With Remembrance Day approaching, it seems appropriate for us to commemorate all those South Asians who fought for Britain, not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.
On the outbreak of the First World War (WWI) in 1914, messages of support for the British flooded in from the Indian princely states, while many Indian cities saw pro-British demonstrations. Well over a million South Asians volunteered to fight for Britain during WWI, and they were sent all over the world; France, the Middle East, and many other places. The Daila Lama sent troops to help and even Mahatma Gandhi volunteered to work with an ambulance unit.
This acceptance of overseas service for King George was all the more amazing, given the attitude of many Indians in the 19th century. Then, service outside the Hindu heartlands was seen as terrible, because it involved a loss of caste. Even the Punjab and Sindh were considered to be abroad. Hindu troops mutinied in Burma because of its location, while the First Afghan War was even more disastrous in this respect. A force made up of Maharaja Ranjit Singhâ€™s men, British sepoys and some exiled Afghans were routed and the surviving Hindus were ostracised when they returned home. The twentieth century would see a radical change in these attitudes.
The death toll between 1914 and 1918 was heavy. Close to 50,000 South Asians perished in WWI, with tens of thousands wounded. Around 13,000 medals were won by these forces, including 12 Victoria Crosses, Britainâ€™s greatest medal for bravery in the face of the enemy. The first VC was won by one Khudabad Khan, then serving with the â€˜Duke of Connaughtâ€™s Own Baluchisâ€™.
During World War Two, despite resentment at Britainâ€™s failure to grant her independence, India still stood up and was counted. By 1943 the Indian army had two and a half million soldiers to call on, making it the largest all-volunteer force in history. South Asians managed to win 30 VCs during this war, with many others displaying almost superhuman bravery. One of the stories that I find most moving is that of Noor Inayat Khan, a British agent working in Paris under the noses of the Gestapo, who was eventually found and shot. Spies like her were always in incredible danger, not just because they were behind enemy lines, but also because they could expect no quarter if they were captured, unlike soldiers in uniform.
42 VCs in two wars were just the tip of the iceberg. Without the bravery and selfless sacrifice of all millions of South Asian heroes, many of whom had never even seen Britain and had no reason to fight for her, Britain might well have been defeated and we might all be speaking German now- Hitler would have won. Whether itâ€™s ancient Sikhs with magnificent beards proudly displaying their medals, or the Ghurkhas who still fight for Britain today, remember; we owe them all a debt of honour, a debt that will probably never be fully repaid.
Update: One way the British government could do more to honour these Indian soldiers would be to make more of an effort to catch one of their descendant’s killers:
“The family of British â€˜honourâ€™ killing victim, Surjit Kaur Athwal, will mark Remembrance Day with an earnest call to the Prime Minister to intervene on her case.
On Remembrance Sunday, Dhillon family members will gather in Coventry for prayers and remembrance of Surjit. They will reflect on the huge service and sacrifice by three generations of their family, to the British military defence; and the contrasting failure of the British state to protect and support them in their time of critical need.
Surjitâ€™s family are agonised that her case has been neglected and abandoned by the British government; in contrast with the huge service and sacrifice of Surjitâ€™s three generations of grandfathers Bassan Singh, Bufsun Singh and Maghar Singh. Between 1850 to 1945, they served with great courage and distinction in global British war efforts, including both World Wars.
Surjitâ€™s family stresses that, as a full-fledged British citizen, Surjitâ€™s murder abroad deserves full and equal intervention from the British government. They draw comparisons with other British cases like Lucy Blackman in Japan, Kirsty Jones in Thailand and currently Madeleine McCann in Portugal.”
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