Tory MP Tom Tugendhat says the khadi poppy can bridge divides at home and internationally

Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat also called on the UK Government to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919.
Commons Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat also called on the UK Government to apologise for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919.
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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.

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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 like 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 of a proud tradition absolutely equal to everybody else -they have the same regimental history, they have the same grandparental history.”

He adds: “People talk about identity politics - I think identity matters, you need to know who you are to know what you’re trying to achieve to know where you fit in the world.”

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Mr Tugendhat says Britain, India and other Commonwealth nations need to remind each other that “we’re on each other’s side and we’ve got each other’s back” - but that the Government must apologise for past atrocities, and one in particular.

In April 1919, just months after the war in which so many from the Indian subcontinent fought and died, the British Army fired rifles into a crowd of Indians who were peacefully protesting the arrest and deportation of two national leaders in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab.

The Government estimated the attack left 379 civilians dead and 1,200 wounded but in India the figures were 1,000 killed and 1,500 injured.

Mr Tugendhat raised the issue with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt this week, who “did not say no” to an apology.

But he stresses it should not be seen in the UK through the prism of white Britons apologising to British Asians, pointing to his own Jewish and French background.

“The apology of the nation represents the legacy of the nation, not the individual community, it’s not a racial apology, it’s an apology of wrongs done over 200 years, epitomised in some really appalling moments like Jallianwala Bagh.

“Our relationship with India is complicated, it’s impossible to think about the relationship without thinking about Jallianwala Bagh and other massacres - there were some bad moments there, they are real.

“But there is also a depth to the relationship which means there is much more than just that - there’s the fact that the Indian community in the UK is not foreign, it’s British.”

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Foreign soldiers 'will fit in fine'

Tom Tugendhat says he has no concerns about plans announced this week to allow foreign nationals to join the British armed forces despite never having lived in the UK.

Commonwealth recruits currently need to have lived in the UK for five years before joining the services, but the residency requirement will be waived to boost recruitment.

Former Army officer Mr Tugendhat believes there will be no problems with security as all recruits undergo checks, and while some may drop out – that is common across the forces.

“We have a lot of (foreign) citizens in the armed forces so I’m not concerned at all that the majority will fit in extremely happily with no great issues at all,” he says.