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British rewarded India’s help in World War 1 by imposing draconian laws, writes Shashi Tharoor

When the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the culmination of the First World War in 1964, there was scarcely a mention of India’s soldiers anywhere, least of all in India.

world war 1 Updated: Nov 11, 2018 14:36 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
World War 1,Mahatma Gandhi,Shashi Tharoor
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Kasturba at a reception given in Ahmedabad in 1915. Gandhi returned to India from South Africa that year(Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This year marks the centenary of the conclusion of the First World War – the Armistice on 11/11, at 11.11 am, ending four years of carnage that had begun in 1914 when the “guns of August” first boomed across the European continent. Across the world, commemorations of this historic event have already begun or are in the process of taking place, particularly for the anniversary of Armistice Day (November 11), where bells will be rung all across continental Europe, and in particular, 3,000 bell towers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to honour those who gave their lives in the Great War, “the war to end all wars.”

Back in India, however, the silence and muted commemorations, if at all, are likely to echo as piercingly as the bells that will toll in Europe.

In due fairness, this is not particularly new or surprising. After all, when the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the culmination of the First World War in 1964, there was scarcely a mention of India’s soldiers anywhere, least of all in India.

But India’s absence from the commemorations, as well as its failure to honour the dead, was not a surprise. Nor was the lack of First World War memorials in the country: the general feeling was that India, freshly freed from the imperial yoke, was ashamed of its soldiers’ participation in a colonial war and saw nothing to celebrate.

Watch:6 things you must know about the First World War

The British, on the other hand, were unabashed. They commemorated the war by constructing the triumphal arch known as India Gate in New Delhi. Built in 1931, India Gate is a popular monument, visited by hundreds daily, few of whom have any idea that it commemorates the Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the war. Indeed, historical amnesia about the First World War is pervasive across India.

It is now well known that though the war undoubtedly took the flower of Europe’s youth to their premature graves, it also involved soldiers from faraway lands who had little to do with Europe’s bitter traditional hatred.

Part of the reason is precisely that they were not fighting for their own country. The soldiers were all volunteers: soldiering was their profession. They served the very British Empire that was oppressing their own people back home.

Mahatma Gandhi, who returned to his homeland for good from South Africa in January 1915, supported the war, as he had supported the British in the Boer War. India was wrecked by high taxation – and the high inflation accompanying it – to support the war, while the disruption of trade caused by the conflict led to widespread economic losses. All this while the country was reeling from a raging infuenza pandemic – the 1918-’19 Spanish flu was the most devastating in history, with estimates of global mortality ranging from 20 to 50 million, and the focal point of the pandemic was India, with an estimated death toll of between 10 and 20 million. Poverty, disease and suffering all worsened in India during these years.

Read: Indian response to World War 1 variegated, literature reflects that

Yet Indian nationalists did not seek to take advantage of Britain’s vulnerability by inciting rebellions, or even disturbances, against the Empire. Instead, Indians rallied to the British cause: there were no mutinies against the British, though political unrest did continue in Punjab and Bengal. Mahatma Gandhi launched the Champaran satyagraha in 1917 in defence of farmers forced to grow indigo, and the Kheda satyagraha, against iniquitous taxes in Gujarat, followed, but both were protests against specific iniquities and not yet a mass movement against the Empire as a whole.

By 1917, as the Allies – newly reinforced by the United States – began assuming the upper hand in the war, Indian nationalists began demanding recognition of their compatriots’ sacrifices. Sir Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, responded with the historic “August announcement” in Parliament, declaring that Britain’s policy for India was “increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.” This was widely understood to mean that at the end of the war India would receive the Dominion status hitherto reserved for the “White Commonwealth.”

It was not to be. When the war ended, India was denied its promised reward. Instead of self-government, the British imposed the repressive Rowlatt Act, which vested the Viceroy’s government with extraordinary powers to quell “sedition” against the Empire by silencing and censoring the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting without a warrant any individuals suspected of treason against the Empire. Public protests against this draconian legislation were ruthlessly quelled.

Read: The key theatres of World War 1 and the important battles

The worst incident was the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of April 1919, when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire on 15,000 unarmed and non-violent men, women, and children demonstrating peacefully in an enclosed garden in Amritsar, killing 1,499 and wounding 1,137.The fact that the British hailed Dyer as a hero, raising a handsome purse to reward him, marked the final rupture between British imperialism and its Indian subjects. The wartime hopes of Dominion status and “progressive self-government” were dashed forever; Gandhi and the nationalists concluded that nothing short of independence would end the immoral injustice of British rule in India.

An artist recreates the horrific massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. Brigadier Dyer ordered his troops to fire on 15,000 unarmed and non-violent men, women and children in Amritsar, killing 1,499 and wounding, 1,137. The British hailed Dyer as a hero. ( HT Archive )

With British perfidy providing such a sour ending to the narrative of a war in which India had given its all and been spurned in return, Indian nationalists felt that the country had nothing for which to thank its soldiers. As a Member of Parliament, I had twice raised the demand for a national war memorial, and been twice told there were no plans to construct one here in India. It was therefore personally satisfying to me, and to many of my compatriots, when the Government of India announced its intention finally to create a national war memorial and museum that is expected to be completed later this month (it was initially scheduled to be inaugurated on Independence Day this year but predictably, it appears to have faced some delays). We are not a terribly militaristic society – though some in recent times have tried to change that – but for a nation that has fought many wars and shed the blood of many heroes, and whose resolve may yet be tested in conflicts to come, it seems odd that there is no memorial to commemorate, honour, and preserve the memories of our brave Indian soldiers.

It appears the centenary is finally forcing a rethink. For many Indians, curiosity has overcome the fading colonial-era resentments of British exploitation. We are beginning to see the Indian soldiers of the First World War as human beings, who took the spirit of their country to battlefields abroad. The Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in Delhi is painstakingly working to retrieve memorabilia of that era and reconstruct the forgotten story of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who had fought in the war. Some of their letters are unbearably poignant; they reflect the peasant background of many of the soldiers, with phrases like “the shells pour down like monsoon rain” or “the corpses litter the fields like sheaves of harvested corn”.

Read: Over 70 nations, 70 million troops, 52-month long: World War 1 in numbers

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains war cemeteries in India, mostly commemorating the Second World War rather than the First. The most famous epitaph of them all is inscribed at the Kohima War Cemetery in Northeast India. It reads, “When you go home, tell them of us and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.” The Indian soldiers who died in the First World War could make no such claim. They gave their “todays” for someone else’s “yesterdays.” They left behind orphans, but history has orphaned them as well.

As Imperialism has bitten the dust, it is recalled increasingly for its repression and racism; its soldiers, when not reviled, are largely regarded as having served an unworthy cause. But they were men who did their duty as they saw it. And they were Indians. It is a matter of quiet satisfaction that their overdue rehabilitation has now begun in their own country.

(Dr Shashi Tharoor is the author of 18 books, including ‘An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India’. He is also Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram)

First Published: Nov 11, 2018 08:30 IST