By Sunder Katwala
IT WILL be a very different Remembrance Sunday this weekend, with local parades and services cancelled and the annual service at the Cenotaph closed to the public for the first time in its history.
Many people will mark a two-minute silence from their doorsteps at 11am, following a campaign backed by the Royal British Legion and political leaders.
Coming four days into the new November lockdown, there will be particular resonance to this shared national moment which has a unique ability to bring people together.
Britain’s history, and the ways in which it is commemorated, have increasingly become new fronts in the ‘culture war’ clashes about identity and race – yet our tradition of Remembrance shows how our history can unite as well as divide us.
Most people in Britain (59 per cent) agree that Remembrance Day brings people of all faiths and ethnicities together, according to new polling for British Future. Yet that is less widely felt among black and minority ethnic citizens – fewer than half (46 per cent) of the 1,000 BAME adults polled by Number Cruncher Politics agreed that Remembrance does bring us all together.
In response, the Remember Together campaign, backed by London mayor Sadiq Khan and former chancellor Sajid Javid, alongside other politicians from all parties, Second World War veterans, civil society and faith leaders, former generals and the Royal British Legion, is seeking to address that imbalance.
More should be done to mark the service of black and Asian soldiers in both world wars, they argue – helping to make remembrance a shared moment that feels relevant and inclusive to people of all creeds and colours in Britain today.
The armies that fought and won the Second World War look rather more like the Britain of 2020 than that of the 1940s in their ethnic and faith mix. It can surprise people to realise this, and yet it could be one of the most important foundations of the British identity that we share today.
Commemorating all those who served from the Empire and Commonwealth is not a substitute for engaging with the complexities and controversies of the war itself or the longer history of Empire. Rather, it can offer an entry point that helps to illuminate it – and to understand the making of today’s modern, multi-ethnic society.
This was a global war, in which more than 10 million service personnel from all across the Commonwealth and Empire served in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Indian subcontinent, Australasia, Africa, and Britain fought to defeat Nazism in Africa and the Middle East. Africans, West Indians and British troops battled alongside Indians to defend India from invasion and to liberate Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong.
The pre-partition Indian army alone provided two and-a-half million soldiers to the Allied efforts to defeat Hitler’s Nazi regime. It outnumbered – by a 50:1 ratio – the 43,000 rebels who heeded Subhas Chandra Bose’s call to secure independence by fighting alongside Japan and Germany.
Yet, many of those who volunteered to fight for ‘king and country’ pushed for decolonisation too. Their crucial role in defeating Japan was, for many, the final proof of the country’s readiness for self-government. That shared achievement was to begin to change the post-war world, with Indian independence coming just two years to the day after VJ Day brought the war to an end.
Of course, the ideal of universal human rights then proclaimed by the new United Nations for the post-war world still remains a work in progress today.
The First World War centenary sparked a growing awareness of the black and Asian armed forces who served in the world wars. Before that, only a minority knew of the million Indian soldiers who served in the 1914-18 conflict.
By 2018 that was majority knowledge, helped by national broadcasters, public arts projects and the Khadi poppy, issued by the Royal British Legion to commemorate the contribution of the Indian army.
Remember Together wants this shared history to be taught more widely, in all our schools, and commemorated outside of them too. It is an approach with overwhelming public appeal, which bridges those from every mainstream political perspective – indeed, there is 78 per cent to three per cent public support for the core idea that doing more to recognise the Commonwealth contributions to the Second World War would be a positive way to promote understanding of the shared history of today’s multi-ethnic Britain. That sentiment is shared equally across ethnic minority and white British respondents.
Children in our multi-ethnic classrooms today need to learn about this long and shared history – that if your family came from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, or from Africa or the Caribbean, this is your history too.
Men and women from across the Commonwealth served together 75 years ago and we can come together this weekend to remember them all, regardless of creed or colour. This is a history that we share and of which we can all be proud.