Welcome + Worship + Witness
Sikh soldiers

The Rector: The Rich Man in his Castle….

1st Sunday after Trinity
6th June 2021
Sung Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

It is probably not unfair to surmise that few people in the congregation have heard of Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak was born into a Hindu family in Pakistan in 1469

And showed an early interest in both Islam and Hinduism

Although he married, in 1496 he set out on a series of spiritual journeys which took him through India, Tibet and Arabia

A journey that lasted nearly thirty years

Whilst on his journey, he debated with learned men that he met on the way and began to move away from his Hindu roots,

Radically teaching that there is only one God and no need for priests and rituals

But, above all, he denounced the caste system and taught that everyone is born equal in the eyes of God

Out of the teachings of Guru Nanak, Sikhism was born

I did not stumble upon Sikhism by chance but found myself having to teach it whilst I was a school chaplain

Quite rightly, young men and women at school today have to learn about the five great faiths and Sikhism is counted among their number

I taught the boys about the origins you have just heard described

As well as Sikh identity which, peculiarly, touches on some of the military origins of their faith

For as well as their uncut hair and the metal bracelet 

Sikhs also carry a ceremonial sword and wear undergarments traditionally worn by Sikh warriors

The reason for this is because, from the very beginning, Sikh’s had to fight to defend their faith

Indeed, the sixth guru, militarised the Sikhs after his father was martyred by the Moghul Emperor

Today Sikh’s regard the battle for social justice an integral part of their faith

But with this sort of heritage, it is not surprising that Sikh’s make very good soldiers

Having reached this stage of the syllabus, I was allowed a certain degree of latitude

As the third form had an annual trip to the battlefields of WW1, I decided to teach them about the Sikhs who fought for the British Army

And what I discovered was remarkable  

Their military record is impressive to say the least:

Indian troops started arriving on the Western Front from as early as September 1914

Although accounting for less than 2% of the population, Sikhs made up more than 20% of the British Indian Army 

Indeed, every sixth British soldier serving in the British Army during the war would have been from the Indian subcontinent

This is little known fact – and the reason for Lawrence Fox’s rather “clumsy” comment when he referred to the “oddness” in casting a Sikh soldier in Sam Mendes film 1917

It was not odd at all

Sikhs fought and died alongside their British counterparts throughout the war

On the Somme, Gallipoli, Africa and the Middle East -all the while gaining a reputation as fearless soldiers

One diary entry from November 1914 entitled “The Indians Arrived” stated

“The day after, we heard that during the night one of the Sikh regiment had had to recapture the trench, which the Germans had taken by surprise, and that their bayonet charge was so tremendous that the enemy did not dare counter-attack…the fact was that, in order to show their contempt for death, some Sikhs had refused to hide themselves in the trenches and had immediately drawn a fierce fire on their regiment”.

Often poorly supplied, they sometimes went into battle with just their swords carrying their Holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib

Over 75,000 Sikh soldiers were killed

I would end this part of the syllabus by reminding the boys that, when they met a Sikh today, they should just pause for a moment

And remember the sacrifice Sikhs had made for the British Empire

Despite this noble record, Sikhs were very badly treated at the end of the war

On returning home to the Punjab, they were on the receiving end of one of the worst massacres in British military history

337 Sikh men and 41 women and children were killed when General Dyer opened fire on an unarmed crowd at Amritsar

Mahatma Ghandi described the actions of the British Army as “satanic”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury meanwhile called Dyer “brave, public-spirited and patriotic”

The Sikh community however came to my mind the other day when the scandal of war graves was exposed

The honouring of our war dead is one of the most noble and uplifting outcomes of both World Wars – or so I thought

I could not help but be uplifted when I visited the battlefield with my students – I suspect that many of us thought the same thing

But I had no idea that many of the troops who fought and died for the Empire were denied a marked grave

At the time, the War Graves Commission argued that the huge logistical challenge of locating and exhuming the bodies made it impossible

The reality however was that 100,000 men had been treated in death as they had been treated in life – as second class citizens of the Empire

Even today, it is telling that all three of the Sikh memorials in the UK have been paid for out of Sikh charitable funds  

The British Government have contributed not one penny

Whilst the debate about whether we are racist society continues to reverberate in the press

It is perhaps worth taking a step back and re-evaluating in the light of the reading this morning

Dives and Lazarus continues to speak to us just as powerfully today as it did two thousand years ago

And whilst you can view the story from the viewpoint of individual charity – you can also look at it from the view point of society as a whole

Who is the rich man in his castle and who is the poor man at his gate in relation to this story?

No headstone, no publicly funded memorial, no shame but plenty of ignorance

The question answers itself

The story makes it clear however that it is incumbent upon us to bridge the “great chasm” in this life to prevent us encountering it in the next –

We have been warned…

Whatever optimistic view we take of ourselves, the story this morning suggests we still have a very long way to go