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Relatives of black and Asian war dead call for change to national curriculum

Edd Dracott, PA
·4-min read

The descendants of black and Asian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire have called for more to be done to put right failures to commemorate their sacrifice – including a change to the national curriculum.

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered “an unreserved apology” after a new investigation found “pervasive racism” underpinned the failure by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to formally remember potentially hundreds of thousands of non-white individuals.

Chisomo Kalinga said two of her ancestors died during the Second World War as part of the King’s African Rifles in Central Africa and the CWGC report should be “just the start”.

The 39-year-old, a Malawian-born researcher in health humanities and social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, said letters of recognition should be offered along with access to information that could help them find their lost ancestors.

Chisomo Kalinga said the CWGC report should be ‘just the start’ (Chisomo Kalinga/PA)
Chisomo Kalinga said the CWGC report should be ‘just the start’ (Chisomo Kalinga/PA)

Maclear Malemia, Ms Kalinga’s great-grandfather, was shot and killed by an Italian sniper but was mistaken for a Burundian soldier and it is believed may have been buried in a mass grave.

His brother-in-law Pastor Clement Malemia, an army Chaplain, died in Kenya after an illness but his body was also not returned to Malawi and instead interred in a marked Kenyan Commonwealth grave.

“Their deaths obviously marked a formative moment in my grandmother, Ethel Malemia, now 85, who lost her father and her uncle within a short span in her childhood,” Ms Kalinga told PA.

“It has always haunted her.

“She has never had a sense of closure… she speaks often that she will never know what happened to her father or where he is.”

Ethel Malemia, Chisomo Kawinga’s grandmother, who is said to be ‘haunted’ by questions of what happened to her father (Chisomo Kawinga/PA)
Ethel Malemia, Chisomo Kawinga’s grandmother, who is said to be ‘haunted’ by questions of what happened to her father (Chisomo Kawinga/PA)

Ms Kalinga said she is happy with the CWGC report but “more needs to be done”, noting that no medals were conferred for her relatives’ service.

“The fact that we are still trying to trace the location of (my great grandfather’s) grave after 76 years is tragic,” she said.

“We deserve more than a blanket apology but access to our histories and engagement with Malawian archive record keepers so that the families of the King’s African Rifles soldiers can have local access to piece together the final days of their relatives.

“The racism went beyond not recognising their contributions to service to the Empire.

“It was so pervasive that family members were never adequately told what happened to their lost ones.

“I’m happy that this news has emerged but it should be the beginning of restorative justice for our departed ancestors.

“This is just the start.”

Raj Pal, from Birmingham, who moved to Britain from Punjab, India aged 17, said his grandfather, Bulaka Singh, and great uncle fought and returned alive from the Western Front in the First World War, but amongst “countless kin” who fought, some of his relatives died.

Raj Pal’s grandfather, Bulaka Singh, who fought on the western front (Raj Pal/PA)
Raj Pal’s grandfather, Bulaka Singh, who fought on the western front (Raj Pal/PA)

His uncles fought in the Mediterranean during the Second World War and elsewhere, with his father’s eldest brother, Tarlok Singh, reaching the rank of captain fighting in the Burma campaign.

“The fact of black and Asian soldiers of both world wars not being adequately recognised… is news only to broader society.

“Most of us descendants have known that all along,” the 63-year-old independent historian told the PA news agency.

“I remember the distress I felt when I first went to Belgium four years ago when, telling my son where his great grandfather and great uncle had fought a century earlier, I could not point to any physical markers of that presence.

“The thing to do now is to put that right, commemorate that sacrifice and above all, make sure a truer account of the two world wars with the vital contribution of hundreds of thousands of black and Asian soldiers… is now taught to our children as part of a revised national curriculum.”

Raj Pal said the national curriculum should be changed to help black and Asian soldiers’ contributions to be recognised (Raj Pal/PA)
Raj Pal said the national curriculum should be changed to help black and Asian soldiers’ contributions to be recognised (Raj Pal/PA)

Mr Pal said he feels the CWGC was oblivious to its failures not to commemorate non-white soldiers “not because it was being overly racist” but due to a lack of diversity.

“The sort of diversity in staffing that may have given it insights through education, culture, family history, lived experience and above all different ways of seeing,” he said.