Private Sarn Singh Johal & Private Nain Singh Sailani: two Indians who made ultimate sacrifice for Australia 100 years ago

By Ram Khatry, Sydney
24 June 2017

Earlier this month, nearly hundred members of the Indian Australian diaspora gathered at Canberra’s Australian War Memorial to remember two of their own. However, the gentlemen who were being remembered did not ride the high tide of information technology to arrive in Australia; they came here over a hundred years ago.

On June 10, Indian Australians gathered at the War Memorial to pay respect to Sarn Singh Johal and Nain Singh Sailani both of whom made the ultimate sacrifice for this country exactly a hundred years ago. According to Australian Indian Historical Society Inc, the two were the only Indians in the entire Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to have fallen on the Western Front during First World War.

Until they participated in the sombre ceremony that morning, some participants themselves might not have realised that Indians’ contribution to Australia began over a century ago.

Indian High Commissioner in Australia, Dr. A. M. Gondane, lays a wreath on June 10 while Dr Yadu Singh, President of Federation of Indian Associations of NSW, bows in honour of Privates Sarn Singh Johal and Nain Singh Sailani I Picture: Supplied

According to the Australian Indian Historical Society (AIHS), in May 1916 Sarn Singh Johal along with his friend John St Claire “Paddy” enlisted in the AIF at Adelaide while Nain Singh Sailani enlisted in Perth the following month. Sarn and John were transferred to the 43rd Battalion and Nain to the 44th. Following their recruitment, they embarked for England (separately) and then were sent to Belgium and France for duty.

Nain Singh Sailani, who was a Hindu of Gorkha Caste from Shimla, was killed in action on 1 June 1917. He was laid to rest at the Strand Military Cemetery in Ploegsteert, Belgium. Nain is commemorated on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial, Panel number 138. He was posthumously awarded the British War medal and Victory Medal, and the medals were later sent to his mother in India.

Sarn Singh, a Sikh from Jalandhar District in Punjab, was killed in action on the Messines Ridge in Belgium on 10 June 1917 and was buried there the same day. Sarn’s name has been commemorated at Belgium’s Ypres Menin Gate Memorial and on Panel number 137 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. He was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal which were sent to his widow back in India. Sarn’s estate was administered and sent to his widow who also received an Australia Army Pension.

During the ceremony on the morning of June 10, they were both honoured at the War Memorial with a Wreath Laying at the Last Post Ceremony by the the High Commissioner of India in Australia Dr. A. M. Gondane, ACT Attorney General Gordon Ramsay, Andrew Barr MLA, Alistair Coe MLA, ACT Leader of the Opposition Elizabeth Kikkert and historians Len Kenna and Crystal Jordan who represented the Australian Indian Historical Society Inc.

Dr Yadu Singh, president of the Federation of Indian Associations of NSW who had earlier teamed up with AIHS to organise the event, conducted the pre-Wreath Laying ceremony during which dignitaries and Len Kenna delivered speeches about the contribution of Indian Australians starting over a century ago, a press statement of the AIHS said.

About 100 prominent members of the Indian diaspora from Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne including Prof Deep Saini who is the Vice Chancellor of University of Canberra, Amardeep Singh from the Federation of Indian Associations of ACT, Sqn Ldr Vickram Grewal, Manmohan Singh Shergill (AIHS), Dr. Santokh Singh Ajula (AIHS), Jasbir Singh Gidda (Sikh Association of Canberra), Baljinder Singh Nanda and Ajay Kumar were also present during the Wreath Laying Ceremony.

Grand nephew of Sarn Singh Johal, Hartinder Singh Johal, was a well-noted presence during the ceremony.

“It was a matter of pride for not only those who attended this sombre ceremony but also to Indian Australians in general to know about this history and the contribution of soldiers from their heritage for Australia starting a century ago,” the Australian Indian Historical Scoeity Inc said.

Leaders of the Indian community organisation have praised the painstaking research works carried out by Len Kenna and Crystal Jordan. It is noteworthy that Crystal’s father was born in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, during the Raj. The couple have been researching Indians in Australia since 1985 and have six books to their credit. They aim to “reduce racism and to unite the whole Indian Community into the Australian Community”.

Website of the Australian Indian Historical Society can be a reliable source of information for anyone wishing to learn more of Indian community’s contribution to the making of modern Australia.

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