If you think Canada and the UK are the only other countries in the world where Sikhs thrive in large numbers, almost as if they’ve lived there their entire life (many of them actually have), then you’re about to be proved wrong.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, plenty of Sikhs moved out of the country in search of another home. They came from a place of green pastures and looked for greener ones. Plains, farmlands, and cattle; they moved around in search of these until they came across a small town called Novellara in Northern Italy, which is where things suddenly seemed to fall in place. So they grabbed the opportunity and made the decision to settle down in the Po Valley plains of Novellara. Little did they know that they’d soon become the flag-bearers of the Italian Parmesan cheese industry––which hails from these plains.
These Sikhs who settled in Norvella did what the Italians refused to. They woke up much before the rest of the town so they could dive into the Parmesan process. Cheese production is the kind that requires a person to work seven days a week and so they did; they worked two shifts every day. In return for their sincerity, efforts, (and partly also because there wasn’t enough unskilled labour available), their employers provided them with free housing and high wages. A documentary titled ‘Sikh Formaggio’ chronicles the life of such Sikh families as they toil from dawn to dusk on a foreign land that doesn’t seem as strange anymore.
The relationship between the employers and the immigrant workers has only gotten better over the years, making Indians fundamental to the growth of the cheese industry. Maurizio Novelli, one of the employers in Novellara, has had the same immigrant family working for him for almost 15 years. Although, the Sikhs don’t actually make the cheese, they are responsible for all the other work like milking cows, skimming the latte, and packing and storage of cheese.
One of the most important and oldest Gurudwaras of Europe too was opened in Norvellara in 2000 by the former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. It was an effort made by the municipality to recognise the Sikh community for their contributions in the region. In 2012, when an earthquake hit the area, the Sikh community responded immediately by ensuring that the victims received food, at least, twice a day. Clearly, the Sikhs have become a vital aspect of life in Po Valley. But is the Po Valley truly giving them what they deserve?
The first generation of immigrants who settled in Italy faced much resistance while trying to be accepted by the locals of the region. Many of them had to adapt to the western way of life by getting rid of their turbans and cutting their hair short. Things are, obviously, a little better today. Sikhs can walk around comfortably with their turban on, but their religion still remains unrecognised. In 2017, Italy’s Supreme Court ruled that Sikhs were not allowed to carry their kirpan (a dagger)––a religious article of faith prescribed by the Sikh religion.
The fight to get Sikhism recognised by the Italian government has been going on for almost a decade; the progress, however, has been slow. But both sides are willing to meet each other halfway, if that’s what it takes.
Despite the estimated 2,20,000 Sikh immigrants who inhabit the Po Valley, there seems to a whiff of change in the air. A shift in the economy of Italy, with several white-collar jobs opening up, was one of the main reasons why Italians decided to give up agriculture and go for better-paying desk-jobs instead. These aspirations have now trickled down to the Indo-Italians––the sikh immigrants––who have different dreams for the coming generation. They don’t want their children to be tied to the life of manual labour, rife with long working hours and racial discrimination.
This, once again, puts Northern Italy’s cheese industry at risk. Who’s going to save it now?
Feature Image Courtesy: Mariagrazia Moncada