Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Unremembered Stories of The World Wars, INDIA and Indian Independence


While browsing through the magazine rack at a local departmental store, I came across a special issue of The Week magazine (dated August 2, 2020): World War II @75 How India Saved The World From Hitler.

It is a special issue of The Week magazine, to commemorate the 75th year of end of World War II, which is just round the corner 2nd of September. (WWII ended on 2nd September 1945).

The title How India Saved The World From Hitler, was intriguing to me. I grew up in the 90's, as a school going kid I had hardly read a paragraph in my history books which mentioned about India's contribution and involvement in the World Wars (I and II).

(By the way, just two years ago 11th of November 2018 was the centenary year for the end of World War I).

This edition of The Week magazine featured many related stories about India and World War II. Reading them made me wonder how little I knew about my country's history, it's contribution and our legacy in shaping the present day modern world.

Reading these stories, nudged me to explore more on India and World Wars.   

It is important for us to know about India's contribution in the World Wars. These wars are watershed moments in the modern human history which shaped our present day world order. 

Writing this blogpost is my small attempt to spread awareness among many more Indians and the global community, who like me might be ignorant of INDIA's enormous contributions in the World Wars. 

India's involvement in World Wars as part of British Empire and India's own freedom movement in the backdrop of World Wars is a vast landscape of complicated stories, many characters and multiple perspectives. Making a sense of this requires a deep dive into further reading and the extend to which one wants to read and know depends on one's personal interest and inclination. 

This blogpost is not a deep dive into the subject. It attempts to do the following:

  1. Info-graphics for your easy reading and quick awareness
  2. Present a brief write-up on India's enormous contributions in the World Wars.
  3. Present a brief write-up on the relevance of World Wars and India's independence.
  4. Curate the links (other resources) at one place for your easy accessibility

1. Info-graphics for your easy reading and quick awareness

2. Brief write-up on India's enormous contributions in the World Wars

World War I

Indian political leaders backed the British war effort in order to gain leverage in their fight for dominion status and eventually their call for total independence. 

The sacrifices of the Indian soldiers was of a very different kind, because they were not fighting for their own Nation but there was a HOPE that by defending the British, in return they would eventually earn their independence.

India provided the largest voluntary force ever assembled in history with around 1.4 million (14 lakhs) individuals, with 74,000 fatalities.

The total number of animals sent overseas from India for the war efforts were around 184,350. These included horses, ponies, mules, camels, bullocks and dairy cattle.

The contributions from Indian revenues towards the cost of the war amounted to £146.2 million by the end of 1919-20. In today's terms, these would amount to around 14 billion. 

The approximate value of supplies send overseas during the war to the various forces dependent on India was £ 34 million. Items supplied were, rice, flour, atta, dal, ghee, sugar, tea, tinned meat, jam, biscuits and firewood. It amounted to 3.7m tonnes.

The Indian regiments fought at various places across the world: France, East Africa (now Kenya), Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey and Syria), Egypt, Palestine, Trans-Caspia (modern day Turkmenistan), Arabia, Greece, China, West Africa and North-West frontiers of India.

11 Indian soldiers received Victoria Cross medals for their bravery.

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, India gained independent representation. As a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, India gained automatic entry to the League of Nations. The collective contributions of Indian soldiers, gradually lead to positive reforms in the Indian army after the end of WWI.

World War II

At the start of WWII in 1939 the Indian Army had just 1,60,000 (1.6 lakhs) troops. By the time the war ended in 1945, the Indian Army had swelled to more than 2.5 million (25 lakhs). 

It was the largest all-volunteer army in the history of human conflict writes Harry Fecitt, the author of  Distant Battlefields.

Close to 25,000 were martyred in the war, 64,000 were wounded and 12,000 went missing, never again to return home.

The key wars, in which Indian soldiers contributed enormously:

In December 1940, the 4th Indian Division fought the Italian empire in East Africa. The Indian forces that liberated the city of Addis Ababa in April 1941, paving the way for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to return to his homeland. In May 1941 a regrouped Italian Army was again defeated by 5th Indian Division. 

In the Middle East, a pro-German junta led by Rashid Ali, seized power in Iraq. Britain's supply of oil for running the war machines dried up. By mid-1941, the 8th and 10th Indian Division reached Basra in Iraq and secured the oil fields. 

