Reading Time: 4 minutesMigrant stories come alive through chance encounters with enterprising Sikhs in the heart of Myanmar
One sunny afternoon a few weeks ago as we were travelling through the Shan state in eastern Burma (Myanmar), through the town of Taunggyi meaning ‘huge mountain’ to be precise, we were startled to come across a gurdwara! We stopped to have a look. Here we met Tara Singh, the caretaker, who identified himself as a Burmese Sikh. In all respects he looked a Sikh except that he wore the Burmese traditional attire, a longyi that is similar to the Indian lungi. Just a couple of hours before in a small village on the road to Kakku, we were intrigued when we spotted a turbaned Sikh, Avatar Singh, in his wayside convenience store. He too, like Tara Singh, had dual names – Sikh and Burmese, but he had lost all knowledge of the Punjabi language.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the presence of my Sikh brothers in this quiet part of the world. Tara Singh, ordained as ‘gyani’ by the other Punjabi locals, wasfluent in Punjabi and Hindi, and narrated to us his story of migration and survival. Tara Singh came to Burma in the 1930s but when the Japanese occupied Burma in the early 1940s, he fled and took refuge in Calcutta. As a consequence of the Japanese invasion, a large percentage of Indians fled Burma overland into Assam, largely on foot. Others returned after the war, but many never did.
Hearing his story, I recalled the vivid descriptions of this exodus in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, of how the refugees suffered terribly and thousands died. Tara Singh stayed in Kolkata till the infamous riots broke out in Kolkata after India’s Independence in 1948, when he once again escaped to Burma and has been a resident of the Shan state since.
The Sikh migration to Burma started in the 19th century with the British Indian Army. Sikh soldiers took part in sizeable and growing numbers in the wars that the British waged against the Burmese kings. After the last (the Third War in 1885-86) war, Burma became a province of British India. Many Indians migrated to Burma at this time. Tara Singh mentioned that in the 1930s there were more than 10,000 Sikhs in Burma, and Taunggyi was home to a few thousand of them. Now there are only about 40 Sikh families.
Most of the Sikh families congregate on Sundays at the Taunggyi gurdwara for prayers and langar, the free communal meals. The British supported and encouraged Sikhs to build gurdwaras for which land was generously allotted. But all this ended in the era of the so called ‘Burmese way to Socialism’. The Taunggyi gurdwara received a Government notice that it was to be pulled down to widen the road. Tara Singh proudly states that with the support of patrons and many relatives overseas, it was not only re-built but done so on a much larger scale. Vahe guru ji ka Khalsa, Vahe guru ji ki Fateh – the victory belongs to God, reiterated.
It was just not the Sikh Army personnel who migrated to Burma. Many infrastructure projects were started by the British colonial government and it contributed to an unprecedented economic boom in Burma that drew many other Indians. Many migrated – as civil servants, engineers, river pilots, soldiers, indentured labourers and traders.
As we left the Shan state a few days later, at the Heho airport waiting for a delayed flight, we met yet another Sardar brother, jovial sexagenarian, Surinder Singh. He was a retired tailor. Unlike many of his relatives who returned to India after the socialists took over, he stayed in Burma through all the good and bad times, philosophising that life’s pleasures and turmoils are everywhere. Surinder Singh was indeed a philosopher and he quoted with ease from the works of Khalil Gibran, Bahadur Shah Zafar and Friedrich Nietzsche! He recounted the call of freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Bose at Taunggyi, to join his Indian National Army. Although Surinder Singh did not actively respond to the call, he remembered its intensity as if it was an event of yesterday. He was fighting his own battle of survival. Life wasn’t easy under the British or the Japanese; nor was it under the military Burmese governments since the 1960s. In fact, after Burma got its independence, the law treated most Indians as ‘resident aliens’. But Surinder Singh has survived to tell the tale.
Such has been many a story of migration – a story of struggles, hardships, and challenges. But as Surinder Singh summed it up in his philosophical way, ‘home is where the heart is’! This sentiment is also echoed in the words written by the Mughal King Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was exiled by the British to Burma and died there in 1862, pining for his motherland India. His poignant words “Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafan ke liye do gaz zamin bhi na mil saki kuye yaar mein!” (How unlucky is Zafar! For burial, even two yards of land were not to be had in the land of his beloved!) are inscribed on his tomb in quiet corner of Yangon.