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World must remember Indian heroism in WWI

December 07, 2018 09:19 IST

'The Indian Army served with honour and distinction in France and Flanders, East Africa, Gallipoli, Aden, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Transcaspia, Persia and even China.'
'The sacrifice of India's soldiers was consigned to the dustbin of history in the post-colonial world.'

Vice-President Shri Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu at the inauguration of the Indian War Memorial at Villers Guislain, France, November 10, 2018

IMAGE: Vice-President Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu at the inauguration of the Indian War Memorial at Villers Guislain, France, November 10, 2018.

On November 11, some 70 heads of State assembled in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of Great War.

India was represented by Vice-President Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu, who a day earlier had inaugurated the Indian Military Memorial at Villers Guislain, in northern France, to pay homage to the 75,000 Indian troops who did not return to their native land.

One man has been behind the project of remembering these brave sons of India, who fought in a war which was not theirs. Squadron Leader Rana Tej Pratap Singh Chhina (retd), who heads the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.

Rana Tej Pratap Singh Chhina

Squadron Leader Rana Tej Pratap Singh Chhina (retd).

Squadron Leader Chhina, a world authority in the domain of military history, also participated in the documentary, The Forgotten Army. Directed by journalist Mandakini Gahlot, the film explored India's historic participation in the Great War.

The premiere took place at the French embassy in Delhi in presence of Alexandre Ziegler, the French ambassador to India, who praised Squadron Leader Chhina, noting, "The painstaking research conducted by Squadron Leader Chhina... greatly helped revive interest in India's role in World War I, embarking as early as 2014 in a four-year project on the crucial contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great War."

Squadron Leader Chhina speaks to Claude Arpi about his days in the Indian Air Force, his momentous project to keep the memory of Indian soldiers alive, the importance of history for a nation.

 

Tell us about your background, your family in Punjab.

I served as a helicopter pilot in the Indian Air Force. My father was a professor of neuro-physiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi.

My ancestral village is Harse Chhina in Amritsar district. We are traditionally a family of farmers, but in our region there is also a strong tradition of soldiering.

My paternal grandfather was a soldier. He served in the Great War in Aden, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

His younger brother served in the same regiment in all these theatres, but also in Palestine. My maternal grandfather was a cavalryman.

He served in the Great War in Mesopotamia and East Africa. They were all pre-war regulars. Both my paternal and maternal grandfather were decorated during the war.

The former received the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry at the Battle of Sannaiyat in Mesopotamia while the latter was awarded the Indian Meritorious Service Medal for services in East Africa.

How and why did you decide to join the IAF?

I was interested in the military and in flying as a schoolboy. I joined the National Defence Academy after graduating from school.

My traditional 'family regiment' had gone to Pakistan when the Indian Army was divided at the Partition of the country in 1947, so I opted for the air force.

IMAGE: Squadron Leader Chinna at the Indian War Memorial at Villers Guislain, France.

How did you get interested in history?

I was fascinated with the stories of the old Indian Army from a very early age.

When I was a young boy I came across an old military tunic belonging to my grandfather as well as an old medal in our village and I wanted to know more about them.

That started me off on my pursuit.

I would spend my vacations in the village finding old soldiers who had fought in the world wars and talking to them about their experiences.

The oldest was a soldier who enlisted in a cavalry regiment in 1904 and fought his first campaign as a cavalry trooper on the North West Frontier of India in 1908.

Tell us about your work with the CAFHR.

The USI is the oldest military think-tank in India, indeed perhaps in all of Asia.

It was founded in 1870 for the furtherance of interest and knowledge in the art, science and literature of national security in general, and of the defence services in particular.

The CAFHR was established in December 2000 under the aegis of the USI at the behest of the three service headquarters for encouraging an objective study of all facets of Indian military history with a special emphasis on the history of the Indian armed forces.

I am the secretary of the CAFHR and apart from working on research projects involving aspects of military history, the centre also provides assistance to curators of military museums and works to inculcate an interest in military history by organising battlefield tours and staff rides.

Squadron Leader Chhina at Villers Guislain with Frenchmen in uniforms Indian soldiers wore in the Great War enacting WWI battles.

