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Sikhs of Norway

by nishaan@magazine

There is a Norwegian TV-show by the name of “Der ingen skulle tru at nokon kunne bu” and it can roughly be translated to “Where you would not believe anyone could live”. The show is about people living in the most remote places of Norway, often with very little connection to the outside world.  Every time we watched this show, we would be surprised that anyone could actually live at such inhospitable and remote locations.

During our trips back home to the Panjab in the nineties, people would be surprised when we would tell them that we lived in Norway and not America. I can still recollect a conversation during one of our first visits back to Panjab, where a friend of my father asked: “Harjeet, Norway Amreeka da ik sooba hai?” (Harjeet, is Norway a state in America?). After explaining the geographical placement of Norway, the usual remark would be “Achha, kadi suneya ni”. (Oh, never heard of it). The very few who would know about Norway would ask “achha, jithe 6 mahine din, 6 mahine raat hundi?” (Oh, the place where it is day for 6 months and night for 6 months?).

Fast forward 25 years and we can see the results of how the internet and globalization has made the world a lot smaller. The ’94 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, the Nobel Peace Prize, fjords, Vikings, salmon and the land of midnight sun has become the more recent Norwegian landmarks to Indians. Today I am surprised when the likes of Henrik Ibsen a famous Norwegian playwright and Theatre Director and Norway having the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund are brought up during conversations!

The situation must have been quite challenging for the first Sikhs who arrived in Norway in 1960s. Having left Panjab in search for a better life, and with limited knowledge of Norway, one can only imagine the hardships they must have faced. Apart from  the cultural differences, overcoming the language barrier would  have been quite a task. 

Not only was Norwegian a new and difficult language to learn, but most of the early Sikh immigrants worked at factories and farms. Rural Norway in the seventies and eighties did not speak English and the only jobs these Sikh immigrants could get were factories such as Freia chocolate factory, H.P. Henrichson’s brush factory, Standard Telefon og Kabelfabrikk (telephone and cable factory). The few who worked in cities like Oslo got jobs at bakeries. Their work here was especially tough with long working hours. A regular duty at a bakery would start at 8 in the evening  and end at 4 in the morning. With no bus service available until 7-8 am these immigrants would end up sleeping on the floor of the bakery, till the bus service would start. Having completed an almost ten hour shift, some would then go directly to a second shift.

In Drammen, a city 40-50 km southwest of Oslo, a number of these immigrants worked at farms, where groups of 5-10 would often find shared housing.  Living in shared housing not only made accommodation to affordable but importantly kept the community alive.

By the mid-70s, the Norwegian Government opened  up immigration and these early immigrants were able to invite their families to live in Norway. While the men continued with their regular jobs, some women started working at Oslo Flaggfabrikk (Oslo Flag Factory). Others pursued their studies at the local universities, while some would babysit the children of those who were working. 

In 1971, Indian Welfare Society (IWS), the first organisation was established by the Indians living in Norway. IWS would hire rooms at schools and libraries and arrange gatherings to celebrate festivals. Gurpurabs, Vaiskahi, Diwali and Guru Nanak Dev’s gurpurab were fixed features celebrated by not only the Sikhs but other Indian immigrants as well.  By the mid-1970s the first edition of “Parichay” magazine was published by IWS. It was handwritten, until they acquired a Gurmukhi. The magazine was then published in Panjabi, Hindi, Norwegian and English.  Another magazine, named “Pehchaan”, started publishing in the late 70s.

In 1977, Oslo Gurdwara Committee was formed and given the task of establishing a Gurdwara for the Sikh community in Oslo. In 1983 after six years of fundraising and hard work, the first Gurdwara in Norway, Gurduara Sri Guru Nanak Devi ji was established at Alnabru, Oslo. For the community meeting at the Gurdwara on Sundays became the norm.

At the end of 1984, Panjabi classes for children were also set up as an addition to the Sunday diwaan. Even though the Gurdwara was established, there were no raagis here. Raagis, dhaadis and parcharaks were occasionally invited from the UK, with Gian Singh Surjit and Balwant Singh Derby being those who travelled to Norway most frequently.

The influence from UK was quite dominant in many ways. As the local magazines “Parichay” and Pehchaan” faded away, they were replaced by two UK based magazines, Des Pardes (weekly) and Awaz-E-Qaum (monthly).

