Kids Corner

Homepage image: 12-year-old Arjan Singh at Buckam Singh's grave. Images below - first from bottom: Sgt Gurpreet Singh Dipak, Sandeep Singh Brar & Air Cadet Gurpreet Kaur Banga. Third from bottom, and above: Buckam Singh's historic War Medal.

History

A Historic Remembrance Day

by T. SHER SINGH

 

There's an old Chinese phrase: "May you live in interesting times!"

Many in the West describe it as a curse.

I have pondered over its import for years and have come to the conclusion that I disagree. From a Sikh's perspective, I believe, it couldn't possibly be anything but a blessing.

Look at the legacy we've been given by our Gurus and the lives we lead every day, in every nook and corner of this world.

Required to be Nyaara ... "standing out and outstanding" ... we face challenges every day, at school, at work, at play. We learn very early how to overcome hurdles and then we overcome each and every one that comes our way ... there is no choice but to win!

I look around at my co-religionists and all I see is a posse of pioneers.

Remember how the cowboys opened the wild, wild West? It is so well captured by Hollywood and embedded into our brains. A la John Wayne and James Stewart and Alan Ladd and Yul Brynner and, ah yes, Clint Eastwood ... the good, the bad and the ugly!

Remember how they encountered challenges around every corner, overcame heavy odds, and yet stood tall at high noon? 

That is exactly what Sikhs, by definition, do every day. They are pioneers every day. Not just a hundred years ago, when Geronimo roamed the land ... but even today, in the twenty-first century. It's still the wild, wild West for us here in the West ... and in the East.

Every day, a Sikh somewhere opens a door, tears down a barrier, climbs a mountain ... Life is never boring. We are not allowed to ever take our Faith for granted. Every moment of every day, we are reminded of who we are and required to explain why we are what we are, and to jostle and struggle for our rights.

We are indeed blessed because that is what the DNA of a Sikh is constructed to do. Lord, we are indeed blessed with interesting lives.

I've just come back from a unique Remembrance Day service.

It was held at the grave of Pte. Buckam Singh, a 25-year-old Sikh-Canadian soldier who enlisted with the Canadian Army as a 22-year-old in 1915 and went off to war in Europe to fight for the Allies.

He is one of those who John McCrae wrote about in "In Flanders Fields".

Ironically, Buckam Singh not only died from wounds inflicted in the very same distant land that cut short the life of young John McCrae, but he now lies buried a mere thirty minutes drive from McCrae's native town, now the City of Guelph, Ontario ... where I live!

No one knew of Buckam Singh or any of the other eight Sikh-Canadians who we now know fought in the First World War, shoulder to shoulder, with their Canadian compatriots ... not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Sikhs who fought in the same War as part of the British Indian Army.

No one knew of this brave young man or the other eight souls while the Royal Canadian Legion, through its branches placed across this country to serve the veterans of the Wars and their dependants, steadfastly refused entry to turban-wearing Sikhs into their Legion Halls.

This matter came to light a couple of decades ago ... and many of the Legion Halls continue this policy to this day.

"Pray, why?" you may ask, as I did. Because, they say, it is sacrilegious to the memory of the dead to wear a turban inside a Legion Hall.

The authorities in the know stayed silent about the fact that over 80,000 Sikhs had given their lives, for the good of all humanity and not for the welfare of just Sikhs or Indians. And about the fact that turban-wearing Sikh-Canadians had served and died in the Canadian and Allied cause. No one had ever objected to their laying down their lives while wearing a turban!

Strange, this human nature of ours.

But I digress.

Let me tell you of another First, another Breakthrough, another Beginning ...

Not too long ago, Sandeep Singh Brar ... an internet wiz, the founder of www.sikhs.org and an avid collector of historical Sikh artifacts ... stumbled onto a war medal with the inscription of Buckam Singh's name on it.

He assumed it was a Sikh who had served in the British-Indian ranks and bought it.

Being the thorough researcher that he is, Sandeep discovered before long that Buckam Singh had been awarded this medal for his war service as a Sikh-Canadian soldier!

More research. One thing led to another: Sandeep came across clues that Buckam had died in 1919 and was buried somewhere in a cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario.

Mount Hope Cemetery to be exact ... a vast sea of graves and gravestones.

He and his then 11-year-old son, Arjan Singh, decided to look for the gravestone, knowing full well that it would be a challenge ... with no further details, and a thousand graves to sift through.

Arjan, now 12, describes the moment well: "Dad got lost as we split up, looking for the grave. We were looking for it, from one stone to the next. Endlessly. And then, suddenly, I found it!"

It is around this grave that we gathered this morning, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month - on the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War.

It was a perfect morning ... dreary and gray all around, with a bright orange and red carpet of autumn leaves hiding the grass. Zero Celsius. Threatening to spit or snow at a moment's notice.

