In Conversation With… UK Punjab Heritage Association

Harbakhsh Grewal from the UK Punjab Heritage Association reveals how the 'EFW partnership project' encourages people to become Citizen Historians and unearth unknown individual stories from the First World War, combining family memories and memorabilia with official records to create new history: a people’s history.

Engaging communities is at the core of the project. It is a partnership with our audience, both Sikh and non-Sikh, to collect and share…to build up as comprehensive a picture as we can of the Sikh experience.

Introduce yourself

Harbakhsh Grewal, Media and Communications Manager at the UK Punjab Heritage Association

I’m the communications and media manager for the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA). I’m also responsible for much of our stakeholder relations and some of our learning and outreach work including volunteer management. My interest in Sikh history led me to volunteer with UKPHA leading eventually to where I am now. I feel very privileged to be part of such a dedicated and expert team and to help research and promote Sikh and Punjabi history.

Our track record includes books, websites, and major exhibitions. A key aspect to our approach has been working in partnership with heritage and media organisations and crucially with our audiences – there is a wealth of enthusiasm, knowledge and experience in many communities which is just waiting to be untapped.

Tell us about your project

‘Empire, Faith & War: The Sikhs and World War One’ is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund over three years to tell the story of the Sikh contribution to the First World War in collaboration with our audience and heritage partners. We’re looking to unearth the unknown individual stories of those who went to war, those they fought alongside, and the families they left behind – as well as of those who opposed the conflict. By combining family memories and memorabilia with official records we’re seeking to create new history – a people’s history of the war in effect. To accomplish this we’re encouraging people to become Citizen Historians and research their, or another’s family’s, wartime stories.


Paris, July 1916 © Toor Collection

We launched with a major exhibition at the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in 2014. This was in order to set out the broad themes, background and chronology of the story of undivided India’s contribution to the war and of the preceding story of Sikh Empire to inspire the public to learn more about and become actively engaged in this history.

This included talks by international experts and achieved a footfall of around 23,500 plus a further 1,500 attending the associated symposiums.

How are you engaging communities with new stories from the First World War?

Engaging communities is at the core of the project. It is a partnership with our audience, both Sikh and non-Sikh, to collect and share these individual stories in order to build up as comprehensive a picture as we can of the Sikh experience.

Post-exhibition we’ve held outreach events, local talks, created a touring exhibition and continued with the drive to gather wartime stories. So far we’ve had an incredible response with over 700 families contacting us to express an interest in sharing their stories, and of those around 200 are actively working with us to verify and document their experiences. Already we’ve a fascinating range of stories in our Citizen Historians in Action section which offer a glimpse into this relatively unknown aspect of the war.

Two years on from our launch we’ve developed the project website which now contains a wealth of educational and research resources for anyone interested in the Indian Army’s role, and in the Sikh story. These include archive and specially commissioned new films, recordings of symposiums talks, research guides for novice Citizen Historians, teaching packs for Key Stages 2 and 3 and an educational app. The site will continue to develop to include a collection of unique archival sound recordings of Sikh prisoners of war, a documentary film and a commemorative publication by the end of the year.

At the heart of the site is our groundbreaking Soldier Map database based on Google Maps which locates individuals according to their ancestral villages – inevitably somewhere in or close to undivided Punjab. So far we have nearly 8,000 records sourced mainly from Commonwealth War Grave Commission records of Sikhs in the war. These contain basic details which anyone can add to (once moderated) in order to build up as complete a story as we can on any one individual. The public can also add new records, including of family members left behind and those who opposed the conflict.

Crucially, this approach has the potential to generate a strong emotional pull for British Sikhs through their connections to familial villages and towns. It is hoped that by engaging with the Soldier Map, members of the public will be able to discover unknown connections to their ancestral heritage, the aim being to encourage a sense of ownership of, and connection with, those who fought or otherwise lived during the ‘war to end all wars’.

What do you want audiences to learn about the First World War from your project?

Projects like ours can help people understand that the First World War was a truly global conflict. In particular I hope audiences will appreciate the largely forgotten role of the subcontinent in Britain’s war effort in terms of men, money and materials. One way of doing so has been by our creating the ‘one in six’ statistic: Indian troops overall comprised one in every six of Britain’s wartime forces and simple statistics like that can help imprint that on the public’s consciousness.

With the Sikh audience in particular, we want them to feel a greater sense of inclusion in the wider commemorations. And by engaging with their own history we hope they will also begin to appreciate it better and continue to preserve it – already families are coming to us to help them document their Second World War stories and we are looking at how we can do so via the Soldier Map.

Overall I hope these stories, and all the resources on our website, become a legacy which people of all communities and backgrounds will utilise. This is British history as well as a previously untold history of one of the world’s smaller communities who played such a disproportionately large role in the war. It is a shared history, a sometimes conflicted one, and one which has been omitted from mainstream narratives which needs reassessing and positioning back within the wider story. As many who attended our launch exhibition stated ‘I never knew’. It is about time that we all did and I hope that our work and that of others is continued by heritage institutions and educators to ensure that more do know.

This article was first published on the Imperial War Museums' First World War Centenary Partnerships website during September 1916.