THE army is looking at plans for a new Sikh regiment that could “bring communities together” and make the military “much more representative of the population”, according to Paul Uppal MP, who proposed the idea.
The new unit, which the head of the British Army is looking into, would have a “Sikh ethos”, Uppal, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, and whose great-grandfather fought in the First World War, told Eastern Eye.
Recruitment from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the armed forces has been improving, but was nowhere near where it needed to be, MPs heard during a debate on the issue in the House of Commons on Monday (23).
The proposal also includes the possibility of a reserve company and wouldn’t necessarily be made up of only Sikh soldiers, Uppal said. He added that he and Rory Stewart, chairman of the defence select committee, had written a letter to Mark Francois, the armed forces minister, and Julian Brazier, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Defence (MoD), suggesting the move.
“It could have a Sikh ethos. As a principle, it is a positive thing, it is open to everybody. The whole essence of Sikhism is to be open to everybody. It’s about being a better human being,” Uppal said.
“Regiments celebrate your history. They are a good pointer for the future in terms of how you can actually engage with communities in a positive way and bring them together in a sense of Britishness that’s still recognising their own unique historical past,” he added.
“This can be a real positive step in helping people understand what the Sikh philosophy is about. It can bring communities together and make the British army much more representative of the general British population,” Uppal said.
More than 138,000 Indian troops, among them Sikhs, fought in the First World War in the British army. A total of 10 Victoria Crosses were won by soldiers in Sikh regiments in both world wars. A previous bid to create a special Sikh unit was shelved in 2007 by the MoD amid fears that the move would be branded ‘racist’.
Harbakhsh Grewal, from the UK Punjab Heritage Association, which recently created an exhibition showcasing the contribution of Sikh soldiers during the First World War, said he had mixed feelings about the proposal.
“The fact that this has been raised as an issue so close to an election is interesting. Although I can see the merits of raising a Sikh regiment, the feasibility is questionable. It may well be considered divisive and lead to calls for similar regiments for other communities. There is also the issue of whether Sikhs with cut hair would be permitted, and if so, would they have to wear turbans or not?”
However, Uppal said: “Some people will see it as divisive, some will see it as unifying. When you look at the Gurkhas, you look at the Welsh regiment, you look at the Highlanders – all other regiments – are they divisive? I don’t think they are. Of course, you would fight under the flag and have allegiance to the Queen first and foremost, but it would also send out a positive message about being involved in the army and a sense of Britishness,” he added.
Former defence minister Nicholas Soames told MPs during the debate in the Commons that Sikhs had served the country with “extraordinary gallant and distinguished service”.
He asked ministers whether it was not “high time to do away with the political correctness that infects some of this thinking and raise a Sikh regiment to serve in the country and make up a very serious gap in our armed forces.”
Armed forces minister Francois replied: “With regard to your specific suggestion, can I say you are one of a number of members of parliament who have raised this suggestion with me recently. We have passed this possibility on to the chief of the general staff (CGS), who is now looking at this issue and we are awaiting CGS’s comments back. But the idea may well have merit.”
Stewart, who joined Uppal in calling for the move in their joint letter, asked the minister if he would consider the notion of a Sikh company within the reserves as a starting point. “There seems to be much more possibility within the reserves to begin what seems like an excellent idea,” Stewart said.
Francois said he was considering the possibility of a reserve company that would inherit “many of the proud traditions of Sikh regiments in the British Army going back many years”.
There are currently 160 Sikhs in the armed forces, including 130 in the army. The figure is much higher for Hindu armed forces personnel, with 880 people are serving, while 600 Muslims are also part of the service.
“This is a positive thing going forward for the future. There’s a momentum and a movement for this to happen,” said Uppal.
Chief of general staff, General Sir Nick Carter said: “My highest priority is ensuring we continue to have the best possible talent throughout our army. This requires us to draw talent from all of the society we represent. Our recruitment from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities has been improving over the years, but it is nowhere near where it needs to be. We have to do more.”