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Sikhs and the British Empire

The World Wars of the twentieth entury, which were to define the course of history continue to exert an influence which reverberates throughout the globe to this day.

What is less well known though, is the poignant and powerful story of the contribution by Sikh troops to these wars. As a highly visible minority the Sikhs are instantly recognisable throughout the world, yet even in Britain, with whom they share a proud history spanning nearly 200 years, little is known of the sacrifice made by them in these two wars.

During the Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845-1849), the British had been sufficiently impressed by the Khalsa Army to raise several battalions of Sikh forces. As they enlisted men into their own regiments, the entire profile of the British Army changed to include turbaned and bearded Sikh men. The Khalsa Army, previously a formidable enemy of the British, now became some of their most fervent loyalists.

Proof of this reconciliation was visible when the Sikhs refused to join the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. During this time, in a period of four very tense months, the British raised eighteen new regiments consisting mostly of Sikh soldiers and making the Punjab not only the breadbasket of British India but also its sword arm.

In 1914 as war begun to unfold, the drive began to enlist Indian troops to bolster the war effort, for which Sikhs joined en-masse. The Anglo-Sikh relationship was to witness its pinnacle during the most sombre days of the Great War in the depressing trenches of the German and Turkish fronts, where thousands of young Sikh volunteers fought and laid down their lives defending a land unknown to them against an enemy that was no threat to India for an ally that occupied their own country.

During that time, the world beheld what is probably the largest volunteer army ever in action, as Sikhs made up nearly twenty per cent of the British Indian Army despite being only two per cent of the population. Despite this contribution though, the relationship between the two began to deteriorate appreciably after the Great War. Sikh men who had fought for the Crown to free occupied lands in Western Europe were to return to their own occupied country, thus beginning the call for independence.

As the allied nations stepped ever closer to a second global conflict, Sikh soldiers once again stepped forward as the mainstay of the British Indian Army. With only voluntary recruitment, young Sikh men helped to swell the ranks from 189,000 at the start of the war to over 2.5 million at the end.

In this war too, Sikhs still made up a disproportionate quantity of the forces India gave to the war effort, seeing soldiers deployed to the most active fronts during the conflict. In Burma the Sikh regiments famously made their mark in 1944, where soldiers, well entrenched in the sweltering swamps of the Burmese jungle, curtailed the advance of the Japanese Army who had gotten dangerously close to India and Calcutta. For their efforts, the Sikhs were awarded four Victoria Crosses; the highest of military honours.