3 years


The Unremembered War

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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World War I, which ended a hundred years ago, saw the participation of 1.5 million Indians who have been forgotten

EXACTLY 100 years ago, World War I ended on November 11th, 1918, but given the nature of communications then, it wouldn’t be until two days later, November 13th, that The Pioneer could deliver this news in India. And it took one more day before the newspaper could tell its readers the initial terms of the armistice, following which was a little news item under the subhead ‘Our Calcutta Correspondent Wires’ that said: ‘With reference to the statement recently made in Parliament that the Dominions and India would be represented in the peace conference, and that the respective Governments have been warned that their delegates may be required to start at any time, it is understood here that Sir S. F. Sinha, who has just arrived in India, has again been asked to be ready to proceed to England to represent India at the peace conference. It is also understood that Sir Satyendra will proceed to Simla next week to see the Viceroy and from there will go to Bombay en route, to England. It is likely that he will be leaving India within the next few days.’

This was somewhat momentous. Indians, Brown subjects ruled by the superior White race, would be at the table of victors along with White men against other defeated White nations. Besides Sinha, an Indian Civil Services officer, the Maharaja of Bikaner would be the second Indian present. These representations were a token of gratitude of the British for India’s participation in a war that had nothing to do with it. They would also promise greater political autonomy but, once the war ended, backtrack on it, which in turn would intensify the freedom movement that would end in Independence. Once we became free, the war and the role of Indians in it would slowly seep out of the consciousness of India until, now, a hundred years later it is largely unremembered. Of the millions who have been to India Gate in Delhi, how many know that it is a memorial to Indian soldiers in that war?

In Shrabani Basu’s book For King and Another Country, one of the many stories that she fleshes out of Indians in the war is that of Gabar Singh from the Garhwal Rifles regiment. Soldiers like him, from remote villages that took days to reach on foot, had never been out of India and now suddenly found themselves in the trenches of the Western Front thousands of kilometres away in a world beyond their imagination. They possibly saved the British Empire.

As many as 1.5 million Indian soldiers and non-combatants participated, of which close to a 100,000 died. Basu’s book says, ‘They fought in all the theatres of war, from the Western Front, where they helped hold the line in Ypres-Salient, to the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and Egypt, where again they prevented the Turks and Germans from accessing the Suez Canal and let the British retain control of the oil fields of Basra. The soldiers came from the length and breadth of undivided India, from the Punjab, Garhwal, the North West Frontier, Rajasthan and Nepal to Madras and Burma and represented different religious, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Most of the sepoys, flung into the greatest war of the century, were from peasant stock and hill tribes. A small village in the mountains of Punjab—Dulmial in Chakwal—sent 460 men to the First World War, the highest from a single village in South Asia. For four long years there were no young men left in Dulmial. They were all fighting at the front.’

Gabar Singh did well in an attack at the French village of Neuve Chapelle. The book recounts, ‘In the clash of steel and helmets and relentless fighting, his officer was killed. The 22-year-old Garhwali, who had once tended goats on the hillside of his remote village, took command and carried on, driving the Germans on despite his injuries. As the shells rained down around him, Gabar Singh fought his way through, not stopping till he had forced the Germans to surrender. He had taken the call and secured the trench, but Gabar Singh’s war was soon to be over. Fatally injured, he drew his last breath. He died in the rubble of his hard-won trench, still clutching his bayonet, a soldier to the last. His body was never recovered. For his gallantry, Gabar Singh Negi was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.’

His wife Satoori had been 14 at the time. When Basu was researching for her book, she went to their village to meet her descendants. ‘They told me that Satoori Devi never remarried. She pinned the Victoria Cross on her sari and wore it all her life. She would go to collect firewood wearing the Victoria Cross and all the villagers would salute her. She lived till a ripe old age and always took the salute at Gabar Singh’s memorial on his birthday,’ says Basu, over email.

Indian soldiers like Gabar Singh were not used to the snow, the shelling or the trenches that defined the war but they fought with unbridled valour despite the British never considering them equals. ‘Indians were not allowed to be officers. The highest Indian officer, was still lower in rank than a British soldier. This changed in the Second World War when there were many Indian officers. Also, injured Indian soldiers were not allowed to be treated by white nurses. Their roles remained supervisory. This caused discontent as many Indians complained that they were good enough to fight, but not good enough to be treated by English nurses. White English women were not allowed to meet Indian soldiers in hospital and Indians were not allowed to go out by themselves and had to be supervised. This led to discontent and many complained that it was as if they were being kept in jail. Indians could not go home on holiday unlike their western counterparts as the journey was too long and ships could not be spared. As a result, many stayed for four years without leave. The sappers stayed on even after the war to clear mines,’ says Basu.

