August 7, 2014 | By Parmjeet Singh
London, United Kingdom (August 07, 2014): The conflict between 1914 and 1918 – which became known as the Great War – left 17 million soldiers and civilians dead.
Earlier this year a British Council survey revealed some startling facts. Over a quarter of Indians believed their country fought against Britain in the First World War.
Some commentators blame the Government of India and its education system for this lack of awareness. One prominent commentator said the Indian government had ‘behaved like an ostrich all these decades’.
It therefore comes as little surprise that the centenary went largely unobserved in India. This is one centenary India has chosen to give a miss. 100 years later India, but not the Sikhs, remains utterly confused over its past.
When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, it had only about 150,000 combat-ready troops. It could commit only a little over 80,000 troops to the Western Front in the initial days of the war. The only professional standing army that Britain could bank upon in that crisis was the Indian Army with its many turban wearing Sikh soldiers. These troops became the first fighting non-white colonial soldiers in Europe ever.
The British Council survey also showed 78% of respondents in France believed India stayed neutral in the conflict and did not send any troops. In reality, over 140,000 Indian soldiers, including tens of thousands of turban wearing Sikh soldiers fought to defend French soil and many died while doing so. This lack of awareness is unhelpful when 100 years later in modern day France turban-wearing Sikhs face increasing discrimination in schools and public employment.
The 1 million Sikh community that has today made Europe its home want there to be better awareness of Sikh valour in the First World War, especially the sacrifices by turban wearing Sikhs in Belgium and France. As the survey has shown those in Europe outside the UK have little idea of the Sikh contribution.
Bhai Amrik Singh, the Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) said: ‘We have made clear to the UK Government that there needs to be a permanent monument in central London in the next four years to recognise the Sikh contribution and show turban-wearing Sikhs were the ‘Lions of the Great War’.’
‘We have had a positive initial response to the proposal that we hope will eventually see similar monuments in several other cities in the UK as well as in France and Belgium. The design we have in mind will depict the valour of turban-wearing Sikhs as a permanent reminder to the generation of today and to future generations.’
Yesterday Sikh households across the UK took part in the Lights Out project to mark the exact time when Britain entered the First World War.
Prayers were also offered at the estimated 250 Sikh Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) to remember those who lost their lives.
The organisers of the Lights Out project understood Gurdwaras were unable to take part as there is always a light on in a Gurdwara, to show that the Guru’s Light is always visible and is accessible to everyone at any time.
The Duchess of Cornwall as the Queen’s representative joined senior politicians – including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and the Mayor of London and High Commissioners from all the Commonwealth countries – for a service of solemn commemoration at Westminster Abbey.
Bhai Amrik Singh, the Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK), was one of the five turban-wearing Sikhs who were also at the candle-lit vigil at Westminster Abbey. It was broadcast live on the BBC and concluded a day of ceremonies marking 100 years since Britain entered the First World War.
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