Lord Singh’s speech at a Parliamentary Commemorative Reception on the 10th of Nov:
Friends, my thanks to Paul Uppal MP and Harbakhsh Singh, of the UK Punjab Heritage Association, for giving me an opportunity to say a few words.
By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Sikhs, though only little over 1% of India’s population, made up to about 20% of the British Indian army.
By the end of the war around 130,000 Sikhs had seen active service. They fought on most of the war’s major fronts, from the Somme to Gallipoli, and across Africa. Over 138,000 Indian troops fought in Belgium and France, many of them Sikhs. More than one quarter of these soldiers became casualties.
They fought with great distinction in the freezing mud-soaked battlefields of Europe, and with equal distinction in the Middle East. In the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, the 14th Sikh Regiment sustained very heavy casualties.
Many plaudits were showered on Sikh soldiers by the British and their allies, and rightly so. Their courage and record in battle is second to none and we should remember them with pride. They have set the bar high and we, and succeeding generations must show we are equal to their challenge.
History records that Britain reneged on its promise of a measure of self-rule for India on the successful conclusion of hostilities and the people of the sub-continent found themselves subjected to further repression. The Rowlett Act, passed on March 10, 1919, effectively authorized the government to imprison any person suspected of supposed terrorism to imprisonment for up to two years without trial, and gave the imperial authorities power to deal with all supposed revolutionary activities.
Sikhs will note the irony of how, a little over a half century later, Indira Gandhi used almost identical repressive measures to stifle Sikh protest over the genocide of 1984.
But history can have some strange twists. The repressive legislation of 1919 and the now, universally condemned massacre, of hundreds of innocents at Jallianwalla Bagh on Baisakhi 1919, lit the torch of freedom for the sub-continent. It was a torch kept aflame by the sacrifice of many Sikhs
Friends, in the many centenary commemorations I’ve attended it was said WW1 was then considered as the war to end wars. What we need to reflect on is why didn’t it? In this centenary year of remembrance of the courage of the British, the Sikhs and others who gave their all, we need to redouble our efforts to honour their memory by working for a more lasting peace that looks beyond narrow conflict inducing national self-interest, to the well-being of all members of our one human race.
Finally, a word to the leaders of our political parties. As well as commemorating the centenary of WW1, Sikhs are, as you know, also commemorating the 30th anniversary of the state sponsored mass killing of Sikhs throughout India in 1984.There is no lack of evidence that this was a deliberate genocide, described by PM David Cameron as ‘a stain on the history of independent India’. The then Congress government role in this state sponsored genocide has been similarly condemned by India’s new PM Narendra Modi.
I know that all- important trade led to government reluctance to question the then Congress government, but a new situation now exists in India under PM Narendra Modi, who has himself sympathized with the suffering of Sikhs. I appeal to our main parties, to show similar sympathy for the genocide against Sikhs, by backing in principle at least, the establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to identify the guilty and bring a measure of dignity and closure to thousands of still grieving families of victims of genocide. Reflecting on Sikh sacrifices in WW1 it is a very small ask.