Remembrance must include Britain’s colonial legacy

Anu Shukla reports from Smethwick, where a statue has been unveiled that commemorates the role of Britain’s colonized populations in the First World War.

Credit: Anu Shakla

On a damp Sunday morning, a week before Remembrance Sunday, a bronze statue of a weather-beaten Indian soldier clad in British army attire was unveiled outside a Sikh temple in the UK town of Smethwick, West Midlands ahead of the Armistice centenary.

Sculpted by artist Luke Perry, some of the words inscribed read: ‘This statue of a Sikh soldier is dedicated to the brave men of all faiths who served side by side and honours their remarkable contribution to the Great War and other conflicts.’

In the heart of post-industrial Britain, a medley of people from different parts of the world gathered in turbans and headscarves to honour all the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim soldiers who fought in World War One for the British Empire.

The human cost of the British Raj

The ‘Lions of the Great War’ statue is the first statue of a South Asian WWI soldier in Britain, and symbolises the 1.3 million from the subcontinent who were forced to join the conflict on the other side of the world. It also stands as a haunting reminder of how they were repaid a year after victory when, on 13 April 1919, the British Indian Army troops opened fire on 20,000 people who were celebrating the Sikh festival of Vasakhi.

The numbers killed at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre are disputed. Contemporary colonial sources cite 379, but a plaque near the Golden Temple site of the massacre reads some 2000 were killed on the orders of Colonel Reginald Dyer, who was later promoted by the British for his ‘feat’.

Fast forward to 1968 when Enoch Powell, in his infamous Rivers of Blood speech, stoked fears about the migration of colonised peoples, including the very migrants he invited to plug the labour gap in the NHS. He spoke in Birmingham, just a 10-minute train ride from Smethwick.

Addressing a room full of Conservative MPs, he said: ‘The Sikh communities' campaign to maintain customs inappropriate in Britain is much to be regretted… This communalism is a canker; whether practised by one colour or another, it is to be strongly condemned.’

Indians were considered a threat to the British Empire in India, and later a threat to British sovereignty in Britain.

As if proximity to Powell wasn’t enough, Smethwick is also home to the UK’s most racist parliamentary election. It was fuelled by a campaign led by Conservative MP Peter Griffiths who won his seat on the slogan, ‘If you want a n**** for a neighbour, vote Labour.’

Five decades on, the town has evolved into a melting pot of Afghani Indians, Indian Afghanis and Italian Sikhs; of Pakistani Punjabis, Peshawari Hindus and Bengali Muslims; of Iraqis, Afghans and Kurds; of Latvians, Poles and Russians; and of Afro-Caribbean people, Brazilians, Spanish and Portuguese.

Smethwick's Sikh legacy

Sikhs comprised 20 per cent of the British Indian army. An estimated 74,000 Indian soldiers were killed during the First World War, a further 62,000 injured. But for Sikhs of Smethwick, the lack of formal recognition of these men only served to add insult to injury. And the wounds, particularly in a place like Smethwick, run deep.

Jatinder Singh, president of the town’s Sikh temple, the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, said the statue aimed to heal those wounds. Perched on a 10-foot plinth, the sculpture towers at 16-feet tall. Along with surrounding fountain and features, it was funded by the Gurdwara and local Sandwell Council to the tune of £201,000.

He said: ‘There’s always been something vital missing from British history, which doesn't mention the contribution Sikhs and other faiths from South Asia and the Indian subcontinent made to fight with the British. We felt it was time to change this.’

‘There are still people like Enoch Powell who exist in the UK which is why it’s important to combat stereotypes and ensure people understand that we’re here, and we’re here to stay. We’ve done everything we can to make the UK a stronger, more diverse nation and it’s something we should be proud of,’ he added.

But he said the UK, as well as formally recognizing the war effort of soldiers from colonized lands, also needed to express atonement for atrocities like the brutal Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

He said: ‘I would like to hear a public apology at least from Theresa May or her Majesty’s Government, acknowledging the total wrongness of this act. If Justin Trudeau can have the guts to apologize about Komagata Maru, then perhaps the British should take a leaf.’

Birmingham MP Preet Kaur Gill, the UK’s first female Sikh politician, agreed.

‘On the one hand we helped serve your country, and on the other, you repay us like this? And when the British did finally decide to leave, they left a mess. The 1947 partition of India led to one of the worst exoduses in the history of the world.’

The statue, she said, was a ‘necessary’ form of symbolism ‘in the absence of an education system that failed to address the truth about the South Asian contribution to the First World War’.

The Lions of the Great War statue has the potential to inspire those with ancestors who either fought for the Empire or were brutalized by it. Should other towns follow suit, it could demonstrate the potential to combat anti-immigrant sentiment and represent a better future for a post-imperial nation that so often chooses to forget its past.