A Muslim GP in Nottingham of 22 years tells Gurjeet Nanrah how ethnic minorities have not received deserved recognition for taking part in the Great War.
Entering the living room of this established member of Nottingham’s medical, Islamic and World War- interested communities, my gaze was immediately drawn to the memorabilia and museum items laid on his dining table.
A 1918 Lee Enfield 303 rifle, a disarmed 4.5-inch Howitzer Shell and a 100-year-old surgical kit are among the items presented on display, decorated with poppies. Dr Irfan Malik’s passion for military history is clear.
It is an emotional interest for him fuelled by his ancestral home, Dulmial, which has escaped the memory of most when reflecting on the horrors of the Great War.
He is also actively pursued ways to improve how integrated his community is today.
But thanks to his work, Dulmial has received more attention this year due to the documented history of the village providing 460 men, every able-bodied man, to fight in the Great War.
Dr Malik says: “This made it the highest contributor of men from any South-Asian village at the time.”
For him, researching into undivided India’s contribution has been “incredibly emotional” with it uncovering the memory of two of his great-grandfathers, both from the village serving in the 33rd Punjab Regiment.Soldiers from Dulmial pictured here in 1925. Middle, bottom row: Dr Malik’s great grand-father, Captain Ghulam Mohammad. Second row, second from the right: Dr Malik’s other great-grandfather, Subedar Mohammad Khan.
The Nottingham based doctor’s research has been aided by social media. “About four years ago I started using Facebook and Twitter to link me with some historians. When I sent them the pictures I had, they gave me some information about when they were taken. The names of people in the pictures, as well as a date and venue for them.”
Irfan’s research was produced with help from The Centre for Hidden Histories at University of Nottingham.
Mike Noble, from the Centre, said in a statement: “Dr Malik was one of our first community partners with whom we made contact. We were fascinated by his story of Dulmial and were delighted to be able to help him bring attention to this largely unknown story from the war.”
A spokesperson for the Royal British Legion said: “As part of the ‘Thank You’ movement, the Legion produced a limited run of Khadi poppies to recognize and acknowledge the contribution of approximately 1.4 million men from pre-partition India who fought alongside Britain in the First World War. “
The links between the British and Dulmial run deeper than the Great War. Dr Malik has uncovered through letters how all Dulmial’s soldiers “could read and write English”, at a time when most were illiterate in Punjab. This education came from a school run by Christian monks in a neighbouring village, which is still operational to this day. “They were definitely educated and seen as more beneficial to the British Army at that time.
“The letters showed how not just as the time of the First World War, but also at the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 soldiers from this village supported the British.”
Travelling across the country, delivering talks and lectures, Dr Malik has attempted to tell others of Dulmial’s unwavering loyalty to the British. His intention on making the courage of Muslim soldiers in the First World War known links to his intrigue with promoting inter-faith ideals.
Dr Malik’s knowledge concerning racial integration is shaped by the experiences of his youth.
He says: “In the seventies there was a lot of racism and not many as many minority families. There was a right-wing element at that time that could be quite dangerous and violent, meaning we were always on the defensive.”
He explains: “The first generation that came over in the Sixties could not right these wrongs because they had to support their newly settled families doing manual labour jobs usually, despite often being educated back in undivided India.
“We as a community could not respond by highlighting the history of both World Wars, that our fathers and grandfathers fought alongside theirs. At time we were not empowered with this knowledge to give that response of our shared history.”
Dr Malik’s recent work is an example of how he himself is seeking to break the impasse of divided memory. He carries this through with his work with Nottingham’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The GP sees the Baitul Hafeez Mosque as his “base” and acts as its vice-president, considering the mosque “a wonderful venue for communal events and engaging with the local communities too.”
The community’s work is unique in how it is actively pursuing inter-faith ideals, showing their integration in British society. Dr Malik adds: “we have a lovely interfaith room upstairs, where we’ve held various charity functions and events. The mosque represents a huge part of my life and gives me a lot of pride.”
Despite this engagement, Dr Malik did not shy away from explaining some criticisms for his research from fellow South-Asians. He says: “I have been accused of speaking about slave soldiers who were forced to fight this war for Britain and not paid very well.
“There are diverse opinions on history, and there are undoubtedly both positives and negatives. I’m just making people aware of the whole story at this time.”
Suggesting how we could improve this, he adds: “This shared history was not evident in the education curriculum forty, fifty years ago and even today it is not taught in a lot of places. There is very little mention of the commonwealth history or mentions of the inclusive army.”
It’s clear that improved community cohesion and understanding comes from education and interaction. Dr Malik is an advocate of both, shown in his work. With more initiatives like this, he hopes Britons can move forward together in their journey of greater harmony and a shared memory of the past.