by Sravani Royyuru
I have been to many remembrance assemblies during my school years. I have observed a silence every year for 14 years on November 11th and I have bought a poppy every November too. But as a first-generation immigrant, I found it difficult to honestly feel thankful for the sacrifice of soldiers in the Great War. Not because I didn’t recognise the sombre significance of their service to Britain, but because I lacked a personal connection. Coming from the subcontinent, where British rule is still a recent memory, I found it even more difficult to find a true connection.
In India – where I spent the first, most etching years of my life – national milestones are observed almost religiously. On Independence Day, streets are draped in the colours of the Tiranga. The birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi – who is the face of the Indian Independence and all but a god – is a national holiday. Schools teach the struggles of freedom fighters and the events that helped create independent India. The whole nation comes together to remember those who laid down their lives for freedom.
But there were others who laid down their lives – those that the pages of history books on both sides have left unmentioned. These were the soldiers of the Indian National Army – made up of men from what today are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Almost a staggering 1.3 million – one in every six of all soldiers fighting under the Union Jack – came to fight a war that had little, really, to do with them. Perhaps it was a longing for pride that brought them, or perhaps it was desperation – irrespective of this, that nearly 75,000 of them died for this country remains an undeniable fact.
It is not that citizens of other Empire countries did not contribute to the war effort. Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans also fought for the King; the stark difference, however, is that these contributions did not go unnoticed; for many years, books and award-winning films like ‘Gallipoli’ have ensured this – but the fact that more than a thousand Indian soldiers died at the same Gallipoli is not even acknowledged.
But it was Indian jawans – junior soldiers – who stopped the advance of German forces at Ypres in 1914. In 1915, Indian Corps troops, like the Garhwalis, were instrumental in capturing the village of Neuve Chapelle in the first planned offensive of the war by the British. Soldiers from the subcontinent were at Flanders’ fields, and those who were Indian Muslims even had to fight fellow Muslims for the British Army against the Ottoman Empire. They were in Egypt, Palestine, Aden, East Africa and Salonika.
Recently, Shrabani Basu’s book ‘For King and Another Country’ revealed a harrowing fact: Indian children as young as ten were recruited and shipped to France to support those on the front line. However, many of them were themselves wounded. It is also said that nurses were not allowed to treat Indian soldiers in war hospitals – despite their service, Indians were seen as servile subjects of an Empire. The Anglo-centric portrayal of war losses also reminds us that natives of the subcontinent were neglected because, crudely put, they were dark-skinned, and therefore seen as inferior.
What is heart-breaking is that despite the heroism – it can’t be called anything else – of these soldiers is wholly dismissed by India today. Sadly, there is a chance that these very men could also have been remembered as heroes in the freedom struggle. There was a promise made by Britain – albeit insincerely – that India would receive Dominion Status – a status of self-rule – at the end of the war, which, until then, was reserved for the ‘White Commonwealth’. Under the guise of this ‘promise’, the Imperial powers were able to impose heavy taxation on Indians who were already suffering from an influenza epidemic, which led to increased inflation and disruption of trade which caused extreme economic decline; but this allowed over 170,000 animals and 3,700,000 tons of supplies and stores to reach Europe.
When this promise was not kept, those back in India felt anger and therefore did not feel grateful for the soldiers who fought in the war. They were cast aside as men who had served their foreign masters in a foreign land. This was the widespread sentiment; by the time the 50th anniversary of the Great War was commemorated in 1964, there was barely a mention of the Indian soldiers – least of all in India. It seemed India, if anything, was ashamed that its people had participated in a colonial war.
Yet there is one place in India that people visit by the thousands each day that, mostly unbeknownst to them, commemorates these very soldiers – the India Gate, in New Delhi. This monument was erected by the British in 1930; eleven Victoria Crosses for Valour were also handed out at the end of the war to soldiers like Sepoy Khudadad Khan, a Pathan born in the Punjab (now Pakistan), who served as a machine-gunner in the 129th Baluchis and was the first Indian to receive this award. Many of his descendants live in England today.
In recent years, the visibility of the contribution of soldiers from the subcontinent has been greatly increasing: in 2016, a group of people from many different walks of life gathered at King’s College London to discuss how addressing this could lead to greater racial integration. They acknowledged that doing this in a manner that would be both ethical and productive would be of paramount importance.
Similarly, in 2015, an event by the National Archives went to Birmingham Library – it was fully booked. Experts William Spencer and Jahan Mahmood gave talks to attendees, some of whom had ancestors who had fought in the Indian army in the First World War.
As South Asians living in Britain, we often find ourselves in intersections of identities, culture and core beliefs. But when it comes to this particular issue, I truly believe that we should be unified in uncovering the sheer sacrifice of these men – not just to the rest of the South Asian community, but, vitally, to the British public at large and. We should urge those in the South Asian countries to recognise these lost heroes.
So, wear a poppy this November, and remember those who served their nation – but do not forget to remember those silent soldiers of the subcontinent whose stories are yet to be told.
Sravani is a mechanical engineering student at Imperial College London who is a helpless foodie, hopelessly in love with dance and will always pick a saree if she can help it.