Home Articles The Boundaries between “Home” and “Diaspora”: American Sikhs and the Construction of Place

The Boundaries between “Home” and “Diaspora”: American Sikhs and the Construction of Place

by nishaan@magazine

On November 10, 2015, a delegation of five representatives from various Sikh organisations in North America located in Stockton, California participated in the Sarbat Khalsa, held in Amritsar. Notably, the meeting in Amritsar was not called to discuss matters concerning the diasporic Sikh experience. The purpose was to consider issues of decision-making and leadership within the Sikh religious order in Punjab. The diaspora Sikh community thought necessary to participate in the discussion on this controversy. The question is why? And what does Sikh interest in Punjab say about the group’s attachment and thus, construct of a homeland?

In this essay, I build on the scholarship on citizenship, homeland, and diaspora with the case of American Sikhs to question neat divisions of “homeland” and “diaspora” for this group. Specifically, to ascertain American Sikhs’ idea of a “homeland,” I focus on research that illuminates the various ways in which the group remains connected to Punjab, the place of origin for the immigrants and/or a place with which all Sikhs share a deep ancestral and spiritual bond.

The questions that I ask are: a) What does the continued participation in affairs of Punjab say about the Sikh American construct of “homeland?” and b) Is this attachment to Punjab related to the Sikhs location as non-whites and non-Christians in American society. I begin by noting several key points from the discourse on citizenship, homeland, and diaspora, followed by a brief overview of Sikh immigration to which are linked questions of “homeland” and “diaspora;” subsequently, I look at American Sikhs, from their arrival to America in the early twentieth century through today, to shed light on the question of Sikh immigrants and “homeland.”

“Homeland” and “Diaspora”

The scholarship on “homeland” and “diaspora” offers a complex analysis of the relationship between the two. An important challenge to this discourse has been from scholars who have questioned the clear demarcation between them. As people move back and forth from one place to another, they identify with multiple homelands. People’s sense of belonging can be such that different aspects of one’s identity are split across many nations. Drawing from Yasemin Soysal’s perspective on citizenship more specifically, groups can legally belong to one nation and continue to be emotionally attached to another. The pioneering work of Basch, Schiller and Blanc also direct attention to the overlapping spaces of “home” and “abroad” and the associated multifaceted identities of people who move back and forth between multiple societies. Binaries are, thus, unhelpful because clear separation of “homeland” and “hostland” is difficult*.

From Punjab to the World: Evolution of the Sikh diaspora:

Seeds of the Sikh diaspora were sown when Punjab encountered British colonialism, and especially after Punjab was annexed to the British colonial territory in 1849. Recruitment of Sikhs in the British colonial army and the development of canal colonies in areas of western Punjab to encourage farming and settlement catalyzed emigration. Sikhs were also hired in the police force in the British imperial territories in East Asia and the Far East. Additionally, although to a far lesser extent, export of indentured labor to the British colonies contributed to emigration as well *. Economic push factors sometimes overlapped with these various reasons for exit from India and contributed to the development of the Sikh diaspora during that time. This group of immigrants were primarily peasants from rural Punjab. They had left one home in Punjab to make another one in America.

Over the years, the Sikh diaspora has expanded, for reasons that converge and diverge from the group’s international migration earlier in the twentieth century. Economic struggles continue to be a factor in motivating emigration in the contemporary era. Adding to it have been aggressive policies towards Sikhs, especially Sikh youth, to curtail “terrorism” by the Indian state in the 1980s and through the early 1990s. Historically, the group’s route to America has not always been straightforward. Since the early period, Sikhs who had immigrated to America have lived in other parts of the world. Post-1980s, we see a similar patterns of “twice migrants.” My own work supports this pattern of multiple routes taken by rural Sikh immigrants that eventually led them to New York City where they worked as taxi drivers. Many of the respondents had first reached destinations in Europe; a few had even traveled to parts of the Middle East before settling down in America. Sikhs comprise the flow of professional immigrants too. Like other groups from India, Sikhs had arrived to fill a shortage in professional work since the 1960s. The formation of the Sikh diaspora is, therefore, a product of people from diverse socioeconomic and spatial backgrounds who decided to immigrate to America, and elsewhere, confronted with socio-political and economic adversities. It is in this context that the meaning of homeland for Sikhs must be situated. Where is “homeland” for American Sikhs and why?

