Indian soldiers who fought during World War I, largely forgotten, are now being honoured
India1914 is an UK-based initiative that is highlighting the courage of Indian soldiers during World War I
Over one million Indian soldiers fought overseas during World War I. The locations were far-flung: Gallipoli, Flaunders, Mesopotamia, East Africa, Egypt. The losses were tremendous: at least 62,000 died during the war. And the tales of valour, numerous – with 11 Victoria Crosses earned by Indian soldiers.
And yet, their contribution, for the most part, isn’t widely known, or celebrated.
India1914 is an UK-based initiative that is attempting to redress this.
It started in October 2015, with a conversation between Nitin Palan, chairman of the Golden Tours Foundation, and Warwick Hawkins, the Faith Engagement officer for the Department of Communities and Local Government. Referring to the contribution of Sikh soldiers during World War I, Hawkins wondered why nothing was being done to commemorate the Hindu soldiers, ahead of its centenary.
Nitin Palan says this got him thinking about why the remembrance wasn’t for the contribution of Indian soldiers, as a whole – the British soldiers certainly weren’t remembered as Christians or Irish or Roman Catholic. Why then were the Indian soldiers being remembered in such a fragmented manner?
Nitin realised that this was a shared concern of the fraternity of specialists, practitioners and curators focusing on World War I – especially those looking at the non-British contribution to the Great War.
“It was very clear that there were several stories waiting to be told, several fallen heroes that needed to be remembered. The fact that there was hardly any institutional memory or shared remembrance of the role of Indian soldiers worried me. One thing led to the other and the entire team of India1914 was created,” Nitin told Firstpost.
India1914 (it is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund) was launched in April 2016, and the project will conclude in September 2017. (The World War I centennial ends in 2018.) However, this is only a beginning of the work that will unfold in months and years to follow. As Nitin puts it, “This is only the first step to meet, understand, recognise, signpost people’s efforts and to begin the formation of an e-museum through the website, India1914.com.”
The Indian contribution during WWI was considerable, but much of the story is missing from the public domain. India provided the largest voluntary force ever assembled in history with around 1.5 million individuals. Why then was this contribution (largely) overlooked?
Nitin feels it may have something to do with the sense of pride all nations want to instill in their citizens. “Often, recognising other nations’ and their peoples’ contribution may interfere with their own sense of pride. The West has traditionally not viewed India as an equal partner and always considered it as part of the Third World. On the other hand, India as a nation has failed to recognise the contribution of its own soldiers’ during the Great War, as it is looked at with pain and not relevance,” he surmises.
This is especially poignant because the sacrifices made by the Indian soldiers were different from those of other enlisted men. “They were not fighting for their nation, but there was a hope that by defending the British, they would have earned their Independence. Prior to 1914, Indian soldiers had already been used by the British army for over a century not only to expand their influence over the Indian subcontinent, but also across continents,” points out Nitin.
He recounts a story he heard from a friend, the noted solicitor Vijay Sharma: Of a war hero’s widow who gave away his Victoria Cross to someone who asked for it – because she was unaware of its significance. Sharma fought a legal battle to ensure the VC was returned to the woman. “The story moved me,” says Nitin. “It is this oblivion we are fighting today and giving back the due credit, respect that these war heroes and their families so richly deserve.”
India1914 has ambitious plans for the future. If the website will signpost the continuous knowledge generated, there will also be webinars, seminars, workshops, community outreach via mobile exhibitions that will help take the scope of this project beyond 2018. One of the elements of the project is to organise an interaction between school students and young people based in India as well as the UK and help them share their own impressions of the Indian contribution during World War. Some will also be participating in the actual documentation of oral histories of some of the stories of Indian contribution during the Great War.
“India1914 is an attempt to make history relevant for ourselves and our progeny,” says Nitin. “If we don’t think history is relevant, then who will? Today is history for tomorrow. If we do not value our history, tomorrow our children and their children may turn around and say that we were not worth remembering!”
Visit India1914.com for more information
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