Hardit Singh Malik and Oxford University

By Dr Priya Atwal

As a British-born Sikh who read History at the University of Oxford, the story of Hardit Singh Malik is one that captured my interest and admiration since first learning about it.

Hardit Singh Malik in uniform of  Flying Corps. c.1916
Hardit Singh Malik in uniform of Flying Corps. circa 1916 © Courtesy of Peter Bance Collection

First in the family to go to university

Hardit was, like me, the first in his immediate family to go to university in Britain. His family, also like mine, hailed from Punjab - a region that is today split between India and Pakistan. As a university student in the 1910s, Hardit chose to specialise in Modern History, under the guidance of his supportive tutor, Francis Fortesque Urquhart, at Balliol College.

A photo of Priya Atwal at her DPhil graduation ceremony, taken at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University (March 2018)
A photo of Priya Atwal at her DPhil graduation ceremony, taken at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford University (March 2018) © Suki Kaur Atwal (Priya's mother - from a family photo collection)

I began my university career as a History undergraduate at Oriel College in 2008, and have since studied for a doctorate and gone on to work at Oxford: both as a researcher in History, and as a coordinator for the University's educational outreach activities, which aim to engage young people from ethnic minority communities more effectively with the opportunities that higher education can provide.

Photo of Oriel College
Photo of Oriel College, where Priya studied for her History undergraduate and masters’ degrees (2008-12) © Priya Atwal

Hardit's battle to become a fighter pilot

Hardit Singh Malik was busy enjoying his studies at Oxford and even breaking on to the national cricket scene (being snapped up by Sussex) when the First World War broke out. This major global event would change his life and afforded him the opportunity to become a record-breaker in British and South Asian military history, through his struggle to become a fighter pilot in the British airforce - the first Indian ever to do so. It is clear that the idea of flying planes strongly captured the young student's imagination, as Hardit was keen to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) straight after graduating in 1915, apparently bypassing the alternative of signing up for an Indian army unit - several of which would fight alongside the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry during the war years.

Overcoming suspicion and prejudice

Hardit's attempts to join the airforce were rebuffed until 1917 however, due to the entrenched racial prejudice of the British military establishment against the idea of Indians having charge of warplanes. Indian students were also viewed with great suspicion by the British government in the early decades of the 20th century; indeed, two of Hardit's predecessors at Oxford, Shyamji Krishnavarma (Balliol College) and Lala Hardayal (St John's College), would go on to become pioneers of the Ghadar Party, a major revolutionary network that aspired to overthrow British imperialism.

Distinguished career

It was only after learning the embarrassing fact that the French had accepted Hardit as a pilot that the RFC changed their minds. Hardit's flying career was short-lived but distinguished. He survived the war and went on to become a leading diplomat for independent India - occasionally returning to Oxford to play cricket!

A group of soldiers pose for a photo seated and standing in two rows either side of a large teapot sign with wording "Teapot Garden"
141 Squadron © E F Haselden (who took the photo and served with Hardit Singh Malik as a pilot in 141 Squadron, Biggin Hill)
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