IMAGE: Squadron Leader Chhina at Villers Guislain with Frenchmen in uniforms Indian soldiers wore in the Great War enacting WWI battles.

When did you start to work on the WWI project? What were your objectives?

India had made a very significant contribution to the First World War, both in terms of men and material, which far exceeded both expectations and capability at the time.

However, by the time the war ended, Britain's relationship with India had changed irrevocably.

The war set in chain a series of events that would lead to the end of the British Raj less than three decades later in August 1947.

But in the period after Independence, the war was largely forgotten in India. The sacrifice of India's soldiers was consigned to the dustbin of history in the post-colonial world.

The Indian Army that had served with honour and distinction in France and Flanders, East Africa, Gallipoli, Aden, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Transcaspia, Persia and even China, was itself divided between the newly independent States of India and Pakistan.

Although both these armies retained an institutional memory of the war in their battle honour days and regimental histories, the new States viewed it as a colonial conflict of little or no relevance to their history.

However, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War gave a global impetus to numerous commemorative activities.

It also generated wider interest in the role played by India in the conflict and gave fresh momentum to commemoration in India and abroad.

Within India, the USI took the lead and spearheaded the 'India and the Great War' centenary commemoration project with the support of the ministry of external affairs who supported it as a public diplomacy initiative.

The project used the centenary commemoration as a medium to examine the involvement of India and its army in the war effort as well as the political, social and economic effects of the war on India.

It undertook and supported a number of commemorative activities, academic research, and community engagement projects, all of which have combined to influence the manner in which the war -- with its colonial roots and postcolonial legacies -- is viewed and understood within India.

The 'India and the Great War' centenary commemoration project engaged with a wide spectrum of partners, from governments down to individuals, including descendants of veterans of the Great War both in India and Pakistan.

For many, it was the first time in living memory that the contribution of their forebears was being recognised or remembered.

Among nations, the UK, France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey, have been active project partners in the commemorative activities undertaken by the USI.

The underlying message of the project has been Remembrance: Both a Remembrance of sacrifice and also a Remembrance of the futility of war as means to resolve conflict among nations.

You wrote a book on war memorials. Do you think that India pays enough respect to military history?

The study of military history is still in a relatively nascent stage in India.

Over the last decade there has been a growing interest in the subject among Indian historians, which is very encouraging.

One of the biggest impediments has been the failure of successive governments to enforce existing mechanisms for transfer of military related records to the public domain.

Without access to primary sources the historian can do very little. Ignorance and apathy lie at the root of this problem.

The concerned authorities would do well to remember the old adage that those who do not remember the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, Raka Singh, Ambassador Jan Luykx and Anjum Chhina.

IMAGE: Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, Raka Singh, Ambassador Jan Luykx and Anjum Chhina. Photograph: Kind courtesy Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research/Facebook

How did you get the idea of an Indian Armed Forces Memorial in Villers-Guillain in northern France to commemorate the Indian participation in the Great War?

Apart from the literary and academic interest that it generated, the centenary also gave a fillip to remembrance and allowed the State to create a space for community participation in commemorative activities.

One of the laid down objectives of the 'India and the Great War' centenary commemoration project, formulated as early as 2013, was the possible construction of appropriate national memorials in different parts of the world where Indian soldiers had fought and died in the Great War.

This proposal was pending with government when the chance visit by a senior USI member, Major Kinny Khanna, to Villers-Guislain in France resulted in a reinvigoration of the entire process.

Monsieur Gerard Allart, the mayor of Villers-Guislain, was extremely supportive of the suggestion to have a memorial to those Indian soldiers who fell while fighting in the area during the Battle of Cambrai in November-December 1917. He and his entire team worked tirelessly to ensure that the project came to fruition.

The memorial is located near the site of Lance-Dafadar Gobind Singh's death-defying ride in December 1917, which resulted in the award of the highest decoration for valour in battle available at the time, the Victoria Cross.

It is the second Indian national memorial overseas, the other being on the ramparts at Ypres in Belgium, adjacent to the Menin Gate.

Who supported you?

We were supported by the three service chiefs of the Indian armed forces, the ministry of external affairs as well as the Indian embassy in France.

