One of the underlying factors that motivate soldiers in armies across the world to kill or die is a sense of belonging to the land that they defend and protect. So, what made Bukkam Singh, Lachman Singh, Loala Singh and seven others enlist themselves in the Canadian army and fight in World War I despite being denied Canadian citizenship? The answer would perhaps remain a mystery, one that becomes harder to unravel as the time passes and history becomes a distant memory in the yellowing pages of times.
David R Gray, a Canadian biologist by training and a recently turned historian, took it upon himself to narrate the intriguing tale of these early Sikh immigrants through his 2011 documentary film — Canadian Soldier Sikhs: A Little Story in a Big War. At the screening of the film on Thursday at the Consulate General of Canada, Sector 17, Chandigarh, the filmmaker recalled his incredulous first brush with the subject.
In a park in Victoria, Canada, one day, David says he came across remnants such as pig skulls and tools. He learnt later that the site was once a limestone quarry where 40 Sikhs worked after coming to Canada in 1906, along with immigrants from other countries. Curious, David started researching and found that 10 of them represented the Canadian army in World War I. By now, he was sure these men had never been documented nor their efforts acknowledged.
In the absence of any census or community records, the biologist set out to grope for a lead in the dark, unaware of the facts that he would stumble upon. “I have always been interested in history,” he says, adding, “My childhood interest in the Sikh community fuelled a desire to tell their story. The Sikhs’ openess has remained consistent in all the years.”
Had someone told him 10 years ago that he would one day be making a film on Sikh immigrant soldiers, he wouldn’t have believed it. But, here he is today, with five documentary films on Sikh history to his credit and a sixth lined up, based on a Sikh immigrant to Canada who became a billionaire.
Canadian Soldier Sikhs comprises video footage sourced from the Canadian and British National archives and chronicles the journey of the 10 Sikh soldiers, two of whom died in action. There were only 2,000 Sikhs living in Canada in 1914 and many were leaving the country after facing restrictions on living for long durations. Despite this, 10 Sikh immigrants, many of them ex-soldiers who had served in the Burma war, enlisted in the Canadian army. Was there a fervour to fight for the country already present in them? To David’s fortune, he found a cue in a personal letter sent by one of these men to a relative in India, which recounts the happenings on the war front and states the feeling of pride with which he took on the ‘enemy’. The youngest of the soldiers was 22 and the eldest 35, and none of them could read or write English. “There couldn’t have been any allowances made to them in terms of religion or food,” says David. Tragically, despite eight of them making it safe out of the war, they could never return to their homeland or see their families before dying.
As the documentary-making progressed, David says he felt a sense of responsibility of accrediting them their due for fighting valiantly. Having traced the graves of the two dead men to Europe, he found peace after the Canadian maple leaf flag had been buried in the soil close to the grave. “I hope my work inspires others to take this up, there is a lot more to be discovered,” says David, who is now travelling to Punjab to meet the soldiers’ kin.