In 1894, the British colonial authorities in the Straits Settlements (present-day Malaysia and Singapore) began to raise concerns about a new immigration pattern. In a note to their counterparts in India, they wrote, “The Straits Government brings to notice that the number of Sikhs arriving in the Colony and applying for certificates under Section 11 of [the Straits Immigration] Ordinance V of 1884 is greatly on the increase.” This certificate, which was likely a precursor to the Emigration Check Not Required system for Indian passport holders, stated that a holder was “not a labourer or of a class ordinarily employed in agricultural work”.

“The granting of the certificate enables the holder to leave the Colony in search of employment, and these Sikhs proceed to Sumatra, also to Borneo and Siam, where they obtain work in the Police and also as watchmen,” the Straits authorities said. “Such emigration has been going on for years, but as it is on the increase of late, the Government of India are asked what steps, if any, they wish taken in the matter, and whether they would wish Sikhs and Punjabis, as a class, being refused certificates in the future, under the provisions of Section 16 of the Ordinance of 1884.”

To the British, it was distressing that the final destination of many of its subjects was Sumatra, a Dutch colony that was part of what was then called the Netherlands East Indies. Although the bitter Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were a distant memory, the British saw the Dutch as rivals in at least one sense: the Dutch were apparently ready to pay Indian police and military recruits more than the British did.

The British Empire would send Sikhs to work as policemen in places such as Hong Kong but were not eager to lose them, or members of other so-called martial races, to fellow European colonisers such as the Dutch and the French.

In an 1894 memo to the Adjutant-General in India, an official signing with the initials HBW wrote, “Our requirements of Sikhs for our own army are already very sensibly affected by the competition of our own Colonial forces and the question of restricting the enlistment of Sikhs in some way in these forces has been under consideration, and now it appears that a new field is open to them.” The official added, “But putting aside this consideration, it is submitted that it would be impolitic to permit any classes from this country (Sikhs or others) to take service in the civil or military forces of another nation – if they go to Sumatra and Borneo, they can find their way to Annam and Tonquin and take service with the French.”

After a series of letters were exchanged between officials in India and the Straits, it was agreed that there was no way of stopping Sikhs from going to Sumatra. Even if they were denied certificates under the 1884 Ordinance, they would find a way to the Dutch-controlled territory.

Early settlers

Sikh migration to the island of Sumatra had started before the Dutch colonial regime started encouraging it. The first migrants from the community arrived on the island in the 1870s, no doubt inspired by their strongly-held belief that Guru Nanak, who founded their religion in the 16th century, visited Sumatra via Sri Lanka and the Andamans.

“Aceh was the first port of call for most of the Sikh immigrants, who came as traders and slowly made their way around other parts of Sumatra, especially North Sumatra,” Raghu Gururaj, a career diplomat who served as the Indian Consul General in Medan in the 2000s, wrote in a 2021 article for the Jakarta Globe.

Many of the pioneering Sikh migrants to Sumatra worked in tobacco and rubber plantations, say academics KS Sandhu and A Mani. “Most early migrants were single men who worked for a period of six or seven years, returned to Punjab to marry, and upon their return to Sumatra made arrangements to bring their family over,” Sandhu and Mani wrote in their 1992 study Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

The Sikh community, which was scattered across Sumatra, would have numbered a few hundred until the early 1880s. Their population began to grow when young men came over from the Straits Settlements.

“A branch of the De Javasche Bank was opened in Medan at the end of the nineteenth century when the Dutch currency was introduced,” intrepid traveller Swarn Singh Kahlon wrote in his book Sikhs in Asia Pacific: Travels Among the Sikh Diaspora from Yangon to Kobe. “A number of Sikhs there were employed there as security guards. Others soon followed, mainly finding work as watchmen.”

Thriving community

Stories about the opportunities in Sumatra spread back to Punjab and this led many other enterprising Sikhs to migrate to the island in search of a better life.

According to the study by Sandhu and Mani, by the end of the First World War, many Sikhs opened textile shops and sourced their clothes from Sindhi firms. “Many also drifted into dairy farming to meet the local demand for milk and other dairy products,” they wrote. “By 1920 the Sikh population in Medan and Binjai had increased to significant numbers to establish gurdwaras in these two towns.” Medan, which now has seven gurdwaras, became one of the most important economic and cultural centres for Sikhs in South East Asia.

The community even built the first English-medium school in Sumatra in the 1920s, naming it the Khalsa School Medan. Along with Sikhs, many native Sumatran families sent their children to the institution, so that they could gain proficiency in English. The school survived for several decades after Indonesia’s independence in 1945, finally falling victim to factionalism within the community in the 1990s. The latest information online suggests it is temporarily closed.

The Sikh population on the island continued to grow after the First World War. “Around the 1930s there were an estimated 5,000 Punjabi Sikhs in Sumatra, who were engaged in dairy farming and trading in sports goods,” Raghu Gururaj wrote in his 2022 e-book India-Indonesia Linkages: Reflections of a Diplomat.

The community did not even attempt to flee Sumatra during the Second World War, and many of its members were recruited by Subash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army to fight alongside the Japanese against the Allied Powers. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, the country was ordered by the Allies to keep its weapons and hold the line until the Dutch returned. At this point, the Sikhs, along with other members of the Indian community, joined forces with Indonesian anti-Japanese resistance fighters.

They continued to collaborate with local freedom fighters in the Indonesian War of Independence (or Indonesian National Revolution), a war which lasted from 1945 to 1949 and resulted in the Dutch transferring sovereignty of most of the territories of the erstwhile Netherlands East Indies to what was then called the United States of Indonesia.

An overwhelming majority of the Sikh community became citizens of Indonesia and stayed back in the country. Many others left Sumatra in search of better opportunities in Jakarta and other parts of the country. There are now believed to be around 4,000 Sikhs in the province of North Sumatra, while Medan, with its seven functional gurdwaras, remains the focal point of the community on the island.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.