27.6.15

Book Review - If I die here who will remember me by Vedica Kant

The First World War was a tremendous event that ruptured the old order in many ways. India's role in the First War has always been downplayed and under documented for a number of reasons. India didn't gain freedom till the Second great war making the First a distant memory. Since there was no Indian nation yet, any forces sent from the sub continent tended to be Empire soldiers or soldiers of princely states - both notions making them somewhat less than Indian for later commentators. The post-war period saw nationalists agitating against the British and the great non-cooperation movements were initiated, making the memory of collaboration with the British Empire a distasteful memory. Most of the focus of history textbooks in this period has been the appearance of Gandhiji and his agitational politics.

Still, more than a million soldiers from the sub continent fought and died fighting the Central Powers. Their actions ranged the entire world - Indian soldiers fought in Europe, in Central Asia and in Africa. There hasn't been much commentary on this period of warfare that traces the fighting Indian soldier. Vedica Kant fills that gap with her excellent - and quite aptly named - If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me. The name though dramatic, brings into stark relief the lack of interest and absence of memory for the soldiers of Indian origin who fought and died in the First World War. It's less a narrative history and more of a documentation of poignant letters and photographs from the First War which in itself makes for a pleasant reading.

Kant traces the fighting Indian soldier from the trenches in France and Belgium all the way to the great battles in the Middle East which are more synonymous with the Indian effort. It narrates the inconsistency with which the Empire approached its native troops - at once exalting them for their loyalty while segregating them from the population they were defending. It is remarkable to read about - and see photos of - soldiers fighting in the great trench wars in the early years of the war. For a long time, WW1 has been synonymous with either bland regiment names or British war heroes. Seldom does one get to read about other nationalities whose presence made this a World War. Kant has been rigorous in her narration of these forgotten soldiers who predicted the outsize role that India would play on the world stage in the years to come.

The book also talks about the segregated facilities established for the care and comfort of the Indian soldiers, taking care to appear magnanimous and generous in their care. Yet, the letters that recuperating soldiers wrote talk of the hurt and the frustration of the native in a land that needed them to fight but not to mingle. These letters, missives from a war front, went a great deal in introducing a huge chunk of the Indian population to what was inevitably 'kaala pani' - the black waters which none would dare cross. These soldiers presaged a massive movement of people from the Indian shores to the rest of the world which is fascinating to read about.

The author also draws upon the narrative of the Indian prisoners of war. The order of battle would find the soldiers segregated by caste and religion, but in the narrow confines of the prison camps, these distances collapse easily. The book goes further afield finding photos and paintings of POWs celebrating their festivals, playing their games and being googled upon by German soldiers - a poignant and heartfelt passage.The Germans, prodded by their Emperor,"Haji" Wilhelm, tried hard to win the affection and loyalty of the Indian soldiers - especially Muslims who were coerced into believing that since the Ottomans where German allies, their war was a holy one - a jihad. The Germans also tried to study and record impressions of the mannerisms of these exotic soldiers which would help them publish newspapers and missives aimed at converting POWs to their cause. A few Muslims did fight for the Germans in belief that they were fighting for their religion, but their number was few, much fewer than the Germans needed to foment rebellion in India itself.

The book also spends time on the impact in the home land - the enormous economic burden, the lack of Indian voices in this great decision to wage war and the subsequent denudation of a generation of youth. The author has done a great job of documenting the great mobilization effort which spanned the breadth of the country, but drew excessively from the north. The book also narrates the effect the returning soldier had on the polity and the letters and money that the fighting soldier sent from the front. The Indian leadership at this time was more interested in establishing the notion of self-rule and their loyalty to the Empire while odd to comprehend now, makes perfect sense for the goals they had set themselves then.

While not necessarily a complete history, this book has been a hidden gem. It's photographs, interspersed with letters, recordings and memorabilia from the war do an invaluable job of shedding light on the contributions of the Indian populace to the Great War. The enormous losses in Neuve Chapelle, Kut and in the Flanders have been largely forgotten in history books for a generation. It is incumbent on us to remember and revere the sacrifice of these soldiers who fought an alien war for alien kings far away from home. Vedica Kant fills a great gap in our knowledge of India's role in the Great War.

Highly recommended, 4 stars.