In addition, we owe a debt of gratitude to the people of France and the commune of Villers-Guislain for their support for this project to honour the memory of our countrymen who fell fighting for France a century ago.

IMAGE: The Indian War Memorial at Villers Guislain, France, says Squadron Leader Chinna, 'is located near the site of Lance-Dafadar Gobind Singh's death-defying ride in December 1917, which resulted in the award of the highest decoration for valour in battle available at the time, the Victoria Cross.'

How did the French people react to the 'Indian presence' on the battlefield in Northern France, 100 years ago... and today?

The people of France greeted the arrival of the Indians with great enthusiasm. Large crowds lined the streets as the Indian soldiers disembarked at Marseille and proceeded to their camps.

In the countryside, where many Indian soldiers were billetted on French farms, they were received with love and affection.

Many Indian soldiers are recorded as referring to the French matrons who looked after them as their French mothers.

Even today, when we interacted with local people in different parts of France during the course of the Great War centenary commemoration project, we were always greeted with genuine warmth and with expressions of gratitude for our attempts to recall the memory of the Indian veterans of the Great War who fought and died in France.

At the ceremony organised by the commune of Villers-Guislain on December 2, 2017 to announce the plans for building the memorial, we were overwhelmed to see the tremendous response of the entire community.

People from all walks of life, young and old, ranging from toddlers to grizzled veterans braved the freezing temperatures to be present on the occasion.

Local school children sang the Indian National Anthem while French military veterans carrying their flags and wearing their medals honoured us with their presence.

Mayor Gerard Allart made a very moving speech in which he referred to the debt that was owed by the people of France to these soldiers who came from a faraway land to fight for France.

Was the inauguration of the monument a special moment?

The culmination of our joint endeavours and the highlight of the commemorative activities was the inauguration of the Indian Military Memorial at Villers Guislain on November 10, 2018 by the hon'ble Vice-President of India, Mr Venkaiah Naidu.

This event marks a historic landmark in the strong ties of friendship between India and France.

IMAGE: Left to right: Anthony McClenaghan, Brigadier Clive Elderton (retd), Squadron Leader Chhina (retd), Brigadier Sudhir Kumar Sharma, India's military attache in France, Gerard Allart, the mayor of Villiers-Guislain.

A few words about India: The Forgotten Army, the documentary film you made with Mandakini Gahlot.

The film traces in part the journey of an Indian cavalryman, Harnam Singh, who went to fight in France in the Great War.

I am currently translating his memoirs for publication from Gurmukhi into English. He was a Sikh soldier from the Punjab, who was among the first Indians to land at Marseille in 1914.

He was later evacuated to Brighton with severe frostbite, but luckily recovered to return to the front. Given the extreme paucity of written accounts by Indian soldiers, the memoirs are worth their weight in gold.

The documentary weaves together his individual history starting from his village in India to the battlefields of France and Flanders and places it in the larger context of the services of the Indian Army on the Western Front.

What were your objectives?

The objective was to highlight the role of the Indian Army in the Great War and give the narrative a human face by telling the story through the first-hand experiences of a soldier who went through the war.

The documentary medium allows us to share the story with a much wider audience.

In so doing, we wanted to provide the forgotten soldiers of the Indian Army not just with an acknowledgement of their role or a commemoration of their sacrifice, but also to reinstate them to their proper place in history.

French school children sing the Indian National Anthem to commemorate Indian soldiers who fought and died on the Western Front during WWI.

IMAGE: French school children sing the Indian National Anthem to commemorate Indian soldiers who fought and died on the Western Front during WWI.

Is it difficult to be a historian today in India?

The biggest problem facing the historian in India today is the non-release of primary source records into the public domain by the various record creating agencies of government.

Although there is a law called the Public Records Act that exists to enable this transfer, its implementation is lackadaisical and officials take refuge behind the colonial-era legislation called the Official Secrets Act, which prevents effective monitoring of the process of transferring records and leads to a lack of accountability of concerned agencies.

Any future project?

Yes, I am working on the translation of accounts of Indian soldiers of the Great War that we have uncovered as part of the centenary project.

I hope to have these published shortly. We will also start working on a history of the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict which led to the creation of Bangladesh, in time for the 50th anniversary of that conflict in 2021.

 

Claude Arpi