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Fallen WWI soldiers ignored in India 100 years on

November 06, 2014

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An Indian soldier wounded in World War I.
An Indian soldier wounded in World War I.

NEW DELHI: As Britain and her allies prepare to mark the end of World War I, former colony India will largely ignore commemorations despite losing tens of thousands of soldiers in the conflict.

Everyone from world leaders to schoolchildren are expected to take part in ceremonies on Nov 11 to remember the armistice for the Great War, whose centenary this year gives the occasion extra significance.

But the date next Tuesday will be largely overlooked in India where, for many, the war is an embarrassing reminder of the bloody sacrifices made for its formal colonial master.

“You can’t call it sacrifice, it was surely not patriotism that made them fight,” war expert Mridula Mukherjee said of the 70,000 Indian soldiers who died on the battlefields of Europe.

“It was mostly them looking for employment,” Mukherjee, the chief historian at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told AFP.

Mukherjee said 1.2 million Indian soldiers were also motivated to sign up for the war because of Britain’s promises at the time of a greater role in the running of their own country if they fought.

Leading political figures in India, including independence hero and apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, then backed the effort, believing it would bolster the colony’s claims for self-government.

Indian soldiers arrived on the Western Front in late September of 1914, equipped with just two machine guns per battalion and dressed in thin cotton uniforms that offered no protection against the bitter European winter.

Volunteer army

At a ceremony in New Delhi last week, British defence minister Michael Fallon, flanked by top military brass and politicians from both countries, paid tribute to India’s soldiers.

“We must not and we will not ever forget the enormous service rendered by India’s heroes,” Fallon said after laying a wreath at the India Gate memorial, during a one-day visit to the country. “Their courage is all the more remarkable for being entirely voluntary. Not a single Indian was conscripted.”

Far from acknowledging their contribution, however, many in India, a British colony for 200 years, have chosen to ignore the past. Some are ashamed its soldiers volunteered to fight for a country that had long kept them in servitude, experts say.

“In those days, it was not considered heroic to be fighting for your ‘masters’,” said Vedica Kant who has written a book called The Indian Heroes of WWI.

“Hence, many of those soldiers’ voices went unheard, their stories unwritten,” the London-based Kant told local media in Delhi last month.

Indian soldiers became the largest volunteer force in history when 2.5m also fought for Britain during World War II, according to official figures, before the country finally gained independence in 1947.

The giant India Gate memorial in the capital is one of the few stark reminders of the country’s world war past. The British-built sandstone arch is a notable landmark, drawing thousands of visitors every year.

But few snapping selfies at the monument recently could accurately describe its significance.

“Gandhi made it when we got independence from the British in 1947?” suggested 19-year-old Saksham Jain. Hawker Babu Ahmed, 35, who has been selling tea at the monument for 12 years, shrugged and said “who cares as long as you get visitors”.

During last week’s ceremony in Delhi, relatives of fallen soldiers beamed with pride as British embassy officials gifted them digitised war diaries of Indian troops who fought in France and Belgium’s Flanders.

But some wondered why the soldiers had never been honoured in such a way by their own governments.

“Finally after 100 years a foreign country has recognised my grandfather’s contribution to WWI, something the Indian government could never do,” said 75-year-old Baljit Singh, a retired colonel.

“My grandfather and his fellow men sacrificed their lives in the hope of early independence from the British, but nobody saw that. No recognition, no books, nothing — only the families who sent their own know what they went through and for what.”

World leaders commemorated the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI on Aug 4 when they warned of lessons to be learned in the face of today’s many crises. The four-year conflict left some 10m dead and 20m injured.

Published in Dawn, November 6th , 2014