Forgotten in India after fighting from world trenches

It is time to honor India’s immense contribution to the world wars and move it from a footnote in history to the main stage

It is time to honor India’s immense contribution to the world wars and move it from a footnote in history to the main stage

On the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent over Europe, bringing an end to a brutal war that drew in soldiers and contributions from around the world. Indian blood was spilled in Europe, as it was in Africa, West Asia and Asia. The memory of the almost 10 million battlefield deaths in the First World War and the 15 million or more who were killed fighting the Second World War is now honored in countries around the world on November 11, with nation-wide silences and the laying of wreaths . Not so much in India — apart from in Army cantonments and at the British Consulate in Kolkata — even though over 1,61,000 men made the ultimate sacrifice for India’s freedom.

Seventy-five years after Independence, it is time to honor India’s immense contribution to the world wars and move it from a footnote in another country’s history to the main stage, where it belongs. These were India’s wars too.

Two conflicts and a reticence

Indian reticence over these two conflicts arises from the uneasy relationship between the Indian contribution to fighting fascism on a global stage and the nationalist movement for freedom at home. The success of the first is seen to have come at the cost of the second. It began with the betrayal of nationalist expectations of greater autonomy for India in return for support during the Great War. This was compounded by the bitterness of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declaring war on Germany on India’s behalf in 1939 without consulting Indian leaders, and further roiled by the pitting of Indian against Indian when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army sided with the Axis Powers in the hope that this might bring freedom. But the failure of Indian independence to follow automatically from India’s participation in the wars does not mean that the war efforts extended colonial rule, or were all about protecting Britain: there was fighting on Indian soil to defend India. Yet, the prevailing impression remains that of wars fought for somebody else, somewhere else; consequently, India’s valuable contribution has been written out of its history books.

India’s pivotal role

Almost 1.5 million men volunteered to fight in the Great War. Indians mobilized four days after Britain declared war on Germany, with the support of nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi. Indians fought with valor and distinction in the trenches of Europe, West Asia and North Africa, earning 11 Victoria Crosses along the way. Of those men, about 74,000 never came home. India raised the largest ever volunteer army, of 2.5 million, for the Second World War. More than 87,000 of those men are cremated or buried in war cemeteries around the world and in India. Thirty-one Victoria Crosses — 15% of the total — went to soldiers from undivided India. Without Indian soldiers, non-combatant labourers, material and money, the course of both conflicts would have been very different as acknowledged by Field Marshal Auchinleck, Britain’s last Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, in an interview years later.

And yet, there is no recognition within India of this history. In Britain, the contribution of the Commonwealth — including the Indian subcontinent — is memorialized in the Commonwealth Memorial Gates that lead up to Buckingham Palace. The Gates commemorate the campaigns where Commonwealth soldiers served with distinction; there is also a canopy inscribed with the names of the Commonwealth recipients of the George and Victoria Crosses. Much of India’s recent history is encapsulated in these gates, in a spirit of gratitude and equality. Britain, after all, has much to be grateful for, but Indians seem less keen to acknowledge this.

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Some of this ambivalence owes itself to the atrocities of colonial history, which must be acknowledged too. Britain may have handed out 11 VCs over the course of the First World War, but it betrayed the hopes of nationalists with the imposition of martial law after the war ended, culminating in the horror of Jallianwalla Bagh in April 1919. British perfidy, however, does not in any way reduce the sacrifices of those who fought for freedom. Those who went abroad to fight alongside white British soldiers returned with the knowledge that they were equal to their colonial masters. In not recognizing and honoring this, we push those men back into colonial subjugation.

Battles looking east

And these were not just European wars to defend foreign lands. India was threatened in the Second World War by advancing Japanese forces who got as far as Burma/Myanmar. They were repulsed in the battles of Imphal and Kohima between March and July 1944. These were brutal battles. In Kohima, the two sides were at one point separated by the width of a tennis court. A Commonwealth cemetery on Garrison Hill, Kohima, contains this epitaph (by John Maxwell Edmonds): ‘When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us, and Say/For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today’.

Our today has been built on the sacrifice of many, including those who died fighting fascism. Let us remember and honor them.

Priyanjali Malik is a London-based commentator

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