The Sad Centennial of World War One Holds Particular Pathos for India.

Author:Dorschner, Jon
Position:Essay

September 2016

"If I die here, who will remember me?" (India and the First World War) by Vedica Kant, Roli Books, New Delhi, India, 2014, ISBN 978-81-7436-976-6, 255 pp., $49.95 (Hardcover). For Kind and Another Country (Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-1918) by Shrabani Basu, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2015, ISBN 978-93-84052-91-1, 224 pp., $30.00 (Hardcover) Those of us residing in the world of the 21st Century look back on the First World War with disdain. To us, it was a senseless war, fought for no purpose. We cannot conceive the naivete of the millions of young men who eagerly marched off to war. So many never returned to their loved ones, as the war settled into a systematic wholesale slaughter on an industrial scale that the world had never seen before. In 2016, the world is in the midst of this war's centennial. Commemorations are taking place throughout Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States.

In India (and Pakistan), by contrast, the event is passing practically without notice. This is not because colonial India did not fully participate in the war.

"By the end of the war, nearly one-and-a-half million Indians--including combatants and non-combatants--had gone to the frontline, the largest volunteer army from any of the colonies and more than the combined armies from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The dead and missing were nearly 72,000 with many more wounded." (1)

Shortly after the British Empire declared war on the Empire of Germany and its allies in August of 1914, the Viceroy of India confirmed India's participation in the conflict and committed the Indian Army. Unlike the British dominions, which were self-governing, the Indian population had no voice in the ruling of its own country. The Viceroy committed India to the war without consulting the Indian people.

The German offensive on the Western Front caught the British unawares. Great Britain did not have enough troops to man the rapidly expanding trench lines being dug across France. There was growing fear that the German troops would break through, capture French coastal ports and knock Britain out of the war. Three Indian divisions were quickly mobilized for combat. Two were sent to France and one to Egypt to prevent German capture of the Suez Canal. Within months, Indian soldiers were plugged into the trenches facing the onslaught of the German Army.

Who were these nameless Indians shipped across the world to fight for "King and Country?" Modern historians have concluded that colonialism is, by definition racism, for it rests on the supposition that one group of people is superior to another and can deny them self-determination and civil rights. British colonialism in particular, was obsessed by race and skin color. This racial obsession permeated the British administration of India and dominated the thinking of the Indian Army, which refined racial thinking beyond white and black.

The Indian Army was based on a "martial races theory," which supposed that the vast majority of Indians were unfit for military service. The Indian Army confined its recruitment to "martial races," which the British believed possessed a natural talent for warfare. These groups included the Gurkhas of Nepal, the Pathans of the Northwest Frontier Province, the Sikhs and Muslims of the Punjab, and the Gahrwalis and Dogras of the Himalayan region. The recruits were by and large simple villagers, many from remote areas with little access to the outside world. The overwhelming majority were illiterate. They included Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.

The British Officer Corps that staffed the regiments of the Indian Army took a paternal...

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