“Here I am penning this to you in the middle of one of the biggest nights in the history of this war. Love, I am sure by the time you receive this letter you will guess correctly as to where I am. … You would feel that the whole world were shaking with an earthquake or probably the sky were falling over you…Yet in the midst of this commotion, I sit here, on my own kit-bag and scribble these few lines to my love for I do not really know when I will get the next opportunity to write to you.”
– A translated letter from an Indian ‘Jawan’ of the British Indian Army, World War II.
This month, the United Kingdom observed Remembrance Sunday to honour the great British men and women who gave up their lives to put an end to the growing threat of Nazism around the world. Alas, like every year, they didn’t deem it important enough to honour the 4 million Indian soldiers who fought two wars as men of the British Indian Army for a country which only later forgot their contributions to the illustrious, triumphant history they very ignorantly boast of today.
It doesn’t come as a surprise to watch them slink into oblivion in England. The ungratefulness of the British ‘sahibs’ is probably a trait most readers of imperial history are largely familiar with. However, what wounds me is their insignificance in the Indian minds today and more than that, the fact that perhaps the fierce movements of independence eclipsed their sacrifices in the second world war completely.
In my opinion, even as an imperial colony, India’s contribution to both the Great and the Second World War has been unfathomably huge. So much that in view of our contribution in the Great War, The New York Times wrote in 1918: “The world must pay India in whatever India wants, for without Indian products, there would be greater difficulty in winning the war.”
It is very important to note that Britain along with India as one of its strongest pillars, entered into a war with Germany without any consultation from Indian representatives at all. Indian men and women still provided force and equipment to Britain as well as to all of her allies.
Be it fighting German tanks in Africa, the ferocious Japanese army in Malaya, battles in the deserts of the Middle East or the invasion of Italy, the soldiers of the British Indian Army had a pivotal role to play in all these military operations. In fact, the Fourteenth Army in Burma was the largest single army in the world with a million soldiers of which 700,000 were Indians.
Talking to Folks Magazine N.S Rajaram, a NASA mathematician, recalled his interactions with an Indian Soldier of the British Indian Army, he quoted him, “When the Japanese attacked, the British ran away. They were very clever. They had a wonderful life with bungalows and butlers and cooks and all that, but as soon as the Japanese came, they ran away. And once they got back to India, they sent Gurkhas, Sikhs, Marathas and other Indians to fight the Japanese. They knew it was too dangerous for them. That is how we got independence in Malaya”. During the war 24,338 soldiers died while fighting, more than 65,000 were wounded and around 11,500 went missing.
When it came to material supplies, India proved her mettle once again. 14 million labourers worked round the clock to keep the war supplies running. Roughly 37,000 of the total 50,000 textile articles that were supplied to the allied powers were manufactured in Indian factories. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, as much 35 per cent of India’s total cotton production ( a whopping 5 billion yards) went into the manufacturing of war materials for the British Empire and its allies. India also provided 197 million tonnes of coal, 6 million tonnes of iron ore and more than a million tonnes of steel to the British for their war. And if that’s not all, in 1941 the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad went on to fund two whole squadrons of the Royal Air Force.
We know that a large number of Indians fought for the British in the Great War keeping the latter’s false incentive of independence in mind but why was it that they came out in larger numbers during the second? Truth be told, the British brought India to the dogs- economically — and it worked out pretty well for them, for these desperate countrymen were willing to do anything to make sure some food entered their bellies and that of their loved ones.
What is most outrageous is how Britain reciprocated India’s undying contributions to their “glorious” triumph. While Westminster promised to pay India back for all her contributions after the war was done and dusted with, all they really did was print more paper currency leading to a dangerously high level of inflation. The war completely tarnished India’s economic system which already took a big toll during the Great Famine of Bengal of 1943. To top all of that, while retreating from an independent India the British had the gall to destroy several defence aircraft and supplies that legally belonged to India.
The whitewashing of India’s contributions to the war cannot be blamed solely on Britain’s unwillingness to share its glory – they belittled the Soviet Union’s efforts too. While the British did honour the fallen soldiers of the Great War by constructing the India Gate in New Delhi, there is no significant memento — either from the British or from Indians — to honour the sacrifices of the brave men and women who fought and toiled not only to keep the honour of their motherland but to beat a fascist power who probably would’ve changed the course of history, horrifically, had they won.
It is extremely unfortunate that we as citizens of this great nation forget to pay homage to the enormous sacrifices of these Indian soldiers who at every front, be it the Great War or the Second World War, happened to be the first ones to take a bullet for a country that wasn’t even their own, from an enemy of whom they had barely ever known, only to be later forgotten in the country they called their home.
Lest we forget, to the brave 4 million Indian heroes of the British Indian Army, Jai Hind!
Having completed his schooling from Mayo College in Ajmer, Niket Mehra is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting & Finance from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. For the times he keeps his mind off numbers and markets, he is engrossed with his readings on World History, mystery novels, Culture and Politics. Niket is also extremely passionate about theatre, films, music, food, and sports.
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