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Sunday, March 7, 2021

ANZAC Sikhs

Reading Time: 7 minutesSikh ex-Servicemen pay an ANZAC tribute to their forebears

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They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
Lest We Forget

Ode of Remembrance, Laurence Binyon

2014 marks the centenary of what Ernst Haeckel appropriately dubbed the “First World War” – a war where nations collaborated to battle against one another. In the aftermath, millions became canon fodder, countless more were left physically scarred or mentally broken, economies collapsed and political boundaries redrawn.

Amidst the unimaginable horrors of the great war, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, emerged the unquestioning spirit of self-sacrifice, loyalty, mateship, courage, honour and above all else, duty – all noble qualities, much diluted and often forgotten in today’s self-serving society.

It is this indomitable spirit that we pause to commemorate, and if possible emulate, a century on, as we honour the sacrifice of not just the fallen but also those who lived on to tell the tale to the future generations.

Although geographically isolated, Australia and New Zealand nevertheless made significant contributions to the allied cause, forging a proud nation in the process. Ninety-nine years ago on March 25, precisely at the crack of dawn, the Australia and New Zealand Armed Corps landed at what has since become known as ANZAC Cove in Turkey, to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Outmanoeuvred, the ANZACs nevertheless bravely held fort till their evacuation much later.

What is still relatively unknown is the contribution of the Indian and Nepali battalions, specifically the Sikhs who formed majority of the sub-continental troops fighting in the region on behalf of Allied Forces. Of the 47,000 Indians killed in the four-year battle, 1,400 were lost at Gallipoli alone. Particularly noteworthy is the contribution of the 14th Sikh regiment. 371 Sikhs fought valiantly to death on June 3 and 4 1915. Their bravery is exemplified by the fact that Sikhs won 14 of the 22 Victoria Crosses awarded to Indian soldiers.

At the ANZAC Day dawn service and subsequent march this year, thousands gathered in Sydney to salute this spirit of self-sacrifice. The heavens too opened up in acknowledgement as veterans marched proudly through Sydney CBD in what has become an iconic Aussie tradition.

Rubbing shoulders yet again with mainstream veterans were their Sikh counterparts, better known these days as ANZAC Sikhs. Dressed in dark blue turbans, impeccable suits, with medals flashing proudly on their chest, the Sikh regiment led by Colonel Mahinder Singh celebrated Aussie spirit of mateship and larrikinism. This year twenty-five Sikh ex-servicemen and women under the banner of Sikh Regiments WWI and WWII took part in the march. They also took part in the wreath laying ceremony at the Martin Place Cenotaph.

Among the marchers this year were retired ex servicemen Col Charanjit Singh Cheema, Sgt Major Kuldip Singh, Havildar Harbant Singh Bathal, Captain Sarjinder Singh Sandhu, Corporal Jagjit Singh Toor, Sgt Sarabjit Singh, Subedar Dalbir Singh, Corporal Nirmal Singh Sandher, Havildar Mehar Singh, Subedar Malkar Singh, Subedar Balbir Singh Banwait. Honouring their ancestors were Ajmer Singh Gill, Bawa Singh Jagdev, Vikramjit Singh Grewal, Manjinder Singh, Suhinder Singh Kalsi, Jasbir Singh Randhawa, Jarnail Singh Gill, Amarinder Singh Bajwa, Ashvinder Singh Randhav and Kuldip Singh. Carrying the Sikh banner were Sandip Singh and Manpreet Singh.

Organised each year by the National Sikh Council of Australia (NSCA), planning for this much-awaited event starts well ahead. The core organising team comprises NSCA President Ajmer Singh Gill, Media Liaison Officer Vickram Singh Grewal, Lt Col Mahinder Singh, Fauji Kuldip Singh and Secretary Bawa Singh Jagdev OAM. Amarinder Bajwa, MP Singh, Angad Singh, Amarjit Khela and Narinderpal prepared promotional materials.

The Sikh contingent first marched in ANZAC Day parade back in 2007. To educate the wider community on the contributions of Sikhs during the various military campaigns, the NSCA actively lobbied with peak defence bodies in the country as well as RSL. Their efforts were rewarded in 2007, when Sikhs veterans were officially granted permission to take part in the ANZAC Day march.

Spurred by the enthusiastic reception at their debut, the contingent also organised an all-Sikh bagpipe group, the Dasmesh Band to be flown in from Malaysia at a whopping cost, to accompany them the next year.

Since then the ANZAC Sikhs have only gone from strength to strength, prompting the Nepali and Indian contingents to also follow suit.

“A solemn ceremony of remembrance and commemoration, ANZAC Day is integral part of Australian history and a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made by those soldiers for the freedom we now enjoy in Australia,” Ajmer Singh Gill told Indian Link.

“Anzac Day is a reminder of the debt of gratitude that we owe as a nation, to those who are currently serving and to those who have served in the past. As we marched past the Cenotaph with our heads down in reverence”, he poignantly remembered, “we could imagine, the pain and suffering of  those who laid their lives  so that we could live free, and the sounds of the bullets from the guns in their hands and the noise of the battle in the distance”.

