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.
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.
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.
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.
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!