Centenary of the Armistice

Part of Assessment and Treatment Units: Vulnerable People – in the House of Commons at 6:05 pm on 6th November 2018.

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Photo of Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Labour, Slough 6:05 pm, 6th November 2018

This has been an excellent debate, with many touching and enlightening contributions. This is a moment when Parliament rises to the occasion and speaks for all the people of Britain and beyond.

In the limited time that I have, I want to highlight the role of all the women and men from the far-flung parts of our globe, in addition to those from the UK, in the first world war whose contribution often seems forgotten or understated in modern-day Britain. That may sound controversial, but even in the arts and culture, in our war movies, there is a palpable lack of black and brown faces. For some, it almost seems as though they were not there. This omission, or lesser emphasis, is a mistake, and I feel that it is one of the reasons why we as a nation are unable to effectively counter the rise of the far right, which seeks to divide us and to sow the seeds of suspicion and hatred.

Many thousands who gave their lives were cremated and hundreds of thousand lie at peace in Commonwealth war graves in 150 countries. Thousands of troops from across the mighty continent of Africa lost their lives, and 166 were decorated in recognition of their valour. The British West Indies Regiment, which provided 15,000 troops, fought in France and won 81 medals and 51 mentions in dispatches. The Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele earned a fearsome reputation among the enemy on the western front. The Australians and New Zealanders suffered disproportionately huge losses fighting alongside the French and British on the western front, in Mesopotamia, in Palestine and in the fateful Gallipoli campaign in 1915.

Then we come to the contribution from the Indian subcontinent. More than 1.5 million people came from what is modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and they were overwhelmingly volunteers. This was the largest volunteer army in history, and it contained Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others. Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, for heroism in Flanders in 1914, was followed not many weeks later by Darwan Singh Negi, who was also awarded the VC. The House will note from their names that the first of them was a Muslim and the second was a Sikh. It would be remiss of me, as the first ever turbaned Sikh in our Parliament, not to dwell on the incredible gallantry of serving Sikh soldiers and the contribution that they have made.

Sikhs made up just over 2% of pre-division India, but 20% of the Indian army in world war one. The Sikhs are rightly proud of their distinct heritage and their rich military tradition, which dates back centuries and was demonstrated on many occasions during the great war. More than 83,000 turbaned Sikh soldiers laid down their lives, and more than 100,000 were injured, during both world wars. We are so proud of our forefathers who fought so bravely, and every family has its story to tell, including mine.

In the first months of the war, some Sikh soldiers even refused to take shelter in the trenches because they felt that this suggested cowardice, but where is their monument in our capital city? The National Sikh War Memorial Trust, of which I am president, has campaigned for a memorial in a prime central London location, and many hon. and right hon. Members have signed our early-day motion, including all the leaders of the parliamentary Opposition parties and the Mayor of London. The EDM has been signed by 266 Members—the highest number for many years—and I encourage those who have not yet signed it to do so. I also encourage people to sign the online petition, launched in December 2017, which already has more than 46,000 signatures.

At the parliamentary launch of the campaign for a national Sikh war memorial, a staggering £375,000 was pledged by 15 generous donors. I place on the record my immense gratitude to you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to our humble request that you preside over the launch. The fact that you took over one and a half hours out of your busy diary and made stirring introductory and closing speeches was not lost on the global Sikh community.

The Government have since pledged their support, for which I thank them, and I am sure that they will impress upon Westminster City Council the need for a prominent location. It would be fitting if we could have a statue of two turbaned Sikh soldiers representing the contribution of Sikhs in each world war. I believe it should be close to Parliament and a place where little Sikh boys and girls can see a representation of turbaned soldiers and feel a deep connection to their history. It should symbolise our unity, our diversity and our integration.

In the first world war, soldiers, sailors and airmen came from every faith and background. The allied armies were racially, religiously and ethnically diverse—just like modern-day Britain. If anything, those armies are a true representation of modern-day Britain, and that is why we will remember them.