A while ago, Laurence Fox referred to “the oddness in the casting” of a Sikh soldier in film 1917 – a daft thing to say given how many Sikhs did fight in that conflict. He said the inclusion of a Sikh soldier (played by Nabhaan Rizwan) in a scene alongside a British regiment was ‘incongruous’ with the rest of the film.
The backlash came not just from the army of ‘woke’ enemies he has collected following his Question Time appearance but also from my fellow Sikhs, some of whom reactively published some Punjabi words I dare not repeat. Fox has since apologised to ‘fellow humans who are #Sikhs’. But on reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than being berated, Fox should be celebrated.
Why? He has done more (in the space of 48-72 hours) to highlight the inordinate contribution of Sikh soldiers during the Great War, than most Sikhs could ever wish to achieve in this life or the next. (And yes, we do believe in karma and reincarnation.)
Some British-born Sikh military experts agree with me. Back in 2014, a small group of energetic volunteers called the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA) organised a wonderful exhibition in the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies called ‘Empire, Faith & War – The Sikhs and World War 1’. Opened by then-culture secretary Sajid Javid, it was a success insofar as it garnered significant traction in the mainstream media and had a footfall of around 25,000 visitors. One critic on Radio 4 adamantly asserted ‘every school child in the country should be marched into see this exhibition’. But despite this success, it had nothing on the attention provoked by Fox’s remarks.