Gabar Singh's widow Satoori Devi pinned his Victoria Cross on her sari and wore it all her life

If a million-and-a-half Indians were part of it, why is the war so unremembered? Vedica Kant, author of ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’: India and the First World War, alludes to a few reasons. First, it goes against the grain of a nationalist history, which entirely revolves around the freedom struggle against the British. That Indian soldiers willingly fought for them does not fit into the trope—if it has been accepted in public discourse that Indians were always fighting for Independence, then anyone involved in the British enterprise became collaborators, soldiers more so than anyone else because they were not only fighting for British interests abroad, but protecting them in India as well. Kant, however, believes that singling out soldiers is a faulty way of historical thinking because Indians were part of all aspects of British colonialism, from the administration to the railways. “Colonialism wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t through the involvement of Indians. It is not comfortable to remember that these soldiers went and fought for the British,” she says.

Also, the freedom struggle didn’t arrive fully formed. It refined over time. During World War I, Indian political leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, were enthusiastic in their support for the British. Independence was not a part of the discourse then; what was sought was dominion status within the Empire. “One of the big arguments [by Indians leaders] for India’s involvement in the war was that if Indian soldiers do go and fight the war and they do well, then it would be a way for India to show that she’s just as good as an Australia or Canada and for her to demand more political autonomy. That was something that the British did promise and they backtracked on that,” says Kant.

In a 2005 paper published in Economic & Political Weekly, ‘First World War: Purchasing Indian Loyalties’, historian Arvind Ganachari talks about the differences among Indian political leaders on how to support the war effort. While Lokmanya Tilak and those in the Home Rule League wanted it to be conditional, others like Gandhi weren’t. What is common is that no one opposed the involvement of Indians. The paper notes: ‘Tilak had been a long supporter of recruitment to army. Since February 1917, he had written many articles in Kesari and The Mahratta, exhorting people to join the army but wanted recruitment on self-respecting terms, that is, commissions for Indian officers, equal pay, purely Indian regiments which ought to be controlled by Indians, all these to be achieved to make a national army and not a mercenary one. Gopal Krishna Gokhale was in England when the war broke out and returned to Bombay in high spirits. He had gained an impression in Whitehall that India was to be given a substantial advance ‘on the road to self-government’. BG Horniman later recalled that Gokhale had ‘with him already prepared the outline of a scheme which curiously enough was based on the model of the German constitution.’ His effort to work on such a scheme was short-lived as he soon passed away in February 1915. Gandhi, who received the Kaiser-i-Hind (first class) in 1915, was a ‘recruiting agent’ for the British from the beginning of the First World War.’

HE FAILURE OF the British to live up to their promise of even limited political autonomy was a catalyst for the development of Indian nationalism. The world over, the war was the beginning of the end of the idea of empire itself. “It was primarily an imperial war that was being fought when it started. These were empires protecting themselves. What you do see by the end of the war, specially with America joining, is that [such a] system of government is no longer possible. It would take another 20 years for it to completely break down at the end of World War II. But World War I goes a long way in changing those perceptions. You see that reflected in the politics of India itself. It was only after the war that Gandhi launched his first massive nationalist movement,” says Kant.

In the absence of nationalism, what were Indian soldiers fighting for? There was, of course, livelihood. The army was a profession. But there was also honour. The valour they exhibited would be reflected in glory for their families and villages. “It does come up a lot in their letters. Part of it also goes back to the way in which the British army recruited from very specific villages, specific families. India was largely a collection of princely states where everyone had loyalty to their own king. And the British were very good at taking the emperor as a figure and transferring those monarchical loyalties to a larger raja who was the British king,” says Kant.

Most Indian soldiers stayed loyal, but a few weren’t convinced about the side they were on. One of the stories that Kant found remarkable in the war was about two brothers Mir Dast and Mir Mast. Mir Dast was a Victoria Cross recipient, who, in the Battle of Ypres, braved poison gas to lead an attack and then bring fellow soldiers back to safety. Mir Mast had been just promoted but within months of the war switched over to the German side and then went to Afghanistan to foment rebellion there against the British. Kant says she is intrigued by what it would be like for a family to have two members with separate loyalties. And that there would be other cases like these. “How do you manage those completely different politics within a family?” she says. After the war, these dilemmas would only amplify as nationalism increased. Among those who joined marches and protests against the British, as the demand for freedom escalated, were also many who had returned from the war.