Remembering the Indians who fought in WWI

November 10, 2018 08:10 pm | Updated November 11, 2018 03:26 pm IST

‘The Lions of the Great War’ statue was unveiled earlier this week to mark the contribution of Sikh soldiers in the First World War.

‘The Lions of the Great War’ statue was unveiled earlier this week to mark the contribution of Sikh soldiers in the First World War.

In the month or so preceding Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of the First World War, red poppy badges are a common sight across Britain.

This year, however, some of them come with a difference. Prime Minister Theresa May is among the high profile figures to have chosen to wear (at least for part of the time) a poppy badge made out of khadi to remember India’s contribution to the war effort.

“We must never forget that over 74,000 soldiers came from undivided India... and they played a crucial role in the war across multiple continents,” she told the House of Commons last week. The initiative — launched by Lord Gadhia, a member of the House of Lords — was taken up by the Royal British Legion, which has been running the annual poppy commemorations since 1921.

The khadi poppy follows a growing movement to recognise the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers, then part of the Empire, who fought and gave their lives for Britain during both World Wars. While memorials across the country do indeed exist and have been around for decades, there is limited public recognition of the significant contribution — and hardship — Commonwealth soldiers faced during these periods. “To many people, these conflicts have been genuinely White wars... and the sight of Commonwealth soldiers fighting in the trenches genuinely shocks them,” said Mukulika Banerjee, director of the London School of Economics’ South Asia Centre, who noted the absence of discussion of these issues in the mainstream conversation around the war, as well in school curricula. “They see these memorials on the British landscape but don’t recognise their significance because they have not been decoded for them,” she said, pointing to spaces such as the Pavilion in Brighton, which served as a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.

Largely as a result of community efforts from within the diaspora, memorials of one form or another have also been created up and down the country in recent years. Earlier this month, a gurdwara in the West Midlands unveiled “The Lions of the Great War”, a statue to mark the contribution of Sikh soldiers to the British war effort.

The think tank British Future and the Royal British legion have also together launched Remember Together, an initiative to remember the soldiers of different backgrounds. And such work is not just confined to South Asian communities: a theatre in East London is remembering the 1,40,000 Chinese Labour Corps who travelled all the way to Europe to work behind the frontlines during the First World War through Forgotten , a play that tells their stories.

More Commonwealth soldiers

The Ministry of Defence also announced this week that the British military would increase the number of Commonwealth recruits aged 18 and over, partly through a relaxation of a five-year residency requirement, pointing to the historic relationship of the Commonwealth to the military. “Britain has always counted on the dedicated service of our friends from the Commonwealth to keep this country safe,” said Minister for the Armed Forces Mark Lancaster.

Initiatives such as the khadi poppy are a small but significant step to changing the discourse, said Ms. Banerjee. “To weave into the very materiality of the poppy, such an important Indian symbol of pride and self-reliance as the khadi is significant,” she added, hoping that in coming years, khadi poppies will become much more widespread to truly make a mark and widen awareness of the past.

(Vidya Ram works for The Hindu and is based in London)

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