More than fifty souls arrived before distant church bells announced the eleventh hour. I recognized faces from Toronto, which is an hour-and-a-half away. And from Kitchener and Waterloo, Brampton and Mississauga, Cambridge and Guelph. A number of officers had also turned up from the Waterloo Region Police Force, in full uniform.

Some of the Sikhs wore their medals over their civvies.

Men, women and children had finally arrived here, 89 years late, but due to no fault of theirs, to honour a fallen soldier.

Muffled cannons could be heard in the distance ... obviously, another remembrance service had begun elsewhere in the city.

Sardar Gursev Singh began the service with Ardaas.

I looked around. Many of the eyes were moist, and it hadn't even started drizzling yet.

Deepa Ahluwalia led the congregation with our national anthem, "O Canada!"

Young Arjan Singh read out "In Flanders Fields".

On the dot, at 11.11, someone turned on a tape-recorded "Last Post". The bugle filled the air with sadness and glory.

Arjan's Dad, Sandeep Singh, then spoke briefly about his search for Buckam Singh and the little he had managed to uncover to date about the abbreviated but eventful life that had brought us together this morning.

Sgt Gurpreet Singh Dipak from the Hamilton Army unit and veteran Harjit Singh Bains laid a wreath on Sardar Buckam Singh's grave.

The young soldier from Hamilton (Ontario) was then joined by Air Cadet Gurpeet Kaur Banga to lay another wreath at the foot of a nearby memorial erected a long time ago in memory of all soldiers from Kitchener who gave their lives during the Wars.   

A delegation from the nearby gurdwara sang a subdued yet stirring "Deh Shiva bar mohe ihey ..." and all joined in.

Then, a final Ardaas by Bhai Sahib from the gurdwara, invoking blessings and peace for all who have given so much for human freedom and liberty ... not just the 80,000 plus Sikhs during the two World Wars, but all Canadians, young and old ... all symbolized by this one young man whose remains lay in peace in the soil beneath our feet.

Finally, a vote of thanks from Sgt Sharma of the Waterloo Region Police Force, recognizing the extraordinary work done by Sandeep in bringing us together.

Many helped to put this morning together, but one person deserves special mention: the inimitable Sikh boxer, Pradeep Singh Nagra, whose skills are no less in coordinating the logistics of such an occasion.

Where do we go from here?

My hope and prayer is that this will mark a beginning.

Surely, every Remembrance Day parade, every Veterans Day Parade, should have a Sikh contingent in it ... in every village, every town, every city, in England, in the United States, in Canada ... nay, in every nation on earth.

Why? Because Sikhs live everywhere. And every Sikh has reason to honour those on whose shoulders we stand today.

It is time we did what should have been done a long time ago, but hasn't been done to date. It is clear ... no one else will do it for us.

Remember how, in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, they simply forgot to mention the thousands of Sikhs who too had died in the very same camps? ... in real life, but lost on the screen in the fictitious Kwai. Imagine, not even a mention!

Remember how they conveniently forgot to mention the brave Sikhs who did the actual fighting and dying at Gallipoli? The film Gallipoli sings of the exploits of the Aussies ... which it rightly should ... but some historical accuracy would've helped.

These are our stories. We need to bring them alive and pass them on, just as Sandeep Singh has done with Arjan Singh and Anoop Kaur ...

Lest we forget ...

 

November 11, 2008       

Conversation about this article

1: Kanwal Nain Singh (Lindsay, Ontario, Canada), November 11, 2008, 8:01 PM.

Very touching article indeed. Well done, T.Sher Singh. I was under the impression that Legions all across Canada have now removed restrictions in allowing turban wearing Sikh veterans to enter the Legion Halls. If not so, it may be a very good idea at this time to highlight the bravery of all those Sikh army men in British Indian army who were honoured by award of the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry. And yes, they were all turban wearing Sikhs in full uniform.

2: Nimritjit Singh (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), November 11, 2008, 8:33 PM.

It was a proud and touching moment this morning at Sardar Buckam Singh's grave.

3: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), November 12, 2008, 10:06 AM.

An awesome Rememberance Day Service, a painstaking research and a gripping description of the solemn, historical event.

4: Kaur Ageous ( Toronto, Canada), November 16, 2008, 12:09 AM.

Wow, I hadn't imagined that something like this had happened. A Sikh served in the Canadian Army, in those times when probably my grandmother was not even born. Wow!... We really have the "Singh" (Lion) DNA ... I bet no other race matches our valour and bravery. I wonder where his family is now ... like siblings and stuff.

5: Gurpal Singh Bhuller (Chester , Virginia, U.S.A. ), November 16, 2008, 8:41 AM.

Very moving and interesting. Thank you, Sandeep Singh ji and to his son, Arjan, for revealing some of own history. Much more needs to be done, of course, and your work gives us all inspiration to do our own bit.

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