At the cusp of World War I, India, under the colonial rule, made marginal provisions to send soldiers to fight in a conflict far away from her shores. However, by the time armistice was reached in 1918, 1.4 million Indian soldiers and nearly twice of the country’s entire net revenue was spent in the war. Now as the rest of the world reflects on the war’s centennial, some scholars believe that Indians have much to remember as well.
Indian soldiers, many bribed, coerced or forcibly enlisted under the British “quota” system — requiring a given number of men from a particular district to enlist — combined to form the largest contribution of forces by the British Empire, aside from British soldiers themselves, said Squadron Leader (Retired) Rana T.S. Chhina, secretary of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research.
While Indians fought in every theatre of the war except the Italian front, Squadron Leader Chhina explained that preservation of these experiences was difficult to find in Indian museums or historical education in schools.
“World War I is often seen as a conflict belonging to the country’s colonial past and not part of India’s history,” he said.
“Unlike other parts of the world, where records of the war have been well maintained, the accounts of these soldiers have been almost lost to history because no one bothered to compile them.”
While opportunities are sparse, one important memorialisation of this influential war can be found at the Indian War Memorial Museum, located in the upper story of the Naubat Khana building in Red Fort in New Delhi. As one of the oldest museums in India, it is responsible for exhibiting some of the country’s prime military arms, including a small collection of World War I weaponry.
In 1918, a year before the museum was founded, the government collected military equipment used during the war, establishing a museum that now also displays weaponry as old as the 16th century. Gallery number one of the museum includes artefacts like muzzle loading guns, rifles with bayonets, pistols, revolvers, shells, aerial bomb and trench granite, while additional galleries exhibit non-Indian World War I objects.
Approximately 8,500 visitors are drawn to the museum each day. While many come to admire the impressive architecture of Mughal king Shah Jahan’s Naubat Khana (drum house), others are galvanized by India’s history, finding preservation of the Indian Army’s military involvement an important feature.
“It is our country’s legacy,” reflected student Deepa Thangjam, a visitor to the museum’s Indian exhibit, while fellow student Vinay Tiwari added that this history reminded him of patriotic Indians fighting in honour of their country. While the Indian soldier’s influence has been memorialised for younger generations in these exhibits, Mr. Chhina endeavours to do more to bring India’s World War I history to public consciousness.
In 2014, he undertook the “The Great War Centenary Commemoration Project,” a collaboration between the United Service Institution of India’s Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and the Ministry of External Affairs, a four-year initiative that endeavours to highlight the country’s role in the war beyond the small collections that exists currently.
By gathering diaries, letters and biographical accounts, as well as cataloguing any records of the descendents of these Indian soldiers, the project’s goal is to establish a number of different publications — from coffee table books, leaflets to scholarly articles — illuminating the many levels of India’s role in a war that affected society.
But for Mr. Chhina, this project is more than just memorialising the legacy of the Indian soldiers. It is about remembering the personal experiences of his grandfathers, both of whom fought in the war.
Mr. Chhina’s son, Adil Rana Chhina, is also an active member of the project. Inspired by his great-grandfathers he originally planned to join the Army, but then he became involved in preserving military history, an occupation he also finds very noble.
“If more people know about Indians who fought during World War I, it will give them a reason to be proud on a global stage,” said Adil.
“So many fought with extreme courage and gallantry, and their stories are really inspiring.”
Aside from pride, Mr. Chhina reflects that Indians must learn from their history, including their overlooked participation in the war.
“Indians should remember their contribution and impact in the war, along with the rest of the world,” said Mr. Chhina. A war in which, he added, 60,000 Indians died, 9,200 were decorated for gallantry and 11 received Victoria Crosses, Britain’s highest military award.