Wednesday, 1 May 2013

A Sikh Diaspora Story

Introductory note: 
SEWA UK is a family blogspot with a Sikh heritage bias.  World renowned, SikhWorld Music pioneer, our youngest brother, Dya Singh of Australia, wrote my story on Sikhnet, "My "Bai"....." in May 2013.
It was  well received. 

When I read it, I was touched. 

At the age of 77 years, and after an angioplasty "plumbing job" around the heart, one begins to look at self from a distance, like another person.   

Despite glossing over many of my failings, "Dyalay" as he is affectionately called (but only by our mother and me !), has written a reasonably balanced account of my life and mission, . He is over 12 years younger than me and I never realised that he had read me so well over the years. I trust this short story of diaspora Sikhs, albeit, centred around the biographical account of one character, would help next generations to better understand the background and personalities of their migrant forefathers; and the compulsions which drove them to cover much ground in their lifetimes. 

Hopefully, unlike the shoddy journalism to date about diaspora Sikhs, this story by a non-journalist, will be regarded as a benchmark for research based biographical accounts of Sikh diaspora pioneers in future.   
Gurmukh Singh    

A Sikh diaspora story:
My 'Bai': Principal Gurmukh Singh of UK

By Dya Singh (Australia)

(Author: Dya Singh)
I recollect his story of one Geneva Conference on Tariffs in 1986, before the Uruguay World Trade Round, where, as he entered the conference hall and presented his credential, on seeing his white dastaar and beard he was led away by the European usher saying,"Meester Seeengh, theese vay please”,. to the distant Indian table and then led back with profuse apologies, to the British table when the mistake was discovered. This was perhaps the crowning moment of his career in the British Civil Service.

Taking Sikh identity to European forums:  The European Transonic Windtunnel multinational project at Cologne.
My oldest brother Principal Gurmukh Singh of UK, who I still refer to affectionately as 'Bai', and I, have grown up in different environments or different generations. Our middle brother Baldev Singh in South Australia, is the classic middle child - the sedate one, the one who steadies the boat, the quiet, thoughtful one who normally ends up having the last word, in his own quiet way. Our sister who was the eldest, passed away in February 2012 in San Jose, California at 77 years of age.

This is my story about Bai, who is not only my oldest brother, but my mentor, my peer, the harshest critique of my presentation of 'world music' style kirtan, but also the father figure after the passing away of Bapu Ji.

[ Note about "Principal Saab": When Bai retired as a "Principal" grade (First Division) Civil Servant, those who knew him in the Sikh community, referred to him as "Principal Saab". That is how he is popularly known to Sikh British media and organisations.] 

Bai grew up truly in the school of hard knocks right from birth.

He was born on 11 September, 1938 in the remote border state of Kutch, just north of Gujerat. Bapu Ji was at that time a royal guard in the Maharajah of Kutch's regiment.

A little bit about our venerable father, Giani Harchand Singh Bassian of Malaysia.
Bapu Ji (tall Gursikh in the centre) with Baba Sohan Singh Malaca (Malaysia) at foundation laying ceremony of a new Gurdwara.
(See article about Bapu ji, "Man with a Mission" by Gurmukh Singh at links:  )

(Note: copy paste URLs to read article.)

Bapu Ji was an only child and orphaned at about 5 years of age. His life was always in danger even from kith and kin as the village chieftainship (lambardari) of Dhailwals, belonged in the family and his death would have meant that someone else in the family could take over this normally hereditary and prestigious title and his land. He escaped murder attempts and even a poisoning by them. As you can see, we originate from a rather 'rough' neighbourhood: the historical Village of Bassian near Raikot in the Malwa district of Ludhiana in Punjab!

Due mainly to his dangerous environment and the fact that he was an orphan, Bapu Ji, as a youth, used to run away from his village and fell into the company of sadhus who looked after him and introduced him to their brand of spirituality and also taught him kirtan. Kirtan and spirituality (which was obviously dominated with Sikhi) gave Bapu Ji solace, and Bebe Ji's Sikhi leanings helped him along. (My Nana Ji saw great potential and had great affection for this orphan and gave one of his daughters, our dear Bebe Ji, in marriage to him.) Through all this, Bapu Ji managed to educate himself in Gurmukhi and Gurmatt.

So, Bai, being the eldest son, was brought up under strict constant supervision and discipline in this rather severe and dangerous environment.