American Sikhs and the Construction of “home:” Involvements with Punjab:


American Sikh immigrants have been involved in Punjab (and Indian) politics since their initial arrival in the early twentieth century. Faced with racism, the immigrants recognized that their work of antiracism in America would have to be a transnational one, where the aim would be to overthrow British rule in India too, because racism “here” was connected to racism “there.” The Ghadr Party, previously known as the Pacific Coast Hindi Association, was formed in 1913 to realize that goal. A majority of its members were Sikhs. In this period, the immigrants did not mobilise against colonialism and racism around a Sikh identity. They were all “Indians” oppressed by the imperial power, seeking freedom for their “motherland”*

But their efforts to overthrow British colonialism failed. In fact, they were punished for catalysing the movement. Those who participated in anti-British organizing faced severe punishment after returning to India, including execution for some of them*. Efforts to eradicate racism in America also turned out to be futile. Eventually, immigrants from India as nonwhites, along with all other immigrants from Asia, were barred from immigrating to the United States by the 1924 immigration act. It was only post passage of 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act when immigration from India to America resumed. The Act lifted explicit racial barriers to immigration from India, and other Asian countries. This time, contrary to the previous group, Sikhs could immigrate with their families. They were also emigrating from an India emancipated from British colonial rule. Yet the Sikh struggle for dignity, emancipation and self-governance did not come to an end. Now, the quest for justice and freedom had shifted from British colonisers to the Indian nation state, partly motivating the contemporary group to remain engaged with politics in India. Apprehension at being part of Hindu majority India after British departure incentivized that emergent voice. According to Robin Cohen*, Sikh immigrants in America, along with those in Canada and Great Britain, supported a separate Sikh homeland as early as the 1950s and the 1960s. In fact, Dr. V.S. Bhatti was the first to formally articulate a call for a Sikh state in 1940*. Later, that the Indian government did not honor the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, in addition to reneging on promises of self-determination made to Sikhs who remained in India at the time of independence.*

The attack on Harmandir Sahib in 1984 was viewed as another assault on the dignity of Sikhs and a reminder of the group’s subordination in India. Toward that end, new organisations emerged, old organisations were revived, and still other organisations re-formulated its goals to fulfill the imagination of a Sikh nation-state*. Interestingly, the “enemy” in the early twentieth century, i.e., America, was now perceived as an ally in the struggle. Thus, immigrants lobbied the American and the Canadian governments and the United Nations for creation of a “home” for Sikhs*.

Like the freedom struggle from British colonialism and American racism by the early waves of Sikh immigrants, the contemporary movements to create a Sikh “homeland” also failed. Yet, immigrant voices demanding greater freedom have not died. Some American Sikh groups want the Indian government to hold a referendum on the matter*. To that aim, American Sikhs have sought redress from U.S. Congress for violation of human rights of Sikhs committed by the Indian government.*

Tatla also writes that Rajiv Gandhi, when he visited the United States in June of 1985, was met with protest control is not to mobilise support for Khalistan, comparison with the Pentagon suggested that the control being sought is of immense political significance for Sikhs. Arguably, it represents a nation.

Previously, a similar argument in favor of influence by diaspora Sikhs on the Akal Takht was made by California-based Dr. Tarlochan Singh Nahal. In “Selection of the Jathedar Sri Akal Takhat Sahib and the Role of Sikh Diaspora,” Nahal maintained that diaspora Sikhs should unite as one group and rally to have a say in the selection of the Jathedar for Sri Akal Takht Sahib.

Similarly, the aforementioned delegation of North American Sikhs that attended the Sarbat Khalsa in November of 2015 in Amritsar had sought inclusion of overseas Sikhs in the decision-making that affects Sikhs worldwide. They were part of the group that supported the resolutions drafted at the plenary meeting, including the demand for Vatican-status of the Golden Temple*.

