In February of 1946, the erstwhile Royal British Indian Navy mutinied; they were soon joined by members of all services of the armed forces. Amongst other things, they rebelled for respect, dignity and equality.
The uprising lasted five days and threatened to bring down the Imperial British Empire a full year earlier than it actually fell. I, for one, believe that all of their demands were just, but there is one that stands out as being the simplest, and without moral question: treat us, Indian soldiers, the same way as you treat British soldiers.
Two million Indian men and women fought for the British empire. Without this fighting force, there is little doubt the national dish of Britain may have been Sauerkraut and Bratwurst and not chicken curry. Forgetting their own freedom, these 2.5 million men came from across the Indian subcontinent: from Burma to Afghanistan and everywhere in between to preserve British freedom.
The Indian soldiers faced the same dangers, fought with the same gusto and died with the same valour as their British counterparts. In fact, it’s fair to say Indian units were often the first to arrive on the frontlines and serve in the most dangerous missions: from Italy to North Africa to East Asia. As a testimony to the breadth and depth of their involvement, the British Indian Army was the first allied army to defeat both German and Japanese forces in World War II (WW II).
British freedom is in no small part due to these brave men and women. Yet, they were never treated fairly by the British; that injustice has never been rectified. The British paid the Indian soldier one-third to one-fifth of the salary paid the white British soldier; a fallen Indian soldier’s family received only a fifth the recompense paid to a British family. Was an Indian soldier any less valuable than a British one? Was an Indian life any less valuable than a British one?
Amongst the other demands, this stands as one with no moral ambiguity; this is not IT work and there is no labour arbitrage. Typing on a computer is very different from dodging a bullet. The British never fulfilled the demands of the mutineers.
Repeatedly, we have seen the injustices of WW II addressed. Swiss banks have only recently returned wrongly confiscated monies from Jewish families. The Japanese have repeatedly apologized for their actions in WW II.
And, in 2000, the British themselves have paid each of their soldiers held prisoners of war (PoW) in WW II by Japanese forces £10,000 as recompense for the hardship they suffered. Sadly, the British were initially not willing to recompense Nepali Gurkha soldiers. It took two years and an international outcry to secure the Gurkhas the same monies.
About 2,000 British soldiers were taken as PoWs by the Japanese, as were approximately 500 Gurkhas. Over 60,000 British Indian soldiers suffered in Japanese prison camps. They have yet to receive a single pence from the British government they served.
It’s not too late to correct the injustice. The Royal Indian Navy rose in an uprising in February 1946. These sailors and soldiers demanded just treatment for the service they performed for the British empire. Their demands remain unmet.
Some justice would be served with at least two simple actions from the British government:
1. Grant the same £10,000 payment given to British soldiers who served as PoWs in Japanese camps to the approximately 60,000 British Indian Army soldiers who also suffered in those camps.
2. Pay the Indian soldiers who fought for British freedom the same wage rate the English soldier received. There is no morally acceptable reason to pay these men and women anything less than their British counterparts. There was no morally acceptable reason to do so in 1941, there remains none. Do not continue to dishonour their memory.
The British should not hide under any claim that the Indian government took over the responsibilities of the erstwhile British Indian Army. These men and women fought for British freedom, it is the British that owe them. Any other argument would be sacrilegious.
So would any claim that these soldiers were volunteers. These soldiers lived under a hostile, imperial government that treated its subjects poorly. “Volunteering” for the British Indian Army was often the best of many horrible options.
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) ministers are meeting this April in Delhi. While there are many issues that divide us, this is one issue that cuts across all of South Asia. Soldiers from Burma to Afghanistan served in the erstwhile British Indian Army. Saarc ministers should press their British counterpart for just compensation. The modalities of the distribution for such compensation will be worked out.
My friends say it’s foolish (preposterous, ridiculous) to think the British government will rectify the injustice. I tell my friends that I think it’s outrageous (crazy, foolish, preposterous) that the British government hasn’t rectified it. Before the 61st anniversary of the Naval Mutiny of 1946, recedes into the past, let’s renew this quest for justice. Jai Hind.
Prashant Agrawal heads an investment fund. He is based in India. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org