Armistice Day Discussion Post: How Do We Deal With the Indian Army Veterans of the World Wars? How Do We Recognize Them While Also Acknowledging Colonialism? Thoughts?

Being a veteran is such a complicated thing. And being a veteran of a war fought on behalf of the colonial forces over your country adds a whole other layer of complication to it. How do we deal with that? “We” meaning those people who owe a debt to the folks who served?

WWI and WWII veterans in America are really the easiest veteran situation to deal with. They fought for their country, they fought for a just cause, and they won. These are the veterans we like to talk about in America on veterans day.

But what about our Civil War vets? Some of them fought for a just cause, some of them fought for an unjust cause, and some of them were just plain mercenaries. We don’t have to deal with any living veterans any more, but even the dead still cause confusion. Do you honor their graves? Do you keep their statues in place?

Currently, the largest veteran population in America is the Vietnam Vets. They lost, they were drafted mostly, and a lot of them didn’t even believe in the war they were fighting. But they still were young men sacrificed to what the leaders of our country thought was right. We still owe them a debt, a debt of gratitude for being sacrificed to politics and confusion and national uncertainty. Forget whether the war they fought was just or unjust, they had no control over that, they were just sent to fight it.

And then there are the WWI and WWII vets in India. I am assuming they have mostly died out by now, but overall this was the largest population of war veterans India had ever and probably will ever see. A total of 1.3 million in WWI and 2.3 million in WWII. There were 200 million people living in British India during WWI. Cut that in half to find the men, that’s 100 million. Quarter that to find men of army age, you’ve got 25 million. So 1 out of every 25 men of the WWI generation in India served in WWI.

Indians in the trenches: voices of forgotten army are finally to be heard |  Armistice centenary | The Guardian

What do we do with that? As an American, I am grateful to them. We were pro-British and anti-German. And I more or less still agree with that from a moral sense. It’s less clear cut than in WWII, but I will give a hair more moral justification to Britain than Germany. Without the Indian troops, American civilians living in Europe, and civilian merchant seaman, and all kinds of people would have kept dying. Not to mention the American troops of course.

But in India, how do you honor people who fought in this war? Were they fighting honorably? Do you argue that they should be dismissed and dishonored because they fought for the oppressors? Sometimes the argument is made that they were sort of sideways fighting for India, in that by being brave and useful to the British in the war they would be “rewarded” with a free India. But does that hold up? Or, do you argue that even if they were fighting for unjust people, they were fighting on the right side? Were they fighting on the right side? Would it have been better for Germany to win on a global scale, break the British Empire a little earlier even if it meant more deaths in other places?

I don’t have an answer to any of this! And I am wondering if other DCIBers have brilliant solutions for me, or at least new angles.

The one thing I know for sure is the one thing every veteran from everywhere has said. When you are in battle, you don’t care what flag you are under or what the larger goal is or any of those big Moral Questions, you are fighting for yourself and the man beside you. All this other stuff, that’s for after the war is over, for the rest of us to figure out.

9 thoughts on “Armistice Day Discussion Post: How Do We Deal With the Indian Army Veterans of the World Wars? How Do We Recognize Them While Also Acknowledging Colonialism? Thoughts?

  1. This is so interesting and complicated for me. My grandfather was an Indian war veteran who fought in WWII. He never talked about it until the last time, my husband and I went to see him and for the first time he shared stories. This may sound trivial, but according to my dad, the biggest issue he and the others had was regarding food. British would not respect Hindu religious practices and that was very difficult on my grandfather and others. It was no uncommon for Indian soilders to eventually be fed up and abandonment their post due to this.

    At the same time, there is a complicated history of Subhash Chandra Bose allying with Germany during this time because of British oppression and forming the Free India Legion army of Indian ex-pats, Indian prisoners of war, Indians from parts of Africa to join the Germany in their fight. There was definitely people in India, specifically military personell, who wondered if this was the way to go since they were being supressed in India. So, I guess, I just don’t know how I feel about it all, besides saying it’s all very complicated.

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    • Such a complicated situation. My grandfathers didn’t talk about their service, but they also did. That is, they could find other vets in America and easily say “I am a vet too, where did you serve?” and then be sort of silent support. But could your grandfather find other people to talk to?