Furthermore, Shruti Devgan* has shown the ways in which diaspora Sikhs use the internet to remember the violence around 1984 pogrom. Although Devgan includes American, Canadian and British Sikhs in her analysis, she makes the larger point that virtual commemoration through creation of websites dedicated to 1984 “provides them with a sense of belonging both in India as well as transnationally”. By so saying, Devgan suggests that the immigrants carve out an identity for themselves as Sikhs in their places of settlement as well as assert a place for themselves in India as Sikhs through narratives countering the silence around 1984 and the voices favoring separatism.

Additionally, American Sikhs remain linked with Punjab, and India, via involvement in Punjab electoral politics. Political figures, the journalists note, have begun taking trips to America to solicit diaspora support. Captain Amarinder Singh is one such figure who, as well as his wife who was in the ministry of External Affairs in the government of Manmohan Singh, campaigned in America in April of 2016. The financial support from immigrant Punjabis is important for wooing those who live in India. For this reason, some believe that nonresident Punjabis exert influence over election results. More importantly, the decision for Punjabi politicians to pursue votes among the immigrant community plays a role in preserving ties between the immigrants and Punjab. Presumably, such political strategies invoke the imaginary of “home” among immigrants and nurture a sense of belonging.

A question that arises, I believe, and something that future scholars should explore is whether there is a link between being “othered” in America with at least American Sikhs pursuit of a homeland where the group feels belonging, much like the earlier wave of immigrants’ confrontation with racism in America that is linked with mobilising against British colonizers. Instances of racism faced by Sikhs, even in post 1965 America, are abundant. My own work on immigrant Sikhs shows that racism was a routine part of driving taxis in New York City, even before 9/11.


Research shows that diaspora Sikhs make most financial contributions towards matters of religious interest* has noted this to be the case since the time of the early arrivals. It is thus unsurprising that SGPC, as the protector of Sikh religion, has been one of the biggest recipients of money from American Sikhs, as well as diaspora Sikhs overall. Building gurdwaras or reviving the ones decaying have been an important mission for American Sikhs. One of the many examples that Maan and Maan* offer is that of a gurdwara in Takhar patti in the village of Shankar in the Doaba region. This was Gurdwara Berrian Wala that was renovated in 1965 by American Sikh, Kartar Singh Takhar. Takhar contributed most of the two and a half million dollars on this place of worship. A gurdwara constructed at Majaari near Belachur by an American immigrant named Mehar Singh Thekedar is another example. Others like the well-known Tut Brothers have invested in cleaning up the sarovar in Harmandir Sahib. Tut Brothers helped install a water purifying system that cost 1.5 million dollars. Donations to the construction of Hazur Sahib, a gurdwara located in the southern part of India*, is yet another example of the same. Indicating a syncretic religious identity are contributions made towards Sufi shrines and dharamshalas as well. Immigrants also organise religious events, like akhand path, which is the continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib, when they visit their villages.

Caste identities of the immigrants, however, continue to be influential in the distribution of remittances for religious purposes in Punjab. Gurdwaras identified as Ravidass and Lobana in New York, for instance, indicate the significance of caste in the lives of Sikh immigrants at least in America. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that immigrant followers of Ravidass would contribute regularly to Dera Sachkhand Ballan in the Doaba region of Punjab. Recently, North American followers of the Dera, along with those from Europe, donated 15 kilograms of gold to build a palanquin for Guru Ravidass. Similarly, overseas funds have been remitted for Balmik mandirs by its followers. Maan and Maan* mention America based Kartar Singh Takhar who donated 50,000 dollars to Bhagwan Balmik Mandir in the village of Shankar. Such financial contributions are a sign of the group’s growing economic strength, Maan and Maan assert. The researchers further suggest that it allows the group to create a separate space and shelter themselves from caste prejudice. Donations like these, which are a display of wealth, allow them to negotiate their lower caste status in their villages. Overseas donors of other sectarian groups like the Radhasoamis and Namdharis – and not just American Sikhs — are also known to make contributions to their specific places of worship. In this way, caste-based immigrant donations keep the immigrants tethered to Punjab, reinforce caste identities, and raises questions regarding Sikh immigrants’ meaning of “home.”

