Bonds of history, bound again
The history of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs fighting together as part of the British Indian army is as relevant for South Asian communities today as it is for Britain. In Leicester we are working with members of all three communities who will jointly embark on a journey of discovery at the Centre for Hidden Histories, unearthing the rich legacy of shared experience between them. This will be accompanied by work with local teachers, through bespoke education packs, embedding this knowledge and its significance within the classrooms of tomorrow.
© IWM (Q 823)
WW1 heritage brings Leicester communities together
Against the backdrop of centenary commemorations, writes Avaes Mohammad, the Unknown and Untold project has been working across the country to promote knowledge of the 400, 000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the First World War. Not only has the learning of this shared heritage been warmly received by British Muslim communities, who have expressed a deepened ownership and claim towards their British identity as a result, but it has been deemed equally significant amongst non-Muslims and particularly white Britons too, who have expressed a broadening of their understanding of Britishness, addressing myths regarding any inherent incompatibility between being Muslims and being British.
Achieving this success across Muslim and non-Muslim communities not only demonstrates the impact on integration that understanding this shared heritage can have across communities; it also shows how minority stories can and do have equal significance for majority audiences too.
Having demonstrated this in Birmingham, a city with a sizeable Muslim population, the project recently conducted activities in Leicester. The city of Leicester has historically hosted a significant number of East African Indian refugees who built new lives there during the era of Africanisation. With further immigration from the sub-continent too, the city is now the first ‘minority majority’ city in the UK where minority communities collectively outnumber white British communities. Home to a significant number of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, the city has been an ideal place to explore how understanding shared history can bring together different minority communities too.
While 400, 000 Indian Muslims did fight for Britain in WW1, it would be wrong to suppose this was a solitary endeavour. This service took place side by side with their Hindu and Sikh countrymen, collectively totalling a contribution of one and a half million soldiers. To highlight this shared history among Leicester based members of these faith groups today, we organised two community meetings and a day-long workshop. Attracting more than 50 people from across the generations and faith communities, the community meetings consisted of an inspiring and informative presentation delivered by the author of For King and Another Country, Shrabani Basu, and a reading of soldiers’ letters by Salt of the Sarkar project director Dominic Rai, as well as talks by local artists and councillors who spoke about the contemporary significance this heritage invokes for a city as diverse as Leicester.
The following day-long workshop was designed for those wishing to engage with this heritage in greater depth and with more consideration. Lead by Jasdeep Singh, the National Army Museum delivered illuminating presentations and an exhibition detailing the intimacies of the Indian experience in WW1. With focused discussion and debate among the group, participants then went on to write moving letters to those original soldiers, allowing them the opportunity to speak to those figures directly.
What emerged from the discussions in these events was a common belief that, while promoting the shared heritage of commonwealth soldiers serving Britain in WW1 fosters integration between individual communities and majority society, the nature of our rich and diverse society should mean that efforts are similarly made to facilitate integration across minority groups too.
The following letters were written by our participants in the day long workshop and exemplify the significance that members of all our communities attribute to this shared heritage that serves us all.
In response to a letter written to Jemader Muzaffer Khan (59th Scinde Rifles, British Indian Army at the front)
Dear Sayid Ghulam Abbas
I am writing to you in reply to your letter dated 25th May 1915 in relation to your concern over the English officers opinions, regarding the Muslim race in the Punjab area, the work that they have done and their loyalty. I have no doubt the self sacrifice carried out by our brothers, in devoting their lives and carrying out forced duties to the war. Your letter requested a notification of thanks from either Captains, Majors or Colonels for the loyal behaviour of all Muslims currently assigned. But do not anticipate rejoice in the arrival of this letter. Instead I urge you to use your Spiritual position to guide those who surround you in prayer. Pray for your children on the battlefields but more importantly I ask you to steer your prayers to the thousands who now reside on these fought lands after the wars’ succession. As it is with regret that I inform you that the journey will long continue. Their bravery will be tested, their loyalty questioned and their treatment ashamedly like caged animals.
