Sava-Lakh: Aussie Sikhs come of age

| Opinion | Australia | 4 July 2017 | Asia Samachar |


By Dya Singh

The latest Australian Census (2016), shows officially, that Sikhs in Australia now number ‘Sava Lakh’ – one hundred and twenty-five thousand. Specifically 125.9 thousand. Official figures were released a few days ago and analyses have started flowing in, and being talked about in the mainstream media. I must admit to a sense of pride when Sikhs and Sikhism keep getting mentioned occasionally.

Hence ‘Sava-lakh se aik ledaun…’ takes on a new meaning for us in Australia because, firstly, we now outnumber the globally prominent and very much older community of Jews – 91,000. This means that whenever major ‘religious groups’ are mentioned in Australia, for the first time ‘we’ shall not fall into the ‘Other’ category. We finally stand on our own two feet!

For those interested, we are now officially at number 5 on the ‘religious groups in Australia’ ladder. Christians are 52.1%. Muslims 2.6%. Buddhists 2.4%. Hindus 1.9%. Sikhs 0.5%. Jews 0.4%. Other – 0.4%. (Over 33% claimed they do not belong to any particular religion).

SEE ALSO: Census reveals meteoric rise of Sikhism in Australia – SBS 

Those amongst us who subscribe to the mission statement of “Sikh Education Welfare and Advancement” (SEWA) for global Sikh informal networking, and who mounted a strong campaign to encourage Sikhs to state that they are ‘Sikh’ wherever possible, even in the ‘Ethnicity’ Column, must be warmly congratulated. As UK Sikhs realised decades ago following the celebrated House of Lords’ Mandla V Lee case (1983), only statistical monitoring of Sikhs in the diaspora countries can secure Sikh recognition and rights.

Generally, Sikhs, especially in their first generation from India, do have a tendency of considering themselves ‘Indian’ or ‘Punjabi’ over the fact that they are Sikhs first. I know for a fact that concerted efforts were made, especially in Melbourne to educate the Sikh community to put down ‘Sikh’ wherever possible instead of Indian or Punjabi in the census forms. Even last minute phone messages, twittering, whatsapp networking and other forms of electronic communication were sent out reminding Sikhs of this important message. The efforts worked. For a start our ‘official’ population jumped from just over 77,000 five years ago to 125.9 thousand.

This paves the way for Sikhs to be considered in any form of ‘ethnic monitoring’ or when ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’ groups are being considered. For those of us who are conscious of this and its long term impact, this is a big deal!

In the past, when we used to attend ‘inter-faith’ or ‘multifaith’ conferences or conventions, more often than not, as Sikhs, we were either omitted or came under the Hindu banner, or squeezed ourselves in with the Bahais, the Jains, Zoroastrians, and sometimes even the Sai Babas (which, as a group, is not even a religion on its own). Sometimes, as a last minute gesture, on-the-spot name tags and placards were hastily scribbled up for us because we had, on creation of the occasion or event, been left out. The Christians, Muslims, Hindus and even Buddhists and Jews never miss out but we Sikhs almost always did. Now we can stand amongst these other ‘major’ religions and make our rightful contribution to championing inter-religious and multicultural recognition.

In the multicultural arena, we, of course, came under the ‘Indian’ banner. I remember an incident in Adelaide where, about two decades ago, I had tried to coax our Sikh ‘leaders’ there that we should proudly call ourselves Sikhs rather than Indians or Punjabis. Generally they insisted that we were Punjabis first. Others, blissfully could not see what the fuss was about. Those directly from India considered my views to be an affront to their ‘Indianness’ or ‘Punjabiness’.

RELIGION IN AUSTRALIA, 2016 – Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2011 and 2016. See here.

I remember a catchcry I used then, fully applicable for the future too – “The Indians, especially the Punjabis were the ones who used to allow their womenfolk to be taken by the marauding Afghans. The Sikhs used to rescue them and bring them back. So decide whether you are Indians, Punjabis or Sikhs!” But it all fell on deaf ears.

That year, the state Multicultural Department organised a Multicultural schools pageant where all such school children and teachers and community members would parade through the main street of Adelaide leading to a fun fair. Through some astute lobbying by the other ‘Indian’ school administrators it was decided that all the ‘Indian’ languages schools would march under the one Indian flag. They objected to the Punjabi school flag because Punjab was merely another state of India. In fact more than half of it was in Pakistan! There was as would be expected, an uproar from the ‘Punjabi’ school who had the biggest contingent of students and who, naturally, were all Sikhs!

On mediation, the matter was resolved and the Punjabi school was allowed to march as the ‘Sikh’ school, just like the Islamic school was allowed to march in their own right!

I remember a saying from UK which my older brother Pr. Gurmukh Singh OBE used, “if we are not counted, then we do not count”. We are now being counted and we are ‘sava-lakh’ – we have come of age. As Punjabis we lose our very special identity as Sikhs, but as Sikhs we take on a global identity based on a life philosophy with which we identify and shall do so into the future.

Sava-lakh optimistically means ‘One’ in our ‘Gurgajj Bola’– language of thunder, traditionally used by the Nihang Sikhs. To us Sikhs in Australia, this means that we are now ‘One’- a unit, statistically. We count. We matter. We now sit in a category of our own, not under the Punjabi label, nor the Indian label, and certainly not under the Hindu label. For too long we have been held as a Hindu sub-sect. Towards a distinct global Sikh identity, this is a giant step forward. We have finally come of age.

