‘The khadi poppy can help build a better future’
WHEN THERESA May promised last week to wear a special poppy to recognise the sacrifice of the 1.5m south Asian volunteers who served in the British Army in the First World War, it felt like a significant moment in addressing what Conservative rising star Tom Tugendhat calls a “lack of understanding” about the role played by the Commonwealth.
The khadi poppy, made from and named after the type of cotton popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, commemorates the role played by the 1.5m Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men who volunteered with the Indian Expeditionary Force in the war.
These were men under colonial rule which was at times brutal, but still volunteering to fight in the largest British Empire Armed Force outside the British Army itself – in a group awarded more than 13,000 medals for gallantry including 11 Victoria Crosses.
The Royal British Legion itself seems to acknowledge that this was a contribution that can often be overlooked, stressing that its khadi poppy campaign will help the country together “ensure that Remembrance is understood and available to all”.
But Mr Tugendhat, who is this weekend in India to lay a wreath at the Commonwealth War Graves, totally rejects the idea that Commonwealth soldiers have been “whitewashed” from history, as suggested recently by the Jeremy Corbyn-backing Momentum campaign group.
Instead, the former Army officer, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, says there are complex reasons the role of Commonwealth soldiers can sometimes be discussed less.
“There are many reasons and some of them are UK reasons – it was a major moment of national trauma and we came through it and there’s very much a feeling of that strength,” he says.
“And then immediately there was a period of independence for countries such as India and Pakistan which of course changed the tone here, but also changed the tone there.
“It’s clear it’s taken a lot of people a lot of time to accept their own role and the fact that their grandparents were volunteers.
“For a lot of people it’s a realisation the world is a different place today and we can talk about it in a different way.”
Mr Tugendhat, who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, sees the khadi poppy as an opportunity to both “reset” Britain’s relationship with south Asia in a post-Brexit world where Commonwealth links will matter more, and bridge divides between communities at home.
“The poppy matters more in a funny way than it initially appears – it looks the same, it almost feels the same as paper – but it’s that echo of a relationship that reminds us of the past and I hope can build on a future.
“The whole point of remembering the dead, certainly for those of us who served, is not to dwell on the past but to think of the future – why did we fight?
“And it wasn’t for the glory of the moment, it was there to build a better future and so for me the khadi poppy is all about that.”
Part of that future could be to boost integration at home by making clear the shared, “proud”, and “absolutely equal” history of people living in the UK.
He says: “How many young Muslim men in the UK today know how many Muslim soldiers, either in the Indian Army or in other armies, won medals of courage serving alongside British forces?
“The Muslims who are in the British Army today serve as part