      On Thu, Nov 11, 2021 at 10:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Unfortunately no for many reasons, but mainly.

        1. I think it was too hard for Indian vets to talk to each other because so many didn’t want to be there. This was not their war. And because so many deserted and that was shameful to constantly admit and discuss. I also, don’t think it was ever something he would bring up with American vets because it just wasn’t the same sentiment. How American vets might have felt is probably very different than how Indian vets felt. So it just wasn’t a point or commonality.

        2. This was also before common access to telephone and it wasn’t easy to really stay in touch with people you served with. I think my grandfather may have hired some people to work under him when he became incharge as a forest officer but I think that was more of a this is just what you do for people you served with but then don’t talk about it. And I think eventually, since he moved with us to America, many people he served with passed away. He was probably one of the oldest when he passed away last year. So even if he happened to have known some, I doubt they would be around.

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        • This feels similar to the way that Vietnam Vets struggle in America. All these complicated feelings about their service, and all these complicated feelings among the people around them about that era. There’s no easy way to ask for support, or give support. But, like, even more complicated because you don’t even have the basic level of VA support and recognition of service to our country, because it was service to the other country.

          Must have been the same for loyalists after the American revolution! But of course, I don’t know if we have any way of looking at their mental health and blah blah.

          On Thu, Nov 11, 2021 at 10:41 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. One of the most interesting things for me in Sardar Udham, was the speech Michael O’Dwyer gave right before his death. He was talking about how (his) 100.000 Sikh soldiers helped win the war and pay the war loan, and that the Crown of course will use Indians again in this new conflict. It hit me hard because, on the one hand I knew that the British Empire used soldiers from the colonies, but on the other I was thought to see the both wars from polish point of view. We were always there in the middle and we had to fight because our lives depended on this. But those Sikh/Indian soldiers didn’t care about all this but still were forced to die and now they are hardly remembered because it wasn’t their fight.

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    • Yes! And now they are increasingly remembered in the Allied countries, but not necessarily in their own country? But maybe that is right? I mean, they fought and died for us, not for India, so we should be the ones to remember their sacrifice.

      On Fri, Nov 12, 2021 at 2:11 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. IIRC, one difference between WWI and WWII was that more people from nom-martial castes joined in WWII. Basically, some groups were seen as more ept for warfare and were primarily recruited. It wasn’t unusual for whole families to serve for the British.

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  4. I have to recommend two absolutely brilliant books on this topic: one is Farthest Field, by Raghu Karnak (son of the great Kannada actor and playwright Girish Karnad) and the other is The Raj at War, by Yasmin Khan.
    I think the calculus had changed a bit between World War I and World War II for Indians as well. Indians thought they might see the rewards of Dominion status or similar if they supported the British war effort; moreover, there was really only very distant and unlikely threat to India itself from the Central Powers. While the British fought in the Middle East (using colonial troops from Australia, New Zealand etc) to keep the Germans (and their proxies the Ottomans) from accessing the Suez Canal and the short sea route through India, there was no landward threat or invasion of India.
    The Japanese in World War II actually invaded big swathes of British India (Burma, of course, and Assam) and the political situation in India was much more turbulent (plus the Bengal Famine, the arrest of the Quit India movement leaders etc), so for various reasons, many (but not all!) captured India soldiers joined the Azad Hind Fauj of Subhas Chandra Bose. But many of the officers of both the Indian and Pakistani armies post-1947 served in the British Indian Army throughout the war, so I don’t think there was any comparison to the treatment of Vietnam vets in the US. (Moreover, India and Pakistan went to war already in 1948 – even if anyone had been inclined, the Indian army needed those British -trained officers and soldiers, though I’m sure many of them ended up fighting former comrades in the Pakistan army.)
    Sorry for my long-windedness, I find this an especially fascinating subject!

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    • I find WWII more confusing too! Because the Japanese had such a horrible history of colonialism themselves, and were actively attacking and killing Indian civilians. If India had been an independent country at the time, they probably would have raised their own army in defense as did their neighbors in Asia. But they weren’t an independent country, which makes the whole situation much more complicated.

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