Sikhs, war, memory

Up in Arms highlights_0.png

Is there any form of belonging available to (post)colonial soldiers and subjects which does not endorse an imperial patriotism?

Katy P. Sian Vron Ware
25 June 2014

Plans to mark the forthcoming centenary of WW1 provide important opportunities to intervene in questions of war, historical memory and commemoration. In the coming months Up in Arms will be inviting guest writers to contribute to this space – especially from perspectives that engage with cultural plurality, racism and diversity in the present.

For the last two years Up in Arms has been tracking the process of militarisation in the everyday life in the UK, aiming to create a space for reflecting on the domestic impact of the prolonged interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. 

As the sixth consecutive Armed Forces Day approaches on June 28, it’s a good time to sharpen the focus on the changing profile of military work, especially as the hype would have us believe that this year will mark the first time in 100 years that British troops are not deployed in war. In this connection, don't miss Wartorn Britain and MIchael Bluett's account of why he made his film.

Since my last column, there have also been a rash of announcements. Despite the restructuring of the armed forces and the continuing redundancies across the army in particular, the shortfall in numbers of new recruits continues to cause alarm in Whitehall and elsewhere. April and May saw a flurry of articles about dropping restrictions that bar women from infantry roles in the army, although new reports indicate that the internal complaints system is failing those who report incidents of rape and sexual assault. 

Meanwhile, evidence is produced to suggest that military training works well in educational settings, and funds are provided to expand cadet forces in state schools. However, as the remnants of Camp Bastion are being dismantled by the last official batch of troops in Helmand, a new report reveals that over 30,000 British soldiers have failed a basic fitness test within the last three years. 

While these reports draw attention to the social aspects of soldiering, the prospects for veterans continues to cause alarm. The charity Combat Stress reported a 57% increase in the number needing treatment in 2013 and warned that the country must prepare for escalation.

Up in Arms will continue to monitor these social and political consequences of maintaining a military organisation in permanent readiness for war. But we also invite writers, curators, archivists, historians and teachers to address a range of complex issues thrown up by the approaching centenary of World War 1. 

What are the potential problems or contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers? And how do we create spaces for generating new knowledge of colonial soldiers’ involvement in global wars?

In the first of this new series, Katy Sian explores potential problems and contradictions entailed in compiling archival and documentary accounts of military labour performed by colonial and post colonial soldiers. She asks why Sikhs are "so insistent on fighting and participating within imperial wars for western nations that continue to exclude, ill-treat, and treat them as inferior?" Is there any other form of belonging available to (post)colonial soldiers and subjects which does not endorse an imperial patriotism? 

Vron Ware.


Sikhs, war, memory

by Katy P. Sian

As we commemorate the centenary of the start of WW1, it is worth revisiting the position of ethnic minorities and their relationship to imperial wars. Diasporic Sikhs, soldiers and citizens alike, occupy a problematic, yet intimate, and somewhat ironic relationship with colonial Britain, and ‘the West’. Dating back to their colonial encounter, Sikhs have for the most part come to embrace their label as ‘the favoured sons of Empire.’

Over decades of colonial rule the British were able to carefully cultivate and secure the loyalty and allegiance of many Sikhs through their ‘special’ designation as a ‘martial race’. Years on many Sikhs still take pride in such a classification, regardless of any racist or imperial connotations. In addition to this, despite a series of bloody battles in mid-nineteenth century colonial India in which the British defeated the Sikh Kingdom twice in the first and second Anglo Sikh Wars (1845-1846 and 1848-1849), Sikhs were, and still remain quite content to fight imperial global wars, as can be seen not only in their participation in World War 1, but also in the War on Terror and the contemporary context.

Sikh loyalty to western empires continues to be hegemonic. In the contemporary landscape, Sikhs in America have been fighting tooth and nail to serve in the US army, despite the fact that they were banned until recently, due to regulations around keeping their beards. In January this year the US military ‘relaxed’ their dress code to allow for religious attire including beards, turbans, and skullcaps. However rules state that each appeal will be judged on ‘a case-by-case basis’ and new exemptions must be obtained with every transfer, such are the many caveats that surround such a decision. The willingness of Sikhs to serve in America despite such exclusions, becomes even more so peculiar in a national context where they have been subjected to a series of racist attacks from white American citizens, who have confused them with being Muslim.

For example, the first so called, ‘revenge’ shooting after 9/11 by a white American claimed the life of a Sikh man wearing a turban. More recently, in August 2012, a white gunman opened fire on Sikhs praying in a Gurdwara in Wisconsin. Sikhs have also come under the spotlight of surveillance with numerous instances of racially targeted security checks and screenings at airports. So, why are Sikhs so insistent on fighting and participating within imperial wars for western nations that continue to exclude, ill-treat, and treat them as inferior?

The French Black soldier

In commemorations of World War 1 it is not uncommon to see images of majestic uniformed Sikhs proudly parading the British flag - images of the good and loyal Sikh soldier recycled time and time again. Each time, what we are being offered in such representations is an uncritically assimilated Sikh soldier, a depiction not at all too dissimilar from Roland Barthes’ famous example of the French Black soldier. Here we see a young black boy photographed on the front page of Paris-Match magazine, proudly saluting nation and Empire as he prepares to go to war.

