‘Sac­ri­fice of In­dian sol­diers of the Em­pire was never recog­nised by na­tional lead­er­ship’

Sunday Express - - FOCUS - For­mer com­man­der, 15 Corps

Field-Mar­shal Sir Claude Auchin­leck, Com­man­der-inChief of the In­dian Army from 1942, is said to have re­marked that the Bri­tish “couldn’t have come through both wars (World War I and II) if they hadn’t had the In­dian Army”.

Barely a month after the First World War be­gan in July 1914, the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force to France and Bel­gium at Mons found it­self heav­ily un­der­manned and in­ca­pable of hold­ing against the Ger­man on­slaught. That is when an In­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force from the In­dian Army was mus­tered to re­in­force it in France, and it reached in Au­gust. Un­used to bat­tle un­der Euro­pean con­di­tions in­clud­ing trench war­fare, the force suf­fered mas­sive ca­su­al­ties be­fore it was pulled out of bat­tle to re­coup and re­cu­per­ate.

The In­dian Corps was sent back into bat­tle at the be­gin­ning of 1915, and took part in the bat­tle of Neuve-Chapelle on 10-12 March 1915. But though it con­quered some ter­rain against fierce Ger­man re­sis­tance, it was forced to with­draw due to in­suf­fi­cient ar­tillery backup.

By Novem­ber 1918, the In­dian Army con­tained 5,48,311 men, con­sid­ered the Im­pe­rial Strate­gic Re­serve. It was reg­u­larly called upon to deal with in­cur­sions and raids on the North-West Fron­tier and to pro­vide gar­ri­son forces for the Bri­tish Em­pire in Egypt, Sin­ga­pore and China.

Over a mil­lion In­dian troops par­tic­i­pated over­seas while the over­all strength touched al­most 1.4 mil­lion. 72,000 sol­diers were killed in ac­tion and more than 67000 se­verely in­jured. 11 Vic­to­ria Crosses were won for gal­lantry.

The All In­dia War Memo­rial, now known as In­dia Gate, was con­structed in 1931 to com­mem­o­rate the sac­ri­fice by sol­diers of the In­dian Army dur­ing the First World War. It has 82,000 names of In­dian and some Bri­tish sol­diers who died fight­ing for the Em­pire as part of the In­dian Army.

A sim­i­lar memo­rial for those who sac­ri­ficed their lives in the Sec­ond World War has never been con­structed; it per­haps would have, if the Bri­tish had stayed be­yond 1947.

Some­how the sac­ri­fice of sol­diers of the Bri­tish In­dian Em­pire never came to be recog­nised by In­dia’s rulers after In­de­pen­dence in 1947, on the premise that their sac­ri­fice was for the sus­te­nance of the Bri­tish Em­pire and not for the In­de­pen­dence of In­dia. What the post-In­de­pen­dence na­tional lead­er­ship did not re­alise is that it in­her­ited a disci- plined, bat­tle-hard­ened and deeply loyal In­dian Army. The process of mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion­al­i­sa­tion com­menced dur­ing the First World War and cul­mi­nated dur­ing the Sec­ond World War by when an In­dian cadre of Army of­fi­cers had been nurtured.

Along with the In­dian Civil Ser­vice, the In­dian Army was an in­sti­tu­tion which helped ush­erin sta­bil­ity right at the be­gin­ning of the birth of the new na­tion. It re­mained apo­lit­i­cal in the Bri­tish tra­di­tion and con­tin­ued to fol­low many of the prac­tices of the Bri­tish Army. It is, how­ever, to the credit of the na­tional lead­er­ship that even as it un­der­stood lit­tle about the mil­i­tary pro­fes­sion, it al­lowed the In­dian Army to re­main grounded in tra­di­tion and never in­sisted on a com­plete makeover.

Where the na­tional lead­er­ship failed is in the recog­ni­tion of those who died fight­ing for the Bri­tish Em­pire in World War II and con­se­quently those who died fight­ing in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s wars. A mil­i­tary memo­rial and mu­seum is now be­ing fi­nally con­structed in Delhi with names en­shrined of all those who made the supreme sac­ri­fice for the na­tion. Bet­ter late than never.

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