Here again, I ask whether preservation of ties with Sikhism by supporting religious projects in Punjab is possibly linked with the immigrants’ marginalisation as Sikhs in American society. As the minority religion, Sikhism is not reflected in the larger cultural imagination, including aesthetics and celebration of religious holidays. Nurturing Sikhism in Punjab is perhaps a way for the immigrants to create a space where the group can imagine belonging. Is this “reactive transnationalism?” That is, the idea that experience of exclusion in the place of settlement only serves to strengthen participation in transnational activities by immigrants. Future research will have to explore such questions. But do note that research has shown Sikh immigrants to have used resources obtained overseas to enhance izzat in their village community in Punjab. Thus, philanthropy in Punjab may not all be a result of exclusion in places of settlement. Yet another question that the scholarship must pursue.


Sikhs have shown interest in the betterment of Punjab since their arrival to the North American continent in the early twentieth century. The areas that have received the greatest attention, following interest in religious initiatives, are education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Of these three areas of development, education has historically ranked first. The efforts to promote education in the villages in Punjab range from setting up schools to establishment of trusts that support local libraries to scholarships for students to donation to even fundraising from immigrants for Punjab. Some of the initiatives led by American Sikhs even have global ties, like the Dhaliwal Academy in the village of Rakhra that is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. American Sikhs have financed construction of hospitals in their natal villages and/or established medical trusts for villagers. America based immigrant, Hoshiar Singh donated money to the Ayurvedic Medical College and Hospital run by Shahid Kartar Sarabha Charitable Trust in the village of Sarabha. Dr. Raghbir Singh Basi, an academic at Alaska Pacific University, developed a plan to promote basic ground level changes in water supply, hygiene, sanitation, and computer education. Dr. Basi, and Dr. Gurdev Singh Gill from Canada, also funded parks, treated the sewerage system, installed streetlights powered by solar energy, covered pavements in the village of Kharaudi in the district of Hoshiarpur. Still others, like American immigrant, Dr. Amarjit Singh Marwah, have supported construction of low cost housing as well.

Interestingly, American Sikhs, as well as Sikhs who have immigrated elsewhere, were not always as involved with the health sector (and other development projects), Satnam Chana* asserts based on a survey administered in 2002. But when that same survey was administered in 2007, a significant increase was recorded in investment in general social development projects. Perhaps the increase is attributable to incentives offered by the Indian government when the country was forced to accept foreign competition. Availability of dual citizenship, financial stimuli, setting up of political offices to address the needs of overseas Sikhs (and Indians) are some of the ways in which the Indian government motivated its emigrants to undertake progress in Punjab (and India overall). Such strategies to solicit funding from overseas Sikhs have been adopted as the state retreated from its responsibility, including financing the education system, in the era of economic liberalisation and likely to have inadvertently reinforced the idea of the Sikh “homeland” in Punjab.


American Sikhs construct of “homeland” is multidimensional. This fight for a separate Sikh state pre-dates India’s independence and found support in the American diaspora as early as the 1940s. Disappointment with the treatment of Sikhs by the Indian government in the post 1984 period is when the movement gathered renewed support among American Sikhs. This “homeland” that the American Sikhs, along with Sikhs elsewhere, supported was intertwined with political aspirations, a home where Sikh voices would not be suppressed by Hindu-dominated India. Much later, one sees a similar movement for “home” in the Free Akal Takht organisation. The objective here is  to get control over Akal Takht, sever it from the authority of SGPC, and have a say in decision-making that impacts Sikhs everywhere.

