Sikhism in Belgium
Sikhism is a minority religion in Belgium. That being said, Sikhs have played a role in Belgian history for years. In World War I many Sikhs fought in Belgium. A notable example of this is the First Battle of Ypres where an entire platoon of Dogra Sikhs died.Sikhs.org In WWII Sikhs even fought on oposing sides in both the British and German armies in battles across the low countries. (See Sardar Ajit Singh).
Today more than 10,000 Sikhs live in Belgium, with over 6,000 of them living in the Flanders region. About 3,000 live in Walloon region and some 1000 live in Brussels Capital Region. While most of the Sikhs are from Punjab there is a sizeable number from the Afghan Sikh community.
Migration to Belgium
The first Sikh settler in Belgium was Sukhdev Singh Jalwehra (in 1985). Before that there had been a handfull of Sikhs, but they all were employees of the Indian Embassy, so as they were only guests in the country they were not counted as inhabitants. However, the first Sikh to set foot on Belgian soil was Jasbir Singh Ahluwalia in 1974. But the proper Sikh migration started with Sukhdev Singh Jalwehra came in 1985. When Jalwehra came to Belgium there was a ban on any head covering, especially a turban, being worn in photos for Belgian Passports and identity cards. Sukhdev Singh fought against this rule and won his case, saving all the Sikhs who have followed from having to deal with such discrimination. In 1993, when the Belgian King Baudouin I died, Sukhdev Singh Jalwerha and other Sikhs attended his funeral services at the Royal Palace on behalf of the Belgian Sikh community.
With the political turmoil in Punjab which saw many Sikhs being hunted, tortured and killed in 1984-86 the Belgians were one of the countries to open there doors for those seeking a safe port. So the first Sikhs in Belgium were most often male political refugees. They found work mostly in fruit agriculture in Limburg, which has today become the Sikh strong-hold. Later on, more Sikhs arrived for economic reasons, usually from the poorer regions of Punjab. They hoped for a better life for themselves and their children in Belgium. Hard work and frugal living allowed them to send money to their families back in Punjab, to give them financial help. They also worked in the fruit culture industry of Limburg or in night shops in Brussels. With their savings many have purchased or set up their own stores, by preference a night store, often called a night shop. Obtaining official permission and the necessary papers, like their identity cards has often been a long wait.
Belgium being the country which gave safe haven to the Hugenots while they were being hunted and exterminated in France has long had freedom of religion -- much of the battles between the Catholic Curch and the Protestant Reformation in and around Belgium. The United States noted in the early 1990s that systematic violence directed against religious minorities or newcomers in Belgium was rare, but an exception to this rule came in 1993 and that exceptiom was waged against its Sikhs. In Sint-Truiden, Sikh workers in agriculture were bullied by some citizens, and eventually one Sikh was shot. A house belonging to Sikhs was also bombed, with no fatalities. There were arrests in the aftermath.
Most Sikhs own night shops in Brussels or are agricultural labourers in Sint-Truiden.
There are 7 Gurudwara's in Belgium. The oldest being in Sint-Truiden (Built in 1987).
1. Gurdwara Sangat Sahib, In Halmaal, Sint-Truiden. (Since 1993)
2. Gurdwara Guru Nanak Sahib Cultureel Centrum, In Vilvoorde, Brussels (Since 1999)
3. Gurdwara Guru Ram Dass Sikh Study & Cultural Center, In Borgloon (Since 2005)
4. Gurdwara Sahib Luik/Liege (Since 2005)
5. Gurdwara Nanak Sahib, Sint-Truiden. (Since 2007)
6. Gurdwara Mata Sahib Kaur, Kortrijksepoortstraat 49, 9000 Gent
7. Gurdwara Singh Sabha VZW, Steenweg 418, 3570 Alken, Belgian Limburg
At present, religious symbols are allowed only in a few public schools, subject to the decision of the school board of management. After imposition of a ban, in neighboring France, on the wearing of turbans in schools, The flemish parliament is in similar talks to ban religious symbols in Flemish public schools at primary and secondary levels.
- Limburg - 3,000
- Brussels - 2,000
- Flemish Brabant - 1,000
- Liege - 1,500
- East Flaners - 1500 (with city Ghent having about 1,000)
Sint-Truiden is home to the largest Sikh community in Belgium. In 1984, 6 Sikhs settled in Sint-Truiden. By 1994 the number had grown to about 1000 and today, in 2008, the number is around 2,000 in the Sint-Truiden district of Limburg alone.
Scattered around the city of Brussels there are another 1500 Sikhs. Many of these (some 800) are illegal and many of them are mona Sikhs (Sikhs who cut their hair, shave or trim their beards). The ones that are keshdhari (keep the 5Ks) are legal and are scattered all around Brussels.
The Sikh population in Antwerpen has increased significantly with immigration from Punjab. There must be more than 1,000 Sikhs. There are also many Afghan Sikhs in Antwerpen.
In the last few years, the Sikh population of Ghent city and the surrounding areas, mostly villages has increased. In the 1990s, there were only around 2-3 dozen Sikhs in the whole commune (district) of Ghent. Now, in 2008, there are some 1,000 Sikhs in Ghent and the surrounding areas.
Places with significant Sikh populations
- Liège (city)
in Flemish Brabant
in West Flanders
in East Flanders