Learning objective

To understand how and why historical interpretations reflecting on the same past events may differ.

Learning outcomes

  1. Pupils will have understood the record of Ghadar activists in plotting against the British Empire between 1914 and 1918.
  2. Pupils will have constructed an interpretation of the role of Sikh soldiers during the First World War from given criteria.
  3. Pupils will have participated in discussion speculating on the criteria used by other pupils in creating rival interpretations of the role of Sikh soldiers during the First World War.

START by arranging the desks and seating of the classroom into the rough shape of a world map (as in the starter activity in Lesson 2).

COPY AND ENLARGE as necessary the following list of location labels from Resource T:

  • Vancouver, Canada (then part of the British Empire)
  • San Francisco, USA
  • Shanghai, China
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Calcutta (Kolkatta), India (then part of the British Empire)
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Lahore, India (then part of the British Empire, now in Pakistan)
  • Singapore (then part of the British Empire)
  • Kabul, Afghanistan
  • Thailand
  • Manila, Philippines (then an American colony)
  • Hoquian, Washington State, USA
  • Mesopotamia (now Iraq)
  • Wunsdorf, Germany

ASK individual pupils to stand and hold a label up by their approximate locations, reading out the labels in turn. Show European empires in 1914 (such as that shown here) using modern atlases and displaying a world map.

ASK pairs to discuss what might link these different locations.

LEAD a discussion taking suggestions from different pairs.

THEN ask the same individuals holding up the location labels to read out the events associated with that location in turn from Resource U.

DISPLAY Resource V: Slide 1, which shows members of the Ghadar Party (including Sikhs) imprisoned by the British. Give pairs time to decide how Sikh soldiers like those on Resource V: Slide 2 might have described the prisoners in general (e.g. as traitors, cowards, fools) and take suggestions to write up.

THEN display the image of the Indian soldiers on Resource V: Slide 2. Give pairs time to decide how Sikh prisoners from the Ghadar Party might have described their fellow Sikhs who served as soldiers in the British Indian Army in general (e.g. as traitors, fools, mercenaries) and take suggestions to write up.

LEAD a further discussion about whether all Ghadar prisoners would have viewed Indian soldiers in a hostile way and vice versa.

Note: some pupils may recall the varying attitudes of Sikh soldiers towards the British from Lesson 5 and suggest that some Sikh soldiers may have been sympathetic towards the aims and sometimes the methods of the Ghadar Party. Some may have even seen these Ghadar prisoners as martyrs (some Sikh soldiers plotted a mutiny in Lahore in February 1915). Ghadar members were also keen to recruit Sikh soldiers to their cause and, while viewing them as misguided, were probably not always judgemental. After all, these were fellow Indians and Sikhs who had been deceived by the real villains, the British. Sikh soldiers certainly received Ghadar propaganda in the form of letters from time to time, despite the watchful gaze of the British military censor.

COPY the main paragraph from this webpage and give out copies of the text to pairs, taking care to conceal its origin from an American Sikh site.

ASK pairs to annotate words or phrases that appear to show the writer’s attitude towards the Ghadar Party.

LEAD a discussion and reveal that the text comes from a modern American Sikh website. Explain that the text is an historical interpretation, that is, a view of history written after the time the events happened and looking back on them.

DISPLAY the definition of an historical interpretation given on Resource V: Slide 3 and then display the diagram on Resource V: Slide 4.

ASK pairs to discuss whereabouts on the diagram they might plot the pro-Ghadar text and lead a class discussion based on pupil suggestions.

NOW explain that many American Sikhs remain proud of the anti-British activities of Sikh members of the Ghadar Party during the First World War. Explain that how history is remembered (if it is remembered at all) is shaped by what happens afterwards.

NEXT display the following slides from Resource V and use the notes below to give an outline of events shaping Sikh history since the First World War, drawing a timeline for display at the same time with the relevant dates and events marked:

  • Slide 5 shows Sikh soldiers of the British Indian Army attack an enemy position in Burma during the Second World War (1939-45). Sikh veterans of the First World War helped to recruit 300,000 Sikh soldiers for the over two million troops of the British Indian Army. At this stage India was still not an independent country.
  • Slide 6 shows a Sikh soldier being inspected by the German general, Rommel. A few Sikhs joined anti-British Indian forces recruited by Nazi Germany and Japan, who promised India her independence.
  • Slide 7 shows a map of the partition boundaries in Punjab (marked in red on the left side of the map) in 1947. When the British left India, two new countries were created: a largely Hindu-dominated modern India (the area to the right of the red line) and a mainly Muslim Pakistan (to the left of the red line).
  • Slide 8 shows an old Sikh man fleeing with his family from the newly created Pakistan. The old Sikh homeland of Punjab was divided between the two countries and millions of people fled their homes either side of the border. There were widespread massacres and thousands of Sikhs died.
  • Slide 9 shows two Sikh migrants in Britain in 1947. Sikhs started to settle here in larger numbers after India gained her independence.
  • Slide 10 shows some of the population movements of the Sikh community. This was part of an historic movement of Sikhs over decades from India to other countries.
  • Slide 11 shows men of the Indian Army take positions in the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar in 1984, which was occupied by a group of Sikhs who demanded greater rights from the Indian government. Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, ordered the Indian Army to storm the complex, killing many innocent people. Two of her Sikh bodyguards later shot dead Indira Gandhi in revenge. These events caused great bitterness between many Sikhs and the Indian government.
  • Slide 12 shows Sikhs living in Britain. Today there are over 400,000 Sikhs settled in the UK.

