Category Archive: bbc

  1. Renewing Our Sikh Chronicles: Article In War Hospital Magazine

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    A team of University of Birmingham PhD students have undertaken the marvelous task for the WW1 centenary anniversary of re-creating the old “Southern Cross” War Hospital Magazine.

    The magazine was published in Birmingham between 1916-18, and featured stories jokes and graphics from injured soldiers and their families.

    Birmingham has a rich heritage of caring for the war injured – from the first Southern Cross War Hospital to the new Department of Defence Medicine at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

    So I was delighted to have been invited to contribute an article to the centenary magazine; not only to support this initiative as a proud Brummie but also because the creators wanted to reflect upon the rich contribution of Sikhs who fought in a city where the Sikh impact is truly visible.

    The magazine is free and available from BBC Mailbox, University of Birmingham and the QE Hospital.

    For more information on the Forward 100: Birmingham At War project here.

    Renewing Our Sikh chronicles.
    By J. Singh-Sohal

    A hundred years ago, thousands of Sikhs left their villages and towns to travel across the ocean with the British Indian Army to fight in a faraway land they had never imagined they would see.
    They knew that in serving the British they were fighting for a just cause; they had grown up on the chronicles of valour of how their forefathers had fought against the foreigners who now ruled their lands, but they had no hesitation in believing that the British cause was righteous and just.
    And it was in doing this duty that they felt connected with their martial tradition – one which stemmed back to the times of the Sikh Gurus who had established the doctrine of a Sikh being both a saint and soldier; merging spiritual virtue with temporal power to create a race of people ever ready to fight against tyranny.  Who would stand out in the world as distinct, with flowing beards and tall turban alongside the articles of faith carried as part of their code of conduct, or reht maryada.
    The British Indian Army embraced the Sikhs and the source of their prowess, acknowledging the hairy turbanned warriors as a martial race, indeed ensuring only those baptised into the Sikh brotherhood – the Khalsa – served.  The British even raised class-based regiments of Sikhs so the band of brothers could fight alongside their kinsmen and be properly administered according to their customs in the field. 
    So it was no surprise that at the onset of the Great War, the rallying cry of the Sikhs was the loudest amongst all the native tribes of India, of which they were a minority.
    In total up to 130,000 Sikhs fought during the conflict, and their contribution deserves greater praise when considering that despite being only 2% of the population of India at the time they made up 20% of the Indian army in action. 
    The Sikhs were represented in 29 cavalry and 54 infantry regiments – more than even the Gurkhas – in Sikh regiments as well as mixed-class Punjabi regiments where they were barracked alongside Hindus and Muslims.
    The Sikhs took to the war with great gusto because they believed it was their opportunity to show the world the creed of the Khalsa.  Writing of the war on the western front in January 1916, Signaller Kartar Singh summed up the feeling: “We shall never get such another chance to exalt the name of race, country, ancestors, parents, village and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the Government.  I hope we shall renew our Sikh chronicles.” 
    Their necessity to the international war effort is reflected in that they fought in every arena of the conflict; from the trenches of the western front to the deserts of Mesopotamia, the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign to the game of cat-and-mouse played out across vast swathes of East Africa;  Egypt to Jerusalem, Persia to the North West frontier.  They were stationed in Burma, in Hong Kong and took part in little-known missions such as in Trans-Caspia.
    The Sikhs lived up to their martial traditions and showed remarkable courage and heroism.  This is best seen in the tally of decorations and medals they amassed during the conflict between 1914 and 1919: 29% of all Indian Orders of Merit awarded were to Sikhs, 24% of Indian Distinguished Service Medals awarded were to Sikhs.  They gained 22 Military Crosses and a host of European gallantry awards such as the French Croix De Guerre, Rumanian Order of the Crown and Russian Cross of St George.
    In ending his letter home to his village, the brave Kartar Singh echoed the sentiments of many of his brethren who saw the war as the defining moment of not just their lives but the reputation of their community:  “I pray to God to give us a chance to meet the foe face to face – to die in battle is a noble fate.
    For a race of landlocked people, the war and service to the British took the Sikhs far and wide; it instilled in them the confidence to spread their wings, to see the world and settle outside of the Punjab in greater numbers.  The clearest indication of the success of the Diaspora is seen here in Britain, where Sikhs are visibly noticed in every industry and profession, contributing to the economy and serving Britain today not just through their martial skills but by serving others and creating wealth.
    Yet, it is the story of the Sikh soldier from whence it all stems.  The loyal confident Sikh ever zealous about his role in the world, inspired by his faith and identity; fighting for the British but with the name of God and his Guru in his heart.  The soldier who would sacrifice for a just cause, the Sikh who would fight to the bitter end – and then some – to uphold the Khalsa traditions. 
    This is a living history, it can – and does – inspire a new generation to stand up and be of service.  It’s what led me to serve Britain as an Army reservist myself.   To follow in their footsteps and maintain the heritage of Anglo-Sikh relations, to be a part of a greater cause and add value to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

    We have indeed renewed our Sikh chronicles, and those inspired to live according to those traditions will continue to renew them into the future – it binds us to Britain and enables us to be great.
  2. BBC News …and an email from Philip

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    *** UPDATE: Watch the BBC report by clicking here ***

    On Monday 23rd the story of the thousands upon thousands of Sikhs who fought for Britain during WW1 was featured on BBC regional news – on Midlands Today.

