July, 2020

In Honour of forgotten Sikh soldiers

Duty, Honour and Izzat written by Steven Purewal is a book that tells the story of forgotten Punjabi soldiers and the vital role they played during World War 1. The book is written for children in a graphic novel format so that it is easy to understand. In this article, Purewal talks about his book and also the circumstances that made him come up with the idea of writing on this topic

By Steven Purewal

As an involved parent of 3 children attending public schools in Surrey, I had seen many of the resources commonly used in the BC curriculum to teach history.  Over time, to my eye, a pattern of omissions became discernible when it came to the resources that centred on the First World War and the teaching of the history of the story behind the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ – turbaned soldiers were notably missing from the picture.

In fact, one in every six British soldiers on the Western Front at the time was Indian. So, each time a child brought one of these ‘whitewashed’ texts home it appeared to me to be a deliberate attempt to exclude us from the heritage of this country.  As a history buff who had collected ample evidence of our soldier’s participation in the battles of Flanders in the form of newspapers  from the time, it was relatively easy for me to correct this at home with my children and instil in them a sense of belonging; that by playing  a significant part in WW1 and the country’s past they were also an essential part of its future.

To fully appreciate this history you have to understand the First World War’s importance in the nation’s coming of age saga.  If confederation of 1867 was the birth of the country,  Government policy in the shape of curriculum, citizenship guides and commemorative events, for example,  has been to frame WW1, including the victory at Vimy,  as a rite of passage, in which the courage and sacrifice of Canadian troops came to represent a new assertion of nationhood.

The WW1 centennial, which started in 2014, therefore, represented a teachable moment. I felt the time had come to tell a tale that had gone untold, of spurned friends coming to the aid of their Canadian brothers-in-arms on the battlefields of Europe, specifically during the battle in which John McCrae penned his iconic poem. The protagonists in this story were the unsung heroes of the Punjab that were called up to defend the Canadian line.

Arriving September 26th 1914, in Marseille France, Punjab’s Lahore Division ( pre-partition India) became the first colonial force to deploy in Europe to defend liberty and freedom while millions of Europeans had yet to enlist themselves. With the fate of the Channel Ports hanging in the balance, the Indian Expeditionary Force quickly plugged the gap in the last British line of defence before Calais and thwarted the German advance forcing the opposing armies to dig in to complete a series of trenches in a stalemate that would stretch south from the Flanders coast to Switzerland. After this First Battle of Ypres, the Western Front would remain more or less static for the next four years until August 1918 when the Canadians were able to punch a hole in the German line during the 100 Days offensive which finally put the end of the war within sight.

In this story then the Punjabis were critical to the allied victory. Speaking after the war the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Ferdinand Foch, identified the Indian Army as having delivered the war effort’s first decisive steps to victory; they were critical in stemming the tide of the German invasion of Belgium and France – without their arrival in the nick of time the port of Calais would not have been saved for a Canadian landing, the Western Front would have been breached, and the British Expeditionary Force annihilated. Without them then, history may have indeed unfolded as strategised in Alfred von Schlieffen’s master plan with the taking of Paris in 42 days and the war could well have been over by Christmas as many speculated at the time. In this account not only were Punjabi soldier’s critical to the victory they were heroes in every sense of the word – by performing their duty with integrity and courage they had changed the course of world history and defended the freedoms and democracy that all Canadians enjoy today.

What all Canadians should remember is that the Punjabis chose to honour their oaths; taking the high road when it was so easy not to;  they did their duty even as the Komagata Maru sailed back to India. Many people fail to register that WW1 was declared just days after the Komagata Maru was ejected from Canada in July 1914. Within this extraordinary set of circumstances the character and integrity of the Punjabis would be tested to the extreme but the Punjabis would rise to the challenge.

On April 22nd 1915, Germany determined to take Ypres resorted to chemical weapons to shatter Allied defences.  Outnumbered and outgunned, the Canadians battled desperately, heroically confronting the advance in a series of bloody engagements. After four days of brutal fighting Allied reinforcements were despatched – and as fate would have it those ‘friends in need’ arriving to hold the Canadian line were the Jalandhar and Ferozepur brigades of the Lahore Division. These regiments hailed from the heartland of the Sikhs and comprised the exact same community aboard the Komagata Maru. In fact, by war’s end of the 498, 560 Punjabis that served in WW1,  300,000  sons of Empire put aside their grievances and enlisted directly from the districts of those aboard the evicted ship to shoulder an equal burden of war and win Dominion Status for India and equality with Canada within the Empire.

As far as I am concerned this is the story our children need to hear now – especially given the fact, so many of our youth are being pulled into a criminal lifestyle that lionises all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.  We need our own heroes in the ‘Canadian’ story – heroes that will instil a feeling of belonging rather than disenfranchisement, so we can steer our youth away from the clutches of people that will exploit that disenfranchisement.

I, therefore, decided in designing this history book to highlight a message of courage with integrity within a short story centred on Jasjeet a teenage boy, in Surrey BC, caught up in drug gangs who believes by being a gangster he would earn respect. However, he rethinks his choices after his 95-year-old great grandfather comes to visit the family in Canada. His grandfather’s stories of the family’s past, and seeing him reunited with a Canadian soldier that his great grandfather saved during WW2 opens up a different path to live his life when he discovers the gallant history of the Punjabi soldier and the truth about honour those stories entail.

The story is presented as a short graphic novel to encourage those that would not regularly engage with a history book to pick it up and give it a try.  For this reason, the illustrations are rendered in a contemporary style of video games rather than a comic ‘cartoon’ style. The format has met with a great response from the community and educator’s alike. The book could not have produced without the support of the Khalsa Diwan Society Vancouver,  India Cultural Centre Gurdwara Nanak Niwas Richmond, Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit BC ( Gang Task Force), Primus Law Surrey, East India Carpets Vancouver, Canadian Sikh Study & Teaching Society Vancouver, Akali Singh Society Vancouver. Now that the community has spoken, through action, for the need for more inclusive education – it is up to professional educators to introduce Duty, Honour & Izzat into Canadian classrooms.

Steven Purewal is Managing Director of Indus Media Foundation, a registered non-profit society based in the lower mainland that seeks to foster an appreciation for Punjabi culture within Canada. Steven’s work has been featured at Government House British Columbia and the British Columbia Legislature, The National War Museum, Provincial museums and the Prime Minister’s Reception for the Komagata Maru Apology in Ottawa.  

Renegade Arts Entertainment is offering a 15% discount off the cover price of Duty HOnour & Izzat to mark the 100th anniversary of the official end of the First World War on June 28th 2019.
To avail the promotion please enter coupon code ‘DESIIZZAT’ (valid for the month of July 2019) on checking out at www.renegadeartsentertainment.com/product/duty-honour-izzat/

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