Millennium Post

Saga of the Indian soldier

The nation is set to celebrate its 66th Independence Day on 15 August and, according to expectations, the prime minister may announce something for the soldiers from the ramparts of the Red Fort. It will be a sad day Magadha, Kautilya opined, the day a soldier has to beg for alms, or so he implied, which literally now is the case for a country that has the past example of the Mauryan Empire and the present one of the Indian government. It is now 66 years and time for the Indian nation to give its due to the forces for the role played by them during the freedom struggle of India. One of the facets of our independence is that the role played by the soldiers has constantly been down played and, systematically, the soldier has been demoted post-independence. This now needs a system correction.

It was the sepoys who first revolted in 1857, which is now correctly called the first war for India’s independence. During the first World War, after the Kitchener reforms, the Indian Army contributed one million young men for services overseas. A total of 74,187 made the supreme sacrifice. India provided six Expeditionary Forces which fought in Europe against the Germans and in Egypt, Gallipoli, and Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire. These soldiers stayed abroad for a period of nearly five to six years and were greatly influenced by the nature of governance and what they saw in those countries. In fact the All India Gorkha League was started in Dehra Doon from amongst those soldiers who had been abroad and influenced by the way of life there. The Indian Army, of course, continued to fight the Third Afghan war and took action in Waziristan after the first World War.

In between the two wars it was Chandra Singh Garhwali along with 59 soldiers of the Garhwal Rifles who did not fire on unarmed protestors at Kissakhani Bazar Police Chowki in Peshawar on 23 April 1930 as they were unarmed and the national flag was flying in their midst. Today his name is barely heard outside his own home state.

The second World War saw a total of 2.5 million men, the largest volunteer force deployed for five to six years in Europe, Africa, and Asia. These soldiers bagged more than 4000 awards and earned a name for their country by their grit and determination. They, too, were strongly influenced by the events that they saw there and how those countries where they had fought were governed. All this influenced the mind of these young men who also learnt that the British Sahib was as vulnerable as any one of them.

Today, India just has a strength of five million work force abroad and nearly 85 per cent of them in the oil-rich countries. The Indian nation whose population is thrice that of what it was in the forties goes gaga over the remittances of these workers. The role played by the soldiers who returned and the influence that they exercised at the grass root level in the various villages and small towns is not well recorded.

There were other events that had a great impact on the British decision to give speedy independence to India. One was the formation of 40,000 strong Indian National Army and the subsequent trial that united Indians, also called the Red Fort trials.

In 1946, while the trials were still in progress, a general strike by ratings of the Navy deteriorated into a mutiny throughout India. One of their demands was in favor of the INA. There were also uprising in Madras, Jabalpur and Pune by Army units which were put down ruthlessly by the British units. Thus, the year 1946 saw a lot of feverish patriotic acts by the forces.

There was widespread public support for the soldiers. In fact, during the INA trials the flag of the Congress and Muslim League briefly fluttered together. So wide and so massive was the support that there were increasing violent confrontations between the police and mass rallies. The INA trials became a rallying point for one and all. Lord Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister, is on record as having stated some time in 1948 that the British decision to grant India independence was greatly influenced by the effect of the INA trials and the Bombay Mutiny.

The saga of the Indian soldier does not end there. They controlled the biggest migration in history and there are any numbers of heart warming stories of comrades-in-arms helping out one another in their respective countries. But there was an all out war between the two nations over Kashmir and the issue still remains unresolved.

What are root causes of down playing the role of soldier in India’s struggle for independence? There are a large number of reasons given, from civilian supremacy to emotional detachment regarding military matters. Why does the blood not boil of a young virile man who can fight a war for others and not make the supreme sacrifice for his own country? There was wide spread sympathy for those of the INA and also a lot of unrest amongst the forces. Most Gorkha units also chose to stay back, but for reasons known which are recorded but down played. There can be many reasons for down playing the role of the soldier, but if it is got to do with civilian supremacy, then, as a nation, India has got it wrong. Civilian supremacy does not mean downplaying the role of the forces in India’s freedom struggle, as the spin-offs are now showing, with veterans up in arms returning their medals. In the meanwhile, the Indian Army marches to the tune of the INA song Kadam Kadam Badaye Ja. There is a need to highlight the role of the soldier which always gets down played post-1947. But there are any number of war cemeteries wherever the Indian soldiers have fought, preserved by those countries in the memory of the Indian soldier. Yet the nation lacks a war memorial.

C S Thapa is a retired Brigadier.
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