Punjabi games in the Outback

Parvez Mahmood visits a mass event of sports and Punjabi Sikh culture in Australia, which marks the tragic killings of 1984

Punjabi games in the Outback
The annual Sikh Martyr Games – Shaheedi Games – are held in Griffith in the state of New South Wales, Australia, on the second weekend of June, which is a three-day long weekend thanks to the Queen’s birthday. The event commemorates the unfortunate deaths of thousands of Sikhs during the mayhem of 1984, unleashed by extremist Hindus in the wake of the murder of Prime Minister Indra Gandhi. Having attended the games in 2007 and 2015, where I enjoyed the ambience a great deal, I happen to be here again in 2017 and spent a joyful two days surrounded by true unadulterated Punjabi culture under a sunny winter sky.

The games are held in the lush green, undulating, penta-level Ted Scobie Oval with a small hill on its northern side, in the Collina suburb of Griffith. When I am here, I go to this picturesque ground regularly for my daily walk. My son-in-law’s house, where I am staying, is across the road from this playground. Being a ‘Gill’, a caste that he shares with many of the local Sikhs, and a fluent Punjabi speaker, he happens to be the favourite physician of the Sikh community, providing free consultation and prescription for their relatives visiting them from outside the town or from abroad.

A collage of number plates

They commemorate the tragic deaths of their innocent loved ones and renew their pledge to strive for justice

Established in 1916, Griffith is a sleepy semi-arid town on the edge of deserted central plains. It has a population of 25,000 that includes villages in its suburbs. With the construction of canals in the early previous century, this area has become agriculture-intensive with vast tracts of vineyards, citrus orchards and almond plantations. It grows enormous quantities of watermelons, rock melons, cherries, strawberries, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, egg plants, capsicums of all shades and a host of other vegetables that are exported to other states of the country through the vast network of super stores. Then there are miles upon miles of extensive wheat, cotton and rice fields; complete with storage silos and ginning factories. There is a huge Halal branded poultry factory here, that processes a million chickens each day. The area raises enormous quantities of sheep that are exported to all over the world. With all the vineyards and oranges, it is no wonder that one in four bottles of wine produced in Australia is made in one the local breweries of this town, including the world famous ‘Yellow Tail’ brand. The people are friendly and welcoming.

Interestingly, some of the older residents recall that the British engineers working in the irrigation department of Punjab came over to this area and employed their skills and experience to create the irrigation network of this remote interior of New South Wales.

All this agriculture attracted a large population of Sikh immigrants to the town. Being diligent and industrious, they have been able to establish their presence in the area. Starting mostly as farm hands, many of them now own orchards and businesses of their own and are financially well off. There are about 500 Sikh families in this town, comprising about 10% of the local population, many of them living in affluent neighborhoods. A few years ago, they procured a large block of land and built a big double storey Gurdwara that formally opened in 2015. A very large copy of a specially printed Granth Sahib was brought here from India and placed in the Gurdwara in an elaborate ceremony in which Sikhs from all over Australia participated. I happened to be here at the time and was invited there by a friend. The food served is prepared in the Gurdwara kitchen by the local volunteer Sikh ladies. All ladies, irrespective of their social, educational or financial standing, work in the Gurdwara kitchen making luddoos, go­l-gappas, parathas, lentils, paneer palak etc, whereas the men serve food in the main hall. The place serves as the social and religious focal point for the community.

In short, the Sikh community is well organised and cohesive – to their common good.

A section of the crowd

The roots of the games lie in June 1984 when Indra Gandhi ordered her military to carry out operations inside the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines. The last such sacrilege had been committed by the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1764. When she was herself assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984, her Congress loyalists perpetrated anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Haryana and forty other places across India. An estimated eight thousand Sikhs were killed, some in the most inhuman manner. The Sikh secessionist movement claimed further thousands of lives. Those who felt threatened, sought asylum in UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA and some other Western countries, where there are now active movements for Khalistan independence. The Sikh community in Australia alone is about 125,000 strong and has earned respect as a peaceful and enterprising people. They operate a radio station named ‘Qaumi Awaz’ (National Voice). One of my neighbours here, Mr. Ajeet Singh Rahi, a noted poet and a writer who migrated from West to East Punjab in 1947 and to Australia in 1984, expressed typical Sikh sentiments thus,

“ ...by a canal bridge, after deliberate killing

an encounter is announced

how far is the day

when your horrible deeds will rebound

O, murderer, how poor and

how pitiful the hope

to link state’s survival

to eliminating us all”

(07 Feb 1986)

The Sikh diaspora of 1984 is a traumatised lot. When they speak of riots, a Pakistani like myself – whose family had to migrate from Amritsar in the riots of August 1947 – mistakenly thinks that they are referring to that era. For the Sikhs however, it seems, their memories of mass violence have been overtaken by the events of 1984. They remember those riots, talk about them often and arrange related events world over. Two annual game events are held in Australia; a three-day event in Adelaide in April and a two-day event here in Griffith in June.

