Sant Nirankari Mission volunteer Manjit Singh tells Alys Francis about how he assisted in bringing the movement to Australia, and how social discrimination made community service more challenging
Few Australians would know that one of the largest group blood donations in the country’s history was organised by a spiritual movement originating in India. This is the story of how a group of young students brought Sant Nirankari Mission to the Aussie suburbs and earned its place in the history books.
It all began in Chandigarh, Punjab, where Manjit Singh and his brother attended place of worship with their grandmother and saw faith going hand-in-hand with community service. “We would go for fun and end up doing service and serving in the cooking area, just as kids mucking around,” Singh told The Indian Sun.
In 1998, Singh’s elder brother Sunny Duggal migrated to Australia to study. When Singh followed six months later, he arrived in Melbourne to find his brother had joined in to gather together a small group of spiritually like-minded Nirankari students. “They would hire small church halls and make meals for people, so I joined in,” he said.
Hiring space wasn’t without hurdles. The students faced racial discrimination and their brand of faith was widely unknown in Australia.
Getting out and doing community work in a new country was also a challenge. “We were all students and migrants so we couldn’t work that much in the community,” said Singh.
But the group soon realised where they could lend a hand: supporting new students moving to Australia to study. “When my brother first came out he was stranded at airport. Nobody was expected there to receive him,” Singh explained. So members started spreading the word back in India that help was available for new arrivals. Afterwards, we’d get a call that someone was coming. Someone would be sent out to pick them up from the airport and we’d give them support and guidance,” he said.
In 2000, the head of Sant Nirankari Mission visited Australia and told members they should consider setting up a venue for the growing Aussie cohort. In 2003, they purchased a former church in Dandenong. “Once we had a venue then things changed: we became an organisation. Then of course people came, new members and local councillors,” said Singh.
Around that time, the group first began to get noticed for its blood donation drives. As Manjit explained, donating blood has been fundamental to the Mission since 24 April 1980—when the mission’s head Gurbachan Singh was assassinated, and his successor vowed that every member from that day forward should donate blood annually, “instead of shedding blood”.
But staff at what was then Melbourne’s only blood donation center in Southbank hadn’t heard of Baba Hardev Singh or the Mission. It’s fair to assume they were more than a little surprised when huge numbers of Indian students suddenly started turning up to give blood. “From Dandenong, we had to drive 45 minutes to go into the city,” recalled Singh.
Sant Nirankari Mission Melbourne’s ongoing blood donation efforts were recognised in 2009, when it was awarded on World Blood Donor Day and presented with a trophy by Nicola Roxon MP in Federation Square.
Over the years, the Mission has lent its voluntary force to numerous other causes, including Clean Up Australia day, Good Friday Appeal walks, Harmony Day, many other community events and tree planting. The Mission has also mobilised members to sign up as organ donors.
The group’s founders have long since waved student life goodbye—many have settled down, started families and are now raising children of their own. Among them is Singh, who’s now 36, and juggles managing the mission’s public relations with caring for three young kids.
How has Singh’s community spirit continued to burn strong for nearly two decades? He puts it down to the youthful days he spent pitching in to feed less fortunate in India as part of his duties at Sant Nirankari Mission Sewa Dal. “It left that spark in me of community service—that stays with you,” Singh said. He’s now working to instil that same community spirit in the next generation of Diaspora children growing up in the suburbs today.