In World War I, more than 80 million pounds sterling worth of clothing, ammunition and other supplies and materials were looted from India and poured into Britain’s war effort. In addition, nearly one and a half million Indian personnel, including soldiers and labourers, were drafted for the battlefields of Europe, West Asia and North Africa. Approximately 75,000 Indian soldiers lost their lives, while an even greater number were wounded, went missing, or died of illness and deprivation.
In the many decades since World War I, this ruthless exploitation of Indian men and resources in a war fought among colonial and imperial powers was conveniently ignored, both by the British and by the governments of independent India. However, in the recent run-up to the centenary of the end of World War I, much has been said about the ‘great contribution’ of India, and particularly of Indian soldiers who fought in the War. Memorials have been erected to the ‘sacrifice’ made by Indians in some European towns and sites of the War, and solemn speeches made about it in ceremonies attended by Western and Indian dignitaries. Speaking on the occasion in Delhi, PM Modi also hailed the contribution of the Indian soldiers in World War I to ‘peace’.
Lakhs of soldiers and working people from colonies at the other end of the globe were dragged into this bloodbath and fed notions of ‘duty’ and ‘honour’ to justify their sacrifice in a war which was against their interests. Thousands of letters from Indian soldiers that have survived to this day testify to the appalling brutality and discrimination they faced at the hands of those under whom they served.
Today, thousands of Indian soldeirs are being armed and sent to war-torn areas in numerous countries to ‘keep the peace’, under UN auspices. This deployment of Indian soldiers in various far-flung countries which have no quarrel with India is being hailed as a great contribution of India to the world.
Today, the ruling Indian bourgeoisie is systematically developing its military capacity to support its wider geopolitical ambitions. Apart from ‘defending the borders of the country’ or asserting its power in its own neighbourhood, it is also seeking to acquire military capacities to back its interests in other parts of the world. Loud voices are being raised in the ruling circles that India must develop as a great military power in collaboration or contention with other powers. The rousing of pride in the Indian army’s combat experience abroad, even that which was acquired under British rule, is part of the warmongering and imperialist strategy of the Indian ruling class.
The Indian workers and peasants, who have sent and continue to send their sons and daughters into the armed forces, cannot forget how the lives of Indian soldiers have been sacrificed time and again for the selfish interests of rulers, both within India and abroad. At the time of World War I and afterwards too, patriotic Indian organisations like the Hindustan Ghadar Party called on Indian soldiers to not turn their guns on other peoples but to fight against the colonial oppressers. It is to the eternal credit of Indian soldiers that thousands of them responded to these patriotic calls. This is the honourable tradition of the Indian soldier that we should be proud of.