“While marching we could only imagine their resolve and force that drove them up to the battlefield into assault and their tenacity that held them all those days and nights for many months on the battle field. A long vigil gazing into death defending their post, ceding nothing but sacrifice everything they had, to defend their post. We Sikhs salute them”, he continued.

“Sikh veterans are very honoured to march on the same day proudly displaying their campaign medals and look forward to it all year, be it rain or shine. They feel even prouder when so many Australians clap as they march on”, he added.

Seven years on, the sight of the resplendent pagdi (turban) clad veterans marching, still gets looks of curiosity and wonderment at their presence in a traditional “white” march.

“Over the past seven years, we’ve been able to make the wider Australian community more aware of Sikh participation in the World Wars (and other related battles). Year after year, we see more and more people cheering for the Sikh regiments – as they march in the CBD. Their applause is a huge thank you for us.

There is a sense of comradeship with other participants as well, who reminisce their old experiences (some come up to us and talk about their experiences or stories they were told about Sikhs and their courage in the World Wars,” Vickram Singh Grewal of Australian Defence Forces and media liaison officer for ANZAC Sikhs told Indian Link.

“There is a special relationship with the British and Gurkha Regiments (who also participate in the march regularly under Commonwealth and Allied Forces).  We’ve also evolved ourselves to be a more mature group of participants,” he added.

“While we’ve had some success in educating the wider community, we would like to do more within the Australian Indian/Sikh community because many are completely unaware of ANZAC tradition/significance, let alone being aware of Sikh participation”, he pointed out.

As the centenary kicks off soon, Grewal is determined to carry the message of ANZAC Sikhs to younger Australians.

Ajmer Singh Gill has also repeatedly addressed this issue of social inclusion.

“As peacekeepers, we Sikhs are proud to march on this solemn occasion. After all, we are not foreigners or strangers but very much Australians, only of a different heritage and background. Since migrating to this beautiful country, we have gladly embraced the values of our adopted homeland, while retaining our inherent identity. We have focussed on positives and are contributing to the bigger Australian picture and are very much part of the community,” he reiterated.

Herein lies his frustration that some people still do not comprehend the true meaning of the ANZAC legacy.

“Numerous Sikhs were killed in action and many more injured during the two World Wars and thousands of Sikhs fought alongside the ANZAC troops and became good friends,” he explained.“Sikhs served all over the world and were awarded 14 Victoria Crosses – the highest award for bravery. Identified by their trademark blue turbans, Sikhs have since served as United Nations peacekeepers in many countries such as Congo, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Eritrea”.

Gill has also been in talks with the Indian consulate to provide a marching band to accompany the regiment.

While the Sikh regiments are now represented in marches at Adelaide, Perth and Woolgoolga as well, NSCA, through its national membership hopes to see the participation in all Australian capital cities.

“Such events are essential to revive the memory of every man, woman and child who in those crucial years died, so that the light of freedom and humanity continue to shine,” Retd Lt Col Mahinder Singh, the leader of ANZAC Sikh contingent this year pointed out.

“The ceremony is a unique way of showing our gratitude for the peace we enjoy today and the responsibility of ensuring that the freedom and liberty won at such grave cost does not fade away. Personally, as an ex-serviceman, the ANZAC service also brings back memories from my time in active years in Singapore”.

For Amarinder Bajwa, the participation is a fitting tribute to all the Sikh soldiers who have been part of armed forces since the days of British Raj.

“Sikhs have a strong history of defending India from the external invasions and occupations in India. Therefore, it was also special for me to commemorate and support the local communities as well as remember my father who served in the Indian Army in the 2nd Sikh Regiment that also fought at Gallipoli along with other British regiments”, he recounted.

Capt (Retd) Sarjinder Singh Sandhu has been involved in organising the Sydney ANZAC Day March and Wreath Laying Ceremony since its inception in 2007.

“I must thank the great team of veterans and descendants of veterans who work together to make each march a success.”

The sight of their resplendent uniforms and burnished medals always brings a tear to his eyes.

“Their comradeship astounds me and I feel honoured to march alongside them,” he noted. “If my father, my uncle and my elder brother could see me at the march I am sure as ex-servicemen they would be proud of me. I am confident next year, being the Centenary of Gallipoli, our contingent will be much larger”.

Meanwhile Sandhu has already begun preparations for the centenary edition and hopes the Indian community will participate in large numbers to show their solidarity towards ANZAC spirit.

The first meeting is scheduled for June and will be followed up with many more to organise logistics and muster support. The committee meets at Parklea Gurudwara as well as Blacktown RSL. Additionally, the Sydney team will also help with the centenary preparations at Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

NSCA’s efforts have also gained new impetus recently with renowned historian Peter Stanley of Australian Defence Force and researcher Burcu Cervik Compiegne of University Technology Sydney conducting extensive studies into the role of Sikhs at Gallipoli. Both researchers have also met up with the Sikhs to further their research effort.

This year, Prof Stanley also created a PowerPoint presentation showing some of the images he has unearthed of Sikh troops on Gallipoli. With over 25 publications to his credit, Professor Stanley will release his book on role of Indian soldiers at Gallipoli in September this year.

Meanwhile, UTS is also planning an event entitled “Gallipoli Alternatives”, to focus on alternative stories on the White-Australian version.

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