25th April is celebrated as ANZAC Day. Some of you may wonder why is a blog about ANZAC Day & Indian soldiers coming up now. Well…all I can say is “Lest We Forget”.
Shirley Jacob and I connected virtually and we found a lot of things in common, including being “fauji kids”. I think that is what cemented our relationship. Shirley lives in Sydney, Australia, and in one of my conversations with her, I requested her to share her thoughts about ANZAC Day, the parades & celebrations, and how Indian Ex-Service Men participate in the same. She happily agreed and wrote a wonderful piece that I am sharing below. Thank you so much, Shirley!
ANZAC Day and the Indian connection
Whilst World War I led Europe’s youth to their early grave, dousing out the flame of a generation of talented artists, writers, sportsmen, and others whose talent bled into the trenches. It also involved soldiers from faraway lands that had little to do with Europe’s bitter traditional hatreds.
On 25th April 1915, the ANZAC legend was born. On the morning of this day, Australian troops landed at Gallipoli to force Germany’s ally, Turkey, out of the war. Their plan to capture Constantinople quickly became a Herculean task, as they landed in the wrong position and faced baptism by fire. The order from the British general, Sir Ian Hamilton echoed across the battlefield and Australian shores, “There is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out”. The plan had failed, and months of further fighting resulted in no military victories and little reward. However, from this hardship, the ANZAC spirit was conceived. An ethos built on endurance, courage, mateship and one which irrevocably characterizes Australia’s nationhood today.
Over a hundred years later, the parades, services, and rituals of Anzac Day have survived and grown despite the vestige of survivors remaining. Many stories are also now emerging of the sacrifices Indians made during World War I and II. At the time, India provided the largest volunteer army in history with approximately 1.2 million Indians volunteering to fight for British forces. Although over 70 000 Indian soldiers ultimately sacrificed their lives during the war, tales of their altruism, courage, and rigour have often been relegated to the footnotes in the Commonwealth’s commemorative diary. Many Australians are still unaware that 15 000 Indians fought alongside the ANZACs at Gallipoli and almost 1400 Indians died there. The Indian voice has remained quiet for years as many of these soldiers were semi or non-literate and did not bequeath the treasure trove of memorabilia such as poems and diary entries, which formed the cornerstone of European war memory.
Recently, the British Library released 1000 pages recounting the first-hand accounts of Indian veterans from the war, painting a picture of racial segregation, valour, and the awakening hunger for civil rights which fueled India’s impetus for independence from British rule. Despite this, the Indian war experience continues to remain a history of fragments as traces of evidence are truncated, censored, or scattered across the globe. There is no sole or panoptic Indian war experience – rather, it must be modulated to the idiosyncrasies of caste, region, theatre of battle, etc.
Being an Army brat, I understood how millions of families in India were irretrievably affected by the war and yearned closure for their loved ones. I sought to discover how I could help unify the missing fragments and illuminate the war experiences of Indian soldiers, even if it were for only one person. That is why, when a friend of mine who is a sixth-generation Armed forces personnel mentioned to me his desire of finding the grave of his Great Grandfather who had fought in WWl, I jumped at the task. After scouring through satellite images, old archives, and memoirs for 6 months, I eventually found the memorial site of his Grandfather and enabled my friend to remember and continue his forefather’s legacy.
Having been enjoined to remember this war, we sometimes struggle to know how to respond. This is because we cannot remember something we never personally experienced. If we visit Gallipoli, our eyes are often drawn to the immaculate cemeteries and war memories, not the battlefields. Perhaps, that is the reason why my heart swells with pride and vitality when I see the Indian ex-servicemen marching as part of the Sydney ANZAC day commemorative events. It is an enduring image of the ANZAC spirit, an acknowledgment of India’s comradeship, and unwavering assurance that India’s war efforts will not be forgotten.
Lest we forget.