In this centenary year of the commencement of World War –I, there is a recognition across Europe, that they had allowed themselves to be caught up into “completely unjustifiable” world wars in the 20th century that had a profound impact on their people.
However, as far as I am aware, that Indian army’s regiments apart, no Indian politician or government representative has cared to recognize the contribution of the Indian soldiers, whose arrival at Ypres (in Belgium) in October 1914, saved the Allied front from crumbling before the German, and changed the course of the war. Many in India would prefer to remember freedom fighters in heroes like Bhagat Singh, who deserves his place in history. But so do the over one lakh Indian soldiers who were killed of wounded in those far away battlefields in that Great War.
India’s contribution however to the war was massive, and had apparently the support of Gandhi and Tilak. By one account, in the Sunday Express (August 17, 2014), a total of 14,40,437 were apparently recruited, and of which 13, 81,050 served abroad in theatres across Europe, the Arab world, Africa and even China. However, in all cases our soldiers acquitted themselves with distinction, earning several Victoria Crosses and many other awards for gallantry (9200 in all!). Estimates say that1,16,000 Indian soldiers died in the battlefield – sometimes due to incompetent British military leadership – and of diseases. Over 6,50,000 Indian soldiers were used for guarding British oil wells in Persia and Mesopotamia. Moreover, India bore the cost of its war effort to the tune of a 100 million pounds (which in today’s rate, would run into billions!). All of this for the promise that India would get a dominion status and home rule in return for its contribution.
The Indian soldier – volunteers all – fought in completely alien conditions of trench and tank warfare in cold weather, with blood and guts, sometimes for the King Emperor or their local ruler or simply for their honour. But without a fault, they left an indelible impression on those they fought under or those they fought against. No wonder the soon to be inaugurated National army museum in London, would have an India Room, as do the many museums and memorials across Europe, that salute the Indian jawaan. Those that survived that Great War returned to India profoundly affected by what they had seen, not just on the battlefields, but how the Europeans fought to preserve their sovereignty.
The letters that they wrote home, tell of their experiences. One said: “Poisonous gases, bombs, machine guns which fire 700 bullets per minute, large and small cannon throwing cannon balls 30 Bengali maunds in weight, zeppelins, large and small flying machines which throw bombs from the air … liquid fire that causes the body to ignite.”
But not all the letters were about the gloom and doom of war. For most of them, the sight of European cities such as London, Brighton and Paris was inspiring. A soldier wrote from Paris to say: “What is Paris? It is heaven!”
But as that British government in India – after the war – resorted to forced recruitment and new taxes to offset the massive expenditure incurred during that futile four year long campaign, it gave rise to a massive anti-British sentiment and eventually India’s freedom movement. And those nationalists, who want to ignore that war, as a baggage of history, must be reminded, that it was only after the Indian Congress had passed a resolution extending support to the British, that the Indian soldiers went and put their life on the line. The thousands of names etched on the bricks that make up India gate in Delhi, serves as a reminder this commitment. Indians must therefore stake claim, along with the Europeans, for the contributions Indians have made, as they fought to preserve liberty.
Maroof Raza is a strategic affairs commentaror.