” 2014). Recently, the United Kingdom-based documentary film-maker Bobby Bansal directed a documentary on Sikhs in Myanmar titled, “The Road to Mandalay.”

Conclusions

While Sikhs in Myanmar may not be as high profile as their brethren in other parts of the world, they have managed to preserve their heritage and culture, and battled the odds to ensure that they are self-sufficient. As India makes efforts to boost its ties with Myanmar, and reach out to the diaspora in other parts of the world, the Indian government should make an effort to assist all PIOs. Apart from the Government of India, state governments such as the Punjab government, in the case of Sikhs in Myanmar, can also make efforts to provide assistance to the Sikh population, mostly of Punjabi origin, to strengthen their links with their ancestral land.

Efforts should also be made by the Indian government for the upkeep of historical Sikh shrines in Myanmar. Finally, it is important to document the history of Sikhs in Myanmar, not just in the context of their role in the British military police or army, but also their relationship with the country. Currently, there is precious little on the same.

Notes

[1] Trade Figures of trade available from the Ministry of Commerce, Government of India website, http://commerce.nic.in/eidb/iecnt.asp.

[2] Details from Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) website, http://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Myanmar_May-2014.pdf.

[3] Farewell Address of  Reginald Craddock, Late Lieutenant Governor of Burma to Burma’s? Sikhs, with comments by The Executive Committee of the Khalsa Diwan Burma, 14 April 1 1923. (Amritsar: Panthic Press, 15 August  1923. This document is currently available at The British Library, London)

References

[All URLs accessed on 4 June 2015]

“Road to Mandalay-Sikhs in Burma” (2014): The Sikh Review, February, https://theprg.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/sr-article-road-to-mandalay.pdf.

Bhalla, Jaya Shroff (2014): “India Opens Sea Route to Boost Trade with Neighbours,” Pioneer, New Delhi, 9 October, http://www.dailypioneer.com/todays-newspaper/india-opens-sea-routes-to-boost-trade-with-neighbours.html.

Bhatia, Rajiv (2014): “Modi in Myanmar: At ASEAN Meet, PM Outlines the Contours of ‘Act East’ Policy,” Hindustan Times, 15 November, http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/modi-in-myanmar-at-asean-meet-pm-outlines-the-contours-of-act-east-policy-3/.

Chaturvedi, Medha (2011): “Alternative Strategies towards Myanmar: Revising India’s Look-east Policy,” IPCS Issue Brief, March, No 163, New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, http://www.ipcs.org/pdf_file/issue/IB163-SEARP-Medha.pdf.

Dugal, Raghbir Singh (1950): Essentials of Sikhism: A Talk, Rangoon: Burma Art Press.

Indo–Asian News Service (2015): “India-Myanmar Bilateral Trade Expected to Reach $10 bn by 2020,” Business Standard, 19 February, http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/india-myanmar-bilateral-trade-expected-to-reach-10-bn-by-2020-115021900867_1.html.

Luto, James (2013): Fighting With the Fourteenth Army in Burma, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books.

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top