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Australian Sikhs

This article has been taken from the paper “CONTRIBUTION OF SIKHS TO THE AUSTRALIAN SOCIETY – With Particular Reference to NSW and ACT” by Dr GS Sidhu, Senior Principal Research Scientist CSIRO (Retd). Information given in this article is NOT compiled by the SCA and SCA has not confirmed any of the facts mentioned in this article. SCA has assumed that the research done by Dr Sidhu in preparation of this paper has highlighted the facts and SCA is not responsible for any incorrect information mentioned in this article.

Current estimated population of Australian Sikhs: 22,000 

The Sikhs constitute about 14% of all people of Indian origin who have migrated to Australia (this figure is remarkable when it is considered that Sikhs only constitute about 2.5% of the total population in India)

Sikhs originated in the land of Punjab (which means the Land of Five Rivers). This land (Punjab) has been devided numerous times and currently is in the form of a number of states – Punjab (India), Punjab (Pakistan), Haryana (India), Himachal Pardesh (India) and Chandigarh (India).

These divisions of Punjab, caused due to socio-poliltical uncetainities and injustices to the Sikhs, forced them to move out of their home land, first to other parts of India and then to the neighbouring countries as well as across the continents.

Today, Sikhs are important part of global economy!


By the middle of the 19th Century, Sikhs were being employed by the British as trusted guards and watchmen in colonies like Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China because of their good physique, capacity for hard work and integrity. Some of these workers ventured further south to the Big Island called Australia. Here they found fellow travellers from Western Punjab, Muslims, working as camel drivers in the dry interior. Sikhs found work as hawkers, cane cutters and camel drivers. They were able to obtain a domicile certificate under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (White Australia Policy), but once they left Australia, even for a short visit, their re-entry was made more difficult and their numbers dwindled.

During the Second World War (1939-45), Jagat Singh “Jhatkai” became very well-known in Australia. He was employed by the Australian meat industry to prepare all tinned lamb supplied to the Sikh armed forces serving in different sectors of the world, and all tin cans were stamped with his name. Jagat Singh was a renowned wrestler from the Ferozepore District of Punjab and was given the nickname of Pehlwan. He married a South Indian woman from Fiji and his descendants are still living in the Sydney area.

Jagat Singh was responsible for training another famous Sikh wrestler, Bakhtawar (Buck) Singh Samrai who represented Australia in the heavyweight class at the Tokyo Olympic Games and subsequent Commonwealth Games. Although Buck is in his 70’s he has remained remarkably active and until very recently was working as a coach to young wrestlers in the Brisbane area.

PERIOD FROM 1950 TO 1965

After the Second World War, the British Commonwealth countries evolved a plan, the “Colombo Plan” to stimulate the development of various members of the Commonwealth. One feature of this plan was to provide the means for students of high academic achievement in the developing Commonwealth nations to obtain higher education and training. Australia was in the forefront in providing scholarships and fellowships under this plan.

To the credit of the Punjab (India) Government, the initial selection of students for the Colombo Plan scholarships to Australia, was made strictly on the grounds of academic merit. Students who had stood first in graduating with a B.Sc.Agr. from the Panjab University for the years 1945,47, 48 and 49 were awarded fellowships by the Australian Government, and all four received Ph.D’s in their respective fields. Of these four students, three were Sikhs. In addition, two more Sikh students were trained at the Ph.D. level at this time.

Starting from about 1950, Australian Universities and other tertiary institutions began to expand rapidly. Educational opportunities in Australia attracted many Sikh students from countries like India, Singapore, and Malaysia etc. Although the opportunity for employment for trained personnel was good, the White Australia Policy prohibited the employment of non-whites. Some students fell in love and married “white” Australians. They were allowed to remain in Australia only if children resulted from the marriage, and their status was regularly checked.

Other students finished their education and returned back to their countries (India, Singapore, Malaysia and Fiji) and upon their return became good ambassadors and created interest in Australia.

PERIOD FROM 1965 TO 1982

Gradually the opinions of the emerging Asian countries started to modify the thinking of the Australian Government about its restrictive immigrant policies. In 1967, Prime Minister H. Holt removed these restrictive measures and opened the door to qualified non-white migrants.

In the early seventies, there were eruptions of violence and riots in East African countries against inhabitants of Indian and Pakistani origin. This led to an exodus of Indian families from East African countries. Australia allowed some of these families, mostly professional, to migrate and they settled easily into the society here. In addition, individuals who were professionally well-qualified from India, Malaysia, Singapore, England and other countries, were able to migrate to Australia.


Migration of suitably qualified personnel and their families has continued on an ever expanding scale up to the present. Their fields of endeavour have encompassed agricultural science, farming, medicine, engineering, business and so on. Their numbers are so vast and their contributions so great that I am only able to mention a few of the outstanding individuals in each of the various categories.


After the start of the Second World War, the Sikh migrants who had been working as hawkers, cane cutters and other jobs, were able to gain regular employment due to a labour shortage. They started to congregate around Woolgoolga and Coffs Harbour and fill the need for workers on the banana farms. The great upheaval in Punjab at the time of Partition of India in 1947 provided the impetus for many family members to come and join the earlier migrants to Australia.

Banana farming in the Coffs Harbour area is a niche market. Bananas can only be grown on the northern slopes of hills because the southern slopes and flat areas are prone to damage by frost in winter. This means that the crop cannot be easily harvested by mechanical means and is heavily labour intensive. Banana farming in NSW is therefore restricted to small family holdings, a situation that was very well suited for Sikh farmers coming from Punjab.

Sikh farmer migrants began work at first as labourers living in shacks. But due to their hard work and joint efforts of all members of the family, there was a transformation in the fortunes of all these farmers over the period of 1966-1980. The Sikh farmers bought up 60% of the banana farms in the Coffs Harbour/ Woolgoolga area comprising about 1255 hectares of land and they were soon producing 20% of all bananas grown in NSW and earning about 25 million a year. They built their own new brick homes and acquired new cars and utility vehicles. They also moved into real estate and other businesses and began acquiring shops, motels and rental properties.

But making good money from banana farming in NSW was inconsistent. When banana crops in tropical Queensland were periodically destroyed by cyclone damage, the NSW Sikh farmers did well; as soon as the tropical banana farmers recovered, the Sikh farmers suffered a set-back in the market. The Sikh farmers began to move to an alternate crop, blueberries, which are not subject to such market fluctuations. At present many banana farms are being converted to blueberry plantations and they have a reliable paying export market.

There is now a thriving community of about 1,000 Sikhs in northern NSW. The main upshot of all the hard work and prosperity is that the original Sikh farmers have been able to ensure that their children are well educated. The younger generation have now qualified and graduated in such fields as medicine, economics, law, information technology (IT), commerce, business administration, medical sciences, psychology and food technology. I will confine myself to mentioning only a few of the trail-blazers from the Woolgoolga area whose parents were originally cane cutters or banana farmers.


The Sikhs have excelled in most other fields, including Law, Medicine, Building & Construction, Real Estate, Transport, Hospitality, Information Technology, Education, Accounting/Finance, Sports & Cultural activities as well as community activities.