1984 And The Poppy

When I was younger, November was the month of the remembrance. That is still the same, but what I remember is not.

At school, we would always do the two-minute silence out of respect for the fallen. These fallen dead were British soldiers; British and white. Yet, whilst I knew to pay respect for these soldiers and wear my poppy, I didn’t realise that November was also the month of the Sikh Genocide.

Although my dad was in India when the genocide occurred and we lost family members, while I was growing up we never discussed it in my house. It was only as I got older that it became something which we could talk about.

The 31st October to 4th November marks the Sikh Genocide. It took place mostly in northern India, particularly the Punjab and Delhi, following the assassination of PM Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. The assassination of Gandhi came as a direct consequence of her military attack on the holiest of Sikh places, the Sri Harmandir Sahib, or Golden Temple, as it is more commonly referred to, in June 1984. To understand what this meant, imagine tanks rolling into the Vatican or Mecca, firing upon them, and then the reaction to this.

Although I am referring to it as genocide, it is an ‘unofficial’ one, commonly referred to by the communalist Indian press as riots rather than genocide. Whilst the Sikh people remember 1984 as genocide, it is not officially recognised as such by the UN.

We are now in the second phase of remembering the genocide, with survivors and contemporaries joined by the next generation, inheritors of the trauma.

For the Sikhs living and growing up in Britain, it has become even more painful. It had never occurred to me that Britain could have played even a minor role in 1984 before the archives were opened in 2014. Recent news suggests just that.

A 2014 review into the actions of the British government found that they had limited involvement. However, this review only looked at the actions in helping plan an attack on Harmandir Sahib in June, not the genocide that occurred in November.

Whilst this is still shocking, what is more worrying is that the government has now removed files relating to British involvement in India in 1984. It becomes even murkier when some of these files relate to sales of arms and India receiving advice (and maybe more) from the SAS to set up their own national guard.

As a British Sikh, it seemed inconceivable to me that my government could have knowingly helped to attack such a holy place, particularly given the historically high status of Sikhs in the Indian Army of the British Empire. Even in that hierarchal relationship, there seemed to be some elements of genuine respect.

Before I knew this, not only was I British, but I wanted to be British. I never contemplated that being Sikh and being British were two clashing identities. But how can I willingly support the British army when they may have helped to attack one of the holiest places of my religion, and that is not to mention the atrocities that the British government have committed in other parts of the world.

I never saw the poppy as a conflict of interests. It signified the efforts of soldiers who fought in both world wars, and I had to wear it. It was just a part of being British, everyone did it; everyone does it. But it does symbolise the British army and by wearing the poppy, you recognise and support the actions of British army, including the actions you disagree with.

Why should I support the poppy, and all it stands for? Increasingly, the poppy represents a nationalistic symbol of white Britain, prioritising the remembrance of British dead of thousands of others. Who can honestly say that they remember the 1.5 million of soldiers from the Indian subcontinent who fought in the First World War? All in all, more than 1/6th of the soldiers fighting for the British Empire in the First World came from the Indian Army, more than all the other dominions of the empire combined, yet you probably don’t hear or think about them about them because they’re not white.

Now, as a British Sikh, I see less and less reason to support the poppy. The poppy represents what I don’t want to remember. Rather than wearing a poppy because everyone does, I choose not too because the poppy isn’t a symbol of the kind of Britain that I want to be part of and can respect. This past year has shown how much our actions have consequences. Wearing a poppy is an action that I choose not to take.

Sources:

http://www.tom-watson.com/amritsar_attack

http://www.sikhsforjustice.org/?q=content/know-the-facts

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33317368

http://www.1914-1918.net/faq.htm

 

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Isha Sohal is a third year history student at King’s College, London

Image: The Khanda Poppy Project

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I RISE Magazine is an online platform dedicated to showcasing the stories, talents and trials of women of colour and non-binary people of colour in educational institutions. Our aim is to collectively represent, lead the way and inspire ourselves and future generations.

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