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Remembering Sikh Heroes of First World War

by POONAM TANEJA

 

 

The location is the quaint French town of Neuve-Chapelle and a gathering of Sikhs surrounds a stone podium as prayers are recited in Punjabi.

The Sikhs are from Britain and elsewhere in the diaspora and they are on a journey across battlefields in northern France and Belgium to honour Sikh soldiers who died fighting for Britain and the Allies in World War I.

Sikhs fought in every major theatre of operations during the war and around 65,000 from the British-Indian Army were killed, a majority of them Sikh.

In Neuve-Chapelle, Sikh soldiers under British command were part of two Allied divisions that fought the Germans in 1915.

There were heavy losses and an enclosed memorial garden circled by domed pavilions and towering columns is now a permanent reminder of their sacrifice.

In addition, the names of more than 4,700 of these soldiers who lost their lives are carved into the stone walls.

Harjit Singh Parmar has come from the Midlands and, together with his family, studies the rows of Sikh names etched into the walls in an experience they all find deeply moving.

A sombre Harjit Singh has mixed emotions as a sense of pride is mingled with sadness.

Lack of recognition

"I feel proud that we contributed and were there but also sad at how many people died to give us the life that we have now," he said.

As the group continues the tour of where Sikhs fought on the Western Front, they visit the Belgian trenches of Bayernwald and Wytschaete, scene of the first battles involving the Sikh braves.

The one-day tour is proving to be the learning experience the organisers - the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail - had hoped as the group discovers more about the contribution made by Sikh soldiers.

However, with the increase in knowledge and understanding during some emotional moments, there is also a sense of a lack of recognition when it comes to the efforts of their community in the war.

According to Harbinder Singh, honorary director of the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail, there are various reasons for this.

"As soon as the British Empire came to an end the stories of the Indian Army became almost redundant," he said.

"I think in Britain there was a reluctance to acknowledge sacrifices other than those of British troops. Unfortunately, this was seen as a war for the British.

"Our recognition needs to be given due gravity within what is said about remembrance and the great wars.

"I think we need a greater emphasis on the fact that there were other communities that voluntarily gave their lives."

Connection with past

The desire to educate current and future generations of Sikhs and Britons is one of the reasons behind the trip, as Harbinder Singh believes it is vital for the contribution of those who fought to be highlighted.

The journey has certainly proved an eye-opening experience for Jag Kaur, Harjit's wife.

"I came on this trip because I wanted to know the [role] of the Sikhs in World War I," she said.

"I'd heard a little bit about it but I didn't really know that we had played such a significant part. This trip has allowed me to actually come to a place where they fought and died.

"Growing up, I was taught history at school but never to this extent and I don't think children these days are either.

"So I think it's really important they come along and experience it first hand. You really do feel a connection with the past coming here."

At the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, there is a memorial ceremony every evening which is dedicated to the commemoration of British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in battle and whose graves are unknown.

As buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post, a group of Sikhs lays wreaths under the arches.

For brothers Taran and Gurinder Singh, it represents a moment of pride in their heritage.

"It makes me proud because our forefathers died so that we could be here today," said Taran.

"We can walk around the streets of London and people will recognise us as Sikhs - people who fought among their grandfathers."

 

[Courtesy: BBC]

June 9, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Inderjeet Singh Kang (Delhi, India), June 12, 2010, 10:08 AM.

Certainly a contribution full of pride and honour, but I feel sad that there has been no acknowledgment from Britain and rest of the world. Moreover, Sikhs like myself were never imparted this knowledge by our history books.

2: M. Stokes (Southampton, United Kingdom), June 08, 2011, 1:24 PM.

For those of us who know (and, more importantly, care) the Sikh contribution to victory in the "Great War" will not be forgotten. But times move on and other wars are fought. In time (like now) only those who care will hold the memory aloft ... Let's keep the memory alive.

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