Editorial

The forgotten million: on Indian soldiers in World War I

One hundred years after the end of World War I, the immense sacrifice and contributions of well over a million soldiers of undivided India are being incrementally recognised and memorialised the world over. In France, the centenary celebrations of Armistice Day on November 11 will include the unveiling of the second overseas national war memorial for Indian soldiers, by Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu. The first such memorial abroad, formalised in 2002, is the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, which is a recognition that more than 130,000 Indian soldiers fought in WWI in Belgium, at least 10,000 of whom lost their lives on the battlefield. Last month, British Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to wear a khadi poppy in honour of more than 74,000 soldiers from pre-Partition India who fought on the side of the allies and died in battle. She particularly noted that 11 of them won the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery and played a crucial role in the war across continents. Yet far from the ceremonial pomp of officialdom is perhaps the most poignant symbol of how much ordinary Indian men enlisting in the colonial government’s Army gave of their lives to fight the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires: the British Library in London has received 1,000 pages of war-veteran interview transcripts recorded in the 1970s, which include details of the inhumane treatment, including floggings, denial of home leave, and brazenly racial-discriminatory treatment that 1.5 million mostly-illiterate men from northern India faced regularly within the allied forces army.

In the early days of the War, troops of the Indian Army, backed by the political bourgeoisie, were enthusiastic in responding to the British government’s call for military support from India. This was because, although the swadeshi movement was underway, the freedom movement was in a fledgling stage. Even Mahatma Gandhi was open to Indians enlisting and learning to defend themselves using arms, as were leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak. However, with the enormous death toll by the end of WWI, the painful lessons were absorbed and the pressure for enlistment of Indians in the World War II effort produced an entirely different outcome — the Quit India movement and the escalation of the freedom movement. WWI also influenced the collective psyche of the government of independent India, starting with the tenets of non-alignment that came to embody a core mantra of the country’s foreign policy ethos. However, while India remains wary of ‘treaty alliances’ and steers clear of combat involvement in third-party conflicts, it is the third-largest contributor of military and police personnel to UN peacekeeping missions. Difficult though the conditions Indian peacekeepers face must be, they must be thankful that their country would never put them in the sort of situation that their predecessors faced from 1914 to 1918.


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Printable version | Nov 22, 2021 9:31:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/the-forgotten-million/article25429666.ece

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