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For King, Not Country: Why We Need a More Inclusive War Narrative in the UK

13 July 20 words: Jagdish Patel

As the world gets ready to remember the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, photographer Jagdish Patel explores the role of Commonwealth soldiers – many of whom were conscripted under the threat of violence – in Britain’s victory.

War metaphors are used by politicians to bring a nation together in times of difficulty. Therefore, it is no surprise that one of the defining features of the impact of Coronavirus has been its comparisons to the memories of the two global wars, with calls for a 'Blitz Spirit' to the nation's new-found hero, Sir Captain Tom. 

Even healthcare workers have been re-defined as an army heroically fighting on the 'frontline', with their 'fallen' comrades. From my conversations, though, most seem to see themselves in a different war, as overworked medics from the TV programme M*A*S*H, seeking salvation in caring personal connections amid a mismanaged nightmare.

Amongst these wartime metaphors, the VE Day celebrations was a shocking reminder to BAME communities how they remain excluded in the national narrative. Here in COVID Britain, with daily images of BAME health worker deaths, the words of the writer Paul Gilroy, “There ain't no black in the Union Jack” rang out loud. If you take a look at the images of the VE Day 75 celebrations on the BBC, or any newspaper, even The Guardian, you will not find any Black or Asian presence. Here was a celebration of a nostalgic past without our presence.

The process of war memorialisation is always more concerned with constructing a coherent national narrative than retelling a true story from fragments of historical archives. Generations of British politicians have invested much in its tale of fighting fascism. There is still an unshakeable belief in its exceptionalism, despite the clear fact that it was reliant on the people and resources of the Empire. But this was before Windrush, and everyone was British, even the people from its Empire.

The problem is that despite these being World Wars, we do not have an inclusive global narrative. Each of the major powers involved in the War told a slightly different version of the story. The Soviet Union, Japan, West Germany, Britain, and America each constructed a story which fitted their politics, history and identity, and in each country this has evolved. Over the past 100 years, this war memorialisation has not lessened but has become more significant to each nation, and we seem to be going more nostalgic.

In reality, nearly ten million soldiers were recruited to the British Army from Asia and Africa during the two World Wars, and many more were involved as civilians. During the Wartime this was a cause for celebration, but then totally forgotten once the War ended. It is no surprise that Black Lives Matters protestors have identified memorials as an issue which needs to be challenged in the present.

However, some cities are different. The scheduled VE Day celebrations in Nottingham were planned as an inclusive multicultural event. We had been working with Leftlion and Nottingham City Council on a special edition of their magazine, and events, to commemorate the role of BAME communities, but this was cancelled during the lockdown. This acknowledgement in Nottingham has come because of the work of local groups such as Himmah, Nottingham Black Archive, Dr Irfan Malik and others who have highlighted the role of the Commonwealth during Wartime for many years.

The Empire was multicultural, so therefore its Army was too, with perhaps 100 languages among them and any number of faiths, customs and eating habits

Over the past two years, I have been working with the local charity, Himmah researching the stories of War veterans from Nottingham Muslim Community. We held an exhibition at the New Art Exchange in 2019, which had nearly 10,000 visitors, with some of the online work seeing over 500,000 views. There is a clear interest in these stories from our communities.

For example, we talked about the life of Nottingham resident, Inayet Ali. Inayet is the only living WWII veteran in Nottingham. Born in Mirapur, Kashmir in January 1920 to a family of farmers, he attended a meeting when the Maharaja Hari Singh asked young men to help the war effort. Shortly afterwards he joined the British Indian Army. A lot of young men joined the Army at this time, around 10,000 to 25,000, and the army authorities struggled to train them all quickly. He spent nearly a year travelling the country from one training camp to another, and it was the first time he had got to see the whole of India. He also spent months training in the jungle regions across India.

He was enlisted to the Indian Army Corps of Engineers. His role as part of a unit who performed a variety of military engineering duties such as breaching fortifications, demolitions, bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, preparing field defences, as well as working on road and airfield construction and repairs. In this role, he travelled all over India, including spending time in Burma.

Much was hidden from the army men. Anayet knew bombs had fallen in India but were told these were German bombs, not Japanese. He also knew food was in short supply, as he had to live off just peanuts on some days, but he didn't realise that there was a famine in the country. This famine would lead to over three million Indians losing their lives, and the contribution of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet to the famine is being debated.

After the War, he came to Britain and settled in Nottingham, working on the railways. Here he once again met one of his English army colleagues from India. We should remember that soldiers have a unique kinship. War brought people together and, for the first time, people from different backgrounds, races and nations, had to spend time together and interact. These interactions challenged the old perspectives, including that of the Empire itself.

Nowadays as we stride in years away from the two World Wars, the role of recounting wartime memories are becoming essential and more vivid, not just for the nation, but also for families looking into their past. Now is the time to build a collective memory that we can all share.

For example, 15 August 2020 is the 75th Anniversary of Victory over Japan. These battles took in places such as China, Burma, Singapore and Malaysia. Here, the Chinese suffered the most significant number of deaths during WWII. Some fourteen million Chinese died during the eight years of the conflict with Japan from 1937 to 1945. In Burma, the British Army consisted of British, Australians, Canadians, South Africans, Burmese, Chinese, Africans and, chiefly, the Indian Army, the largest volunteer army in history. The Empire was multicultural, so therefore its Army was too, with perhaps 100 languages among them and any number of faiths, customs and eating habits. Yet this is all forgotten.

The most famous film about wartime Burma is The Bridge on the River Kwai. Its theme tune is often sung by England football fans, as a testament of British bravery against Japanese brutality. Football fans often stroll through BAME areas whistling its tune. Yet few football fans know that the story is fictional, and that more of the British Army POW in Japanese war camps were Indian, or that a Pakistani family from Nottingham helped British soldiers escape from one POW camp.

The surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945 occurred after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing over 200,000 civilian deaths. For my generation growing alongside the anti-War movement, these events were as significant as the War in Burma.

War is complicated, but we urgently need a better inclusive war narrative in this country, one that celebrates peace and inclusivity.

Jagdish Patel website

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