Another Indian brigade, along with Australians and the Free French Forces, captured Damascus and secured Syria and Lebanon.

In May-June 1942, the 4th and 10th Indian Division joined the Commonwealth forces and won the second battle of El Alamein in Egypt, defeating the celebrated German general Erwin Rommel.

In July 1942, the German forces had begun the seige of Leningard and were almost sighting Moscow. The siege of Leningard lasted for 872 days (2 years and 3 months). Russia was starved of food, fuel and ammunition. Most of Russia's oil import came from Persia. The oil fields of Persia was under threat from the advancing German army, threatening the import of oil. To revive the oil supply, 8th and 10th Indian Division and the 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade were deployed for invasion of Iran in August 1941 and they succeed in their mission. The Indian troops developed ports, roads, river and canal routes from the Persian Gulf to the Arctic reaches of Russia, through which tens of thousands of soldiers carried 62,000 tonnes of aid. 

Auchinleck who commanded the Indians in the Middle East said "The British couldn't have come through both wars (WWI, WWII) if they hadn't had the Indian Army."  

With the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese on 7th December 1941, America also entered into the war. Japan was simultaneously fighting in Hong Kong, Malaya (Malaysia), Burma (Myammar) and Singapore. The Rajput and Punjab regiment, 9th and 11th Indian Divisions and the 12th Indian Infantry Brigade fought across Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma. In the North East frontiers of India (Imphal and Kohima) the 5th, 7th and 26th Indian Division fought in the fierce battle what came to be known as the Battle of the Admin Box. 

The INA (Indian National Army) lead by Netaji Subas Chandra Bose was engaged in the Battle of the Admin Box seeking to liberate their motherland. To the great glory of India, both sides British India Army and INA fought each other. 

The WWII came to an end with Japanese surrender following the aftermath of US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th of August 1945 respectively. 

On 2nd September 1945, the Japanese generals officially surrended to General MacArthur on board USS Missouri, berthed in Tokyo Bay.    

For India, however there were a few more days of war left. The 5th Indian Division reached Singapore on 4th September 1945 to take it over. The 23rd and 25th Divisions landed in Malaya on 9th of September to take it over. 

6,300 Indian Army personnel won awards in WWII.

The tally included 31 Victoria Crosses (VC) the highest military gallantry honour, 7 George Crosses, 252 Distinguished Service Orders, 347 Indian Orders of Merit and 1,311 Military Crosses.  

3. World War I, World War II and it's relevance to India's independence

1.4 million and 2.5 million Indian soldiers fighting for British Empire during World Wars I and II, Gandhi's Quit India movement and Bose's Indian National Army (and INA trials) were the three inter-connected plots, which lead to India's independence on 15th of August, 1947, two years after the end of WWII.  

The Indian Independence struggle since the 1900's has to be seen in the backdrop of changing dynamics between the European Imperial Empires and the precipitation of the World Wars.

The Indian political leaders of those times had wholeheartedly supported Britain in WWI in the hope of return of favour of being granted dominion status for India's war efforts. When WWI ended in 1919, Britain refused to give dominion status to India in return for their help. Rather what came through was Rowlatt Act, Jallianwalla Bagh massacre and a water-downed diarchy through the Montagu-Chelmsford (Mont-Ford) reforms.

Though the Indian political leaders where fighting against the British Raj for India's political freedom, when WWII broke out, most of them, except Subhas Chandra Bose were willing to lend their support to the British cause against Nazism, with an assurance of India's independence after the war ends. 

As this assurance did not come through Gandhi threatened British Raj with the call for civil disobedience movement. As the Congress threatened civil disobedience, most of it's top brass leaders were put into jail. By March 1941, Subas Chandra Bose escaped from house arrest and fled to Moscow.

The WWII had taken a global stage with the Axis and Allied forces fighting each other. Bose managed to raise INA (Indian National Army) with the Indian POW (prisoners of wars). 

By 1942, Gandhi announced "Quit India" movement and India was in a turmoil. 