I write to you from the comfort of my home, present day and in a world that you could never imagine exists. We are living side by side and flourishing in colder climates but the opinions of which concerned you, can now be seen within our neighbours eyes and heard within their stories. Unable to use us for their own means and frustrations over successes, has bred a new ridicule and hatred. One that yields within our own ashamed communities. One where scholars have agonised and lost sleep over penned explanations in an attempt to bring peace in our minds. We are with and against those who once exploited us and it is no longer the fault of the new but those colonisers you too lost sleep over. I weep for your agonised prayers to keep snatched ones safe. But I can only comprehend it as I think of my own mothers concern for me, because that is all I have. Your stories are lost. They are not written in textbooks. They are not glamorised in stories. And they are not showcased in glass cabinets. My mothers’ wounds and filtered images are what allow me to comprehend your concerns. These lost words, amongst a sea of tales and history lessons, strengthen only my pain for you and your children. Their bravery and plight becomes mine. But we are expected to remain quiet, peaceful civilians here. Not only for the ones they took from you and me but for raped lands that have been destroyed since. Badla ek khulus main, naseeb hum main adawat hai. Stepping out of this false serenity and wealth will shame us all. We are not individuals so many do what they can to uphold the image. Those who choose not to stay quiet are turned into animals. Zoological terms are vomited from mouths to maintain separation. But for those who realise their humanity, begin to sharpen the weapons with which victory is secured. The only way, it seems.
This letter will never reach you but my voice will continue to tell your stories.
Dear Mr Malik,
A recent project that I worked on drew your fascinating life to my attention.
‘Together We Won the War’ is an exhibition that highlights the contributions of African, Asian and Caribbean soldiers to Britain in WW1. In undertaking this work, I was tasked to research stories of World War 1 heroes from different backgrounds and, Mr Malik, the story of your life captured my interest and imagination.
I read your autobiography ‘A little work a little play’ an extremely aspiring story of a true Sikh, who left his homeland in the Punjab at the age of 14 to fulfil his dreams overseas. You were a great sportsman attended the best public schools and, as probably one of the 1st Sikhs of your time, studied at Balliol College, Oxford.
When you finished college in 1915, you wanted to play a part in the war effort. You spent your early years working for the French Red Cross. Despite facing societal barriers and racial prejudice from higher British military officers, opportunities did eventually open up for you to join the Royal Flying Corps as one of your influential friends shamed the British Air Force general into accepting you as an officer as the French were willing to do. To me, and many youngsters of today, this was a major achievement of the time as you accomplished all this in a foreign country with beard and turban, starting in the days when attitudes were not so enlightened or tolerant as they are today.
During your time in the RAF you flew some of the best military aircrafts, fought many battles, and experienced many injuries, but came out of the war as a true hero of your time. As we commemorate the centenary of WW1 in Britain, you have also become a recognised hero of our time and an important inspiration to present and future generations.
Mr Malik, thank you for your substantial contributions and thank you for paving the way forward for others to aspire to their goals and ambitions in life.
Kamljit Kaur Obhi
I have always wanted the world to be a place where we can all connect to one another through love, peace and harmony.
But what astounds me is that we have all come together on a same platform but instead of connecting we have started conquering.
What is it about POWER that makes a man forget his true self and barter his soul for name, fame and power.
We seem to rejoice in destroying the values and the vulnerable. Is this the only thing that makes a man feel useful and powerful. To me you are the coward that hides behind a rifle, grenade and a canon.
By Bharti acharya
The project is a collaboration between think-tank British Future and the organisation New Horizons for British Islam. British Future is an independent, non-partisan thinktank seeking to involve people in an open conversation, which addresses people’s hopes and fears about identity and integration, migration and opportunity, so that we feel confident about Britain’s Future. New Horizons is a forward-looking organisation that will work for reform in Muslim thought and practise. It is inspired by Islamic values and speaks from within the Islamic tradition for the benefit of all.