New book set to reveal stories of Indian soldiers from World War I

Most of these soldiers were disappointed when they did not receive a heroes' welcome back home.
New Delhi: In a brand new addition to the scanty chronicles of the Indian soldiers who partook in the First World War from the Allies' side, a new book takes an intimate look at their lives in the foreign land and the dejections that followed. "For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18" by London-based journalist Shrabani Basu narrates personal stories of Indians who went to the
Western Front, acting as a manifestation of how the war changed India and led to the call for independence.
The book was recently launched by politician and author Shashi Tharoor at the British Council here. "When there are such rich stories to be told, there has been total absence of recognition in our country for those who have given their lives in battlefields around the world,"
Tharoor said. Most soldiers who had participated in the multiple British battles against the Germans had come back to India expecting a heroes' welcome, but to their disappointment had found nothing of the sort.
This absence of recognition in their own country was largely a consequence of a national uprising which was in the making then, following the betrayal by the British who had
rewarded India's support in the Great War. Not with greater freedom but with the repressive Rowlatt Act in 1919 extending the emergency measures of preventive indefinite detention, incarceration without trial and judicial review enacted in the Defence of India Act 1915. "The Indian soldiers who had gone off to fight for the king, the emperor and for the British were seen at best as
people who had merely performed their profession and their deaths were trivialised as occupational hazards in the pursuit of their personal professional interest or at worst were seen
as having served the enemy, the very empire that was oppressing the Indians," Tharoor said.
In 1931 however, the British built the India Gate here to commemorate those who had laid their lives in World War I and
the Anglo-Afghan war, but it was never publicised much, particularly in the Indian context until very recently. "I think somehow the passage of time has changed and the centenary in 2014 has witnessed a significant change in India's willingness to face up to and recognise its own history and valour of its own sons," the 59-year-old Member of the Parliament said.
Basu's book digs into British archives and reinforces this
acceptance by bringing to the public, narratives buried in
villages in India and Pakistan, recreating the War through the eyes of those who fought it. "1.5 million Indians crossed the oceans, the 'Kaala Paani' and went to Europe to fight a war which was not of their making. They were still in their cotton khakis facing the harshest winter there without enough artillery and they still
put up a brave fight. The harshest thing we can do is forget them. It was time for their stories to be told," Basu said.
The author who has a nose for unusual stories like those of Noor Inayat Khan, who served as the first female Allied Special Operations Executive agent during the Second World War, traces back the families of these soldiers in villages in Punjab, Gadhwal and modern day Pakistan, in her latest
literary feat.
"I always combine my work in the archives with field work. So, it almost became like a journalistic quest to get a story and thats what I did," she told PTI. "I am not a military historian, so for me the personal stories were important. I followed soldiers from some of those who won the Victoria Crosses from India and spoke to their families," she said.
The book in about 250 pages unfolds heroic tales of bravery as well as those of despair and desperation. It also offers, often humorous, accounts of the relationships that were forged between the Indians with their British officers. About the letters that she excavated during her research, she said, "When you read some of the letters written by the soldiers, some bits are really sad. You think about them in
the cold and your heart just bleeds for them. But then some bits are really funny. So, there is a lot of humour in the book too."
The author deals with the quintessential caste and religious discrimination in India with a pinch of salt and talks about how the Hindus and Muslims refused to share utensils or water often giving the British a hard time to accommodate them.
"Indians were Hindus and Muslims. Hindus won't have
anything made by the Muslims and Muslims won't touch anything made by the Hindus, so they had to have everything marked out. The British were trying to get a grip on this situation and went to great extents to make them comfortable. "They set up a Comfort Committee - everything from bidis, to little Qurans to pagdi covers to datun sticks were supplied
to the soldiers so that they feel at home. They even tried to get them some Indian sweets - the Sikh soldiers wanted pinnis made of almonds and gur," she said.
Besides chronicling the action at the frontline, the book also provides significant space to the cooks, the cleaners, the bhistis or water-carriers and the camp followers who were partisans to the cause. In one such narrative, she writes in the book about an
"untouchable" cleaner called Sukha Kalloo, who after succumbing to an illness is denied a burial by his own men because of their caste and religious prejudices. He finally found his resting place in the "quiet graveyard of a church in the heart of the scenic New Forest."
The book which also has a collection of photographs from the war time will also be introduced at the upcoming Jaipur Literature Festival scheduled to be held later next month, where the author will preside over a session discussing both the World Wars.
( Source : PTI )
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