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‘They were living ten years behind our Asian countries’: Oral histories of British Punjabi communities 1960s-present

ARISA LOOMBA  |  31 AUGUST 2019  |  ISSUE #5

Picture by Irina Souiki on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

‘They were living ten years behind our Asian countries’, my grandmother told me as I interviewed her as part of my dissertation research, collecting oral histories of the experiences of British Punjabis. She was describing her first trip to the gurudwara in Bristol, in the days after her arrival in Britain in 1968 as a newlywed. She came to England with great excitement, expecting freedom, an ultramodern ‘land of all milk and honey’. The reality was a grave disappointment. The Asians she met in Bristol were not allowed to wear jeans, or makeup, or go out unaccompanied. They were living lives, as she described, far more old-fashioned and conservative than any she remembered in India.


Historical conditions and cultural contexts are essential to understanding how a migrant community behaves in a new host nation. Historical methods are often avoided when studying migration, yet they can reveal new perspectives and stories that wider narratives and attempts to establish patterns cannot. For migration, context is everything.

In the British Punjabi case, this context was Empire and Commonwealth. The break between Britain and India in 1947 was not final. The Second World War broke down the boundaries of colony and metropole, and imperial movements of people were inverted so that Indians came to Britain. Although migrants are frequently viewed in contemporary terms as a further burden on the already overburdened British state, postwar Britain was desperate for black and brown migrants to fill labour shortages created by the war. Migrants were actors in their own story, facilitating chain migration through their social networks. This was central to the creation of British Asian enclaves. In some cases, entire villages were essentially transported to places like Hounslow and Southall. My paternal grandfather described how ‘When we arrived here, there were almost about forty fifty people… it was not like coming to a new country so to speak… all together it was just like being in India’. Unlike previous South Asian diasporas, postcolonial Punjabis in Britain could maintain strong transnational links with home thanks to technological and transport infrastructure that brought the world closer together.


Often though, terms like ‘assimilation’ or ‘acculturation’ assigned to the behaviour of migrants place too great an emphasis on a break with the past, a break with all context. They enforce a rigid binary between home and host, old and new, rather than appreciating cultural fusions and reshapings. For instance, Punjabi and Hindi may have been spoken less consistently as English ‘took over’, but it can also be read that Punjabis reshaped aspects of the English language to suit their purpose. Kinship terms like ‘mummyji’ or ‘cousin-brother’ or ‘-sister’ were coined to better reflect a value system of respect and community that it was felt English did not possess. So, it is possible to see post-war Commonwealth diasporas as some of the first ‘transnational’ peoples (though this itself is a stretch when you see the incredible creativity of previous diasporas) with the communications infrastructure to break down borders and foster multiple ways of being.


Punjabis came to Britain not just as third world colonial subjects seeking prosperity but also as part of greater shifts that relocated ‘the theatre of the postcolonial in the heart of the ex-empire’, according to Nasreen Ali. British Asians contributed immeasurably to British society. Their work in industrial factories, the NHS, Heathrow Airport and so on was central in shaping the country, as we know it today. In changing these narratives, looking at the historical specificities, migrant groups become included, central to the nation’s story.


The same is true of countless diasporas. In both the public eye, and in migration scholarship, understanding how migrants ended up where they are has the power to transform the narrative of migration. Matt Forde described in a recent BBC Beyond Today podcast, ‘Do we want funny politicians?’, how Anna Soubry explained to Brexiteers bemoaning open borders for Polish migrants that the Poles lying in the local graveyard were soldiers who fought for this country. Hence, they are deserving of respect and inclusion. In this sense, our understandings of histories of migration are fundamental to how we treat those in the UK with a migrant background, be they first, second or third generation. Reclaiming this story allows migrants back into a story where they are actually people with rich life-worlds, not just ‘immigrants’ whose lives, dreams and hopes began at the moment of arrival. Paul Stoller illustrates, in Money has no smell: The Africanisation of New York, the humanising power of understanding migration stories not as a break with an impoverished past but as continued skilful manipulations of their globalised worlds. 