    The “Sikhs At War” project was a key part of the special news report.  Earlier in the year we allowed the BBC to follow our work and film our forthcoming “Indians in the Trenches” film.

    In turn they did a fantastic job of highlighting our endeavours.  And they raised the question of what is being done to recognise and remember the contributions that these gallant warriors made to a foreign land they had never visited before.

    Since that broadcast I’ve been inundated with messages of thanks and support through email and social media.

    The messages all convey one message – thanks for raising awareness of this significant history.

    I wanted to share one such email with you – as it sums up nicely the high regard Sikhs continue to be held in and how we contribute to British society.

    Here is an email from Philip:

    “I would like to express my immense appreciation of the bravery and sacrifice that so many men of your faith made on our behalf in two world wars.

    “You stood side by side with us and many many other men of the Commonwealth to overcome a great evil.

    When I see the Sikh people, I behold a happy community, happy to be here and happy to be with us. I personally, am more than happy to have you here and wish that I could get to know you better.”

    [Above: images from the news report including Jay and Juggy filmmaking]

  3. BBC World War One At Home

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    The BBC’s series “World War One At Home” has a special episode on “Sikhs In The Trenches.

    You can listen to it via this link here or the image below.

    A special programme on  “The Empire’s Army” will be broadcast on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire on Monday 2nd June at 8.15am and a longer more in depth edition at 11.30am the same day.

  4. Comrades of WW1

    We get a lot of questions and messages on Twitter via @SikhsAtWar

    One such person is Marika Pirie from Canada, who shared with us this rare postcard showing a British and Indian soldier.

    The individual on the right is a Sikh, the beard and turban certainly show this to be the case.  But the chakkar on the turban seems more crescent shaped that circular – highly likely a mistake on the part of the artist.

    If you have any images you’d like to share with us on this blog – please do so via dothyphen1

  5. Why the BBC are wrong about M Duleep Singh

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    The source of inspiration and strength for all Sikhs, historically and presently, is the amrit (or Khande di Pahul) which the tenth Guru Gobind Singh gave to devotees to turn them into Khalsa (or Pure).

    Taking amrit is a sacred and transformative ceremony which is commemorated every year on April 13th (or 14th) – the original five (Panj Pyare) who took it had to give their heads.
    Next Sunday 14th April, the BBC will in a new documentary about the life of M Duleep Singh connect the story of the last ruler of the Punjab to the Sikh ceremony to mark the Vaisakhi.
    In doing so they will say that Duleep took amrit to once again become a Sikh.  The amrit initiation ceremony is detailed here.
    Duleep Singh living the life of a country gent at Elveden

    But did the Maharaja really undertake the initiation ceremony?

    I was pre-interviewed for the programme and shared with my thoughts that he could not have done so because:
    1 – he could not have taken amrit as he did not have 5 Singhs at his side or Guru Granth Sahib to undertake the ceremony when it’s supposed to have taken place

    2 – even if he had done he did not maintain his rehit (conduct) as a Khalsa Sikh by abstaining from meat, alcohol, illicit relations

    3 – he also did not keep his hair unshorn
    4 – in Paris in later life and with the death of his son, he continued his Christian beliefs – and was finally buried in a Christian burial.
    I stated to the BBC that Duleep’s re-embracing of his Sikh roots was purely selfish – in his pursuit to stick it to the British and his dream of regaining his lost kingdom and inheritance.
    He re-embraced Sikh values by becoming a learner and absorbing the story of his ancestors.  Yet whether he undertook some sort of a ceremony (even children are given amrit as choole) is a matter which is under researched.
    Through my own reading I’ve come to the conclusion that he did reaffirm himself to be a Sikh in some manner – but not through the process of becoming Khalsa.  Nor did he espouse Khalsa values or wish to.

    I also know, off record, other BBC contributors who severely doubt that Duleep became Khalsa – and so steered away from the issue in their interviews.  What makes the edit and how the programme is presented for Vaisakhi is another matter.

    Sadly, the BBC might be putting out there this myth that Duleep had takem amrit.  So I urge others to research into this and tell his story more accurately based on fact and not for the sake of telling a ‘Sikh story’ at Vaisakhi, a form of festival journalism which the BBC are developing a record of.

    Duleep’s life story of tragic-privilege is very relevant to British Sikhs today – I would suggest all to read into it and understand it, primarily because it helped successive Sikhs migrants prosper and integrate into a British society that understood their culture, roots and background.

    It’s an aspect of Sikh history I cover in my book “Turbanology: Guide to Sikh Identity”.