The fact that he was also rather mischievous, meant severe ‘chastisements’ - at times physical. A scar on the ridge of his nose bears testimony to a direct hit of a utensil used as a projectile by Bebe Ji in frustration and anger. No parent those days spared the rod.

Bapu Ji was a natural Punjabi spiritual minstrel (kavishar, dhad-sarangi, kirtenia and percharak). But knowing the lot of a granthi or a religious minstrel in Punjab, he tried his hand at other vocations like the forces (royal guard in Kutch), and then the Engineering Corp in the British Army in Ambala Cantonment during WW2, but his calling was always of a religious nature.

Bapu ji in 1937 at Kutch where Bai was born in September 1938.

Bebay ji with Bai in 939 at Kutch

In the Engineering Corp he used to do kirtan amongst the Sikh army personnel before his formal duties. He was spotted and promoted, to become the Regimental granthi to serve at Badshahi Bagh Gurdwara, Ambala, built by the army.

Bapu ji at Gurdwara Badshahi Baag Ambala 1944.

Granthi was a highly respected position in the Armed Forces, but unfortunately not necessarily so, in civil life as it proved later, in Malaya.

Then came, perhaps, our break as a family. Baldev was already born.

The sangat of Raub in the Pahang State, British Malaya, sought Bapu Ji out to migrate to Malaya as a government paid Punjabi school teacher. The lure of going overseas was very attractive. My family migrated to Malaya soon after the end of WW2 and the partition of India reaching Malaya in early January 1948. Bai was about nine. Baldev was about four years old. I was born about four years later in Raub in Pahang State. Regrettably, our elder sister Sarandeep, who was about 12 years and at school was left behind with our elder Marsi ji at our Nanaka village Dhandra. Marsi ji never married and retired as a school teacher.

In no time at all, Bai learnt English and excelled in school. Being a rough and tough 'pendu jat' too, he was always in trouble - getting into fights but generally gaining a reputation for leadership potential, amongst school staff and students. I have heard plenty of stories of stopping school bullies with his own brand of physical persuasion and earning respect even from his teachers - one who even taught him how to box properly after observing Bai chastise a bully! Due to his leadership qualities and honesty, he was school prefect from a very young age.

Unfortunately he never had the luxury of schooling in one place as Bapu Ji, a disciplined and upright Sikh luminary, got into trouble with the gurdwara committee in Raub. They expected him to act subservient to them whereas Bapu Ji believed that he was answerable to his Guru and the sangat (holy congregation). From the severe background he came from, he was, naturally, not schooled in the art of diplomacy nor did he have the inclination of bending his Guru-given principles. He had a saying - 'I can break but I cannot bend.'

Bapu Ji was sacked from his position in Raub with a 24 hours notice to get out, because he refused to allow the gurdwara committee from flying an Indian national flag right beside the Nishan Sahib and not acting like a servant to the committee.

[The letter of 'sacking' and other documents are available in Bai's blog -
[ See lower down below memorable group/sangat photos, the heading, "Changing times half a century ago: Arrival of new generation gurdwara managers (teachers & baboos) with new ideas.
..................The sacking of a "Babay da Vazir" who refuses to allow the flag of a country to be hoisted on the same flag post as Gurdwara Nishan Sahib. The Giani/teacher, married with three children, two in school, given 12 days notice to leave Gurdwara accommodation. ]

Bapu ji, Giani Harchand Singh Bassian as he was in Malaya.

Bai played a very important role at this juncture because due to this bitter experience, Bapu Ji was ready to pack up and take the family back to Punjab. Bai (about 15 years old here), strongly backed by Bebe Ji put the case forward to Bapu Ji that as a family they would never be able to progress if they returned to Punjab, especially back to the rough neighbourhood of the village Bassian. (We normally joke that we three, or at least Bai and I, would probably have turned out as dacoits if we had gone back to the village!)

Bai and Bebe Ji felt that they needed to do everything possible to stay on in Malaya/Malaysia and struggle on. A momentous decision which in hindsight was the right decision for the family though it left Bapu Ji a rather sad, disillusioned man, but one who with his strong religious convictions and 'Chardhi Kala' spirit was prepared to struggle on for the sake of his sons and continue Sikhi perchar and kirtan – his first love. Struggle he did, all his working life.

