When the war, which in hindsight would be termed World War I, broke out in August 1914, few would have anticipated the truly global dimension it would take on. The conflict started out as a scrap over dominance in Europe. However, because the European states were all also imperial powers, war for Europe quickly came to mean war for the world. For Great Britain, which had the largest empire when the war broke out, the manpower and economic resources of the colonies became important advantages that had to be utilized quickly to gain an upper hand in the war. India’s involvement in the war stemmed from this context.
British India (now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal) made the largest contribution to the war effort in terms of manpower from any of the colonies and dominions of the British empire, with almost a million and a half Indians playing a role in the war. As early as August 1914, Indians—not just as infantry and cavalry, but also as sappers and miners, labourers and followers—were making their way across the once forbidden Kalapani, crossing the seas to take part in the war. Over the four years of the conflict they were to play an important role in fronts as diverse as France and Flanders, Mesopotamia, East Africa, Egypt and Palestine among others. India’s contribution to the war was not limited to men, it also included raw materials (cotton, jute and leather were particularly important), direct cash contributions and war loans.
Today this episode of Indian history is largely forgotten. In the heart of New Delhi’s Rajpath is an iconic architectural monument, the India Gate. Built as a memorial for the Indian dead of World War I, its historical significance would probably escape most visitors today. The Amar Jawan Jyoti, which was added to the site following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War in memory of the unknown Indian soldier, was a refashioning of the symbolism of the site away from its colonial legacy. In the nationalist, postcolonial milieu of independent India there was, and perhaps still is, little room for remembrance of a war that was imperial in nature, or for the “mercenary" Indian soldiers who fought in the war.
However, such a stance ignores the importance of the war years in shaping India’s post-war history and, indeed, the independence movement. When the war broke out, numerous nationalist leaders in India (including Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sarojini Naidu) pushed for Indians to take on a large role in the war. To some extent at least, this reflected a genuine belief that it was in India’s interests to fight Germany and her allies for the sake of her own security. Many Indian leaders were indeed worried about attempts directed by Germany to invade India via Central Asia. Many nationalist leaders also campaigned extensively for the war effort because they believed that India’s contribution to the war would allow her to demand greater freedoms from Great Britain. “Purchase war debentures, but look to them as the title deeds of Home Rule," said Tilak.
Indeed, this is what happened. The war was a turning point in changing and challenging what just a few years before would have been thought of as an immutable imperial world system. For India, the most tangible case in point is the August 1917 declaration by Edwin S. Montagu, the secretary of state for India, stating in the plainest terms yet that self-government would no longer be a constitutional status reserved for white colonies, giving nationalists in India a clear goal to work towards. The Montagu Declaration was in many ways a direct acknowledgement of the sacrifices India was seen to have made for the war. When the government dithered on its promises and when the Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919 extending the wartime emergency, there was strong anger against what was seen as a slight to India in light of her wartime contributions. It is worth remembering that Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement of 1919 channelled this enormous popular discontent.
On a more personal level, the war exposed Indian soldiers not just to the horrors, trials and tribulations of warfare but also to ways of life and cultures beyond their own. World War I was the first time Indian soldiers saw active service in Europe. Having fought and interacted on an equal footing with Europeans, and having been exposed to life in Europe, not only gave many Indian veterans a sense of war, it also led to more than a few questioning the imperial hierarchies that they had so far unquestioningly accepted as the norm.
These reactions were not necessarily uniform or consistent, but they were important. Discontent in Punjab and other heavily recruited-from areas in the 1920s owed something to the strengthening of new forms of identity, which fed into anti-colonial nationalism. As one Indian veteran of the war noted after the war: “Previously we remained satisfied with the existing circumstances. But when we saw various people and got their views, we started protesting against the inequalities and disparities which the British had created between the white and the black."
Such stories are today more the remit of academics than the broader public historical consciousness. With the approaching centenary of the war, it is perhaps time that India’s role in the war and its impact on India itself is revisited and re-evaluated to give it the importance it deserves.
Vedica Kant is an independent researcher and writer based in London. She is currently working on a book about India and World War I to be published by Roli Books later this year.