The BJP government’s commemorating Indian soldiers who died for the British reflects the regime’s ideological need to acknowledge the Indians’ martial traits even if they had died for an alien power.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be paying a visit to Egypt on June 24 on his way back to India from a State visit to the United States. A noteworthy part of Modi’s itinerary in Egypt is paying homage to the 4,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in the Middle East during World War I (1914-1918).
Modi will visit the Heliopolis Commonwealth War Cemetery in Cairo which commemorates those from the Commonwealth and the British Empire who perished fighting against the Turks and Germans in defense of the British Empire.
This will not be Modi’s first visit to a Commonwealth War Cemetery abroad. In 2015, he visited the Neuve-Chapelle war memorial in Lille, France, to honor the thousands of Indian soldiers who laid down their lives while fighting against the Germans in World War 1. In 2022, when the Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, was in Egypt, he laid a wreath at the Heliopolis War Cemetery and tweeted: “Indians have made sacrifices across the world in the service of humanity. They inspire us as we strive to create a more contemporary and equitable global order.”
Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War I, and over 74,000 of them lost their lives. But both the Indian nationalist movement and post-colonial Indian governments had taken no notice of their sacrifice, though the grateful British built the imposing “India Gate’ on King’s Way in the newly built New Delhi in 1929.
The nationalist movement had seen no reason to crow about the sacrifice because the soldiers had fought for the British and not for India’s independence.
For the nationalists, it was the Indian army mutiny of 1857 that was worthy of praise. It was re-christened as the “First War of Independence”. Its heroes, like the Rani of Jhansi, were given iconic status.
Few knew that “India Gate” a landmark in the nation’s capital, had names of some of the soldiers (13, 000) who were killed in World War I and the Third Afghan War (1919) inscribed on it. Later, India Gate was designated as a memorial for soldiers who died in wars India fought after independence. The past was this effectively obliterated. Few would care to read the inscriptions and know that the deaths pertained to battles fought for the colonial ruler.
World War II
The deaths of Indian soldiers in World War II were also not noticed in India, though 2.5 million Indians fought in the war and 87, 000 died in various theaters across the globe. This sacrifice was also seen by nationalists as a sign of slavery rather than valor, until Subhas Bose’s death in an air crash in 1945 and the Congress decided to defend Indian National Army leaders at their trial at the Red Fort in Delhi. The Congress had opposed India’s participation in World War II as the British drew India into it without consulting it. The Congress launched the “Quit India movement” in the midst of the war in 1942.
On the contrary, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha openly supported the British war effort and also the participation of Indians in it. Their argument was that war service would re-create the martial qualities which non-Muslim Indians had lost centuries earlier enabling Muslims from Central Asia, Persia and Afghanistan to invade and rule India for 700 years before the British seized power from them.
Currently, the RSS and its political progenies are loath to acknowledge that the British quit India unable to put up with the political and nationalistic groundswell created by Gandhi’s peaceful movement based on soul force (Satyagraha). The RSS’ theory is that it was Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and the nationalist fever it created in India at the end of World War II that really gave the British the jitters. They were manifestly in a hurry to pack up because of the INA’s possible influence on the British Indian army whose number ran into millions.
After independence the ruling Congress’ barely concealed attempt to downplay the contribution of Bose and his INA and promote Gandhi and Nehru instead, only added to the belief in the Hindu Right Wing (Sangh Parivar) that the Congress had something critical to hide.
In the First Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Memorial lecture in New Delhi, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval said that Gandhi told the first Indian army chief, Gen.K.M.Cariappa, that India did not need an army because it had no enemies. Gandhi’s theory was not accepted by the Nehru government.
However, the Nehru regime did not believe in muscular power. It’s emphasis was on projecting India as a moral force and as an advocate of peace and amity. This led to the weakening of the defense forces and defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, Doval said.
Propping Up Strong Men
Since independence and particularly in the last few decades, the RSS and its offshoots have been propping up “strongmen” like Bose and Sardar Patel and denigrating “weak” leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. It is said that it was only Bose who stood for complete independence and not Dominion Status, while the fact was that it was under Nehru’s Presidency in 1929 that the Congress resolved to fight for “Poorna Swaraj”” (Complete Indpendence).
However, the fact that Congress regimes had been soft-pedaling its “strong” leaders to keep Nehru and Gandhi in the limelight only added grist to the Hindutva mill.
Modi Regime Re-orients Policy
In the early days, Hindutva outfits did not glorify the exploits of Indian troops fighting for their British masters. Perhaps this was because of the absence of ideological clarity in their minds. But the Modi regime has emerged from ideological inhibitions. This is because the regime’s first and foremost goal is to awaken India’s innate martial prowess for its bid to project India’s power and influence in the region and across the globe. As Doval said in the Ist Netaji Subhas Bose lecture cited above, no country would respect India if it was not strong militarily.
The RSS, its offshoots and the Modi regime, will from now on view the exploits of India’s soldiers favorably no matter who they fought for. The important thing is the promotion of a martial spirit among Indians. This spirit has to be highlighted and celebrated to bring about a critical change in the Indian mindset. Hindutwa’s thought leaders are at pains to establish that the Muslim invaders’ depredations would have been far more if the Hindu kings had not fought them tooth and nail. It is time the innate martial spirit was revived, they believe.
At the end of the 19 th.Century, the British created the concept of “martial races” to classify Indians for military recruitment and identified the Punjabis (especially Punjabi Muslims), the Baloch, Sikhs, Rajputs, Mahrattas and the Gurkhas as martial and preferred them for military service. This divided an already heavily divided India. However, the British abandoned the martial race theory during War War II and the successor Indian governments followed suit.
But now, the Hindutva outfits want this distinction to go completely. It wants all Indians to acquire martial traits for the defense of the country. As part of this, the Modi government has begun recognizing the exploits of Indian soldiers in the defense of the British Empire.
However, the government has taken care to couch this in a language that would appeal to the Indians’ anti-colonial mindset and the democratic world at large. This is exemplified in Jaishankar’s tweet on his visit to the war memorial in Cairo. “Indians have made sacrifices across the world in the service of humanity. They inspire us as we strive to create a more contemporary and equitable global order” he said. The soldiers had in fact died for the “general good of the world.”