One of the most significant days for the Sikh community is the Gurupurab, the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, which falls on 19 November this year. It would be interesting to recall the history and development of the Silk community in Sumatra on the occasion.
The Sikh faith had its origins somewhere around 1500 CE in the Indian sub-continent. Guru Nanak initially propounded it as a distinct faith as compared to the other major religions at that time, viz, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, after which nine Gurus followed Guru Nanak and developed the Sikh faith and community over the next few centuries.
Right from its inception as a separate religion, the Sikh community has been looking to the outside world and gradually evolved into a major immigrating and mobile community across the globe. It is said that Guru Nanak himself was the most well-traveled personality in his days. Unauthenticated reports by historians mention the visit of Guru Nanak to Sumatra but no dates have been given.
The only credible historical note is by Lt Col Mark Wilks who states in his book published in 1810 that Guru Nanak most possibly landed on the shores of Banda Aceh from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but here again, no dates have been mentioned.
Because of his own worldwide travels, Guru Nanak perhaps inspired hard-working followers to travel outward to seek a better livelihood. But the Sikh immigration had more to do with the agrarian nature of their community. At that point in their history, driven by the limited quantum of arable land and rising population, Sikh farmers and merchants ventured into other countries with a desire to make a better living.
Sikh migration and settlement in the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia most likely began somewhere in the late 1870s. Some historians contend that initially Sikhs were brought to the Archipelago for policing and another group brought to Indonesia as part of the army by the British colonial administration.
They consisted of various Indian ethnic groups but included Sikh and Gurkha regiments and traders as well. The next wave of a few thousand Sikhs arrived in Medan as remnants of the British Indian Army, who had crossed over to the Indian National Army (INA). There was an INA garrison set up at the Medan Aerodrome, Sumatra.
During First World War, just like other Indian ethnic groups such as the Tamils, Gujaratis, and Sindhis, who came to Indonesia in the early 1800s, the Sikh community too found themselves divided into both sides of the war.
On the one hand, several members of the Indian National Army came from Burma to take sides with the Japanese, which had occupied Indonesia. The Indian ethnic groups including the Tamils and Sikhs, living in Indonesia, particularly in Sumatra, had initially joined forces with INA at that time.
However, in the midst of Indonesia’s struggle for freedom, disillusioned by the violent behavior of the Dutch and the Japanese towards the Indonesians, the majority of the Indian ethnic community, including the Sikh community, switched sides and joined forces with Indonesian militias and youths who were fighting for the freedom of Indonesia.
Old Sikh Residents of Indonesia
In North Sumatra, the arrival of Sikhs and Punjabis happened from Amritsar and Jalandhar in the 18th century. Aceh was the first port of call for most of the Sikh immigrants, who came as traders and slowly made their way around other parts of Sumatra, especially North Sumatra.
In Medan, they settled down into dairy farming, security services, and peddling taxi services. Slowly with increasing prosperity, they branched out into business and trading, especially sports goods manufacturing and textiles.
Around 1910 or so, many of them migrated to greener pastures in Jakarta, Surabaya, and other parts of Indonesia, where they were finally entrenching themselves into a more diverse and sustainable business. 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 that time, who took part in both the Indian Independence League and also Indonesia’s struggle for independence, provided much-needed leadership to the entire Indian community in Indonesia. He is credited with liaising with the military and civil authorities to sort out misunderstandings. It is said that due to his unrelenting efforts, expatriate Indians were granted Indonesian citizenship in 1965.
Since the Sikhs are not officially recognized by the Indonesian government as a separate community but included as part of the larger Hindu community, it may be difficult to estimate the current size of the Sikh community in Indonesia. However, by several accounts, it is estimated at 35,000.
The largest number of Sikh settlers is to be found in North Sumatra, especially around Medan, but also in Binjai, Sibolga, TadjungBalai, PermantangSiantar, and some in TebingTinggi.
The advent of the Punjabi Sikhs to Medan also led to the establishment of several Gurudwaras. Today, there are seven of them in North Sumatra itself, many of which are prospering with increasing memberships.
The Khalsa High School was founded simultaneously with the first Gurudwara in Medan in 1925 with Sirdar Bahadur Singh becoming its first headmaster. The medium of instruction was English. The establishment of an English school was a far-sighted and significant step by the founders, considering the scant knowledge of English in Indonesia those days.
The GPC Khalsa School has produced some of the leading Sikh figures of Indonesia, the notable among them are Thakur Singh, Partap Singh Raniwala, and H. S. Dillon. Incidentally, H. S. Dillon rose to become the Secretary of Agriculture, Indonesia, and his brother Raj Kumar Singh became the Secretary of the Indonesia Hockey Federation, significantly both maintaining their Sikh identity. Another alumnus was long-distance runner Gurnam Singh, who won a medal in the Asian Games and was honored by President Soekarno.
The Yayasan Missi Gurdwara Medan is another prominent Gurudwara built in the 1930s with a large membership. It is being upscaled with the blessings of the provincial government. This Gurudwara has also been at the forefront in conducting social, health, and charity activities regularly.
The first Gurdwara in Jakarta was constructed at the Tanjung Priok in 1925. Since then, the community has prospered and more community centers have cropped up.
The Indian Consulate in Medan has regularly coordinated several commemorative events with the Gurudwaras, the last important event being the celebration of the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Devji in November 2019 at the GPC Khalsa Gurudwara.
In 2015, the Supreme Council for the Sikh Religion in Indonesia was founded. Among the modern-day Sikh and Punjabi Indian origin individuals who have made it big in Indonesia are billionaire businessman Prakash Lohia, TV host Natalie Hussain, media tycoon, and Multivision Plus production house founder Raam Punjabi, film and television producer Manoj Punjabi, and many others.
From the days when the Sikh community in Indonesia replicated rural life in Indian Punjab to becoming modern-day businessmen in Indonesia, they have come a long way. Not only have they prospered individually, but also have contributed to Indonesian society through their multifarious social, educational, charity, health, and other work.
Today, the Sikh community in Indonesia, especially North Sumatra, is one of the most vibrant, close-knit, and outgoing.
If today the Sikh community is prospering and developed deep-rooted linkages with the Government and people of Sumatra Island, it is primarily because it is one of the most successful ethnic groups at integrating with the larger fabric of Indonesian society.
Raghu Gururaj is a former Consul General of India to Sumatra.