As the centenary year of ANZAC Day draws near, two Sikhs are spearheading efforts to raise awareness about the role the community played in Australian war history
With ISIS terrorism and Jihadi recruitment making headlines near daily, Australia’s turban-wearing Sikh community is finding itself the target of misinformed racism more than ever.
But now Sikh groups have spotted a once-in-a-century opportunity to spread the message that they are very much “part of team Australia”. That is 25 April, Anzac Day – which this year marks the 100-year anniversary of Australian and New Zealand diggers landing on Gallipoli beach during World War I.
What most people don’t know about that brutal day – which has come to be a prominent symbol of Australia’s national identity – is that among the slouch hats battling on the sand were 16 turbaned bearded Sikhs, who came from Australia.
Harjit Singh and Amar Singh are spearheading efforts to raise awareness about the role Sikhs played in Australian war history during centenary commemorations this month.
Honouring Australia’s Sikh soldiers
Harjit, from Turbans and Trust and Australian Sikh Heritage Association, told the Indian Sun he is gearing up to march through the streets of Perth in the Anzac Day Parade, “dressed up in WWI gear, to represent two of the Perth Sikhs that enlisted”.
Australian Sikh Heritage Association is also running a social media campaign throughout the month, highlighting the long forgotten stories of the 16 Sikh soldiers, with moving photographs most Australians have never seen.
The Anzac Day campaign will be the biggest Harjit has undertaken. “Being 100 years, we believe we’ve got a picture that will wow people,” he said. “A picture of a turban wearing Sikh soldier that went from Australia 100 years ago and fought.”
Meanwhile, Amar is flat out getting ready to take part in the Camp Gallipoli event in Centennial Park, Sydney with his group Turbans4Australia. A social media call out to Sikhs across the country is expected to see hundreds join camps in Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth and Auckland too – and their presence in Sydney is especially unlikely to go unnoticed, with Amar bringing a renowned Sikh bagpipe band from Malaysia, the Sri Dasmesh Band, to drive the message home.
Amar told the Indian Sun Turbans4Australia’s participation in the historic camp came through the group’s efforts to tackle racism with charity. “Initially the idea was to do a fundraiser for Soldier On,” which supports returned forces wounded in battle, Amar said.
”When I spoke to them and told them about the discrimination and racial intolerance we were facing, the CEO of Camp Gallipoli [Christopher Fox] rang me and said, ‘You guys are our war allies!” Amar recalled. “You should use this stage to send out the message that our forefathers, they ate together, they slept together, and they died together protecting our country.”
Terrorism fuelling racism
Recent terror attacks in the West, like the January shooting of Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, and the war against ISIS are fuelling racism towards Sikhs, according to Amar and Harjit.
“[People] think that everyone who has a beard and wears a turban is related to ISIS or Taliban or one of the extremist terrorist groups,” Amar said. “Somebody will either stare you down, or they’ll call you a terrorist.”
“In WA I probably get somebody who abuses me every fortnight walking down the street,” Harjit said. “And that increases every time there is an incident around the world.”
They believe that when politicians talk about terrorism, they need to ensure they don’t stir fear and racism.
“Every time they come out with, you know, there’s a problem with ISIS, there’s Jihadi recruiters, there’s Jihadi people in Australia, they need to be reaffirming that Australia’s a multicultural society,” Harjit said. “The foundations of Australia were built on a multicultural Australia, we can’t deny that, and we’re stronger through diversity.”
Amar warned that irresponsible political messages and media reporting of terrorism are, “putting us at risk, literally”.
Amar and Harjit are tackling negative messages and misinformation about Sikhs head on themselves with innovative new campaigns.
Harjit made news headlines for his groundbreaking Turbans for Trust campaign to demystify the turban by inviting Australians of all backgrounds to try it on for size. Since 2012, he’s been tying turbans on people at schools and community events to, “start a conversation about difference”. “The message I’m trying to get out there is that the turban is actually as Australian as an akubra and possibly have been in Australia longer than the akubra,” he said.
Meanwhile, Amar founded Turbans4Australia to spread the charitable side of Sikhism to the wider Australian population. “We want to educate people that we’re just as Australian [as them], we call this our home, and we want to contribute positively to this country,” he told the Indian Sun. This has seen him doing everything from fundraising for drought-affected farmers and sending emergency supplies to cyclone Marcia victims in Queensland in February.
Now the centenary Anzac commemorations are set to send the message that Sikhs are just as Australian as everyone else to more Australians than ever.
“By us being there it’s going to raise a lot of questions in people’s minds,” Amar explained. “Normally when they see us with a turban and a beard they think that we don’t belong here. So when they see us at that event, and they find out that we actually were part of the event, I think that’s going to change their whole perspective.”
“We want to pay respects to our forefathers and also give out the message that they were there at the time,” Harjit said. And he’s positive the message is getting through. “I think were at the cusp, it’s only going to get better from here because initiatives like Turbans4Australia, Turbans and Trust and many other groups are coming out to be more actively involved in Australian society,” Harjit said. “It’s only like that when we are visible that we will be able to together create change in Australian mindsets.”