Akali dresses

The Sikhs come here from everywhere in Australia. Griffith, as I said, is a small town. Only one flight operates per day at the local airport, that being from Sydney only. The participants, therefore, travel by road to this place; travelling 6 hours from Melbourne, 8 hours from Sydney, 12 hours from Adelaide and 14 hours from Brisbane. Several people travel from New Zealand and some even from Canada, the US and other countries. They commemorate the tragic deaths of their innocent loved ones and renew their pledge to strive for justice and an independent homeland.

The Sikh games in Griffith have been held without break for the previous 21 years and these are the third games that I have witnessed. Participation each year has been on the rise. This year, there were about 10,000 visitors attending the two day event. The city Mayor was in attendance on the second day for the closing ceremonies.

My interaction with the organisers revealed that the pioneer of the games was a migrant brother of one of the victims of 1984 riots, who marked the death anniversary of his martyred brother in June 1985 and each year thereafter. Gradually, relatives of other victims from across Australia too started participating in the services here to keep the memory of the massacre alive. Subsequently the event transformed into annual games of the current format.

The local Gurdwara

Although the games in Griffith feature several sports like musical chairs for children, tug-of-war and so on, the main item is the Kabaddi championship. Apart from several Australian teams participating in the competition, there were two from New Zealand. One of the judges had come all the way from the USA. Sikhs claim to have carried this sport to 189 countries. Here in Australia, they have several teams; at least one for each state and more for some. There are lavish prizes for the players with each good move awarded by wealthy Sikh audiences with $50 to $100. The prizes for the winning teams run into thousands of dollars.

Sikhs have kept their culture alive all over the world. The Punjabi language survives because of them and it is largely their music that has given a renewed life to Sufi poetry, especially that of Bulleh Shah. They speak their mother tongue at their homes and their children easily switch from chaste Punjabi to perfect Aussie-accented English. I was amused to hear the free flow of choice Punjabi curse words amongst the young adults communicating with each other in English. It reminded me of my early days in Gowalmandi, Lahore. The local library has a section on Punjabi literature.
No visitor from outside the town stays at any hotel or motel. They are all accommodated in the homes of local Sikh residents

The games serve as a crash course in Punjabi language and culture. Sikh womenfolk are attired in their best clothes with bright colours and embroidery. Men are in turbans of all possible colours. The running commentary on Kabaddi in chaste fluent Punjabi with apt poetry is an aural joy. The environment is clearly of a mela (festival) with several announcements for kids lost or found, all happily reunited in the end. These are the only two noisy days in the year for this quiet neighbourhood.

The food is aplenty and free. It is cooked in the Gurdwara by local ladies and sponsored by the people themselves. There were stalls for ladies clothes, bangles and other such items. For me, the most interesting was the stall displaying the history of the 1984 riots. Large framed pictures of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and victims of the riots were displayed with a brief story of their struggle. There is a frequent mention of how the Muslims had been able to attain states of their own in the South Asian subcontinent but the Sikhs had failed to do so. There are posters advertising the atrocities of the Indian government against the Sikhs at various instances since independence.

The ample dedicated parking places and the roads around the vast grounds are full of cars with the excess vehicles finding places in the side streets. More than any community in Australia, Sikhs love to have personalised number plates for their vehicles. I saw number plates announcing “SIKH”, “AGRWAL”, “TOOR”, “GILL”, “JATT”, “SINGH”, etc in combination of compulsory six letters. One plate boldly claimed the owner to be a “GHABRU”. I took images of these plates and have put them together for the readers.

The memory of the 1984 violence is kept alive at the Shaheedi Games in Australia

One very pleasant aspect of the games’ gathering is that no visitor from outside the town stays at any hotel or motel. They are all accommodated in their homes by the local Sikh residents. Farms and farmhouses are thrown open for the guests. One house near our home had forty guests for one night, who had to be given breakfast on two mornings. Another home owner got a call from the organising committee late on Friday night to make arrangements for eleven male guests. They cleared out their living room and threw out mattresses, rugs and whatever seemed appropriate. I need to remind here that the weather seasons in Australia are the opposite of India and Pakistan, and June is like our December; severely cold with night temperatures hovering near 0 C. Mercifully, central reversible air conditioning provides respite and obviates the need for heavy quilts.

The visitors dispersed peacefully at the end of the games. Remarkably, after two days of joyous gathering and eating by thousands, the next morning I found the grounds absolutely clean, without a trace of any garbage. The volunteers had combed through the grounds late in the night, collecting each tiny bit of rubbish and depositing it away in the bins. The only thing reminding me of the boisterous gathering of the previous days was the stale aroma in the kitchen section of the ground. A memorable round of Punjabi festivities had come to an end.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com