The Work Ethic of the Sikhs in America in Early 20th Century

Lala Har Dayal paints a moving and ennobling picture of the work ethic, habits and lifestyle of Sikhs who migrated to America in the early 20th Century.
The Work Ethic of the Sikhs in America in Early 20th Century


THE SIKHS WERE the second major group of Indians who lived in America in the early 20th century. Lala Har Dayal writes with great feeling about the character, conduct and work ethic of the Sikh community. The picture is truly moving and endearing and its truth can be verified with the experience and life stories of octogenarian Sikhs who are still around today. But in the era of mobile phones, who has time for old men? Our national and cultural life dies bit by bit with the death of each old person and we remain blissfully stupefied in our Instagramish dopamine obsessions.

But on the larger plane, Har Dayal’s portrayal of these Sikhs offers a fine study in contrast to say the least. From simple, migrant villagers who regarded their stay in America as a bus stop before they would return where they truly belonged: “to their dear old village and the bright sunlight of the Indian skies.”

But in exactly one century, the descent has been swift. From that heartfelt yearning to separatism, rioting and barely-disguised terrorism. Who or what enabled this tragic downfall is a well-known story. As we keep saying at The Dharma Dispatch, the march to the real independence of India is still in the baby-step stage.

Read on!

American Respect for the Sikh Work Ethic

WE NEXT TAKE the Sikhs, whose skill as labourers is now as well-known to the Americans as their prowess in war was to the Afghans in older days. There are several thousands of these people scattered in the States of California, Oregon, and Washington. They are steady, sober workers, except when some of them get drunk, as recently happened at a small town, from which they were expelled in consequence of their riotous conduct in public.

They keep their turbans and their faith intact. They earn quite a large amount of money as farm-hands, and live as frugally as possible. They do not learn to speak good English, as they look upon themselves as temporary sojourners in this land of Goshen, and their hearts yearn for the dear old village and the bright sunlight of the Indian skies. They are eagerly sought after by the American farmers and fruit growers on account of their regular habits of work, their temperance and simplicity.

Foreign labour is much in demand in this part of the country, and the outcry against it is artificially manufactured by a few zealous American patriots working on the passions of the floating population of idle loafers in San Francisco and other big towns.

An American farmer, who owns many acres of fruit­ bearing trees in California, thus explained the situation to me :—“You see it’s like this. I at first gave the job to American workmen, as I preferred them to foreigners. So would you too. That’s nature. But those fellows are all rotten. Sure. They would work for a week, and then one would come and say he hasn’t got a shirt, another says he wants a new overall, and so they would get two or three dollars of their wages on Saturday. Then they spend it on drink, and some wouldn’t turn up on Monday or go away on another job, and there’s all that fruit, thousands and thousands of dollars, being spoiled and wasted. So I had to give the work to your people and the Japs and the Chinese, who cost less and work steady.”

An American farmer would often call a Sikh walking along the road to offer him employment. Thus our temperance and the religious discipline of our social life bear good fruit in far-away lands, where our brethren come for a successful career.

It cannot be expected that the presence of the Sikhs here should give unmixed satis­faction to everybody. They are simple oriental peasants and cannot quickly adapt themselves to the ways and manners of a highly developed and complex social system, which makes enormous demands on the self-restraint, and the good sense of every indivi­dual. Thus it is said that the Sikhs are dirty, that they hold aloof from their American comrades, that they sometimes get into trouble with the sanitary authorities for minor delinquencies.

I am not in a position to judge how far these complaints are justified. Even if there is a measure of truth in them, that would only prove that the Sikh labour­ers are erring mortals and nothing more. No one should set up an unduly high stand­ard to apply to their daily life. And it is very unseemly that our own people should give utterance to these superficial and un­charitable judgments, as I have heard them do.

On the contrary, we must appreciate the courage and spirit of enterprise exhibited by these untutored villagers. They speedily develop a keen sense of patriotism, which manifests itself in deeds of kindly service to their fellow-countrymen here, in quicken­ed interest in public affairs, in the revival of religious consciousness, in preference for an independent career on their return to India, and in constant readiness to subscribe large sums of money for the corporate welfare.

It is to be regretted that their ignorance ex­poses them to the wiles of many unscrupu­lous persons who trade on their credulity and simplicity. But this is perhaps inevitable in a world like ours. The Sikh, there­fore, gains both materially and morally by his sojourn here. He becomes a changed man. His economic and moral poverty disappears. He learns to respect himself. He sees that there are other powers in the world besides Great Britain. Silently but surely, a great internal revolution occurs within him. He cannot be recognised for the same timid, shabby, and ignorant rustic that landed at San Fran­cisco or Seattle in search of livelihood.

This process of material and moral improvement is watched with keen anxiety and many misgivings by interested parties. But will the antelope remain sickly and pale when once it has escaped to the forest? Will the lion crouch and whine outside the, circus?

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