It has been exhilerating to observe the advancement of the positive global Sikh identity especially over the last decade or so, especially after the nightmare of 1984 Ghalughara in Punjab. It started with Dr. Manmohan Singh Ji as Prime Minister of India, though one must admit that he did practically nothing for the Sikhs, except that he is a full-fledged recognisable Sikh! Then it was the rise to Lordship of Sardar Indarjeet Singh Ji in UK and his impactive voice for the Sikhs and Human Rights in Punjab, in the British Parliament. (Now recently we have two new Sikh MP’s in the House of Commons. They are yet to make their mark.)

On our side of the planet we have had opposition MP Karpal Singh in Malaysia and MP’s Jagdev Singh and Inderjeet Singh in Singapore. There is MP Bakhshi in New Zealand. Then of note was the explosion of MP’s in the Federal Canadian Parliament led by Harjit Singh Sajjan as Defence Minister. All this with plenty of adversity from the likes of the RSS in India but also from within the Sikh Quom, and the inertia and sterility of the Akal Takhat.

Now it is up to our Sikh ‘leaders’ in Australia to take advantage of this momentous point in Australian Sikh history to establish ‘Sikhs’ as a prominently recognisable dynamic, law abiding and progressive ‘group’ which is an asset to the country. We want to be involved, as distinctly Sikhs, in all inter-religious dialogue and events; multifaith education in schools; opening ceremonies where all major faiths are involved; inter-faith prayers for special occasions – in short in any commentary or occasions involving ‘faiths’, ‘religions’, ‘minorities’ and ‘ethnic communities’. We might be 0.5% of the population of Australia, but we are ‘sava-lakh’!

It is also up to the astute leaders of our ‘Quom’ to ensure that future census forms are more ‘Sikh-friendly’ so that we do not have to write down that we are Sikhs but just have to tick a column marked Sikh or Sikhism, for religion, for culture, for ethnicity and anyhere else where Sikh or Sikhism is relevant without having to tick the ‘Other’ column.

For me personally it is easy to consider myself a Sikh. I was virtually born in a gurdwara in Malaysia. My venerable father was a brahmgiani ‘vedhvaan’, a Sikh missionary and Granthi Sahib. I studied Gurmukhi as my mother tongue. My culture, if culture means the way one lives, is Sikh. Hence my ethnicity is Sikh, especially as I was born in Malaysia. My flag has been the Nishan Sahib. My National Anthem which traditionally used to be ‘Deh Shiva’ is now ‘Jo Thao Prem Khelan Ka Chao’ – directly from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. In short my life has revolved around Sikhi and Sikh institutions and Sikhi ‘rehni-behni’.

Finally I belong to the international Sikh ‘quom’. I am not overly fixated towards a geographical region but the whole planet. My loyalties lie in the country I call home. Wherever my Guru is in ‘parkash’, (Jithe jae bahay mera Satguru…) is my sanctuary.

Regards to all and love.

Malaysian-born Dya Singh, who now resides in Australia, is an accomplished musician and a roving Sikh preacher. The Dya Singh World Music Group performs full scale concerts on ‘music for the soul’ based on North Indian classical and semi-classical styles of music with hymns from mainly the Sikh, Hindu and Sufi ‘faiths’.

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website:


Census reveals meteoric rise of Sikhism in Australia – SBS (Asia Samachar, 27 June 2017)

Indians in Malaya (Asia Samachar, 22 June 2017)

The Sikhs in Singapore (Asia Samachar, 20 Sept 2016)


  1. What is “ethnicity”? From the dictionary:
    “Ethnicity”: ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association. Belonging to an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, RELIGION, language, or the like. Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.

    “Ethnicity” has been defined by the UK Law Lords in the Mandla case (1983) as:
    “Lord Fraser: For a group to constitute an ethnic group in the sense of the 1976 Act, it must, in my opinion, regard itself, and be regarded by others, as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics. Some of these characteristics are essential others are not essential but one or more of them will commonly be found and will help to distinguish the group from the surrounding community. The conditions which appear to me to be essential are these: (1) a long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive (2) a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance. In addition to those two essential characteristics the following characteristics are, in my opinion, relevant: (3) either a common geographical origin, or descent from a small number of common ancestors (4) a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group (5) a common literature peculiar to the group (6) a common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it (7) being a minority or being an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community, for example a conquered people (say, the inhabitants of England shortly after the Norman conquest) and their conquerors might both be ethnic groups. A group defined by reference to enough of these characteristics would be capable of including converts, for example, persons who marry into the group, and of excluding apostates. Provided a person who joins the group feels himself or herself to be a member of it, and is accepted by other members, then he is, for the purpose of the 1976 Act, a member.”

    Please draw your own conclusion about the global theo-political (miri-piri) Sikh nation.

  2. I can fully understand and appreciate S Dya Singh’s predicament. We in Malaysia face similar problems. I understand that Sikhs are a separate religious group, different from Hindus, etc. Our need for this recognition calls for us to identify ourselves as Sikh and thus attempt to “ensure that future census forms are more ‘Sikh-friendly’ so that we do not have to write down that we are Sikhs but just have to tick a column marked Sikh or Sikhism, for religion, for culture, for ethnicity and anywhere else where Sikh or Sikhism is relevant without having to tick the ‘Other’ column”.
    But what if the column seeks “ethnicity”? Are we ethnically Sikh? What if the same census form says “state your religion”? The answer will be Sikh. If Punjabi is a purely different ethnic group (it’s not really) we still have to deal with the Punjabi Hindu, Christian and Muslim. In order to seek our recognition as Sikhs we have conveniently blurred the line between ‘religion’ and ‘ethnicity’; but we know that isn’t true. That’s our eternal predicament; not easy to side-step that.
    Some clarity please? Anyone?