Armistice Day: Our ancestors fought for freedom and democracy

Whilst the role of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians is well known, that 1.5 million Indians volunteered overseas in the First World War is not. That a further 2.5 million troops from the Subcontinent were fighting Axis forces from around the globe is largely forgotten.

The poppy that we wear is synonymous with the sacrifice and bravery of our fallen, a bond between the living and the dead. The poppy signifies our gratitude to 1.5 million volunteers from every corner of undivided India, speaking a plethora of tongues and belonging to every faith.

Last year, Lord Gadhia in collaboration with the Royal British Legion commissioned the Khadi Poppy, the homespun cotton made notable by Mahatma Gandhi. As Lord Gadhia stated: “The Khadi Poppy sends a message to young Asians growing up in Britain: your fathers and grandfathers didn’t just come here as immigrants. They fought for this country, for freedom and democracy. They were much like their British counterparts — they believed the cause was just.”

In the First World War, India raised the world’s largest volunteer forces, a total of 1.5 million people. More than 1 million of these were sent overseas and 140,000 fought on the Western Front, marking the first time for Indian soldiers fighting on European ground. Gandhi-ji had made the case for Indian assistance, and seven Indian expeditionary forces fought alongside British forces in Europe. They fought at Neuve Chapelle, in Africa, Mesopotamia, Suez, Sinai, Palestine and Gallipoli.

Doctors and students from the Indian Medical Service provided rehabilitation to those who were wounded, and military hospitals were set up across the British Isles, the most notable being the Royal Pavilion Hospital in Brighton. We must remember the great toll and personal hardship felt by Indian citizens and their families who were indirectly involved.

There are innumerable memorials across the world in existence to commemorate these personnel who gave their lives, the Chattri on the South Downs near Brighton is well associated with 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose last rites were conducted in accordance with their faith at this location. A memorial service is held there every year to commemorate their collective sacrifice. The Muslim burial site in Woking where 17 Indian soldiers were originally buried. It was a horrendous war which resulted in tragedy and pain, as demonstrated by the literature and poetry that stand as a testament of war.

Her Majesty’s Government and the Royal British Legion have worked excellently to create an inclusive commemoration and approached last year’s centenary in a spirit of unity recognising the horror of warfare, and acknowledging that the suffering and loss did not recognise state boundaries and those whom we were once at war with are now helping us to build a better planet for all.

To commemorate the massive contribution of the Indian Subcontinent, the United Service Institution of India (USI) last year chose the marigold as a symbol of
remembrance for India, selected for its association with the Subcontinent and being representative of sacrifice.

We should use this Remembrance Day to establish a common consciousness of the Commonwealth, the role that the Commonwealth played in the liberation of the United Kingdom, in emphasising the contribution of the Subcontinent, and bring together Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in harmony in the shared remembrance of their forefathers.

Today, few recognise that 2.5 million volunteer soldiers fought for the Allies during the Second World War, these were extremely brave souls who came from humble backgrounds in the villages and towns of the Subcontinent.

One name that stands out is that of Noor Inayat Khan, raised in Britain and France and a descendant of royalty, she was enlisted to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in which she was the first female wireless operator sent to France under Nazi occupation. For three months, she evaded capture and was tortured and shot by a firing squad in Dachau concentration camp in 1944. Her final word uttered was ‘Liberté’, a staunch pacifist and long-time proponent of Indian independence.

The Battle of Monte Cassino is a poignant moment in Indian Army history. Between January and May 1944, a quarter of a million troops fought in four battles around Monte Cassino in Italy. The Battle of Monte Cassino, and importantly India’s contribution was overshadowed by D-Day which itself was possible because of the Allied victory at Monte Cassino.

Above all, the war gave the moment for home rule – swaraj – a new historical significance. The First World War was a period of great historic change, the legacy of the Indian troops who fought so gallantly did not demonstrate an Indian commitment to imperial rule, it marked the beginning of the end of the Raj. We have to work on the national curriculum, and work to get information about the Indian contribution in the curriculum – not just the First World War, but more importantly the Second World War.

शहीदो अमर रहो |


with all good wishes,

Suraj Samant