But American Sikhs’ engagement with Punjab is more than realising Khalistan and power over Akal Takht. The immigrants also invest in philanthropic endeavors by constructing gurdwaras or sponsoring religious events in Punjab. Such involvements are suggestive of a spiritual relationship with Punjab. Punjab is the birthplace of Sikhism, although Nankana Sahib where Guru Nanak was born is in today’s Pakistan. Nonetheless, the Golden Temple, Akal Takht and the broader Indian nation’s association of Sikhism with the state of Punjab make the two – Punjab and Sikhism – inseparable. Quite likely, Sikh concepts of dan, or charity, seva, or selfless service, provide additional impetus for engagement in specifically Sikh religious matters. Perhaps, giving back to one’s ancestral village is a way to give back to one’s “own” community, or a place that one identifies as “home.” Intertwined with Sikh religious values of charity and selfless service that incentivises the immigrants to contribute to Punjab is the concept of izzat, or honor, as suggested by Verne Dusenbery, with his research focused on the United Kingdom, put forward a similar connection between izzat, diaspora and Punjab. He argues that the construction of homes in Punjab is demonstration of wealth and assertion of izzat by nonresident Indians. For American Sikhs, then is the importance of asserting a higher social status in Punjab through religious contribution an indication of their connection to Punjab as “home,” a place where they are “seen” and thus experience a sense of belonging? I say the answer is yes – the same reason for contributions toward development projects in Punjab.

As well, this essay showed that American Sikhs desire izzat from the immigrant transnational community. Demonstration of success through material contributions, be it for religion and/or development, points in that direction. Steve Taylor certainly maintains that the houses built by the British Punjabi NRIs in their villages “are signifiers of belonging to, and inclusion within, not only Punjab as a region and India as a nation but also the non-resident Indian community in Punjab/India and the global Punjabi diaspora/ transnational community”. That means, it is important to consider the extent to which the contributions made toward gurdwaras, or religious events as well as money invested for village improvement projects are suggestive of competition within the Sikh transnational community. Then, that transnational space is also “home” for the immigrants. Contrary to the imagination of a “homeland” bounded by territory in the form of Punjab, the boundaries of the transnational space as “home” (without land) is a flexible one; fluid because it shifts to fit the flexible boundaries of the transnational space.

This brings us to the next question, i.e., to what extent is this identification of “homeland/home” with Punjab and/or the transnational arena intertwined with Sikh location as racial minorities in America? Giorgio Shani contends that marginalisation in the immigrants’ place of settlement as racial minorities is indeed connected to the group’s quest for a “homeland” or a separate nation. Pursuit of a Sikh “homeland” will protect the interests of the group, and that, in turn, will make it possible for those like the American Sikhs to wield power in their place of settlement. Thus, the belonging is sought in the place of settlement but with the tools made available by an exclusively Sikh nation.

The struggle for greater independence in the diaspora the Akal Takht movement can be viewed through this lens. Certainly, the Ghadr movement of the early twentieth century in which American Sikhs, along with fellow Indian immigrants, fought to free India from colonial rule was connected to the racism experienced by Sikhs, and other South Asians, who had immigrated to America. Of course, the Ghadarites fought as Indians to free India, a “homeland,” from British imperialism. But, of greater direct relevance to the issue at hand is that their struggle was linked with their experience of racism in America. And even when the goal is not for a separate “homeland” or for liberation from the Indian government necessarily, participation in Punjabi electoral politics is indicative of that belonging and bond that the group continues to share with Punjab – a bond that might be linked with being non-white in America. Furthermore, the quest for a ‘homeland’ by diaspora Sikhs is likely connected with the dominant association of “Indian” with Hindu which excludes Sikhs, and Indians of other non-Hindu religions. It is an identity that is promoted by “Indian” immigrants. Therefore, pursuit of a “home” where immigrant Sikhs can imagine complete belonging is empowering for the group.

Having said all this, it would be inaccurate to clearly demarcate “diaspora” and “homeland” between America and Punjab. The Sikh immigrants with their patterns of involvement, including philanthropy, do imagine complete acceptance in Punjab.

But some of the values that guide this engagement with Punjab in the ways discussed here are suggestive of a Sikh identity that is influenced by America as well which, in turn, makes it imperative to not identify America as purely a diasporic space (that is away from the “homeland” in Punjab).

