On October 31, 1914 a young twenty-six year old Indian — who had just celebrated his birthday ten days earlier, found himself on the front line of what was soon to be known as the ‘Great War’ and finally as the ‘First World War’. After having been shipped from India in the monsoon of 1914 to a strange and distant land, these sepoys of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis suddenly found themselves on the front line of defence on the border of France and Belgium.
Later to be known as the First Battle of Ypres, these outnumbered and hurriedly sent Baluchis stood their ground against the strong German onslaught. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the machine gun team led by the twenty-six year old Khudadad Khan did not flinch, and Khudadad himself kept firing the machine gun despite being seriously injured.
Left for dead by the Germans, Khudadad then crawled back to his regiment and survived to tell the tale. The commitment, bravery and steadfastness of these Baluchis was critical in keeping the Germans at bay just long enough for reinforcements to arrive, and their feat then became legendary.
Recognising his great valour and bravery, Khudadad Khan was subsequently granted the highest military honour in the British Empire — the Victoria Cross, becoming the first South Asia recipient of this medal. Khudadad Khan lived to a ripe old age of eighty-two and died in modern day Pakistan, proudly boasting his high honour which he had rightly received fighting for King and Country.
Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War. Today, on the eleventh day of November, at the eleventh hour, and on the eleventh minute, the Versailles peace treaty was signed between the victors—the Allies, India included, and the vanquished, Germany, and others. It was declared that this war would ‘end all wars’ and that lasting peace had been established. Sadly, both claims were proven to be untrue in just over two decades.
Recently, a lot of ink has been spilled over the South Asian contribution to the two world wars. Several books have come out extolling the contributions of people from remote Indian villages, the enlistment of men who had never even heard of Europe before, and the gallantry with which they found both aboard and at home. These works, and several news pieces, have also rightly noted that the contribution of South Asians is hardly recognised in the West, especially when millions of men, arms and supplies were sent from South Asia, and indeed in the Second World War South Asia put together the largest volunteer army in the world.
With over three million men under arms, it was certainly the defiance and strength of the British Indian Army which finally contained the Japanese in South East Asia, and confronted the Axis powers in the Middle East and North Africa. Indian troops also played a pivotal role in Europe and took part in almost all the major battles in both the world wars. Hence, their contribution and role in these wars must be acknowledged.
But what must also be done is an acknowledgment of the sacrifices of our men in South Asian countries themselves! It is absurd that only the West should recognise their heroism while we in South Asia conveniently forget their contributions. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, there is no official recognition or commemoration of the millions of soldiers who participated in the world wars, no visits to their now dusty and forlorn memorials, and no public comment on the hardships they suffered and the sacrifices they made.
Obviously the reason behind such amnesia is related to the anti-colonial movement in South Asia, where there was no space for showing loyalty to the distant British King-Emperor, and perhaps exhibiting such loyalty might even be seen as a sign of ‘disloyalty’ to the emerging ‘Indian’ nation. Thus, when India became independent, all British India related commemorations were discarded, and the same was followed later in Pakistan and then eventually in Bangladesh. Hence, nothing was worthy of ‘commemoration’ in free South Asia, except the wrongs the British had inflicted upon the land.
But ‘Remembrance Day’ — the day we observe today, should not be thrown out with the bathwater of colonialism and must be commemorated in modern day South Asia.
First is the obvious fact that we should not naively forget the sacrifices of our war dead simply because we do not now agree with their beliefs of the time. Those who fought in the trenches of France and Belgium came from the villages of the Punjab, from small hamlets in Central India, from Bombay and Madras, and from every corner of British India, and even the princely states. All of them went to the front because they believed that by doing so they were serving their country, and their King. The fact that British rule was legitimate or not, or that imperialism was good or bad, was something they either didn’t know or care about. But their sentiments were real, and they gave their life for it. Therefore, we must not belittle their sacrifices by poo-poohing them as some colonial propaganda. These men were real, their wounds were real, their deaths were real, and their valour was real. Hence, we must not forget them.
Secondly, we must commemorate Remembrance Day because it is not a day where war is celebrated. While the day recognises war as real and sometimes just and necessary, it ultimately points out that war is something which inflicts unfathomable misery upon people and therefore its destructive force must be ultimately avoided.
It is a day of contemplation and reflection at the cost of war, its bloody legacy and the great need for peace and reconciliation. Remembering the war dead does not mean that one should yearn for more war, but that one should strive for peace so that no mother loses a son, no wife sees her husband maimed, and no child grows up without the love and care of their father. Thus, Remembrance Day is day which cries out for peace and justice around the world.
In their current state of hyper nationalism and at times war hysteria, it is essential that South Asian countries own up to their history—even if they don’t like it—and reflect upon it. Remembering our fallen of the two world wars does not justify colonialism but it leads us to remember the sacrifices of the millions of men who lived and died believing in their cause. Commemorating Remembrance Day will also enable us to step back from our jingoistic postures and reflect upon the divisiveness and destructive power of conflict. It will re-centre all remembrance of war on the critical need for peace and justice, and focus our efforts towards that end.
A hundred years have now passed since the end of the ‘Great War’; let us hope and that the eras of such ‘Great’ wars has now indeed passed, but let us also salute our fallen since, in the words of the Epitaph at Kohima — where my father also participated in the battle: ‘When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.’