Sikh Soldier's Statue Unveiled in UK: A Look at Their Role in 2 World Wars

The statue was made by artist Taranjit Singh and funded by donations from different Sikh congregations.

South Asians
5 min read

A statue of a Sikh soldier was unveiled in Britain's Leicester to honour the contributions of the community in several wars they fought on behalf of the British Empire, including the two World Wars.

The bronze statue, unveiled on Sunday, 30 October, was put on display on a granite plinth in Victoria Park in the presence of hundreds of people, including members of the Sikh community and the armed forces.

The statue was made by artist Taranjit Singh and funded by donations from different Sikh congregations.

Who funded the project?

The statue was made by artist Taranjit Singh and funded by donations from different Sikh congregations, as per the BBC.

"We are so proud to be unveiling this memorial to honour the sacrifice of all those brave men who travelled thousands of miles to fight for a country that wasn't their own," said Sikh Troops War Memorial Committee President Ajmer Singh Basra.

He also added that the statue would serve as a reminder of the community's sacrifices to Sikhs who had been living in Leicester for years.

Leicester City Council representative Piara Singh Clair also hailed the contributions of the Sikhs, saying that the statue would "provide a fitting tribute alongside other memorials in the park".

The statue marks a stride forward in honouring the participation and sacrifices of the Sikh community in several battle campaigns on behalf of Britain.

Here's a look at the community's vast role in the two World Wars.

Sikhs in World War I

India had joined hands with the Allied forces at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, contributing the highest number of volunteers among the British colonies at the time.

As per estimates, anywhere between 900,000 and 1.5 million Indian troops participated in the war by 1919, despite being paid as little as Rs 11 per month for their services to the empire.

Surprisingly, one in every six soldiers who fought on behalf of Britain was from the Indian subcontinent - making the participation of Indians in the war equivalent to all the forces from the rest of the British Empire combined, including those from Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.

Of the total number of troops that fought the war for Britain, around 20 percent comprised of Sikhs, despite the fact that they made up less than 2 percent of the Indian population at the time, according to the Gateway to Sikhism.

At the beginning of the war, as many as 35,000 Sikhs were a part of the 161,000 Indian personnel sent to fight the war.

When the war ended in 1919, around 100,000 Sikh personnel are said to have fought in the war, with some even contributing to the French Air Service and the American Expeditionary Force.

It was not uncommon to see Sikhs, often referred to as the "Black Lions", carrying holy scriptures – such as the Guru Granth Sahib – before marching on the battle front.

Sikhs In World War II

As the Allied countries stepped into the Second World War, the Sikhs remained a constant in the Indian infantry sent to fight on behalf of the British on several fronts.

This came in the backdrop of India's resounding call for Independence, and the debate on whether the country should even contribute soldiers to fight for the Allies – especially since India's then Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declared war against Nazi Germany on behalf of India without even consulting India's political leaders.

The debate culminated in Mahatma Gandhi launching the 'Quit India Movement' in 1942, assuring the participation of Indian troops only if Britain granted poorna swaraj, or complete Independence, to India – which was reluctantly accepted by the latter.

Around 189,000 Indian soldiers participated in the war when it began in 1939, and the number swelled to more than 2.5 million, most of whom were Sikh soldeirs, by the time the war ended in 1945.

During the six years of the global conflict, Sikh regiments also served in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), Italy, Burma (modern-day Myanmar), and north Africa on behalf of the empire.

The Perception In the UK About Sikhs In the World Wars

British society is divided over the role played by Sikh soldiers in the two World Wars, with some hailing their participation in large numbers, and others claiming that their efforts were far lower than what has often been portrayed.

In 2019, the then British Army Brigadier Celia Jane Harvey, while speaking at a public event, said that the role of Sikh soldiers had been exemplary in the World Wars, adding that the community drew respect from across the world for its bravery.

"Sikhs have sacrificed their lives for the protection of the oppressed, the helpless and other religions," Harvey had said at the Khalsa College Public School in Amritsar, according to news agency PTI.


Portrayal of Indian Soldiers in Popular Culture

The role of Sikhs, and Indians at large, is often given a miss when the British war efforts and the Allied powers' victory is highlighted – especially in popular culture.

A recent example is the World War II epic Dunkirk. The film, directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2017, was widely criticised for not showcasing the efforts of hundreds of Indian soldiers in fending off the Axis powers on the beach.

On the other hand, the World War I epic 1917, which was released in 2019, highlighted the often-ignored contributions of the Indian community. Several Indian soldiers, including Sikhs, can be seen on screen as the two British protagonists of the film journey through the Western Front.

In fact, one of the most prominent scenes in the film is the one where a British soldier meets a group of fellow personnel, including a Sikh Sepoy named Jondalar – played by Nabhaan Rizwan, who then go on to speak about their shared experiences in the war.

However, the casting of a Sikh soldier was criticised by several people in the UK, including actor Laurence Fox, who had referred to the "oddness in the casting" with regard to the Indian soldier.

He also went on to say that the appearance of the Sikh soldier was taking attention away from what the story was.

Later, however, Fox issued an apology for his comments, saying that it was a "clumsy" way of expressing himself.

"Fellow humans who are Sikhs, I am as moved by the sacrifices your relatives made as I am by the loss of all those who die in war, whatever creed or colour," the actor had tweeted.

(With inputs from BBC and PTI.)

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