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The war and its remnants

A historian in the UK has been quietly trying to seek answers for the past nine years to the questions that the war and its destruction left, especially those pertaining to the role of Indian soldiers fighting a war on behalf of the British. In Chandigarh during a brief India visit, Jody East, creative programme curator, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, talks about what brings her here.

chandigarh Updated: Feb 08, 2014 10:11 IST
Navleen Lakhi

In school, we grudge our way through lessons in history, perhaps why many of us wouldn’t know that 2014 marks 100 years of the First World War. But, a historian in the UK has been quietly trying to seek answers for the past nine years to the questions that the war and its destruction left, especially those pertaining to the role of Indian soldiers fighting a war on behalf of the British. In Chandigarh during a brief India visit, Jody East, creative programme curator, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove, talks about what brings her here.

Jody has been working with the Royal Pavilion in the UK - a palace belonging to Queen Victoria that has been converted into a museum – for the past nine years. The role of the Indian army in World War I thrilled her and therefore, Jody collaborated with the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, New Delhi. To raise awareness about the Indian soldiers who participated in the war, Jody planned a visit to India. “I applied for a travel bursary to the British Council in 2013. I learnt that they had a plan under which regional museums in England could travel to India to make links with other cultural organisations. There were few of us who were awarded this grant and hence, I made a link with the research centre in Delhi,” said Jody, who was at Western Command, Chandimandir.

Jody believes the significance of the First World is severely undermined. “The First World War was important because India sent almost one million and three hundred soldiers to fight. Out of these, almost 76,000 died and another 75,000 didn’t return. So, it becomes important to honour them,” says the 32-year-old, adding, “If we don’t start collecting evidence now, it will be too late and people won’t be able to recall anything.”

Jody, a postgraduate in history from the University of Sussex, UK, feels that Indians aren’t very aware about the role played by Indian soldiers in World War I, believing it to be a part of colonial history that they think isn’t relevant to India today. Sharing information about the Royal Pavilion, Jody adds, “The palace was suddenly turned into the Indian Military Hospital from 1914-1916. It treated 4,306 soldiers. The great kitchen was turned into an operating theatre. They really wanted to make sure that the Indian soldiers were properly looked after, and therefore made sure that soldiers from every caste and religion were looked after. There were nine different kitchens and every sign was printed in Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi. They had different places for worship as well,” she says.

During her research, Jody found in a British library, copies of letters written by Indian soldiers to their families. “But, we wanted to know if the original letters had survived in India. Some of the letters talk about the role of the Pavilion as well, such as one where an Indian soldier talks describes it as a place out of a fairy tale and another in which a soldier feels that he is in a prison,” she says.

Jody says they now want to trace any family or descendants of the letter-writing soldiers. “In Brighton, we came across one gentleman whose grandfather had been hospitalised in Brighton, though he had unfortunately died. He often visits a memorial there where his grandfather had been cremated,” adds Jody.

Next on her plans is a visit to the Haryana Academy of History and Culture, Gurgaon, where an original letter written by a soldier in Brighton has been found. “I’ll try getting the addresses of the families of the soldiers so that we can visit their villages and know their personal accounts. Such evidence helps us in building a bigger picture of what happened. We are interested in finding out how they felt leaving their families behind for war.”

Jody can’t highlight enough the gravity of the war and its consequences, as she says, “It was a conflict which shaped the modern society. So much of what we have today, such as medicine, is shaped by what happened then. Also, the war had a major role to play in the Indian independence. Had Brighton not failed to fulfill its promises, the nationalists might not have pushed for independence,” she sums up.