Century of Struggle and Sucess
The Sikh Canadian Experience

Part V
Wartime Contributions

On Remembrance Day in 1993 an incident involving Sikh war veterans arose which would call into question the Sikh identity and their contribution to the two World Wars. Five elderly decorated Sikhs who had served in the allied armed forces had been invited by the Royal Canadian Legion branch in Newton B.C., to march alongside other legion members in their annual Remembrance Day parade. When the parade approached the legion hall to listen to speeches from dignitaries in the legion's canteen, the five Sikh veterans were denied entry because they wore turbans. The reason given was that wearing any "headgear" or hat was disrespectful to the memory of the war dead.

"We were invited there. They knew weeks in advance that we were Sikhs and that we have turbans. If they had no intention of letting us in I don't understand why we were invited to participate… To ask a Sikh to remove his turban is an insult, not only to him, but to the Sikh religion. You will have to remove my neck before I remove my turban." (Harbhajan Singh Minhas)

This very disturbing incident which became a big issue across the country with the media coverage. It revealed two things, one that the general public and the Canadian Legion in particular remains ignorant of the tenants of the Sikh religion and secondly ignorant of the wartime contribution of the Sikh people. As the Sikh religion continues to slowly spread throughout the world over time people will come to understand that the turban and other physical characteristics of Sikhs are religious requirements and not cultural vestiges.

As far as the wartime contribution of Sikhs is concerned, this in now old history and needs to be brought to the forefront of the Canadian people and the Legionaries in particular. Not only were the first Sikh immigrants to Canada soldiers and veterans of the British Army, but throughout both World Wars, Sikhs sacrificed their lives as members of the allied war forces in the British armed forces. Sikhs were never asked to remove their turbans when it came time to fight and die in the trenches and battlefields of far off lands in both World Wars, so why should their sacrifices be discounted with such an insult? The wartime contribution of the Sikh people stands on its own merits.

Hardit Singh Malik was a graduate from Oxford who applied for an officers commission in the British army at the advent of World War I. He was rejected on the grounds that no British soldier would tolerate being subordinate to an Indian officer. Hardit Singh went to France, where he served as a front-line ambulance driver before enlisting and being accepted into the French airforce. When his old Oxford tutor became aware of the situation he wrote the British authorities expressing outrage that ethnic bigotry should force a loyal British subject to be flying for the French. National pride overcame prejudice and Hardit Singh was allowed to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. From September 1917 until the end of the war he would continue to fly missions for the British air force against the Germans. Years later in 1948 this war veteran would became India's first High Commissioner to Canada.

There are a number of photographs of Sikhs in the war archives around the world, which show their wartime contribution. Sikhs in the trenches of Gallipoli in 1914. The allies suffered very high casualties in this major battle of World War I. Sikhs in Flander in 1916, another famous battlegroud which inspired the famous poem 'Flanders Fields'. A photograph from October 1914 shows a wounded Sikh soldier being loaded into an ambulance in France.

World War II saw Sikhs fighting on both the European and African fronts against the Nazis and in the Pacific Theatre against the Japanese. There are photographs of Sikhs in the jungles of Burma in 1943 & 1944. As well as rare photographs of captured Sikh soldiers being executed by a Japanese firing squad in Singapore.

The story of Naik Nand Singh, a Sikh soldiers who personally recieved a Victoria Cross from Lord Mountbatten in 1944 for his bravery and heroism against the Japanese in Burma is truly inspirational.

" The only possible approach onto the hill followed a narrow track leading up to the enemy position. Along this track Naik Nand Singh lead his section. Reaching the crest the section came under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, and every man was knocked over, either killed or wounded. Nonetheless, Naik Nand Singh dashed forward alone under intense fire at point blank range. He was wounded by grenade as he neared the first Japanese trench. Without hesitating he went on, captured the trench, and killed the two occupants with the bayonet. Not far away was another trench. Under continuous heavy fire, Naik Nand Singh jumped up and charged it. He was again wounded by a grenade and knocked down, but he got up and hurled himself into the trench, again killing both occupants with the bayonet. He moved on again, and captured a third trench, still single-handed. With the capture of this third trench, enemy fire died away. Naik Nand Singh's encounter had taken little time, and the remainder of the platoon, checked for the moment by the sudden heavy fire opened on it as it reached the crest, now moved up and captured the remainder of the position, killing with bayonet and grenade thirty seven out of the forty Japanese who were holding it. "Naik Nand Singh's part in this brilliant little action, his splendid resolution and utter disregard for his own life were fittingly recognized by the award of the Victoria Cross." (Colonel F.T. Birdwood)

The bravery and contribution of Sikhs in both World Wars is a record which stands on it's own merits and the right to enter any Legion hall in Canada is something that Sikh veterans have earned the hard way with their blood sacrifice.