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A glory we forgot: India and the Great War

Given the importance the Indian Army attaches to its experiences during the 1914-18 war, it is surprising that the centenary went largely unobserved in India, writes Swapan Dasgupta.

ht-view Updated: Aug 06, 2014 10:41 IST
Swapan Dasgupta
Swapan Dasgupta

It would hardly be unpatriotic to suggest that Europeans do anniversaries and commemorations far better than Indians. The centenary of the start of the Great War — the contemporary description of World War I — was widely observed all over Europe last Sunday and Monday with prime ministers, presidents and the few remaining monarchs participating. The day had been preceded by an onrush of popular interest: Family stories being relived and new histories filling up gaps in knowledge. The War that signalled the demise of an old order, redrew the map of Europe, brought home the horrors of trench warfare and, ironically, laid the political foundations of the next big conflict, was commemorated with feeling, dignity and without national bitterness.

Predictably, as happens with anything to do with the past, there is always a controversy. In ‘multicultural’ Europe, there were voices that complained of the overwhelming Eurocentrism of the commemorations. Baroness Warsi, who had been a minister in David Cameron’s government, gave the disquiet a definite subcontinental flavour: “Our boys were not just Tommies — they were Tariqs and Tajinders too.”

That the Great War had a definite non-European dimension is obvious. Apart from Western Europe and Russia, the theatre of war also included the erstwhile Ottoman Empire and those patches of Africa where German colonies were located. India’s contribution to the war effort was particularly significant: Some 1.27 million men, including 827,000 combatants, were involved. Of these, 47,756 were killed and 65,000 wounded. Indian soldiers won nearly 13,000 gallantry awards, including 12 Victoria Cross. India and the Empire as a whole provided Britain its strategic depth, something the Kaiser and his allies lacked.

Although the battlefields of the Great War didn’t extend into India — barring the shelling of Madras in September 1914 by the redoubtable German cruiser Emden — the experiences of Flanders, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia are etched in the various regimental histories of the Indian Army. Indeed, India Gate, one of the iconic symbols of Delhi, was built as a War Memorial to the soldiers of the Indian Army who died in the Great War.

Given the importance the Indian Army attaches to its experiences in France, Iraq, Palestine and East Africa in the 1914-18 war, it should occasion some surprise that the centenary went largely unobserved in this country. This was one centenary India chose to give a miss.

Predictably, the question arises: If India doesn’t want to own up to its role in the Great War, can we fault Europeans for focusing principally on their own sense of loss? An Indian visitor to the refurbished Imperial War Museum in London complained that India’s contribution to the war effort had been grossly underplayed. He may well be right but if India chooses to ignore its own role, can the British keepers of the past be blamed for their biases?

The problem is actually far more complex than conspiracy theorists are willing to admit. Historians and curators in Britain are often under conflicting pressures. First, there is the ‘multicultural’ lobby that wants yesterday’s subject peoples to be given their due in popular history. For them, the racist condescension that greeted a Gunga Din must be replaced by the acknowledgement of the heroism of, say, Sowar Dhukal Singh of the Jodhpur Lancers or Jemadar Gobind Singh of the 28th Cavalry, both awarded the Victoria Cross.

Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as it appears. Contemporary records are very clear that the Indian Army was quite unwavering in its loyalty to the British sarkar and the King-Emperor. In Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, historian David Omissi has documented the extent to which the average sepoy was motivated by concerns of loyalty to the Emperor and casteizzat. The only exceptions were three predominantly Muslim units that refused to fight against fellow-Muslims in the Ottoman army and were, consequently, very harshly dealt with.

In a European environment that is dominated by post-colonial angst, highlighting the role of Empire runs the political risk of being seen to be promoting imperial nostalgia. It’s a no-win situation. Being ‘multicultural’ and recalling the contributions of the Empire are flip sides of the same coin and both are certain to lead to larger misunderstandings.

It’s a problem that even India hasn’t been able to come to terms with. In the self-image of Indian regiments, 1947 marks only a change of the national flag. The battle honours won in the Crimean War, the Boer War, the Macedonian campaign, the North African war and the Burma campaign occupy places alongside the achievements in the wars of 1948, 1965, 1971 and Kargil. For professional soldiers, what matters was the soldiers’ loyalty and devotion to duty, not the political ramifications of the conflict. A sepoy who died in Flanders is as honoured as a jawan who laid down his life in the battle for Dhaka.

At the same time, there is a premium attached to loyalty and the command structure. The officers and soldiers who joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA after being taken POW by the Japanese were subsequently hailed as heroes in independent India. At the same time it is significant that not one of them were taken back into service. In the eyes of the forces, they were guilty of breaching the loyalty code.

This military history is at odds with an ‘official’ narrative that sees the pre-1947 campaigns as facets of the larger imperial project.

India remains utterly confused over its past. Is the Republic established in 1950 the successor regime of the British Raj or is it a break? Owning up to the past has an emotive dimension but disowning it completely creates its own complications. India has wilfully chosen to revel in this ambiguity.

Swapan Dasgupta is a political commentator.
The views expressed by the author are personal.

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