Bapu Ji tried his hand at a couple of other vocations. He became a bus conductor but his health deteriorated. He then took up a partnership running a provision shop in the town of Taiping in Perak State (my favourite childhood town in Malaysia and where I began my schooling) but was taken to the cleaners by his partner - a Sikh, in fact a former granthi himself! Defeated once again, Bapu Ji went back to being a granthi on the island of Penang first, while the family stayed behind in Taiping.

Bai had to move from school to school but excelled anyway. I think he was embittered by the lowly status we were in - the family of a former jat lambardar, orphaned, and then belittled and humiliated by a gurdwara committee. He yearned to change all that - for himself, for Bapu Ji and for the family. But he was never one to seek a quick fix or short cut in his life. It is a family trait in hard, honest work (kirt kamayi) and moving forward through merit.

In school, inTaiping, Bai passed his (Senior Cambridge) final schooling exams in flying colours being amongst the top three students. He was accepted in Form 6 (pre-university) in the science stream but the family poverty meant that he could not continue his studies despite a Rotary Club scholartship. Bai also taught tuition to other Sikh youngsters to supplement the money sent to us by Bapu Ji from Penang.

Academically, Bai always excelled as he refused to ever be second best. In Gurmukhi, he wrote his first full article at age 15. It was about the unfair treatment that Bapu Ji received from his posting as Teacher/Granthi in Raub. No names were mentioned. He used a pen name to write it too. It was published in “Pardesi Khalsa Sewak”, the only Punjabi weekly newspaper published in the old Malaya. It was some time before even Bapu Ji uncovered that Bai at that young age had written it after some Sikh luminaries came to visit him wondering who had written this astute article which seemed to be about Bapu Ji, his lofty status as a Panthic savant, but ill-treated and humiliated by a gurdwara committee.

As time went by, Bai himself grew disillusioned of Malaya when he saw growing sycophancy and favouritism rather than meritocracy in the newly independent country (1957). The last straw was when he went for the written and physical examination to enter the prestigious Federation Military College (which was later renamed Royal Military College). Even though he was told that he had come out at second position (twelve were to be taken) within all the applicants, he was overlooked. Most of the entrants were the local Malays – under the so-called policy of affirmative action for the locals.

Bai decided to go to India to study further. He was readily admitted in Khalsa College Amritsar due to his excellent schooling results in Malaya, to do medicine.

He completed his pre-medical (F Sc) but, as fate would have it, due to family 'politics', once again, he decided to 'get away', this time to try and make his mark in the land of the 'white sahib' - United Kingdom. He had some interesting experiences during his 21 days ship journey from Bombay to Tilbury, London. He was in UK by the end of August 1960.

His struggles began anew in a country at a time when (1960's) Sikhs were expected to cut their hair to get a job, and most of them did. He persevered, doing menial jobs and studying for the Institute of Chartered Secretaries qualifications. He also applied to join the British Civil Service (Department of Trade & Industry) and succeeded to begin in a modest ranking. He was probably the first “sabat surat” (full Sikh identity) Sikh to be admitted to the British Civil Service on 10 December 1962.

Importantly he had secured permanent employment and was well on his way to becoming a Chartered Secretary. With his qualifications and personal qualities he naturally rose in rank – from Executive Officer ending as Principal (Policy). Thankfully, the British Civil Service works on a merit basis.

Meanwhile, he had been supporting us and then invited Baldev to join him in UK.  Baldev migrated and began his studies to become an engineer.

When Bai left for overseas I was about 8 years old. He meant the world to me. He was my hero. I missed him terribly. It all seemed so very unfair that he had left me and gone. Then Baldev left to join Bai in UK, when I was about 14. So, my most impressionable years, my teens, were without their company. We drifted apart, or perhaps I was finding my own identity.

Both Bai and Baldev found their wives (my Bhabi Jis) in UK. They married and raised their families.

Even when I went to UK in 1971 for higher studies after my schooling in Malaysia, we were not very close. I migrated to Australia ten years later finding it difficult to stay in UK due to its generally miserable cold weather. Coming from a tropical country I could not stand having to go to and come back from work in darkness and miserable cold in winter, leading to unreasonably long days and short nights in summer, which was still colder than a decent invigorating tropical day in Malaysia! I migrated to Australia – more my kind of a country.

So, from my childhood until perhaps my tours as “Dya Singh World Music Group” began in 1999 - a gap of about three decades, we were not close. I think I surprised Bai that I was doing something worthwhile and in Panthic sewa and our relationship rejuvenated.

