Monday, October 03, 2005

British India's War Dead: A Tribute

When I visited Burma on vacation in August, I paused at the Htaukkyant war cemetery on the Rangoon-Pegu road. The site commemorates the 27,000 British and Indian war dead in Burma between 1939 and 1945. August marked the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and the experience at Htaukkyant deeply moved me. I recognized the names of Indian soldiers from the Madras, the Sikh, the Pathan, the Jat, the Chamar, the Gurkha, and the Bengal regiments inscribed on the imposing marble walls. Names such as V. Raghavan, Menon and Doraiswamy from the third Madras regiment met my eye. These were peasant men who died defending Burma. And yet, this was not India's war as Subhash Chandra Bose rightly pointed out.

World War I raged from 1914 to 1917. The colonial Indian treasury "gifted" 200 million pounds sterling to the allied war effort. The authorities in British India recruited 800,000 soldiers and 400,000 non-combatants to serve on various fronts. Half of the recruits hailed from the Punjab and were largely Sikh. 210,000 Indian troops were despatched overseas in 1914 and fought with valor in several places. 44,000 men landed in France to stem the German offensive in Flanders while another contingent helped capture the then German East Africa. Two divisions helped occupy Egypt, whose government was split between pro-German and pro-allied factions. Indian troops helped take over the German fortress of Kiachow in the Shantung peninsula of China. Indian troops, under British command, fought bravely in China, Flanders, France, Gallipolli, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika and Tanganyika. 26,000 Indians died in far off lands between 1914 and 1917.

World War II raged from 1939 to 1945. The colonial Indian exchequer "contributed" $ 3.1 billion to the allied war effort! 300 war ships were manufactured in India in 1943 and India was the third largest supplier of war materials to Australia in 1944. The colonial authorities recruited two million men from British India to join the war effort. 160,000 men were sent to fight in Aden, Burma, the Horn of Africa, Malaya and North Africa in 1939. The defeat of General Rommel of the German Afrika Korps in El Alamein owed itself in substantial measure to the heroism of the peasant Indian soldier. The tide finally turned in North Africa and the way had been cleared to land troops in Sicily. Indian soldiers were integral to the allied efforts that defeated Mussolini in Italy. Indian troops, likewise, helped recapture Abyssinia, British Somaliland, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. The peasant soldiers of yesteryear gave up their lives in the allied war effort.

And what about the women. The Indian National Congress, under the leadership of Mohandas K Gandhi, launched the nationwide civil disobedience campaign to free India from colonial rule. The participation of women from all walks of life in the freedom struggle was truly remarkable. I do not have the statistics with me but India's women defied the writ of the colonial administrator, courted arrest and braved police lathi charges in droves. The Indian freedom struggle was a mass movement, one in which women played a disproportionate role.

I have omitted reference here to the heroism of the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose. It was the mutiny in the Royal Indian Navy that convinced the colonial administrator that Indian independence was inevitable. The India Office in London preferred Nehru to Bose and the rest is history. I will cover that saga in a separate posting.


Ashish Hanwadikar said...

Absolutely marvelous post. I always wanted to read more about contribution of Indians in the World War I & II.

divya said...

My Grandpa was in the World War 2. He was one of those torpedo launchers in HMIS Rana - I suspect the 'I' is for "India" service- (thats wat it says behind one of the photos) in the British Navy. I have one photo he had taken with a friend in Malta, Italy!

Jaffna said...

Ashish, Divya

Thanks. Divya's your own story brings to life the statistics of India's extensive contribution to the war effort.

My family has been associated with Singapore since 1871. My aunt would tell me that the British soldiers ran from Malaya as the Japanese approached leaving the last minute combat to the Indian foot soldier. I can not verify the accuracy of her report.

This said, the Japanese did treat the Indian prisoner of war quite well, unlike the attrocious treatment of Chinese civilians.


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