LEAD a discussion about how these events may affect the way British Sikhs remember the First World War if at all (e.g. Is it too long ago to matter? How important might the First World War seem compared to the Second World War, the events of 1947 or 1984?).

NEXT split the class into small groups and explain that they will play the role of a company of designers and writers who specialize in preparing museum or exhibition display panels. Each will be given a commission about Sikh soldiers during the First World War from a mystery client that they must keep secret from other groups.

GIVE OUT the instructions from Resource W1, Resource W2 or [Resource W3] to different groups. The commissions represent two fictional groups, the American Sikh Association and the British Sikh Society, and one real body, the Government of India.

Each commission requires the group of designers to devise a sample panel for a touring exhibition including information on Sikh soldiers of the First World War. The text of the panel and the choice of sources and accompanying captions deliberately reflect the differing requirements of each client.

While these commissions are obviously fictional they have been written to try and reflect the current thinking of particular groups around the commemoration of Sikh soldiers during the First World War.

Note: the reason for making two groups fictional is to make the task sufficiently accessible to pupils.

Some American Sikhs, particularly in California, do look back for inspiration to the Ghadar Party and identify them in an American tradition as freedom fighters for liberty. The fact that these were very radical revolutionaries akin to communists tends to be overlooked.

The Government of India has certainly celebrated Ghadar activists as heroes of the independence struggle in the past and has been embarrassed by the volume of Indian soldiers who fought in what have been seen as essentially colonial wars. However, with the distance in time this attitude appears to be shifting, particularly as these soldiers are proving useful in diplomacy with Western governments commemorating the First World War. The wording of the commission tries to reflect the tentative shift in official Indian government attitudes.

British Sikhs tend to be viewed as one of the most successfully integrated communities in multi-cultural Britain. Evidence points to the vast majority of British Sikhs as being comfortable in identifying themselves as such. However, there are the usual tensions across generations where a culture with its roots mostly in fairly recent migration has to come to terms with how it expresses itself in a different setting than Punjab. Those in British Sikh communities actively promoting knowledge of Sikh history and tradition among British Sikhs view the First World War as an opportunity to highlight the sometimes forgotten historic links between the British as a whole and Sikh communities. It is an opportunity to remind British Sikhs and other British people that their links with Britain predate post-war migration. There are parallel efforts by Sikhs in Canada and Australia to commemorate Sikh soldiers who served in the dominion forces during the First World War. Of course, with current British political debates about identity and migration the record of Sikhs in the British Indian Army also becomes an important example of historic diversity.

For the completion of the task pupils will need access to resources already used in previous lessons such as Lesson 5: Resource R, which contains Sikh soldiers’ letters passed through the British censor during the First World War.

The task will probably be most effective using electronic presentation and groups could be organised to ensure that pupils able in design are spread among different groups. In the same way particular commissions could be slanted towards groups of particular ability – the Government of India group is probably the most difficult and could be given to more able pupils.

Note: the task could also be completed as a homework.

ONCE complete copies of the panels can be distributed for different groups to read, a class discussion could be held where different pupils suggest what point of view seems to be represented by the use of particular wording or phrases in different panels. Pupils can suggest what kind of group might have produced particular panels before the actual identity of the client is revealed.

LASTLY show this video clip which shows Indian Prime Minister Modi presenting a replica of the Sepoy Mohan Singh Trophy, showing the Sikh soldier preparing to throw a grenade during the First World War, to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott during a visit in 2014.

LEAD a discussion as to Modi’s possible motivation in giving the trophy.

DISPLAY Resource V: Slide 13 which shows the original silver trophy in detail and explain the following:

  • It was created by British officers of a Sikh Indian regiment of the British Indian Army (14th King George’s Own Ferozepore Sikhs), which took part in a battle of the Gallipoli campaign against Turkish forces. (Note: Turkey was an ally of Germany.)
  • The Sikh regiment in the modern Indian Army still treasures a copy of the trophy today.
  • Modi chose the trophy as a symbol of Indian soldiers who fought alongside Australian soldiers against Turkish forces at Gallipoli in 1915.
  • The trophy will be placed on display in the Australian War Memorial – a national museum commemorating Australia’s involvement in past wars.
  • The Indian and Australian governments have agreed to co-operate in the way they commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.