In the killing fields of Gallipoli in 1915, Australia and New Zealand found their national identities. This Independence Day, India, which has been sprinting along the superpower track, will find an opportunity to pause for a moment to remember the 1.3 million Indians who fought in the First World War.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Great War, a global organization of NRIs wants to declare August 15 as Remembrance Day in memory of the Indian soldiers. They have chosen this day because “there could be no better day to be free of our old inhibitions about our colonial past and honour our own people whose sacrifices also contributed to India’s freedom”.
“This will be our Remembrance Day. We have attended such memorial functions in France where heads of different states converge and the civilian turnout is quite big. But we don’t see a single Indian face there—quite an irony, given the fact that 1, 40,000 Indians defended French soil from German aggression in the Great War, and many never returned home. That’s why we, NRIs from France, came up with this project,” says a representative of Global Organization for People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), France.
Incidentally, in a recent British Council survey on the First World War, 78% of respondents from France thought India stayed neutral in the conflict and didn’t send any troops. This is despite the fact that one of the largest Indian war memorials in Europe is at Neuve Chappelle in France where nearly 5,000 Indian soldiers died in March 1915 during one of the bloodiest battles of the Great War. “All the more reason for us, Indians, to reclaim our position in world history, isn’t it?” says the GOPIO member.
Murugesh Natarajan represents a Chennai-based environmental organization named God’s Tree Trust, under the aegis of which an ambitious programme will be launched on August 15: planting of 74,187 trees across the length and breadth of the country in memory of all the Indians killed in the First World War.
But why trees? Natarajan reasons: “You could have a function loaded with speeches, song and dance, food and drinks, and forget about the episode for the next 100 years. Or, you could have an event that would have a lasting impact on the people by inspiring them to repeat it year after year. Ours is pretty much a green initiative, too, for which we have approached the chief ministers of different states for support. It’s easy to plant trees, but very difficult to keep them safe from poachers. Once a tree is planted in the honour of a soldier, it will be a living reminder of the silent sacrifice made by him. And anyone would feel really guilty to even think about felling such a tree.”
The remembrance activity won’t stop there; GOPIO has something even more ambitious in the pipeline. A video capturing the spirit of India and her armed forces with the National Anthem playing in the background will be shot and played in 5,500 theatres across the world, including 1,500 in India. Finally on October 2, GOPIO will hold an international commemoration ceremony on the floor of Unesco in Paris where, in the presence of representatives of 192 countries, the anthem video will be played and Indian soldiers of the First World War honoured. “We will divulge more about it as we approach the date, but as of now I can tell you this that it will be a spectacular and memorable ceremony. Our group’s founder, honorary mayor Augustin R Benoit, is coming to India to meet the political leadership and pave the way forward,” Natarajan adds.
Now, the question is this: will the government of India really pick up this taboo topic and do something officially? The ministry of external affairs has been powering a Great War centenary project by United Service Institution of India’s Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research since last year. But at the same time, the ministry of defence is learnt to have refused to send a military contingent to take part in France’s Bastille Day celebrations this year. The parade was special this year, as it commemorated the centenary of the First World War, and India was among the 76 countries invited to take part. Military contingents from the UK, US, Canada and even Algeria—which was never invited after that country’s independence in 1962—took part in the July 14 parade in Paris.
There was criticism in France about Algerian participation, but the government said that since 20,000 Algerian Spahis had died defending French soil, it was time to move beyond politics and honour the sacrifice of those servicemen. If France could do it, why can’t India?
“Well this is certainly disappointing. But we can’t sit idle, cursing all of that which is not in our hands. We must do our bit. All Indians must support this initiative by all means and make it a success,” says Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Anil Bhat, the former spokesperson of Indian Army and MoD.