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Thursday 29 June, 2017
While growing up as a first generation migrant, I remember attending annual Anzac Day ceremonies at my primary school. Even as a child I recall being deeply moved by the experience. There was something in these ceremonies that resonated within me. I reconciled my reaction to the respect afforded to all of those that had fallen in battle as this was something that had been ingrained in me by my cultural upbringing. I was paying my respects to those young white country boys that I had seen in pictures shown to me in school. I was an observer, not as an Australian but as someone who was paying their respects to Australians who had come before me.
I was the “other”.
It is more commonly known that over 1.2 million Indians volunteered to fight for the British Indian Army in WWI, making them the largest volunteer army ever raised. While Sikhs only made up 2% of India’s population, 22% of the British Indian Army was Sikh. In WWI and WWII, 83,005 Sikhs were killed and 109,045 were wounded fighting for the allied forces. Because of this disproportionate representation, it is virtually impossible to find a Sikh family today that does not have a strong military connection. However, while Sikhs have been Australians for close to 200 years, their contribution to the development of Australia is lesser known.
Private Saran Singh was one of the 16 Sikhs living in Australia who enlisted as Anzacs and one of five Sikhs living in South Australia to do so. Saran Singh lived in Maggea, a former settlement in the Murray Mallee region, and was a farmer at the time the war broke out. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 15 May 1916 and on 12 August 1916 he boarded the HMAT A70 Ballarat for the UK. On 10 June 1917, Private Saran Singh was killed in action in the allied attacks on Messines Ridge in Belgium.
Partap Kaur, Private Saran Singh’s wife, never saw her husband return to her side in Punjab.
We now know, through various historical resources available to us today, that the Aussie diggers preferred Punjabi curry much more than their salted beef rations. The Aussies and the Sikhs lived together, worked together, and even died together. There is no doubt in my mind that whether it was the Sikh Anzacs fighting alongside their diggers or the Sikh regiment from the British Indian army fighting alongside the Anzacs, they considered each other mates, dying together as brothers in arms. Private Saran Singh, and the other Sikh Anzacs who served with him in the Australian Imperial Force, represented a stark contradiction to the commonly held myth of what an Anzac looked like. These men (some highly experienced soldiers of the British Empire) were among the few non-white members of a force that was legally only supposed to include Europeans, an exception to the prevailing racist policy of ‘White Australia’.
On Friday 16 June 2017, Australians gathered in Adelaide and Canberra to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Private Saran Singh’s death by laying wreaths at the respective memorials. In Adelaide, the commemorative events for the day started with a reception at Government House hosted by His Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le AC, Governor of South Australia, followed by a wreath laying ceremony and a lecture at the State Library of South Australia by Emeritus Professor Margaret Allen.
While attending the Adelaide wreath laying ceremony I was once again deeply moved. With the bagpipes playing, I watched the wreaths being laid and I had a flashback to those Anzac ceremonies I attended as a child. In that moment, I realised that there was no “other”. Amongst those who were in attendance, there was no distinction between “us” and “them”.
We were all Australians remembering one of our own.
A hundred years on from WWI, Australians are remembering all of those who sacrificed their lives for our future. Private Singh’s story will be told along with those of Indigenous Anzacs, Chinese Anzacs and others. We will continue to tell these stories, and pay our respects to all of those who have made Australia this beautiful country we all enjoy living in.
I am thankful to all those that organised and attended the commemorative events in June to remember Private Saran Singh. I hope that as Australians our relationships with each other only grow stronger as we prosper together in peace.
Private Saran Singh
Born of Punjab
Yet died a son of Australia
Lest we forget.