27 April 2016

WW1 heritage brings Leicester communities together

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Indian soldiers preparing to depart for France from New Milton, Hampshire. Photo: Flickr via Hampshire and Solent Museum.
Indian soldiers preparing to depart for France from New Milton, Hampshire. Photo: Flickr via Hampshire and Solent Museum.

Against the backdrop of centenary commemorations, writes Avaes Mohammad, the Unknown and Untold project has been working across the country to promote knowledge of the 400, 000 Indian Muslims who fought for Britain in the First World War.  Not only has the learning of this shared heritage been warmly received by British Muslim communities, who have expressed a deepened ownership and claim towards their British identity as a result, but it has been deemed equally significant amongst non-Muslims and particularly white Britons too, who have expressed a broadening of their understanding of Britishness, addressing myths regarding any inherent incompatibility between being Muslims and being British.

Achieving this success across Muslim and non-Muslim communities not only demonstrates the impact on integration that understanding this shared heritage can have across communities; it also shows how minority stories can and do have equal significance for majority audiences too.

Having demonstrated this in Birmingham, a city with a sizeable Muslim population, the project recently conducted activities in Leicester.  The city of Leicester has historically hosted a significant number of East African Indian refugees who built new lives there during the era of Africanisation.  With further immigration from the sub-continent too, the city is now the first ‘minority majority’ city in the UK where minority communities collectively outnumber white British communities.  Home to a significant number of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, the city has been an ideal place to explore how understanding shared history can bring together different minority communities too.

While 400, 000 Indian Muslims did fight for Britain in WW1, it would be wrong to suppose this was a solitary endeavour.  This service took place side by side with their Hindu and Sikh countrymen, collectively totalling a contribution of one and a half million soldiers. To highlight this shared history among Leicester based members of these faith groups today, we organised two community meetings and a day-long workshop.  Attracting more than 50 people from across the generations and faith communities, the community meetings consisted of an inspiring and informative presentation delivered by the author of For King and Another Country, Shrabani Basu, and a reading of soldiers’ letters by Salt of the Sarkar project director Dominic Rai, as well as talks by local artists and councillors who spoke about the contemporary significance this heritage invokes for a city as diverse as Leicester.

The following day-long workshop was designed for those wishing to engage with this heritage in greater depth and with more consideration.  Lead by Jasdeep Singh, the National Army Museum delivered illuminating presentations and an exhibition detailing the intimacies of the Indian experience in WW1.  With focused discussion and debate among the group, participants then went on to write moving letters to those original soldiers, allowing them the opportunity to speak to those figures directly.

What emerged from the discussions in these events was a common belief that, while promoting the shared heritage of commonwealth soldiers serving Britain in WW1 fosters integration between individual communities and majority society, the nature of our rich and diverse society should mean that efforts are similarly made to facilitate integration across minority groups too.

The following letter was written by one of our participants in the day long workshop and exemplifies the significance that members of all our communities attribute to this shared heritage that serves us all.

In reply to a soldier’s letter

Dear Indian Soldier,

Why? Why me? Why Us ? How is this fair? Anger. Frustration. Pain. Is what you and all the other soldiers out in the front line are feeling. Let me just let you know that you are not alone I also feel the same way. It’s frustrating that we are only told, spoken and taught about the war from only a British point of view and about only what the British soldiers have done and not of what others have done, contributed and left behind to help fight this war which is not yours to fight, let me tell you, you are not forgotten and will always be remembered. May you have all the strength and courage to continue fighting this war and become victorious


Kind Regards
Mikesh Nagar

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