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Heroes of World War-I: LOOK BEYOND HOME GROUNDS, By Ashok B Sharma, 25 March, 2015 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 25 March 2015

Heroes of World War-I


By Ashok B Sharma


India is celebrating the centenary celebration of the World War-I with a sense of pride that its soldiers participated in expeditions to defend the British Empire. The call to participate in the war efforts was given by no less than freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak with the hope that the colonial rulers would grant home rule under Dominion Status after their success in the war. But this was not to be!


While scholars in India and across the world are being encouraged to collect evidences of the participation of Indian forces, little is being done to bring to light the Indian nationalist anti-colonial movement which began in the heart of Europe in the same period. Indian nationalist revolutionary, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, affectionately called Chatto led the network of Indian activists scattered across Europe, with Germany as the focal centre for their propaganda against the British Empire.


The Indian activists received financial and diplomatic assistance from the then Kaiser-ruled Germany. The reciprocity between these Indian activists and Germany was an arrangement based on a mutual understanding to disturb the British war efforts. The Indian emigrants, therefore, had the chance for mobilizing the anti-colonial struggle.


Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, during his recent visit to Australia signed an agreement to jointly celebrate the centenary of the World War-I in which the Australian and New Zealand forces fought the German forces in the Pacific Ocean. True, we should be proud of our soldiers who valiantly fought the war in defence of the British Empire at the behest of Mahatma Gandhi and Tilak, but we should not ignore the sacrifices of the anti-colonial movement at that time.


As per reports, there are ample documents in German and Russian archives that can make possible for research into the activities of the Indian anti-colonial movement led by Chatto.  The Comintern Archive in Moscow contains a number of personal files of individuals involved in the Indian anti-colonial movement in 1914-18. Modi should take up this issue with Chancellor Angela Merkel when he visits Germany, which is being scheduled shortly. 


Similarly, he should take up this issue with Russian President Putin. Russia also had several documents relating to the activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose during the World War-II.

Activities of the Indian anti-colonial struggle abroad should be well-documented and appreciated. Chattopadhyaya, Netaji and their associates are national heroes and deserve appreciation. The NDA government should launch a separate project to document the activities of anti-colonial movements of Indians abroad during the World War-I and World War-II.


The decision to celebrate the sacrifices of Indian soldiers in World War-I was taken by the erstwhile UPA government by launching India and the Great War Centenary Commemoration Project. Last Monday, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj while inaugurating the Centenary Commemorative Exhibition of the First World War in New Delhi, stated: “India contributed more soldiers to the war than South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada combined. Some experts have estimated that every sixth soldier that Britain sent out to fight was from the Indian Empire. These brave soldiers fought in alien climate and conditions far away from their homeland.” This apart, about 74,000 Indian soldiers died in war operation.


Delving deeper into history reveals that over a million Indian soldiers set out overseas 100 years ago to defend the British Empire. They were hopeful that after the war concluded, India would obtain self-rule under Dominion status. But despite the death of thousands of Indian soldiers and many being injured in the war, the British failed to live up to their assurances.


The denial of self-rule under Dominion status led to the call for complete independence from British colonial rule. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 disappointed the Indian people who longed for greater constitutional changes in the direction of self-rule. Repressive laws such as the Rowlatt Act added insult to injury. Worse than non-fulfilment of the demand for self-rule, was the situation of de-mobilisation following the war that left many Indian soldiers jobless!  A combination of all these factors led to the call for complete independence.


Indian participation in World War I began after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and continued till the war finally concluded on 11 November 1918. Britain’s former dominions which joined the war, such as Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (merged with Canada in 1949), New Zealand and South Africa – did possess self-governing status, but their foreign policy and defence were controlled by Britain. After the end of the war, these Dominions were subsequently given more powers. The sentiments across the Dominions led to the enactment of the 1931 Statute of Westminster which recast the British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations. But India remained a British colony till August 15, 1947.


The weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to the fractured rise of nation-States in Europe, which resulted in the Balkan Wars. It is said that World War I began as the Third Balkan War which transformed itself into a European War on July 28, 1914. It was called the ‘Great War for Civilisation’ and only much later would it come to be known as World War-I. The war began between two opposing alliances – Britain, France and the Russian empire on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. Later Italy, Japan and the United States joined the alliance of Britain, France and Russia while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


After the end of the war, four major imperial powers – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires – ceased to exist. The war resulted in the defeat of the Central Powers. The map of Europe was redrawn with several nations regaining their independence, and new States were created with arbitrarily fixed boundaries to serve the interests of the victors. In Asia and Africa, new States were carved out of the former territories of defeated imperial powers. Colonies exchanged hands and areas of influence were distributed amongst the victors. It led to the gradual rise of United States as a world power. The League of Nations, formed to prevent future conflicts such as the World War I, died a natural death since it could not prevent World War II – which erupted due to heightened European nationalism and the German feeling of humiliation after their defeat in World War I.


Both the great wars reveals the geopolitics prevailing at that time and the same hangover inherently remains today with certain modifications like the fragile integration of European Union, weakening of Britain and France, the rise of Asian powers like China, India and economic powers in South-East Asia. This is an aspect which students of Indian diplomacy should not ignore. Over and above, the Government should launch a separate project to document the activities of the anti-colonial movement unleashed by Indians abroad and glorify these heroes. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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