Saluting heroes of World War I: Also glorify anti-colonial movements abroad
by Ashok B Sharma on 29 Mar 2015 3 Comments

India is celebrating the centenary of World War I with a sense of pride that its soldiers participated in expeditions to defend the British Empire. The call to participate in the war effort was given by no less than freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak with the hope that the colonial rulers would grant home rule under Dominion Status after success in the war. Gandhi said: “If we would improve our status through the help and cooperation of the British, it is our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need.”


While scholars in India and across the world are being encouraged to collect evidences of the participation of Indian forces, little is being done to bring to light the Indian nationalist anti-colonial movement that began in the heart of Europe in the same period. Indian nationalist revolutionary, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (affectionately called Chatto), led the network of Indian activists scattered across Europe, with Germany as the focal centre for their propaganda against the British Empire. The Indian activists received financial and diplomatic assistance from the then Kaiser-ruled Germany. The reciprocity between these Indian activists and Germany was an arrangement based on a mutual understanding to disturb the British war efforts. The Indian emigrants, therefore, had the chance for mobilizing the anti-colonial struggle.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Australia signed an agreement to jointly celebrate the centenary of the World War I in which Australian and New Zealand forces jointly fought German forces in the Pacific Ocean. True, we should be proud of our soldiers who valiantly fought the war in defence of the British Empire at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi and Tilak, but we should not ignore the sacrifices of the anti-colonial movement at that time.


As per reports, there are ample documents in German and Russian archives that can facilitate for research into the activities of the Indian anti-colonial movement led by Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. The Comintern Archive in Moscow contains a number of personal files of individuals involved in the Indian anti-colonial movement in 1914-18. Prime Minister Modi should take up this issue with Chancellor Angela Merkel when he visits Germany (being scheduled shortly). 


Similarly he should take up this with Russian President Putin. Russia has several documents relating to the activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during World War II.


The Modi government should launch a separate project to document the activities of anti-colonial movements of Indians abroad during the two Great Wars.


The decision to celebrate the sacrifices of Indian soldiers in World War I was taken by the erstwhile UPA government by launching the India and the Great War Centenary Commemoration Project. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, while inaugurating the Centenary Commemorative Exhibition of the First World War in New Delhi last Monday, said: “India contributed more soldiers to the war than South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada combined. Some experts have estimated that every sixth soldier that Britain sent out to fight was from the Indian Empire. These brave soldiers fought in alien climate and conditions far away from their homeland.” She noted that about 74,000 Indian soldiers died in war operation. “As many as 74,000 never returned home. For their families the wait never ended”, she said. But despite the death of thousands of Indian soldiers and many being injured in the war, the British failed to live up to their assurances of self-rule under Dominion status.


This led to the call for complete independence from British colonial rule. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 disappointed the Indian people who longed for greater constitutional changes in the direction of self-rule. Repressive laws such as the Rowlatt Act added insult to injury. Worst than non-fulfilment of the demand for self-rule, was the situation of de-mobilisation that left many Indian soldiers jobless. A combination of all these factors led to the call for complete independence.


Indian participation in World War I began after Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 ,1914, and continued till the war finally concluded on November 11, 1918. Britain’s former dominions which joined the war, such as Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (merged with Canada in 1949), New Zealand and South Africa – had self-governing status, but their foreign policy and defence were controlled by Britain. After the end of the war, these Dominions were subsequently given more powers. Sentiments across the Dominions led to the enactment of the 1931 Statute of Westminster which recast the British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations. But India remained a British colony till August 15, 1947.

The weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to the fractured rise of nation-states in Europe, which resulted in the Balkan Wars. It is said that World War I began as the Third Balkan War which transformed itself into a European War on July 28, 1914. It was called the ‘Great War for Civilisation’ but came to be known as World War I after the Second World War. The war began between two opposing alliances – Britain, France and the Russian empire on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. Later Italy, Japan and the United States joined the alliance of Britain, France and Russia while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


After the end of the war, four major imperial powers – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires – ceased to exist. The Central Powers were defeated and the map of Europe redrawn with several nations regaining independence and new states created with arbitrarily fixed boundaries to serve the interests of the victors. In Asia and Africa, colonies changed hands and areas of influence were distributed amongst the victors. The United States rose as a world power. The League of Nations, formed to prevent future conflicts such as the World War I, died a natural death once it failed to prevent World War II, which erupted due to rabid European nationalism and the German feeling of humiliation after their defeat in World War I.


No detailed account is available as yet on Indian participation in World War I.  Estimates of Indian participation are varying. India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the United Services Institution of India have jointly launched a project to gather details, pertaining to the issue, from various sources.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, about 1.1 million Indians participated in World War in France and Flanders (Belgium), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt, Persia (Iran) and Palestine (as well as Israel). Smaller Indian contingents were deployed in Aden, East Africa, Gallipoli and Salonika. Indian troops were also deployed in Russia and even in China.

The semi-autonomous princely states in India also sent over 26,000 soldiers to join the war. The Royal Indian Marine transported troops and other war supplies to Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa.

According to the Rushbrook Williams Report, there were about 80,000 British army officers and men in India and about 230,000 Indian ranks, both combatants and non-combatants, during the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the war period, British India recruited 800,000 combatants and more than 400,000 non-combatants, raising the total number of Indians in the British army to 1.3 million.  Of these, over 700,000 Indians were deployed in Mesopotamia, over 150,000 in France (including Flanders) and Egypt each, about 100,000 in Gallipoli, Salonika, Aden and the Persian Gulf and more than 50,000 in East Africa and the rest in other places, including India.

Ashok Nath of the University of Stockholm says that in August 1914, the Indian Army mustered a strength of 155,423 regular soldiers and, by the end of the war, the number swelled by 1,440,337. Santanu Das of Kings College, London estimates the total number of Indian soldiers at 1.5 million, including 900,000 combatants and 600,000 non-combatants, who served overseas during the war

According to available records 60,000 Indian soldiers died in the war. The first Indian to die was Naik Laturia, of poison gas from the Germans. He is commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres in Belgium. As per Montagu, 101,439 Indians sustained casualties. Indian soldiers earned over 9,200 decorations for gallantry including 11 Victoria Crosses.


Besides, India contributed Rs 4,575,000,000 to the war fund, and also contributed material such as foodgrains, oil, jute, cloth, blankets, iron, steel, timber, railway tracts, bridge materials, engines, vehicles, telegraphic and telephonic equipment, etc.

Both the Great Wars reveal the geopolitics of the times and the same hangover inherently remains today with certain modifications like the fragile integration of European Union, weakening of Britain and France, rise of Asian powers like China, India and economic powers in South-East Asia. This is an aspect students of Indian diplomacy should not ignore. Over and above the Modi government should launch a separate project to document the activities of the anti-colonial movement unleashed by Indians abroad and glorify these heroes.   

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