In the United States, Veterans Day has been commemorated in one way or another on November 11 of each year since the end of World War I in 1918:
In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”
Sikhs – who embodied a militant character since the 17th century – composed a large portion of the British Indian army and fought in World War I and II as subjects of the British empire. However, at least one Sikh fought as a member of the American forces, of which we are now developing a history. Namely, Bhagat Singh Thind, fought in the US Army during World War I. His legacy is not only in being one of the earliest documented American Sikh soldiers, but also for the policies of the United States government of the day that conferred citizenship based on one’s race:
Thind had enlisted in the U.S. Army a few months before the end of World War I. After the war he sought the right to become a naturalised citizen, following a legal ruling that Caucasians had access to such rights. At this time Indians were categorised as Caucasian by anthropologists. In 1923, a crucial Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind was decided in favor of the United States, retroactively denying all Indian Americans citizenship for not being Caucasian in “the common man’s understanding of the term”.
Bhagat Singh was granted US citizenship on the basis of being Caucasian, however it was rescinded twice because he was deemed to be not “white”. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the denial of US citizenship to Bhagat Singh on this basis. On his third attempt for citizenship, Bhagat Singh eventually did become a citizen through application to the State of New York based on a new law that permitted citizenship to WWI veterans regardless of race.
A note that I touched on last year is the interesting (and not well-known) role of Sikhs in World War II who were originally captured as prisoners of war by the Germans and would find themselves fighting for Hitler.
Led by Indian revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose, soldiers for this Indian legion were drawn from Sikh and other Indian prisoners in German prison camps for the purposes of freeing India from the British:
By the end of 1941, Hitler’s regime officially recognised his provisional “Free India Government” in exile, and even agreed to help Chandra Bose raise an army to fight for his cause. It was to be called “The Free India Legion”.
Bose hoped to raise a force of about 100,000 men which, when armed and kitted out by the Germans, could be used to invade British India.
He decided to raise them by going on recruiting visits to Prisoner-of-War camps in Germany which, at that time, were home to tens of thousands of Indian soldiers captured by Rommel in North Africa.
When his plan showed signs of unraveling, Bose would abandon the Free India Legion and flee to Japan, while the demoralized, “wild and loathesome” Legion fought on behalf of the Germans in Europe, and, at the end of the war, sent back to India by the British.
Understandably, Sikhs who fought for Hitler would not have garnered the same appreciation as those who fought for the Allied forces. However, it is not a stretch to imagine that their intent would have been (a) to escape the prison camp, and (b) fight for freedom of their home country, India.
Many of these men – regardless on what side they fought – probably weren’t fully aware of the big picture in which they found themselves. At the Sikholars conference that I attended back in February, a researcher presented an interesting study of the correspondence of Indian soldiers (who were in large proportion Sikh) with their families back in British India while fighting on the Western Front in World War I:
By the end of that year , almost one third of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front was Indian. They were used to fill in cracks in the lines where casualties had been particularly heavy, and to many, performed their part with distinction, honor and bravery. Little is remembered of the service the men of the Indian Army rendered to the Allies during their short time in France, but the letters written between the men and their families speaks volumes of their war experiences in distant lands. They fought a war they had little knowledge of amidst doubts of locale and the state of things back home.
What has made the stories of veterans who serve(d) so remarkable is not that these were extraordinary people, but they were otherwise ordinary people who did extraordinary things in the face of great chaos. While the military spirit is pervasive within Sikhism, many of us cannot imagine the impact of these experiences on soldiers nor their families. But, Sikhs or otherwise, we can take time to honor their lives, contributions and sacrifices.
Happy Veterans Day.