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1.5 million Indian soldiers fought in the trenches of #WorldWar I and just two decades later 2.5 million Indians enthusiastically joined the fight against #fascism by enrolling themselves in what would become the largest all-voluntary armed force in #history. These courageous men travelled to distant lands to fight in inhospitable terrains, knowing fully well that they may never return home. And many did not. While no precise count exists, over 160,000 Indian soldiers are estimated to have died in the two world wars. Many more were wounded.

If it were any other nation, such bravehearts would be immortalised forever and revered as national heroes. But in India their memories are conflicted. Their chivalry is not open to question, but their motivation to fight under the banner of the colonial government makes them unlikely heroes for a nation that has been shaped by and still draws its identity largely from its freedom struggle against the same #colonial government.

How does one reconcile with the fact that these soldiers through their devoted services and unbending loyalty were further strengthening a foreign power that was subjugating and exploiting their countrymen? #Britain never had a large contingent in India. It was the Indian soldiers of the #BritishIndianArmy who ensured that no native ruler in India could challenge the British authority. After securing indisputable hegemony for Britain over all of India, they helped it extend its power over our neighbours from Afghanistan to Burma. Sure the Indian soldiers fought valiantly in the world wars, but the people they fought in places extending from Egypt to Malaysia bore no ill-will towards Indians. They were not India’s enemies.

We laud the mutineers of #1857 as India’s first independence heroes, then how can we also commemorate those who chose the #EastIndiaCompany over India and enabled it to defeat these mutineers and brutally crush India’s first rebellion for independence. Similarly, we cannot simultaneously valorise the Indian National Army led by Subhash Chandra #Bose and also those who defeated it so that India continued to remain firmly under the yoke of British tyranny.

However, soldiers fight for the government of the day. All over the world, good soldiers are expected to follow the orders, and not question the motives behind them. The political situation and societal values have considerably changed since the days of the British Indian Army. Is it fair for us to apply our contemporary lens and discredit the sacrifices of these brave Indian men?

For a long time such questions have been evaded by successive Indian regimes, but now there is a spirited public debate underway. Your view would bring a knowledgeable perspective to help enrich this discourse.


Lt. General Ajay Kumar Singh

PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Retd.), former Commander in Chief of Southern Command of Indian Army, 11th Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and currently Advisor to O.P. Jindal Global University (JGU).

Shrabani Basu

Journalist and Author of many critically acclaimed books including For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18 and Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant, and Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Shrabani is a frequent commentator on Indian history on British television and radio and has appeared in several BBC documentaries on the subject of Empire.

Dr. Indivar Kamtekar

Associate Professor of Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the Modern History editor of the journal Studies in History. He has been a member of the Indian Historical Records Commission, and of the editorial board of the journal Modern Asian Studies. He is also the co-author of the book History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy.

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