A similar pattern was found through my oral history interviews with British Punjabis. Migration for Punjabis is steeped in a long history; it is a unique part of the social and cultural fabric of the region. This means migration to Britain meant something different for Punjabis, than it did to say Gujarati refugees from Uganda, or Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. These differentiated migration stories are often clouded over in favour of larger categories of identification, both by the public and by the migrant communities themselves. This sweeping category, ‘British Asian’, and the lens of ‘ethnicity’ are insufficient. It takes away an appreciation for what different groups have been through. The process of creating an ethnic group requires much historical amnesia.


The unique history of the Punjabis frames their settlement in Britain on terms different to other British Indian or Asian groups. For Punjabi migrants, migration to Britain was not the transformational moment of arrival in the modern world, as it would have been viewed by the Western world. It was just another stage in the lives of a mobile people well accustomed to movement. There are now nearly 500,000 Indian Punjabis in Britain, around 45% of the British Indian population. Some are Hindu but most are Sikh. Britain possesses the largest Sikh community outside of India. That they make up such a sizeable number in Britain, but only 1.72% of the population of India, highlights the significance of their past: a rich military history and lived experience of Partition gives Punjabis a strong sense of mobility. For centuries, the Sikhs were constructed as a ‘martial race’. Almost half of the Indian Army was Sikh and the movement of Sikh soldiers in the First and Second World Wars around Europe and beyond was fundamental to the sense of access to an outside world. Partition brought the realities of the fickleness of a fixed home closer. After my maternal grandfather and his family fled Pakistan and became refugees in India, they spent many years moving around the country, from Bombay to Assam in search of work.


Sikh, Hindu and remnants of Muslim communities mingle without fixed boundaries in the Punjab. Most migrants were rural farmers with little education, though there were also large numbers of qualified professionals. Men generally arrived in Britain alone, residing in overcrowded housing, bringing together strangers and formulating an early sense of Indian identity. But of course, ‘British Punjabi’ itself is another sweeping category. As with any attempt to lump diverse groups of peoples together under one umbrella, you wind up clouding over remarkable individual stories. Second and third generation children are shamed for not being able to speak their ‘native’ language, whilst their parents and grandparents may actually have spoken English at home and learnt it in schools anyway, or Hindi, or other regional languages like Potwari. Punjabi food has been upheld by members of the diaspora as the best staple diet, but defining the authentic Punjabi diet, and how to correctly cook it is not entirely clear. Influenced by culinary traditions in India and Africa, and altered in Britain where certain ingredients were not available, it is increasingly difficult to define Punjabi food in any pure sense.


Often, much of the community’s culture is based upon the first migrants’ world at the moment they left, in the sixties, which is reified and adhered to as though it were the only stable tether to hold on to. There is a kind of ‘myth of authenticity’ that clings too tightly to an image of Punjabi culture that may not really exist.


Not only does this reshape the narrative we have of migrants in the UK, but it also challenges scholars to interrogate better the way that migrants see themselves and their place in the world. Historical circumstances combine modern communications technology with a vision of a connected British imperial world, where British, pan-Subcontinental, and African cultures are in continual conversation. An appreciation for these historical sensibilities and the adoption of a historical and contextual lens will allow us to place the communities in question at the centre of the story, hearing about the world from their unique vantage points.

Arisa Loomba
Arisa Loomba

Arisa Loomba is a graduate of History from the University of Warwick, where she focused on the oral histories of British Punjabi migrants in Britain across three generations. She will be beginning an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford, where she hopes to further develop these interests. Last year she volunteered with an NGO in Naples that supports refugees and asylum seekers, and she is also an award-winning writer and journalist on migration and identity, with work in publications like Brown Girl Magazine, Burnt Roti and The Boar.

Her journalism portfolio can be found at

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