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First World War Commemoration: Pakistan

Volume 793: debated on Monday 12 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the contribution during World War One of people from what is now Pakistan.

My Lords, throughout the centenary the Government have focused on ensuring that communities commemorate the contribution made by men and women from across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Europe. Our projects have highlighted the lesser-known stories and voices of servicemen and women whose contribution is rarely acknowledged. The battlefields in France and Belgium saw Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Baha’is and people of all faiths and none, fall side by side with their Christian and Jewish comrades on the fields where they fought and died together.

I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Yesterday we remembered the sacrifice of millions of brave men and women who fought in the Great War to end all wars. One of those brave soldiers—the first recipient of the Victoria Cross—was from south Asia, from Chakwal, Pakistan. Subedar Khudadad Khan was one of the 1.5 million British Indian soldiers, of which 430,000 were Muslims, mainly from what is now Pakistan. Can the noble Lord say how important it is for our children to learn about our shared history and to understand the diversity in the United Kingdom?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about the importance of yesterday and the importance of the contributions of people who were from what is now Pakistan. Subedar Khudadad Khan’s VC is commemorated in the doorway of the shared entry for Defra, the Home Office and my own department the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is important to tell the continuing story of the contribution of people from what was the British Empire, then the British Commonwealth and now the Commonwealth. We make sure that people of all heritages in this country are aware of that. It was strongly underlined yesterday, and I hope very much that that continues.

My Lords, I too pay tribute not only to Khudadad Khan, but also to Subedar Shahamad Khan and Subedar Mir Dast, who were also awarded VCs for their contribution, along with others in the Second World War. I think specifically of people like my maternal and paternal grandfathers who both served in the British Indian Army for the freedoms that we all enjoy today. Will my noble friend speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that this part of our shared history is included in the curriculum because it is an important aspect of the fight-back against the narrative of those of the far right, who too often try to appropriate the good name of our Armed Forces to peddle their own hate?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that this is very much our shared history and about the three holders of the VC from what is now Pakistan, along with a significant number of others from elsewhere on the subcontinent and the rest of the world. The department has been honouring VC holders 100 years after the VC was awarded, in all cases throughout the war—the most recent one being just last Friday, 100 years after 6 November when that VC was gained. She is also right to point out the importance of the continuing story. I will ensure that the message is relayed to the Department for Education, which is very much aware of how important it is. As I say, I think that it was underlined graphically yesterday when the all aspects of the nation came together—people from all religions and no religion, and from all races—to commemorate the First World War and the Second World War.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that I was on the advisory board for the commemoration of the First World War. Given that education for the younger generation was absolutely one of our objectives, I regret that we did not manage to symbolise more, in the ceremonies and events held at the national level, the links between the role of the British Indian Army and our south Asian population today, a great many of whom are the descendants of people who served in the British Indian Army. Would DCMS take back for further consideration whether in the future the Cenotaph commemoration could be a little more diverse? It seems to be very British and in some ways very white and English. It would be much better if the commemoration reflected the diversity of our history and of the contribution made to our wars.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the question, although I am not a Minister in DCMS. However, I will ensure that the message goes forth. On the point about diversity, I can speak to that because I personally headed up the effort to ensure broader representation at the Cenotaph. For the first time, we had seven faiths that had been previously been unrepresented, along with humanists: we had representatives of the Baha’is, Coptic Christians, Jains, Mormons, Spiritualists and Zoroastrians. An effort has been made to widen representation. I am sure that lessons will continue to be learned, and I pay tribute to what the noble Lord has done. We are making every effort to make the ceremony more diverse and to ensure that the true nature of what happened is reflected in our commemorations.

My Lords, undivided Punjab played a substantial part in the greatest volunteer army in history. One of the reasons that was done was because people were promised a substantial measure of independence following the end of the war. Instead, there was fierce repression under the Rowlatt Act and, following that, in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of several hundred unarmed civilians. We British are justly known for our sense of fair play and justice. Given that, should we not now make an unequivocal apology to the people of the subcontinent?

My Lords, now is the time for the country to come together to commemorate the end of the Great War 100 years ago. That is important. As I indicated, people of different religions from what was then undivided India played a significant role; that contribution is readily acknowledged. That is the measure of what we need to do in the light of the country coming together yesterday. Going forward, we must learn lessons from that on the importance of this being reflected in our national education.

My Lords, it is important that we never forget the horror of war and why those who came before us took up arms in both the First and Second World Wars. It is also important to ensure that history is told accurately. The contribution of Muslims in what was then India and is now Pakistan should have greater prominence. At a time when there are those who want to divide us, trade in fake news and seek to spread misrepresentation of faiths and communities, does the Minister agree that we should work to ensure that the heroic efforts of citizens of different faiths and no faith from the Commonwealth and elsewhere, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the people of this country, should be properly reflected in the reporting of these events? I am sure that the Minister will agree. In particular, could he go back to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the question of arts funding—perhaps we should look there for better funding in future so that our broadcasters can properly reflect what happened in the two World Wars?

My Lords, I readily agree with the basic sentiment put forward by the noble Lord. We have had many programmes throughout the First World War commemorations, such as the VC paving slabs and Remember Together, which have been very important in bringing the country together. I hope that they will continue and I hope that the VC paving slabs for the First World War commemorations continue for those for the Second World War. It is important that the country comes together and that we learn lessons. That has happened in the past week, as people up and down the country would readily acknowledge.