Surinder Dhesi gave a talk about the contribution of Sikh and Indian soldiers during the first and second world wars noting how the contribution and sacrifices made by Sikhs and other non-European nations and communities can often be under-played.
At the start of World War I the Sikhs, who contributed disproportionately to India’s armed forces, were promised they would be granted an independent Sikh Kingdom. They suffered heavy casualties on the Western Front amongst the 130,000 Sikhs who took part.
After the end of World War I, within six months, the British Empire, which needed Sikhs so badly in 1914-18, turned its own machine guns on them in the 1919 JillianWara Bagh Amritsar Massacre.
In WWII a Sikh contingent proved vital backup to the British Forces in France in 1940 and when they were amongst those evacuated at companies were evacuated at Dunkirk. Sikh pilots also contributed to the Battle of Britain and subsequently in bombing raids over Germany.
Sikh regiments played a major part in the operations in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, East Africa and the Far East including Burma. By the end of the war fourteen Victoria Crosses were awarded to the Sikhs, whom fought on land, sky and sea and south Asian merchant seamen living around the ports of London, Cardiff, Liverpool and South Shields played a significant role maintaining supply lines to Britain.
In addition to meeting her own requirements, India’s new factories produced much of the textiles required by the military.
In 1946 Colonel Landed Saras-Field lamented and argued in agonising terms about the ‘Betrayal of the Sikhs’ during the grotesque and undemocratic British-Indian colonial ‘Transfer of Power’ of 1947. In a direct call to the British government, he protested about how the Sikh political and economic interests had been totally forgotten, carving up the two states of India and Pakistan and not living up to the promise of giving back Sikhs their kingdom in the Northern region of the Indian subcontinent.
History books, the school curriculum and TV movies usually offer but skimpy acknowledgement of the role of non-European soldiers in WW1 and WWII. This can be painful for British Sikhs whose forefathers fought and died on the front-line for the UK. Surinder expressed a hope that this country might move to greater recognition of the contribution of Sikhs and other ethnic minorities in the World Wars especially by acknowledging this more in what is taught in schools. For future generations to grow up with a more balanced understanding of the contributions of the Sikhs and others might help towards better understanding a for all.