Days After Unveiling, First Memorial in UK to Honour Sikh WW1 Soldiers Vandalised

The memorial  – including a ten-foot statue of a Sikh soldier – is the first time the UK is honouring the 1,500,000 South Asian soldiers who fought in the war in a public space.

New Delhi: A First World War memorial in Smethwick, Birmingham to honour the contributions of Sikh soldiers in the British army was vandalised within a week of being unveiled. This year marks 100 years since the end of the war.

The memorial  – including a ten-foot statue of a Sikh soldier – is the first time the UK is honouring the 1,500,000 South Asian soldiers who fought in the war in a public space. The centrepiece of the memorial is the Lions of the Great War statue built by Black Country sculptor Luke Perry and funded by the Smethwick Guru Nanak Gurdwara.

“When I realised more than 1.5 million Indian soldiers had been sent to WWI I just could not understand why their contribution had been ignored for so long in this country,” Perry told Metro.co.uk. “It is galling they have been overlooked by history.”

While thousands of people gathered in Smethwick for the unveiling of the memorial on November 4, days later it was found vandalised, with the words ‘Sepoys no more’ spray painted on. According to BBC, a black line was also struck through the words “of the Great War”, and they were replaced by “1 jarnoil”. Many have speculated that this is a reference to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh militant leader killed by government forces in the Golden Temple in 1984.

“Working with the council we won’t allow this vandalism to undermine the very strong message created by this new monument and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to its unveiling,” president of the gurudwara that paid for the memorial, Jatinder Singh, told BBC. “What makes this incident particularly distressing is the complete disregard and lack of respect for the significance of the statue and inscriptions, installed recently to commemorate the losses felt by many South Asian families who lost their dear ones during the First World War and [to] mark 100 years since the end of the Great War.”

Also read: No Longer Seen as a ‘White War’ or India’s ‘Forgotten War’

Local authorities said while they are not sure about the motive behind the vandalism, they are “disappointed”. “We understand that this attack has caused a lot of concern in the community, and we are working to understand the reasons behind it and identify whoever is responsible,” sergeant Bill Gill from the Smethwick police told Independent. According to PTI, officers are treating the case as one of “racially-aggravated criminal damage”.

Labour party MP Preet Kaur Gill – the UK’s first female Sikh MP – had attended the unveiling of the statue on November 4. “It is an often overlooked fact that one in every six British soldiers was from the Indian subcontinent, making the British Indian Army larger than all the Commonwealth forces that they fought alongside, combined. With the Commonwealth Games coming to Birmingham in 2022, this statue will serve as a timely reminder to our Commonwealth guests of the camaraderie and sacrifice shown by Sikhs throughout the wars, and who sacrificed their lives in defence of democracy and in the fight for freedom,” she had said.

For decades, the UK had chosen to ignore the part South Asian soldiers had played in the First World War, and it was painted as a ‘white’ war in public memory. For this reason, the war also came to be known as India’s ‘forgotten war’. That only began changing very recently, several observers have pointed out. According to John Elliott, the UK government began honouring the contributions of soldiers from South Asia in 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. In his article, he details the ways in which the memorial celebrations have changed to take into account the role Sikh and other South Asian soldiers.