Bai, attained the topmost ranking at the time for any non-white in the British civil service, the position of Principal (Policy) and became probably the first non-white civil servant to represent a UK department abroad. This was after his return to his department from the National Economic Developement Office, where he was on secondment as the head of Personnel and Training.

I recollect his story of one Geneva Conference on Tariffs in 1986, before the Uruguay World Trade Round, where as he entered the conference hall and presented his credential, on seeing his white dastaar and beard he was led away by the European usher saying,"Meester Seeengh, theese vay please”,. to the distant Indian table and then led back with profuse apologies, to the British table when the mistake was discovered. This was perhaps the crowning moment of his career in the British Civil Service.

The simple 'jat' son of a lowly orphaned granthi had fought through all adversity and reached the echelons of European administration - the EEC, probably the most powerful body leading the world, alongside USA then, and representing the United Kingdom, the country of the former 'white Sahibs'. He became well known to airline staff, and immigration officials at Brussels and Geneva, and met many senior-most people in European governments and the business communities during the post 1984 years. He gave trade talks at Chambers of Commerce and Export Clubs at main UK cities, and briefed a House of Lords committee about the world Harmonised System for tariffs. He spoke before trade delegations from abroad.  He managed multi-million pound budgets as a Paliamentary Vote Manager. He was the head of policy and administration in the Civil Aircraft Research and Development - a joint civil and defence programme.

Since the fateful 1984, Bai has worked tirelessly doing his part to try to bring together the various Sikh bodies as one community lobby group in Britain on matters which affect Panthic interests. Never one to look for the prominent posts like “jathedar” or “pardhan sahib”, he is content to play the vital advisory role. I have seen his frustrations as leaders in these diverse Sikh organisations refuse to look at community interests above their own vested organisational or personal interests.

(I remember the push by some Sikh organisations for census recognition of Sikhs as an ethnic minority for monitoring purpose. It was a House of Commons presentation that he put it in a nutshell – “If you are not counted, you do not count”! Even the jathedars understood and agreed with a loud jaikara ! Unbelievably, many prominent and leading Sikhs in UK could not see the very obvious benefit of it and insisted that Sikhs should be considered a ‘religious’ group, not an “ethnic” minority as defined by the House of Lords in the celebrated Mandla Case decision of 1983.)

But he battles on and always has an optimistic outlook for Sikhs and Sikhism.

Thankfully, despite recent angioplasty operation, he is, as we jokingly quip 'phiting phit at sebenty-phiphe with Baba’s phul kirpa’ (fighting fit at 75 with Baba Ji’s full kirpa).

If Bai has a fault, it is probably his obsession with Sikh Panthic unity and common direction worldwide. Time spent with him is like being with a walking-talking Sikhi encyclopaedia - Sikh theology, Sikh history, 'Guru-itihas' and anything else Sikh. He has little time for mundane things except doing his gardening, regular sauna and swim and long drives into the country. He hates visitors including relatives (except very close friends); time wasted in 'gup-shup' and formal visiting.

He is not overly accommodating towards those who hold themselves out as 'Sants', 'Babas' or 'Bhai Sahibs' and especially those who promote, encourage or create their own little kingdoms, 'deras' or sub-sects within Sikhism; especially if they encroach on mainstream Sikhi principles.

However, he even assists these ‘sects’ on occasion when he feels some Panthic objective is being achieved. For example, he translated, from Punjabi to English, the biography of Bhai Rama Singh, a very influential figure in the Akhand Kirteni Jatha movement in UK. (In Punjabi the title is ‘Roop Gobind ka. Raaj Khalsay ka. Sika Sonay ka’. In English Bai called it –‘In search of the True Guru’) It is the story of a Hindu who discovered Sikhi and lived it in his own brand of piety and sincerity within the Akhand Kirteni Jatha. It is a very good read for Sikhs. (Google - Bhai Rama Singh)

Bai lives mainstream Sikhi as a way of life and works hard through various avenues towards cooperation of Sikhs and Sikh organisations worldwide, especially in UK. Perhaps he is more a 'Miri' Sikh and less a 'Piri' Sikh - more about responsible social conduct and evolution and growing maturity as a 'quom' rather than coming up with more elaborate religious ceremonies, prayers, rituals, new sects or even more gurdwaras (unless a new community gets established). His passion is to interpret Gurbani in terms of 21st. century issues and sifting through and promoting latest research in line with the relevance of Sikhi today and into the future.

