Harchand Singh Bedi & Harprabhjeet Singh Bedi, Malaysia
Millions of Indians fought for the British and Allies during both world wars.
Sir Winston Churchill, speaking to the British Parliament, said that "as a result of their timely help, we are today able to live with honour, dignity, and independence. In the war they fought and died for us, wearing the turbans ..."
At least 18 Sikhs enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) during World War I and their stories are now part of an international touring exhibition Frames of Bravery which was recently on show at Wellington City Library.
Exhibition curator and historian Harchand Singh Bedi travelled from Malaysia to bring the stories of these men to light.
"Over a million Indians were prepared to fight for the British and our allies during both world wars. During the First World War, India's all-volunteer army stood at 1.4 million men, of whom some 1.3 million had served overseas at the cost of over 74,000 dead. Indian soldiers won over 9200 decorations for gallantry, including 11 Victoria Crosses. One in every seven Sikh men in the Punjab went to war."
Sikhs fighting for New Zealand
Among the Indians fighting for the British Empire were two Sikh New Zealanders who, against the discrimination of the time, sneaked into service to fight for New Zealand.
Jaget Singh and Ratan Chand-Mehra served in Gallipoli, Egypt, France and Belgium during the First World War. One earned medals for bravery, the other lost his life.
Their contribution was honoured at the exhibition in a section titled Honour and Duty: A tribute to Sikh Valour.
Included in the exhibition was the decorations for bravery awarded to Jaget Singh. Sikh New Zealander and community leader Anoop Singh Bedi said “he went to Gallipoli. His [descendants] live in Auckland and kindly lent the medals."
Anoop Singh says that the will to serve was part of the mandate of Sikhism.
"In 1916, the New Zealand census of the total Indian male population stood at 165. Of these men, 62 out of 116 Sikhs volunteered, though most were rejected."
Rejection happened because of the discriminatory legislation of the times. Indians or Chinese could not serve unless they were born in New Zealand or were already British citizens.
Jaget Singh and Ratan Chand-Mehra
The history of the New Zealand Indian servicemen is the result of a time consuming hunt by Professor Michael Roche from Massey University.
"Originally from the Punjab in India, Jaget Singh was a bachelor. He immigrated to New Zealand before joining the Wellington Mounted Rifles in 1914.
“Jaget Singh was already a cavalry man. He travelled to Egypt, serving in the Dardanelles Campaign before being wounded in Chunnuk Bair, Gallipoli, where he earned medals for bravery."
The second Anzac was Ratan Chand-Mehra from Pakistan. Emigrating for work in New Zealand R.C. Mehra joined the 4th Reinforcements of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in 1915.
He fought during the bitter French winter before dying on the 3 December 1917 in Ypres Salient, Belgium. He was survived by his wife and daughter, who remained on in Pakistan.
"After 1916, the New Zealand Army did not take on any more Indians,” says Prof Roche.
Valour comes to light - NZ Indian Anzacs Valour comes to light - NZ Indian Anzacs Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Profssor Peter Stanley from the University of New South Wales, is the author of Die in Battle (2015), the first book to recognise Indians serving in the Gallipoli campaign.
He says it takes time for societies to mature before recognition can come about. There was also a lack of written records kept by the millions of Sikh serving in both wars, and sources for research had to be gleaned from the correspondence of European soldiers.
"There are families in the Punjab who know a lot about this, but no else in the world does. The irony and sadness was that those in Australia and New Zealand not substantially of European descent could not enrol [to fight]."
During the closing ceremony of the exhibition Sir Anand Satyanand spoke of the importance of acknowledging the sacrifice made by New Zealand's Indian population. "There should be proper recognition of people who fought so bravely and often with loss of life."
It was an emotional moment for the High Commissioner to India.
"They were not only fighting for their own freedom, they were fighting for a better world." His Excellency Mr Sanjiv Kohli, High Commissioner to India.
Medals of Honour
The British Empire honoured Indians with many gallantry awards for their bravery during both world wars. They won:
40 Victoria Crosses
Over 3000 Indian Order of Merits
Over 1200 Military Crosses