In this month of remembrance, Amber Khan recalls tales of her late grandfather, Noor Alam, who, although he did not have a white face and never fought in Europe, was typical of a class of soldier that helped Britain win the defining wars of the 20th century.
I never met my grandfather; he died before I was born. My dad seldom talks about him, but when he does, he talks about a military man who was shaped by his time fighting for the British Indian Army in World War II. Noor Alam was conscripted ostensibly at 16 years old, concealing his true age of 15 so that he could join the war effort. The army then trained him as a military sniper and he was posted in Malaysia to fight the Japanese in Southeast Asia.
He was captured by the Japanese and remained prisoner of war for two years. He and his fellow captives were forced to eat grass and dirt when food was made scarce. It was only at the end of the war, when the Japanese surrendered, that he was freed by allied forces. He returned to his village a decorated military soldier.
My grandfather’s story is one that has captured my imagination, my sense of pride and my dual heritage. It is a story seemingly unrelated to the white-washed version of history that I studied throughout school. It is a story that evokes an imagery of a hero that resonates with me personally. Most importantly, it serves as a reminder that remembrance is not something reserved solely for my white counterparts and peers, but is something that makes up part of my own history as well.
Every year we rightly remember and reflect upon the ultimate sacrifices and acts of bravery made by soldiers during the two world wars. However, among the many tributes to the soldiers that fought so courageously, I have struggled to see a space dedicated to remembering men like my grandfather.
Both the world wars may have originated in Europe, but they were defined by the global nature of the conflict, hence the names. The wars drew in people from countries across the world to fight on the western front and across the theatres of war in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Around 4 million Indian (including those from modern day Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh) soldiers of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu backgrounds, served in World Wars I and II, with reported deaths over the two conflicts estimated at 121,000.
In Africa, 3 million people were pulled into the efforts of the world wars, with a recorded death toll of 150,000.
To mark this Remembrance Sunday, David Lammy MP filmed a documentary titled ‘The Unremembered’ detailing his visit to Kenya and Tanzania to tell the story of the mass unmarked burial grounds for fallen African soldiers. It makes for harrowing, necessary watching. It also highlights an uncomfortable truth: that black and Asian soldiers were good enough to fight side by side with their European counterparts, but they were not good enough to rest side by side once they had made the ultimate sacrifice. There is a sense that these colonial attitudes of yesteryear linger on today, through the omission of the contributions of black and Asian soldiers.
We are living in a highly divisive time, where the Brexit crisis has deepened the fear, prejudice and social divisions within our society. This month of collective remembrance is the perfect time to reflect upon the important point that, in a time of global crisis, communities and countries were able to come together and fight alongside each other to defeat the dangerous ideology of Nazism.
The valiant actions and efforts of millions of black and Asian soldiers cannot be erased from the modern discourse, their actions simply forgotten or relegated to a footnote in history. It is up to us to ensure that we preserve their legacy for generations to come and that we regularly remember them.
I never met my grandfather, but I am grateful and proud of the sacrifices he, and millions like him, made to save me and you from catastrophe and destruction.
Amber Khan tweets here: @AmberKhan___