Since retirement in June 1996, he has become popular as a weekly column writer. He started with the UK’s first English weekly, “The Sikh Times”. In recent years, his English lead column in the weekly 'Panjab Times' (also available online), is read by thousands in the Sikh diaspora. He has written hundreds of articles on a whole range of Sikh issues. His blog is popular amongst those researching Sikhi or looking for information for presentations on mainstream Sikhi, especially current topics like environmental issues, abortion, ageing, mixed marriages, equality issues, caste law in the UK etc. His preference is for short articles, booklets and centennial publications for busy readers. He has contributed significantly to comparative studies of religion and to books by late Gurbachan Singh Sidhu including “Sikh Religion and Islam” which he co-authored.

Amongst his friends are the Sikh scholars like the world renowned historian, Dr. Jagtar Singh Grewal, and the inimitable Dr. I J Singh of New York.

Bai with renowned historiographer, Dr Jagtar Singh Grewal

With legendary S. Khushwant Singh and S. Jagjit Singh Ghungrana at Kasauli.

He is consulted by many Sikh organisations; and writers often ask him to write forewords and reviews for new publications on Sikh issues. Never one to align himself with any one movement amongst Sikhs, he is always there to help when needed.

He does lean towards Khalsa Aid for the phenomenal aid work that the organisation carries out worldwide with minimal support, and the Sikh Missionary Society, Southall, UK.

Khalsa Aid:  Founder Ravinder Singh doing Ardas with children before eating food 

Sikh institutions do approach him when his advice and drafting expertise is needed. He is, after all, an ex-British civil servant with over 33 years’ service, the last 15 or so in the higher echelons of the British Civil Service in policy divisions, with full knowledge and experience in diplomacy and governmental, intra-governmental and inter-governmental wheeling and dealing (‘Government-speak’, he calls it).

He is never one to seek accolades for himself and is always shying away from public 'social appearances' and functions. He keeps a low profile never seeking accolades.

Today, through Bai’s life-long effort driven by what our Bapu Ji went through, he has achieved his aim. He lives a comfortable retirement and works on in Panthic sewa. Baldev is an engineer, ex-town councillor and Justice of the Peace, also doing Panthic and community sewa in South Australia. He is a community representative there and very much involved in inter-cultural affairs. I play my modest part travelling with my group singing gurbani and whatever assistance I can give at Sikh youth camps and so on. Yes, we have come very far from a lowly, but highly talented, learned and very spiritually inclined granthi, to three brothers and a sister who, with Guru Ji's grace have come this far.

I cannot ask for a better Bai or a better middle older brother, Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP (ex-Councillor Riverland, national award winner for community work.
Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP honoured with a mult-cultural award at Adelaide.

Though we have not always agreed on all matters, and do not come from a very forgiving nature, we do have a unique relationship. Now (drawing a parallel to Aussie-rules football which is played in four quarters) we are in the fourth and final quarter of our lives and we have Baba Ji’s blessings. When we are together making merry with our venerable Bebe Ji in our midst, it feels like we have found our heaven upon this earth. We benefit from the 'kamayian' (good lives) of our elders, especially our Bapu Ji, and we are truly grateful to Akal Purakh.

Bapu Ji did not like having to answer to committees or anyone else except to his 'Guru' and God. Today, all three of us, too, have that gift from Waheguru. With His grace, we continue our 'sewa' to our faith, our Guru and Waheguru.

Finally, we ask for the best for our offsprings, whatever their attitudes and directions in life are. With generational change and changing environments come changes in attitude towards religion, family values, work ethic and relationships. They will deal with their challenges just like past generations did with theirs. However, one hopes that they learn something from our lives and the lives of our past generations.

For further information on Principal Gurmukh Singh and his articles and thoughts on Sikhi and Sikh Panthic matters, and our collection of old and new photographs, please visit his blog :

Dya Singh
5 James Street
Noble Park, Victoria 3174
Australia Tel: +613 95478958
Exploring the Spirit Thru Music

©Dya Singh
Article may be quoted from or published with acknowledgement

Sunset years

This is Sikhi today!  (at Mani Karan)

With Gurmat Gian Missionary College senior staff & Gurmat Gian Group (Classical Gurbani Kirtan): GGMC promote missionary training and charity work in rural Panjab.

Late Sardar Gurbachan Singh Sidhu - Founder Sikh Missionary Society UK and Sikh Sewak Society charity.

Khalsa Aid Annual reception 2015

Bebay ji & Bai