Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The unsung Indian presence in the Great War

When World War I broke out, the British army faced a manpower crisis. It was then decided to send troops from the British Indian army. These first landed in France on September 26, 1914

World War I ended with little by way of concessions for India. 75,000 men were killed.

THE 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign provides an interesting opportunity to examine the impact of the world wars on the Indian independence movement, and to make a larger point about how any nation's history cannot be truly studied in isolation.

One of the bloodiest campaigns of World War I, Gallipoli pitted Turkish forces led by Kemal Ataturk against Russia, Great Britain and France. The campaign gave Ottoman Turkey one of its only major victories in the war and one can draw a somewhat straight line from Gallipoli to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey eight years later and the end of the Ottoman caliphate. That latter event is just about the only time that World War I figures in our local historical narrative, in the form of the political debacle that was the Khilafat movement.

This is not to downplay how emotional an issue the caliphate was for Indian Muslims, or the dilemma it posed for those Muslims fighting under the banner of the British army. The Singapore mutiny of 1915, for example, was caused in part by rumours that sepoys there were to be sent to fight Turkish troops.

When World War I broke out, the British army faced a manpower crisis. It was then decided to send troops from the British Indian army, which were at the time stationed in Egypt. These troops, many of whom were from territories that now comprise Pakistan, first landed in France on September 26, 1914. More than a million men from British India eventually served in that conflict, and at least 75,000 were killed in various theatres of war.

In addition to this, the financial cost to India was crippling as it footed the bill for the deployment and supply of these troops, along with providing other financial and material contributions to the war effort.

However, this contribution has been largely overlooked by both Western and subcontinental historians, the former because it did not jibe well with their nationalistic narratives, and the latter because it was something of an embarrassment for nationalists intent on painting a picture of a united independence movement. However, the fact is that India by and large reacted with overwhelming support for the allied cause in World War I.

But what's interesting is that at the time, Indian involvement in the war was considered to be fraught with political risks for England. Scottish author William Archer, among others, at the time warned that the “moment Britain gets into trouble elsewhere, India, in her present temper, would burst into a blaze of rebellion”.

Attempts were made to incite such a rebellion by the so-called Hindu-German conspiracy between 1914 and 1917. The 'Ghaddar Mutiny' was a prominent part of this plan, along with the aforementioned Singapore mutiny.

But the prevalent feeling was that if India were to support the allied effort, it would prove a bargaining tool for achieving greater autonomy. Certainly, this was the view of the Indian National Congress. But by the later stages of the war, Indian disappointment became evident

The war ended with little in the way of concessions for India, something that would add impetus to demands for Independence. But when World War II broke out, India again rallied to the cause. However, this time around, more voices were raised in favour of the Axis who were seen by some as possible guarantors of India's freedom. The ‘betrayal' of India after World War I was a popular theme in the speeches and writings of Rash Behari Bose, who as late as 1942 lamented that “the British have been … successful in receiving India's cooperation by telling lies and making false promises”.

Then there was Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army; this was a fighting force recruited largely from British Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese in Southeast Asia and Indian émigrés in the same region. While it never saw significant action, and Bose's plans never materialised, the Indian National Army did capture the imagination of a great many Indians even though it gets short shrift in most histories, mentioned merely as a footnote.

When the war was over, the trials of captured soldiers provoked a massive outcry, even providing a spark for the Bombay mutiny which, in turn, hastened Independence itself.

This isn't (just) a self-indulgent flight of fancy, but an appeal to try and understand history in its entirety, in so far as that is possible. Because when we erect barriers around any nation's history, we deceive ourselves into thinking that events across the world do not impact our lives.

This hampers our understanding of the past, and in turn makes our forecasts of the future even more inaccurate. The past, with all its intricate links and turning points, provides us a template with which we can predict possible future scenarios, and in an increasingly complex and interconnected world to allow skewed perspectives to narrow our view of the past would mean forfeiting the future.

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