7 August 2014

Our boys in somebody else’s war

Ashok Malik
Aug 06, 2014 

World War I, the centenary of the beginning of which occurs this year, affected India on land, sea and air, literally. The entire argument about whether the Great War — or the “War to End all Wars”, as it was optimistically called — has any resonance in India and should be commemorated in any manner is ridiculous.

Yes, it was a European imperial war and not started by or specifically waged against India. Yes, it was not a war of the Indian nation or the free India state. Yet, it was a war that affected countless Indians and Indian families. In that sense, it was and remains an Indian event.
To remember and even celebrate Indian achievements and valour in World War I is not the same as to glorify imperial ambition and overreach. It is a wonder that a society that exults each time a person of Indian origin — even a third-generation American citizen — wins a Spelling Bee contest in Milwaukee is wary of mentioning its brave soldiers only because they fought “somebody else’s war”. In our sense of India, have we sometimes forgotten our sense of the Indian?

It is telling that among the best tributes to the Indian soldier in World War I comes in the Gallipoli exhibit at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The Gallipoli campaign in Turkey was one of the worst-planned endeavours of the war. It lost the Allies hundreds of thousands. For Australia, it was a milestone moment. Some 30,000 Australians died in Gallipoli and the campaign became a reference point for the island’s sense of nationhood.
About 1,500 Indians also died at Gallipoli, among the highest for an individual country. They are remembered and valorised at the War Memorial in Canberra, but forgotten in India. Cricketer Rahul Dravid referred to them when he delivered the Bradman Oration in 2011: “We share something else other than cricket. Before they played the first Test match against each other, Indians and Australians fought wars together, on the same side. In Gallipoli, where, along with the thousands of Australians, over 1,300 Indians also lost their lives… Before we were competitors, Indians and Australians were comrades.”

The Indians who fought at Gallipoli constituted among the largest volunteer armies in the world. To call them unpatriotic or un-Indian would be unfortunate because they represented a generation that came at the formative stage of Indian nationalism. The experiences of Indian soldiers who fought in Africa and Europe, in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and in Belgium (at Ypres), are part of not just military chronicles but also our folk history.

Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s Usne Kaha Tha (So She Said) is considered one of the earliest Hindi short stories. It is a moving, melancholic tale of a man who goes to fight the King-Emperor’s War with the husband (and son) of the woman he had once hoped to marry. True to her request, he sacrifices his life to save the two men she values most.
If it hadn’t been for World War I, the birth of the Indian Air Force (or the Royal Indian Air Force as it was initially called) would have been delayed. It was the excellence of five Indians who signed up for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) that convinced the British Raj that India deserved its own air force. Interestingly, these were upper class men, the social opposites of the humble soldiers who fought in the trenches of Gallipoli.

The most gallant of India’s five pioneering military aviators was Indra Lal Roy, Bengali student in England when the war began, shot down over France at the age of just 19 and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Roy — uncle of Air Chief Marshal Subroto Mukherjee and great-uncle of NDTV founder Prannoy Roy — is reputed to have been in the sky during a battle — but alas, not a dog fight — involving that legend of World War I: Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron of Germany. The two aces were killed within weeks of each other in 1918.
Among Roy’s colleagues was a Lieutenant Naoroji, grandson of the formidable Dadabhai Naoroji. Only one Indian in the RFC survived the war. He was Hardit Singh Malik, son of a distinguished Sikh family, who lived to an old age and served as India’s ambassador to France.

The Great War came to Indian shores a hundred years ago next month, in September 1914. Sailing out of a naval facility in China, the German cruiser Emden attacked Madras (now Chennai) harbour and destroyed a merchant ship and valuable cargo. More important, it killed some civilians and caused hundreds to flee — bringing home the panic of a European war to the good citizens of modern Tamil Nadu.
The Emden was the Kaiser’s World War I Indian Ocean raider. From Chennai, it moved east in the direction of Sri Lanka and into the waters of Southeast Asia. The Emden’s advance was monitored by the British Indian military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Intelligence from there helped an Australian warship, the Sydney, to challenge and wreck the Emden off the Cocos Islands in November.

Today, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is the location of India’s sole tri-services command. It is the seat of India’s naval ambitions, and aspirations of being an Indo-Pacific power. The Cocos Islands is still Australian territory and being discussed by American strategists as a possible setting for surveillance of the South China Sea.
As for the Chinese port that the Emden sailed out of to commence its invasion of Chennai, Tsingtao is now called Qingdao. From a German colony, it has become a gleaming industrial metropolis on China’s eastern coast. Qingdao is also the base of the Chinese Navy’s Northern Fleet. In a hundred years so much has changed, and yet so little.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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