Child soldier on the cover of Paris Match

Child soldier on the cover of Paris Match

Again, there is a clear politics of representation in the construct of the French Black soldier. On the surface, the message is that of an all-embracing Empire with no colour-line and no racial discrimination. Such images are replayed for annual war commemorations which almost exclusively show off images of well-assimilated, devoted, and patriotic ethnic minorities.

Of course, it is important to recognize the contributions of ethnically marked soldiers in war. It is all too often the case that their stories and experiences still remain largely under-represented. But my argument is not one that dismisses their efforts. Rather the aim is to problematize such a politics of representation.

Political representation

The nature of war can only be political: it follows that such representations must also be political. The superficial splash of colour we see in war commemorations is done to preserve the image of Empire as an ecumenical entity, while at the same time erasing the atrocities bequeathed by global colonial wars. This is not unlike the way in which Britain’s involvement within slavery is remembered primarily for its role in abolitionist campaigns, rather than the considerable brutality and wealth creation on the very backs of slaves that took place in England’s ‘pleasant’ pastures green.

As the Sikh case quite clearly illustrates, Empire is far from ecumenical. From ‘martial races’ to exclusions on religious dress codes, racism and discrimination are in fact constant features of western imperial armies, both past and present.  

Yet, what remains remarkable is that despite being excluded and racialized; despite the unjust nature of the war in Iraq; regardless of the ways in which World War 1 and the War on Terror have both served as tools for imperial expansion; ignoring a series of Islamophobic attacks from White America and Britain; ultimately, despite so much that has occurred in a long history of military service - Sikhs still want to be part of the system, rather than challenge it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, we have seen the shooting of Sikhs in Wisconsin, and what can only be described as an extraordinary response from American Sikhs post 9/11 -  public messages which far from critiquing the embedded racism and Islamophobia affecting all minority ethnic communities alike, are eager to explain first and foremost that, ‘we are Sikhs not Muslims’.

The place of Sikhs and their relationship to Britain is as puzzling. On the one hand we have recently seen surfacing accounts of Britain’s involvement in Operation Blue Star 1984, which saw the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in India on the advice of the British government. Yet on the other hand, we have also seen the establishment of a Sikh division in the EDL, promoting Islamophobic ideology.

For those situated as subjects of Empire, is there any language they could deploy to commemorate the war without validating the imperial project? Is any other form of belonging available to (post)colonial soldiers, and subjects, which does not endorse an imperial patriotism? The Sikh case is an interesting example riddled with contradictory issues of belonging and longing, requiring a far more critical and nuanced understanding of Sikh diasporic identity to begin to see what a profound decolonization of the Sikh imaginary would look like. Perhaps a more fruitful debate that Sikhs might engage with would begin to problematize rather than accept the perpetuation of the Empire and the neo-imperialism ushered in by World War 1 and the current War on Terror. There are three phenomena under this heading that are worth highlighting, in this search for a new language of representation.

Firstly, there is the Ghadr movement, a collective founded among Sikh immigrants principally in western Canada at the turn of the twentieth century: the Ghadr revolutionaries and their supporters included many Sikh ex-soldiers and ex-police officials who were in the forefront of resistance to racism, British colonialism, and imperial rule. Such an articulation of anti-colonial politics represented a major shift in the changing dynamics of Sikhs and their relationship with the British Raj towards whom many bore an unquestioned loyalty.

Second, we have the exemplary act of Muhammad Ali and his critique of the Vietnam War. This is one of the best refutations in recent history of any sense that we are destined to play out the role of Barthes’ French Black soldier.

Finally, the millions of marchers in the 2003 anti-war protests illustrate the power of mobilization and that publics at large will not accept undignified and unjust wars and invasions.

These examples, which represent the ‘other’ stories, are often sidelined, if not completely absent, from our war commemorations and remembrance. It is far more useful to propagate the loyal (‘martial’) Sikh than the revolutionary (Ghadr) Sikh. However, no matter how marginal, these examples also show that the naturalized narrative for the justification of imperial wars across the globe (that of civilizing, enlightening, and modernizing) offered by western nations can be interrupted. Another language is possible, and with it a greater sense of solidarity, unity, and belonging.

Thanks to Professor Vron Ware for organizing the workshop, 'War, Citizenship and Public Memory' June 12, 2014, where these ideas were discussed. Thanks also to all the participants’ valuable contributions and interventions.

Further reading

Barthes, R. (1972) Mythologies, London: Paladin Books.

Sian, K. P. (2013) Unsettling Sikh and Muslim Conflict: Mistaken Identities, Forced Conversions and Postcolonial Formations, Lanham: Lexington Books.

Singh. K. (1981) A History of the Sikhs, Volume 2: 1839-1974, London: Oxford University Press.

Yong, T. (2002) ‘Sepoys and the Colonial State: Punjab and the Military Base of the Indian Army 1849-1900’ In The British Raj and its Indian Armed Forces 1857-1939, ed. P. Gupta and A. Deshpande, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData