The Official History Of Indian Armed Forces In The Second World War 1939-45, put together by the History Division of Ministry of Defence in eight volumes, reprinted by Pentagon Press, and released at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) on October 30, 2012, is a pleasant surprise and quite welcome. This work deserves to be read widely by both civilians and scholars, historians of allied nations. For Indians, all the more so now, when values have degenerated to a low and corruption has almost got institutionalised. This war was a major factor which hastened India’s independence. While it has never been acknowledged officially, the fact remains that after World War-II, it was the Naval mutiny and the great strength of the very professional Indian Army, which convinced the British to make a safe exit. Most of the Indian regiments and descendants of those Indian soldiers who participated in World War-II — apart from the those who were transferred to form the Pakistan army on partition — have constantly and repeatedly ensured India’s integrity, amply disproving unfounded doubts nursed by some of India’s founding political leaders. Indian Army’s strength at the beginning of World War-II, was about 200,000 men.
By the end of the war in August 1945, it had become the largest volunteer army in history, rising to over 2.5 million men. Serving in formations infantry, armour and a fledgling airborne force, they fought on three continents, Africa, Europe and Asia. In Ethiopia, Indian Army fought against the Italian Army, in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, against both the Italian and German Army, and after the Italian surrender, against the German Army in Italy. However, the bulk of the Indian Army was committed to fighting the Japanese Army, first during the British defeats in Malaya and the retreat from Burma to the Indian border; later, after resting and refitting for the victorious advance back into Burma, as part of the largest British Empire army ever formed. These campaigns cost the lives of over 36,000 Indian servicemen, while another 34,354 were wounded, and 67,340 became prisoners of war. In March 1944, Japan initiated an offensive into India and advanced as far as Kohima in Nagaland. The Japanese advance in Southeast Asia reached its farthest point and was halted in pitched battles fought on the territory of India itself — at Kohima and Imphal. The British appreciated the valour of Indian soldiers during the World War-II with the award of some 4,000 decorations, 28 Indian personnel were awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), while 8 were awarded the George Cross (GC).
Victoria Cross is the highest award for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy for Commonwealth armed forces, while George Cross is the highest gallantry award for civilians as well as for military personnel for actions not against the enemy. Originally awarded only to living personnel, posthumous awards were allowed from 1905. Another rule of this award being only for whites was broken in World War-I, when the British had to accept and acknowledge the bravery of Indian soldiers. With Sepoy Khudadad Khan becoming the first Indian to be awarded the VC, the floodgate was opened and eleven more awarded the same in that war. Welcoming Lt Gen JFR Jacob, who released the books and Lt Gen Satish Nambiar Lt Gen YM Bammi, Brig Rahul Bhosle, Col PK Gautam, Dr UP Thaplial (former head of MoD’s History Division) and Sqn Ldr RTS Chinna, who spoke in a panel discussion, DG, IDSA and other dignitaries, Dr Arvind Gupta appreciated the value of such a work for research scholars and praised Pentagon Press for the quality of reprinted volumes. After releasing the books, Lt Gen Jacob related anecdotes before the panel discussion, which, chaired by Lt General Satish Nambiar, dwelt on some of the important operations. The panelists commended the efforts of the publisher in bringing out the eight volumes and expressed that as a rising power, India should create awareness about the tremendous role the Indian army played in the victory of the allied forces.
Lt Gen Nambiar asserted that the contribution of Indian Armed forces during the Second World War has largely gone unnoticed and that the confusion among the ranks of the nationalist movement leaders on the issue of India’s participation in the war resulted in poor negotiation when it came to distribution of spoils of war, following Indian soldiers’ professionalism, loyalty and exceptional courage. The titles of the series are India and the War, East African Campaign 1940- 41, North African Campaign, Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation 1939-45, Campaigns in South-East Asia 1941-42, The Arakan Operation 1942-45, Campaign in Western Asia and Post-War Occupation Forces: Japan and South-East Asia. While British officers in Indian regiments, by and large swore by Indian troops, like General Sir Claude Auchinleck — a multi-linguist in Indian languages — there were those like the pompous, publicity-crazy Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, “1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein”, who certainly did not like Indians. No wonder Montgomery was a favourite of then rabidly anti-Indian British premier Winston Churchill, who reportedly opined: “Indians are a beastly people with a beastly religion”. However, in 1995, when Allied countries celebrated the 50th anniversary of their victory, UK invited Indian VC awardees to attend the ceremonies and then prime minister John Major hiked their pensions to 100 pounds sterling but by that time there were very few still alive.
In October this year, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that 50 million pounds would be spent by this government to observe the centenary of the start of World War-I in August 2014. It is a fact of history that the “Indian” Army was the second largest component of the Allied forces. Indians arrived in Europe to join the war within a month of the outbreak of hostilities and more Indians died in World War-I (69,000) than in any other conflict in the 20th Century. According to Udayan Namboodiri, senior editor, The Pioneer, “If satisfying history professionals is the objective of the government, isn’t it ironic that the contribution of India in World War I is still to be studied in only western publications? It turns out that the Historical Division of MoD had transferred all papers relating to the “Great War” to the National Archives a long time back. But no structured effort has ever been made to present the history of this great conflict before the people of India. India’s historians have failed their people by failing to weave World War I into the nation’s story. With less than two years to go before the centenary, it’s time somebody took that initiative.
But, isn’t the National Archives the place where important records go to vanish?” Immediately after Independence, Indian Army was drastically downsized to less than half of what it was then — about 11,00,000 today — and officers’ salaries were slashed. And forget about acknowledging Indian Army’s World War II role, even giving due acknowledgement of its role in defending the country in numerous conflicts after Independence by way of timely increases in salaries, not only were Armed Forces Chiefs pushed far down in the order of precedence over the years, the recent anomaly in the grant of Non Functional Upgradation of pay to Defence Forces has caused serious command and control and functional problems, severely impacting progress of infrastructure development in border areas and social infrastructure in the hinterland.
—The author is an independent defence and security analyst, is Editor, Word Sword Features