Remembering Newham’s Asian soldiers
10:22 20 January 2016
Spies fighting the Nazis in occupied France, pilots defending the homeland against invading bombers, seamen transporting essential supplies across the globe – these are just three roles performed by the sons and daughters of South Asia during the First and Second World Wars.
But their contribution, though undoubtedly crucial, has not always received the recognition it deserves – and, extraordinarily, especially from the British Asian community.
So, at least, says one devoted Newham man, whose passion has pushed him to organise an exhibition on the subject – Asian Contribution to Great Britain in the World Wars and in Peace.
Asif Shakoor, who lives in Manor Park, believes knowledge of these fallen heroes is slipping away – and much to the detriment of our understanding of modern Britain.
“There are great people like Mohinder Singh Pujji, who came from India to fight in the RAF as a squadron leader,” Asif says.
“He is loved all across the country – there is a statue of him in Gravesend – and he lived in East Ham for many years.”
The Sikh from Simla won a Distinguished Flying Cross – and even became a Freeman of the Borough of Newham in 2000.
He spoke glowingly of the country he was willing to die for – and in 2009 said the BNP were wrong to use Spitfires in promotional literature because it ignored the contribution of people like him.
“A lot of this is about encouraging a sense of belonging in British Asian communities,” Asif says.
“I want to present a different image, to talk about the sacrifices our elders made for this country, to generate a sense of pride in our armed forces.”
For Asif, the subject unexpectedly turned out to be a personal one.
“I never met my grandfather, who spent most of his life in Kashmir and died in 1966,” Asif says.
“But when my grandmother died, I went to their home.
“There was an old wooden chest there that she never let anyone touch. When I looked inside, there were documents from the Ministry of Social Security – she had been claiming his pension from the Merchant Navy.
“Nobody had even known he had served Britain.”
Asif explains that his grandfather, Muhammad Ghulam Mohd (alias Ghama), joined up at the age of 16, served in the First World War, settled in Smethwick (near Birmingham) and then dropped his son off in Newham before going to Kashmir and dying the following year.
“I am very proud of him,” he says. “He won two medals – and it is a mission of mine to find them.”
Asif believes a similar recognition in the Britain Asian community – especially among Muslims – would be very beneficial.
“Noor Inayat Khan was a Muslim spy who died fighting to save France from the Nazis,” Asif explains.
“After what happened in Paris, that is an immediate rebuttal of what the likes of Isis claim.
“There is a better tradition available to us – one of loyalty to Britain – and that is especially important when young people are being led down the wrong path.”