A while ago, Laurence Fox referred to “the oddness in the casting” of a Sikh soldier in film 1917 – a daft thing to say given how many Sikhs did fight in that conflict. He said the inclusion of a Sikh soldier (played by Nabhaan Rizwan) in a scene alongside a British regiment was ‘incongruous’ with the rest of the film.
The backlash came not just from the army of ‘woke’ enemies he has collected following his Question Time appearance but also from my fellow Sikhs, some of whom reactively published some Punjabi words I dare not repeat. Fox has since apologised to ‘fellow humans who are #Sikhs’. But on reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than being berated, Fox should be celebrated.
Why? He has done more (in the space of 48-72 hours) to highlight the inordinate contribution of Sikh soldiers during the Great War, than most Sikhs could ever wish to achieve in this life or the next. (And yes, we do believe in karma and reincarnation.)
Some British-born Sikh military experts agree with me. Back in 2014, a small group of energetic volunteers called the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) organised a wonderful exhibition in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies called ‘Empire, Faith & War – The Sikhs and World War 1’. Opened by then-culture secretary Sajid Javid, it was a success insofar as it garnered significant traction in the mainstream media and had a footfall of around 25,000 visitors. One critic on Radio 4 adamantly asserted ‘every school child in the country should be marched into see this exhibition’. But despite this success, it had nothing on the attention provoked by Fox’s remarks.
Amandeep Singh Madra, UKPHA’s chairman, has told me: ‘I am grateful to Fox. We spent 12 weeks doing an exhibition and we didn’t get the same level of press coverage’ One of Madra’s tweets featuring two Sikh officers from the war – published while Fox was being castigated by swathes of keyboard warriors, and #Sikh began trending – received over a million impressions. Amongst others – it was shared by figures as polar opposite as former Respect MP George Galloway, and self-confessed ‘Bad Boy of Brexit’ Andy Wigmore.
Some140,000 Indian Army troops served on the Western front in WW1 and well over a million served across the globe (estimates vary between 1.1m to 1.5m). Every sixth soldier fighting for Britain during the war was from India (that includes Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus). This was greater in number than the much better known contribution of Australia, New Zealand and Canadian armed forces. More remarkably still, at the outbreak of hostilities of the Great War, despite Sikhs being only one per cent of the population of undivided India at the time, they made up nearly 20 per cent of the British Indian Army.
The release of 1917 and the accompanying Laurence Fox debate serves as a timely reminder of this incredible legacy of valour. In our often fractured society, this is perversely likely to reduce racism or indeed prejudice against British Sikhs. Those who may have previously looked at the Sikh turban (dastaar) and beard with suspicion may now think twice before having a pop. For this we need to thank Fox, not condemn him.