Speaker’s Corner: Nohoudh scholar Farrah Sheikh on “The futility of politicising Remembrance Day”
The futility of politicising Remembrance Day
Above: Farrah Sheikh
On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the Western Front finally fell silent after four years of continuous warfare. This week marks Armistice Day followed by Remembrance Sunday marking an important point in British history. A time to pause, to remember, and to reflect upon the horrors of war, and the sacrifices of British soldiers who laid down their lives for our freedom in WW1 and WW2.
Much of this remembrance is encapsulated in the wearing of a bright red poppy. Originally inspired by the sight of thousands of poppies growing on land ravaged by war, a Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae wrote about the poppy in the poem, ‘in Flanders Fields.’ Over time, the poppy became a symbol of remembrance, and a way for the nation to engage in collective mourning not only for the fallen in the two world wars, but also for the current armed forces engaged and lost in various battles around the world today.
In these testing and troubled times of contested loyalties, questions over who belongs to the nation, the wearing of the poppy has also, over time become a sign of nationalism. We see poppies of all shapes and sizes, huge glittery ones adorning the lapels of TV personalities, and in the case of Muslim women, the introduction of the poppy hijab. Remembrance has never been more fashionable, or I would argue, more political than in recent years. I put the question forward of how useful is the politicization of the poppy for social cohesion?
Remembrance serves as an act of national performativity of mourning but glosses over many key issues of today. Questions remain as to why are armed forces used to further government agendas, which do not benefit peace in the long term?
Most recently, in the case of the Iraq War, it appears that British armed forces have been used as a tool to further the political aims of the old Blair government. As our politicians dither over publishing the Chilcot Inquiry, and Tony Blair issues damage-controlling apologies, perhaps one can appreciate the reluctance to take part in a national ceremony, which to some, appears to glorify those who took part in what increasingly seems to be an illegal war.
To be clear, this post does not aim to bash British armed forces on Remembrance week. I simply want to raise the question of remembrance, what it means in today’s context and to ask why the act of public remembrance has become increasingly politicised over time?
The act of remembering is in itself politicised as the nation selectively recalls the fallen in our distant and recent past. It has forgotten to acknowledge the huge contribution of manpower from Britain’s former colonies. Some volunteered to defend the Empire, others joined British armies because there was no other way of staying alive in times of extreme poverty. Dulmial, a village in modern-day Pakistan contributed the most men to the WW1 war effort in all the villages of colonial India. Who knew?
Dr Santanu Das estimates that 4 million non-White men were recruited in the overall war efforts. India contributed the largest number, recruiting approximately 1.5 million men.
Selective remembrance and ‘race’
Dr Santanu Das describes British military policy, which used the theory of ‘martial races’ to falsely categorise North Indians, mainly Punjabis as more ‘war-like’ and inherently ‘manly’ than those from other parts of India. In the past, the British refused to let non-White colonial soldiers fight against Whites for fear that they may learn to rise up against their colonial masters, This selective approach to the use of colonial soldiers was abandoned when the British Expeditionary Force suffered heavy losses in 1914, and two Indian divisions were diverted to France.
Around 130,000 Sikhs, 800,000 Hindus and 400,000 Muslims from pre-partitioned India fought for Britain. Less is known about the equally valuable contribution of the 15,500 West Indians who also volunteered to fight, joining the British West India Regiment as well as donating vast sums of cash to the war effort. Black soldiers were treating appallingly with many used to dig trenches, lay telephone wires and load ammunition. Racism was found along the frontlines, and despite attempts to restrict Black participation in armed combat alongside Whites, there are many stories to suggest that they fought hard.
It is safe to say that a colonial soldier’s life span during the war often depended on the colour of his skin. Perhaps these are uncomfortable truths to acknowledge at a time where the majority chooses to engage in remembering the cultural myths of a glorified past instead of what really happened.
It is astonishing to think that a little red flower, made out of paper or printed on a scarf can cause quite so much controversy. Instead of questioning loyalties and ties to the nation through the choice to wear the poppy in whatever form, why do we not educate the public about non-White stories of war?
Current narratives display non-White, colonial contributions to the war effort as a sideshow. Stories of Asian and Black soldiers need to be brought into the mainstream, and accepted as part of a national narrative that accepts them as equal partners (at least in the theatre of war) in an old world order that would have perished without Asian and Black men to defend it.
The poppy could be used as a tool of inclusive remembrance instead of a way to assert nationalist belonging. Debates over the poppy, including the poppy hijab dishonours the contributions of non-White men and women from the ex-colonies who lost their lives defending European lands, and British interests despite the fact that Britain did not want these same people to progress in their own countries.
It is uncomfortable but necessary to move away from the games of identity politics and accept these truths when telling our national stories. Until then, we do nothing but dishonour the memories of those who died fighting for freedom and emancipation.