India and the First World War


The Great War inhabits an elusive space in India today. Not entirely forgotten nor actively remembered, it oscillates between memory and oblivion. However, the buzz surrounding the Centenary celebrations in India raised some important questions about how we remember our past and forget it at the same time. The First World War is a relatively unnoticed event in an otherwise historic timeline of Indian events.

At one level, there has been a gap in our understanding of the Great War and its wide ranging socio-political impact on India. Unbeknownst to many, it was one of the starting points for many constitutional changes that were introduced in India at this time. The devolution of powers to the provinces and the widening of representative elective bodies in the subcontinent (known as the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919) was a direct result of British recognition of India’s war effort. Even before that, India’s participation in the War brought forth the question of her place in the colonial framework in a decisive way. Indian participation could no longer be taken for granted as in previous expeditions to China and Africa, and the present engagement in Europe would have to be argued through constitutional offerings being promised for the future. This ‘future’ is now better remembered through the vocabulary of the national movement leading up to independence in 1947, but its provenance lies in the years after 1914 when the colony resolutely pursued questions of Indian representation in government and armed forces.

At another level, First World War amnesia obscures a larger unawareness of India’s military history. The Great War is only the most recently recovered memory from a catalogue of past engagements- the Boer War and the Boxer rebellion to cite a few. However, the World War, aside from its global reach and coverage, has managed to produce a dialogue between the past and present- particularly so for India. The Centenary celebrations that took place in India was the first time that India’s contribution came to be nationally recognised.

Although organised on a modest scale, the commemorations have highlighted the still widely felt unease associated with India’s role in the War. In large part, this tension has arisen from the fact that India raised the largest volunteer force of any British dependency, one which fought with distinction in pursuit of wider imperial interests in Europe and the Middle East. This association with British colonialism jars with India’s post-independence sense of identity. However, marking the first national recognition of India’s war effort throws up interesting questions about how our contemporary sense of security and position in the world has compelled us to sit up and evoke a presence that was left unseen for a hundred years. It also reflects institutional memories. Regiments and units of the Indian Army, some of which saw action in the Great War have had a long tradition of remembering and commemorating their role in the conflict but this has never been matched by any interest shown by successive governments. Interestingly, the Indian National Army (INA)- a revolutionary force that fought with the Japanese against the British in the Burma and Eastern India during the Second World War commands a greater public audience than the Indian army that fought and remained as steadfast in its responsibilities and loyalty to the British crown.

First World War memory in India has also been evoked by the current Prime Minister’s overseas visits. The prime minister’s visits to national memorials in France and Australia and the ceremonial laying of wreaths at iconic cemeteries like Neuve Chapelle has created spaces of inquiry and interest into this part of India’s history. Yet, misperception about India’s role in the conflict remains. Each year in January the Indian President lays a wreath at the India Gate in New Delhi to honour the Indian soldiers who have died in battle. Yet, its only now that a large number of people have realized that the India Gate was commissioned as a war memorial to honour the martyrs of the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1921, just around the time the Cenotaph was unveiled in London. Thus the current regeneration of interest in India’s role in the Great War is a puzzle.

This could partly be explained, as was recently opined in an article, by India’s need to project an image- that ‘of a historical role as a keeper of international peace- a net security provider’. Acknowledgment of the previous century’s events seems to speak to 21st century’s concerns about India’s place in the UN or in its engagements with the EU. So, if by invoking a past form of collaboration, India is able to forge stronger relations with major powers who also fought the War alongside Britain, then it makes sense as to why the government has taken note of the centenary. However, there are limits to this strategy as pointed out in the above article. Would this commemoration be possible in Japan, Germany, or even China? – Countries that India engages with deeply on a bilateral level and who share an uneasy legacy of these global wars.

Part of the puzzle surrounding the interest in India’s role in the War is explained by the patterns of history writing. The decades after independence saw a surge in nationalist writings which focussed on the role played by individuals and political institutions in the run up to independence. This was tempered with the emergence of the ‘subaltern school’ in the 1980s that sought to reconfigure Indian history through non-elitist sources and which shifted the narrative away from statist, personality driven accounts to a more layered and complicated understanding of events. Other approaches to history writing in India derived from the Marxian style of analysis and others which looked at networks of local interest and patronage as drivers of history (the ‘Cambridge school’). However, the dominant theme of the narrative remained political and actual ‘subalterns’ received scant attention.

The acknowledgment of the military and soldiers as social actors in history is quite recent. The ‘social turn’ in the fortunes of military history has had an impact on the way the Indian Army has come to be written about. The search for a new narrative of India’s past has led to a discovery of the role the Army played in the social, political and economic life of the early 20th century. The addition of this new element is poised to reframe our conceptions of India’s past. This could partly explain the faint rumblings that the centenary has produced in India on a public, literary and historical level.

The centenary has been marked by a remarkable outpouring of historical works on the subjects of the Indian Army. Foremost among them is the 2011 published book on South Asian POWs in World War I Germany (When the War Began…Several Kings, eds. Roy, Liebau, Ahuja: Social Science Press, 2011). Making extensive use of German sources, including oral recordings and a substantial audio archive (the book includes a CD of some of the recordings) at Humboldt resulting from the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission- the book has widened the approach to understanding the experience of Indian soldiers in Europe. Also notable is Gajendra Singh’s book that dwells on the letters and ‘testimonies’ of sepoys through the two world wars (2014). Shifting away from the traditional battle-centric accounts and exegesis on doctrine, these new books have highlighted the new fronts on which research is now being carried out. Another important book has been Daniel Marston’s latest on the Indian Army during the last days of the Raj (The Indian Army and the End of the Raj, Cambridge 2014) and which sheds light on the organisational integrity of the force during the subcontinent’s partition. Marston’s work is steeped in rigorous archival work but also alludes to themes that are central to the contemporary policy discourse on the Indian military. It gives a historical account of why and how an Army stays united in crisis situations- clearly a topic that is as relevant as it was a hundred years ago. Thus, academically, the centenary has managed to sustain the dialogue between the past and the present.

Two new books on the role of the Indian troops in the Great War make a more visual impact. These are by Santanu Das and Vedica Kant (‘If I die here, who will remember me?’ India and the First World War, Vedica Kant, 2014; 1914-1918: Indian Troops in Europe, Santanu Das, 2015). Both carry a large number of photographic illustrations and graphics designed to present a vivid account of the experience of the troops in Europe- social, medical and cultural. These books mark a shift away from a more textual and determinedly archival tradition that has been associated with the writing about the Indian army. At a popular level, the writings will also be helpful in trying to make the memories about the War more mainstream than was earlier possible.

The centenary has created a context that will foster a deeper public-personal, historical and academic engagement with the subject of India’s role in the War. It also confirms the widely held belief that all of history is essentially the present. This is because, were it not for India’s contemporary anxieties about its role in the world today, would we still have bothered to look back at our past? To raise another question- is it not the current gap in our historical understanding that has compelled historians to look for answers in the forgotten military episodes from 1914-1918 to arrive at newer conclusions about this century in India’s contemporary history? The ‘success’ of the centenary, morbid as it may sound, has been its ability to put First World Studies on a firm footing in the larger network of South Asian Studies. For India though, a hundred years of remembering may have only just begun.

Image: A Benet-Mercier machine gun section of 2nd Rajput Light Infantry in action in Flanders, during the winter of 1914-15 via Wikimedia Commons.

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