Why it is important today to recover stories of sacrifice and honour in WWI.
The year 2014 marks many centenaries. A brief review of 1914 reveals that many momentous events occurred in that year and, depending on individual preference, there are many ways of either celebrating or commemorating the centenary.
The spectrum ranges from the first steamboat passing through the Panama Canal to the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels to Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Tramp, which debuted in 1914. Historically, it was a rich year and among the many events that vie for notice, there is none more tragic and tectonic than the onset of World War I in July 1914.
A hundred years later, there is concern among historians and security or foreign policy professionals that the world is similarly poised and that there could be a correspondence with the cascading events of 1914, which began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
The UK-Germany contestation of 1914 is now transposed to the uneasy US-China relationship of the early 21st century, and while it is a truism that military history will never quite repeat itself, certain abiding patterns cannot be ignored. Regionally, 2014 is laden with many ominous possibilities and the turbulence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has received considerable attention. In the larger Asian context, the assertiveness of China and the current Japanese determin tion to resist Beijing are cause for concern.
While these strands will receive the attention they deserve in the course of the year, this recall is to place the Indian contribution to WWI in a larger context and to apprise a younger generation (for whom even the 1971 war for Bangladesh is distant history) about a bloody war in the last century that affected thousands of families in the subcontinent.
Undivided India, then under colonial rule, contributed over one million volunteers to this effort, of whom almost 75,000 died and 70,000 were wounded. The names of 13,300 Commonwealth martyrs are engraved on the imposing India Gate — the memorial British India had built in 1931.
A major international effort is underway to commemorate the centenary of WWI in the period 2014-18, and India is also part of this recall. Appropriately, last October, President Pranab Mukherjee, the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, laid a wreath in Brussels to pay homage to these long-forgotten martyrs. Various organisations are part of this collective Indian effort, spearheaded by the venerable USI (United Service Institution), which has an ambitious four-year programme.
A more modest effort is also gathering traction under what may be called a voluntary, civil society initiative that comprises a few military veterans, WWI buffs and some from the Indian diaspora who share the urge to burnish this part of Indian history. The objective is more personal and focused on the forgotten individual sacrifices — both by the faujis involved in that war and the families who bore the brunt of the loss of loved ones.
Currently, attempts are being made to identify the families of those who were part of the war and urge them to share their personal recall of grandfathers or uncles, as the case may be, and the power of modern communication technology has been most encouraging. Thanks to cyberspace, a trickle of personal memorabilia has begun to stream in and one hopes that the Indian media will help spread the word. Hopefully, a volume of incredible gallantry, the travails of the trench, separation, desolation and the variegated experience of the intrepid Indian fauji in different WWI theatres will emerge in the near future.
Cynics have asked why India should, in 2014, recall a long forgotten war where the “native” had no choice — more so when the country is going through one of its bleakest periods. Institutional integrity is tarnished across the board, the national spirit is wilting and many arid battles are being waged over debatable objectives. This is an ontological question that knocks at the foundation of “why history” — whether military or otherwise. As a sailor, one would defer to more accomplished historians to address this complex issue, but for the Indian collective, an empathetic recall of military history or the contribution of the fauji is not part of the national psyche.
The correlation between state, society and the military is both delicate and complex and the historical experience, which is time-space specific, offers some insights. From the ancient period when the Indian subcontinent had its distinctive genesis to the 21st century, the stoic fauji — the peacetime peasant — did what had to be done with honour. This is sought to be recalled empathetically and the objective is not to glorify war or deify Valhalla. It is to visit that remote hamlet in Kangra or elsewhere in composite India and pay homage to sacrifices long forgotten.