Verne Dusenbery puts forward the argument that “diaspora Sikhs are influenced not only by Punjabi cultural understandings and social practices but also by those of the respective countries to which they have emigrated” and then speaking specifically about migration to Western nations, Dusenbery continues: “Given their international migration patterns, the majority of Sikh emigrants have experienced some form of Western modernity”. An aspect of that modernity is the absorption of values that support charity, religious or secular, which is supported by the state through tax deductible donations (Dusenbery) – types of engagement with Punjab that is evident among American Sikhs. There is moreover another aspect of western modernity identified by Dusenbery that is noteworthy, i.e., a “sense of progress and of bringing ‘development’ to those ‘less developed’. The preference for a “globalised education” that emphasises instruction in English, technical education, private ownership of institutions and projects for improvement in their natal villages show the ways in which American Sikhs attempt to bring progress. One thus sees that the group’s “Sikhness,” “Punjabiness” and “Indianness” gradually meld with an emergent American conception of self.

What it also indicates is that the Sikh identity stretches beyond a mere instrumental relationship with America as suggested by Soysal’s understanding of immigrant citizenship mentioned earlier in the essay, i.e., merely to ensure political rights or citizenship. The attachment is a cultural one as well where American Sikhs are shaped by the values of the place where they have settled. Here, one might want to note that the Sikh immigrants arrive from a nation previously governed by the British that is likely to have already shaped their identity in favor of a western view of. Thus, postcolonial identity, which immigrates with them to the west, shows that they were primed to absorb western modernity to begin with. Sikh immigrants create home in the “diaspora” as they create home in Punjab as well. The sense of self is impacted by ancestral, spiritual, and natal ties with Punjab, as well as shaped by the experience of western modernity. Hence, a binary of “homeland” and “diaspora” is difficult given these various components of the American Sikh identity.

More work is needed in four other areas of the American Sikh experience:

  1. scholarship should further examine with empirical research the ways in which caste hierarchies within the American Sikh community, that migrate along with the immigrants are re-configured and influence the community’s construct of home. The presence of caste identified gurdwaras, like the ones in the New York and New Jersey areas show that the Sikh community is not a monolith. How do those intragroup differences shape American Sikh identity and their sense of belonging?
  2. the American Sikh community is also differentiated on the basis of social class and rural versus urban backgrounds; how do socioeconomic and spatial differences, along with caste, shape the boundaries of the Sikh community in America and shape the people’s view of “home?”
  3. more light needs to be thrown on gender by those invested in theorizing about the immigrant Sikh construct of “homeland.” The Khalsa identity of Sikhs, which embodies the male and/or masculinized body as representative of Sikhism, receives much support in the diaspora.
  4. more empirical, and specifically, qualitative work, is needed on American Sikhs to assess how intragroup differences shape the experience of race in America and thus, also inform the group’s construct of home.


Within the parameters of the information presented here, it can be argued that the patterns of commitment of American Sikhs, namely in the areas of politics, religion and development, show continued attachment with Punjab. Yet the immigrants identify with the country of immigration as well.

Further, attachment with America is not just on the grounds of political rights and privileges, or citizenship, but also because there is a likely absorption of its cultural values which is suggestive of being “from” America as well.

Perhaps “homes” are many for immigrant Sikhs. More scholarship is needed on Sikh immigrants’ understandings of “homeland” and “diaspora” with sustained focus on post coloniality and the ways in which intra-group divisions and the racism experienced influence constructions of “homeland” and “diaspora.”

By: Diditi Mitra

Diditi Mitra is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brookdale Community College. Her research focuses on race and immigration. Diditi has authored Punjabi Immigrant Mobility in the United States: Adaptation through Race and Class & co-edited Race & the Lifecourse: Readings from the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity & Age, along with having published academic articles. As well, Diditi currently serves on the editorial board of Sikh Research Journal as the book review editor. Diditi is also a Kathak dancer.


(This article is edited from a version that first appeared in the Journal of Punjab Studies, Volume 22, Number 2, Fall 2015).

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