Filling the gaps in World War I history

Photo courtesy of Indus Media Foundation – The ‘WW1 collection’

A local community historian wants to give people a more holistic perspective of World War One, particularly the Sikhs’ contribution.

“My intent is to present the real inclusive history, not the one perpetuated in pop-culture and classrooms for that matter. It’s going to be a history lesson to fill in the blanks for the people who are wondering what possessed South Asians to immigrate to Canada in the first place, and what their reactions were to the systemic racism they faced here; and ultimately why they fought for the Crown in light of that failure to protect their rights as citizens of the empire,” says Steven Purewal, curator and managing director of Indus Media Foundation Canada.

He will be speaking at the Coquitlam Library (Sept. 21) about Missing Stories of World War 1: Discovering the South Asian Voices Missing from Imperial History.

Undiscovered heritage

Unknown soldiers revealed. | Photo courtesy of Indus Media Foundation – The ‘WW1 collection’

Purewal points to the recently released World War One film, Dunkirk, as not representing minority soldiers, such as Indians.

“The Indians were very much there in World War Two, as well as World War One,” says Purewal.

Growing up in the United Kingdom, as a Punjabi, Purewal pondered why the martial heritage of Sikhs was not represented in war films. Since he was living in London, England he had access to imperial history through museums and antique shops.

“I was able to dig into this question myself. It lead to the discovery of a deep heritage of service to the Crown. A hundred years ago, it was a common Crown. It was the same Crown for Britain, India, [and] Canada. So this is something that I thought was very much overlooked by everyone since 1947, when India became a Republic. I’ve took it on myself to sort of build up that history,” says Purewal.

He explains the culture of Sikhs is both martial and spiritual. He describes it as a warrior-saint culture. He finds it odd the warrior ethos of Sikhs is not often heard of like Samurais.

“The DNA of the Punjabi community is very much a martial community given the geography of the place – the northwest of India is a very volatile region. Over the millennia, it’s always been a place for conflict and people settling the most arable land in the planet,” he says.

Purewal hopes there will be an interest and appetite for South Asians to discover their ethnicities represented in historic battles.

“Many, many nationalities were involved in Canada ̶ as was the case growing up in the UK ̶ you never saw those faces. In the movies, you never saw them depicted in any form of popular culture as being part of that allied victory,” he says.

Origin of series

In 2014, which marked the centennial of the First World War, Purewal and his three school-aged children had questions about whether or not Indians fought in World War One.

“At that point, instead of answering the question just for my three school-aged kids, I thought I better just set the record straight for everyone in our community. Similarly, the other kids were asking their families the [same] question. They necessarily would not be in a position where [they] had the collection of artifacts [or] the primary sources that I had. [These] allowed me to do the project, to build awareness about this contribution,” he recalls.

Purewal approached Simon Fraser University, sat down with the school of humanities and the history professors there. They went through the material. They agreed with him.

“They told me, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right. You have the primary sources. This is the true history. It had not been told in Canada. You have our support,’” he says.

In June 2014, he started the project in partnership with SFU to commemorate the First World War and contributions of South Asians and Punjabis in that conflict. Since then, they have put on more than 50 events at universities and exhibitions. The project is sponsored by the provincial government.

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