‘The khadi poppy can help build a bet­ter fu­ture’

Yorkshire Post - - POLITICS INTERVIEW -

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

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