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Echoes of August 1914

India has ignored the war that killed most Indians

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

A hundred years ago, "the war to end all wars" began. In the century since, historians have struggled to understand why. The immediate causes seem comprehensible: the complex web of alliances and rivalries that led a single spark - the assassination of the heir to the Austrian imperial throne by a Serbian nationalist - to set off a four-year conflagration that brought to an end the age of empires, and birthed internationalism, communism, and, in India, the movement for Swaraj. But still - unlike, say, the Second World War - the motivations of the chief actors in World War I, or WWI, seem beyond comprehension. Did the old men rushing to war realise the price they would exact from their young - the deaths of 30 per cent of western Europe's men aged 13 to 24? When did the volunteers lapping up stories of enemy brutality realise they had been lied to? How many people genuinely believed this one great war would indeed end all war? In the fields and gritty industrial towns of Belgium, where bones still turn up underfoot, the French and German presidents spoke last week of the extraordinary project that eventually emerged on Belgian soil. At that time, said the German president, nationalism had enslaved everyone's minds. France's Francois Hollande began by saying WWI "was a foolish idea", but concluded thus: "This is why Europe should be on the move. It should not be resting on its laurels. It should not be tired of achieving peace."

It is natural, all these years later, to seek meaning in an event such as the First World War. What is incomprehensible, however, is how one of the largest participants in that war has chosen to completely overlook it. There was no high-level representation anywhere of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers - all volunteers - who fought in the War. As many as 75,000 of them may have died in the conflict. In other words, WWI remains, by far, the single bloodiest war that India has ever fought - perhaps five times as many Indians died as have died in all of India's wars since 1947. In Britain, at least, the increasingly vocal diaspora has ensured they are remembered. Baroness Warsi, who just resigned from the British Cabinet, said last year: "Our boys were not just Tommies - they were Tariqs and Tajinders, too." And scholars have unearthed moving letters and testimony. In India, WWI's legacy is hidden all around - even the sweet chai (tea) of North India might have come from soldiers returning to the plains of Punjab, some historians suggest, and recreating the tea of the trenches.

Yet the Indian state has chosen to officially forget this history - so much so that it has chosen to be blind even to India Gate, a memorial to WWI's Indian dead, and insist that another war memorial is necessary next to it. There has been no high-level ceremony by India's leaders for the war dead. It is claimed today that the War was "not India's fight". Many Indians then would have disagreed - Mahatma Gandhi, who urged Indians to enlist, for one. And even if not in India's fight, does that mean that the lives lost are somehow shameful? If Europe learns lessons of peace from the centenary of the Great War, India must learn another lesson: to come to terms with its own history.

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First Published: Sun, August 10 2014. 22:45 IST
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