London, June 21: The contribution of Sikh soldiers in two World Wars is being commemorated with a 10ft bronze monument in Smethwick, a town in Sandwell, West Midlands, which had the dubious distinction half a century ago of being possibly the most racist constituency in Britain.
Community relations have changed radically in Smethwick since the 1964 general election when the Tory candidate, Peter Griffiths, defeated the sitting Labour member and Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, with the simple but effective slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
Griffiths refused to disown the message.
“I would not condemn any man who said that,” he told the Times during his election campaign. “I regard it as a manifestation of popular feeling.”
As the defeated Walker left Smethwick town hall after the count, Tory supporters yelled after him: “Where are your niggers now, Walker?” and “Take your niggers away!”
When Griffiths took in his seat in the Commons, having won Smethwick against the national trend, the new Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called on the Tory leader, Sir Alec Douglas Home, to disown the MP.
“If Sir Alec does not take what I am sure is the right course, Smethwick Conservatives can have the satisfaction of having sent a member who, until another election returns him to oblivion, will serve his time as a parliamentary leper,” Wilson said.
Twenty-five Tories walked out of the chamber in protest and proposed a motion deploring Wilson’s insulting language; Labour members countered by proposing a motion rebuking the Prime Minister for insulting lepers.
That same Smethwick is now to honour Sikh soldiers, although the cost is being borne by the town’s Guru Nanak Gurdwara, which has appointed local sculptor Luke Perry to create the “Lions of the Great War” statue.
In a sense, Indians – rather than the British – are honouring their own.
Nevertheless, Perry said: “I am incredibly proud to be working on a sculpture that is, at its heart, a statement of gratitude for the actions of a people who gave their lives for our independence when they had not yet achieved their own.
“It will be a striking and permanent marker of the richness of our community and that those who have been under-celebrated are finally getting the recognition they deserve.”
The statue of a Sikh soldier carrying a rifle will stand on a 6ft granite plinth with inscriptions naming the regiments in which the men served.
Gurdwara president Jatinder Singh said: “These men volunteered to serve and fought to defend the freedoms we enjoy today. The memorial will ensure that this part is never forgotten. So I am delighted Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick is commissioning the statue and will ensure its success.”
Planning permission for the monument was given by Sandwell Council, whose leader Steve Eling commented: “I am very proud that Smethwick – a place where many people from the Indian subcontinent have made their home – is paying such a striking tribute to the very important role played by South Asian service personnel during times of conflict.
“I hope this contributes to the growing recognition of the sacrifices that servicemen from Commonwealth countries have made for our country.”
Preet Kaur Gill MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Sikhs, said the statue would recognise an “integral part of Sandwell’s rich history”.
Britain’s Islamic community is now demanding a statue to honour Muslim soldiers from India.
Historian Kusoom Vadgama made the point: “These soldiers did not fight as Hindus or Sikhs or Muslims – they fought as Indian soldiers.”
But it is also the case that Sikhs made up a big part of the British Indian army.