By 1942, with the fall of Burma and Singapore, INA and Japanese armies were at the doorsteps of eastern gate of the British empire. Meanwhile the Japanese and INA were making inroads into Burma, The Andaman islands were handed over by the Japanese to Netaji Subas Chandra Bose, and Bose hoisted the Indian tri-colour. The fate turned soon, with British India Army holding the fort in the Battle of Admin (Imphal and Kohima) and with Japanese surrender after the atom bombs falling in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945.

The captured INA officers and soldiers, were brought to Red Fort in Delhi to be tried for treason. The INA trials resulted in widespread protest across India. The sailors of the Royal Indian Navy rose in revolt in February 1946. These protests drove home a message to the British, that the loyalty of Indians Armed Forces could not be taken for granted any longer. This precipitated this final event of transfer of power and India gaining her political independence on 15th of August, 1947. 

Sarojini Naidu had written a poem, The Gift of India, narrating the sacrifices of Indian soldiers in World War I. In the last stanza of the poem she asks the world to remember the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers who fought in the World War.  

When the terror and tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks,
And you homour the deeds of the deathless ones, 
Remember the blood of my martyred son!

Unfortunately, we haven't kept them in our remembrance enough. 
Isn't it high time, to remember the Unremembered?

4. Curated resources (at one place for your easy accessibility)

  • India 1914 website is part of 'Remembering Indian Soldiers', a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Palan Foundation.

  • Annu Palakunnathu Matthew a Professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island is working on a project The Unremembered: Indian Soldiers of World War II. She is collecting family photographs of Indian officers and soldiers who fought in WWII, for creating a digital archive to keep their memories and legacy alive.
 (Annu Matthew's website)

 (One can contribute with photographs for this project)

  (Conversation at BIC - Bangalore                         International Centre)

  • Movies, Web series:
1. Kabir Khan directed web series The Forgotten Army Azaadi Ke Liya on Amazon Prime, tells the story of INA during the WWII, from an Indian soldier's point of view. (trailer)

2. Rangoon movie directed by Vishal Bharadwaj, is a love triangle in the backdrop of WWII and INA. (trailer)

3. Sajjan Singh Rangroot is a film on Sikh regiments that went to the front lines during WWI. Lead role played by Diljit Dosanjh. (trailer)

4. Raag Desh is a period film directed by Timangshu Dhulia on the historic 1945 Indian National Army Red Fort Trials. (trailer)

  • Documentaries:

    1. Kabir Khan has scripted a 3 episode documentary The Forgotten Army aired on Doordarshan.

    Episode 1:

    Episode 2:

    Episode 3:

    One link for episode 1, 2 and 3 

    2. History TV18 featured episodes WW and Indian army: 

    61st Cavalry India's Horse Warriors: (the first 15 mins of this episode talks about 61st Cavalry division during the WWI).

    History Honours: India's Forgotten Army: (Indian Army during the WWI).  

    • Reading
    Links to two stories from The Week Magazine's special edition on India and WWI.

    1. India's World War (cover story) - a story that is now all but forgotten

    2. Birth of a nation - How WWII started a chain reaction that resulted in India's independence

    Books on World Wars and India:

    1. The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War - Yasmin Khan

    2. Farthest Field: An Indian Story of Second World War - Raghu Karnad

    3. Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment - Vera Hildebrand

    4. The Indian Spy: The True Story of the Most Remarkable Secret Agent of World War II - Mihir Bose

    5. Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan - Shrabani Basu

    6. India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia - Srinath Raghavan

    7. For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18 - Shrabani Basu

    8. If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me? India and the First World War - Vedica Kant

    9. Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front, 1914-1915 - Gordon Corrigan

    10. The Indian Army on the Western Front - George Morton-Jack 

    11. World War One in Southeast Asia: Colonialism and Anti-colonialism in an Era of Global Conflict - Heather E. Streets-Salter

    References (for writing this Blog): 

    India's World War (cover story) - a story that is now all but forgotten

    After Dunkrik, a starter list of 10 engaging books on India's role in the World Wars - article by Jenny Bhatt.

    Photographs of Indian sepoys from World Wars.

    World War I: Six extra-ordinary Indian stories.

    Letters written by Indian soldiers from World Wars.

    Common Wealth War Graves

    The Northeast India WWII Trail