Tomake the community feel more at home, Indian groceries like lentils, spices, rice and wheat were imported from the UK.

As the Norwegian Sikh community grew in confidence they would turn to UK when faced any kind of difficulties or challenges. One particular case was of Harbir Singh Sawhney. In 1977, he was denied a job as a taxi driver because he wore a turban. His taxi company argued that the turban was not a part of the uniform.  Mr. Sawhney turned to UK to show examples of turban wearing Sikhs in the Army and Police, as well as mailmen and taxi drivers. He eventually won the case and turban was included as a part of the uniform. More cases regarding the turban, for example in the army and for bus drivers, were fought and won during the following years.

More than a decade of struggle and hard work laid the foundation of financial independence for the years to come. With the increased number of the immigrants, there was a boom in grocery stores owned by Sikhs. Owning their own shops also resulted in creating workplaces for other Sikhs who arrived in Norway. 

In 1984, after operation Blue Star, saw new wave of Sikhs immigrating to Norway.  Harinder Singh who was chargé d’affaires at the Indian embassy in Oslo during the Operation Blue Star, resigned from his position in protest against the Indian government action. He applied for political stay in Norway. Many years later, he shifted back to India where he joined politics and was elected as an MP twice, for Shiromani Akali Dal in 1996 and Aam Admi Party in 2014.

There is another, sadder, connection between Norway and 1984. Harbir Singh Sawhney had gone back to India to visit his family in Delhi was caught up during the 1984 pogrom. Mr. Sawhney was one of many thousand Sikhs who were brutally killed by angry mobs in Delhi.

The new wave of Sikhs to Norway after 1984, mostly seeking political asylum, resulted in a very vibrant environment amongst the children at the Gurdwara. Sikh children born in Norway, who hadn’t been much exposed towards Panjabi culture, could now interact directly with children born and brought up in Panjab. This caused a huge improvement in Panjabi speaking skills for the Norwegian born Sikh children. This was extremely important as Panjabi classes had been cancelled at the Gurdwara since the early 90s. At the same time, this interaction made it easier for the Panjab born children to learn the Norwegian language. Avtar Singh and Balwinder Kaur, husband and wife, started arranging Panjabi classes on their own in 1996. They started teaching a handful of children for two hours every Friday and the school was named “Panjabi School Norway”. The number of students rapidly increased during the next few months. Panjabi School has also been arranging festival functions and sports tournaments for its students ever since 1996. Later, Panjabi schools were also established in other cities in Norway.

Investing time and resources in the younger generations resulted in a thriving and vibrant batch of youngsters who were very passionate about their religion and culture. The Gurdwara committee established a youth organisation called “Unge Sikher” (Young Sikh) where new young leaders would be nourished. One of the new young leaders, Sumeet Singh, came up with an innovative idea in 2010. He said: “rather than waiting for the Norwegian people to come to us at the Gurdwara to get to know us better, why don’t we reach out to the people?”

This was the beginning of the Norwegian Turban Day, which was started in 2010. The idea was to put up a tent where Norwegians could get turbans tied on their heads. By doing so they would be able to understand Sikhs and the importance of turban in a better way. It started with a few hundred turbans the first year and ended up growing bigger and bigger for each year that went by. 11 years later, it has become one of Oslo’s main attractions with as many as 20 000 visitors. Norwegian Turban Day is arranged annually, first Saturday after Vaisakhi, and 350 volunteers, mostly Sikh youth, are involved in making this event a huge success. Some of the biggest Norwegian companies have collaborated to be a part of this. Flytoget (The Airport Express Train) offers free travels for everyone wearing a turban on this day. Paleet, a mall right next to the location where this event is held, offers discount to turbaned shoppers.

Sikhs in Norway have come a long way since the early days at the factories and farms in 60s and 70s. They have mastered cold climate, linguistic and cultural barriers and social and judicial challenges regarding their identity. They have gone from fighting for the right to wear a turban on duty to create such a great event where Norwegians line up for hours to get a turban tied on their head. The grit and fighting spirit of the first generation gave a solid platform to build on for the coming generations and the current generation is doing a wonderful job creating a bright future for the coming generations.

Bikramdeep Singh Pannu

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