by AMIT ROY
TWO peers, Jitesh Gadhia and Karan Bilimoria, delivered powerful speeches on Monday (5)
during a Lords debate on Armistice Day marking the centenary of the end of the First World War, in which they urged the nation to remember the sacrifices made
by 1.5 million Indian troops.
Lord Bilimoria made the point that “the part they played in the war has largely been whitewashed from history”.
However, the Royal British Legion announced that this weekend’s Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall will include a special tribute to Indian soldiers, with a reading of the poem, The Gift of India, written in 1915 by the Indian poet and freedom fighter, Sarojini Naidu.
The poem, which will be read by the actress Nina Wadia, speaks of the grief of mothers losing their sons in foreign fields but also of the pride and patriotism inspired by their heroism and bravery.
The ceremony, to be televised by the BBC, will be attended by senior members of the royal family, including the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla, Prince William and his younger brother, Harry, and their respective wives, Kate and Meghan.
Catherine Davies, head of Remembrance at the Royal British Legion, which has endorsed distribution of red khadi poppies devised by Lord Gadhia, said: “We will (also) hear the voices of Indian soldiers during another section which features first-hand testimony of the First World War.”
She added: “The Royal British Legion has been proud to include the British Asian community in the 2018 centenary commemorations. We are thanking the British Indian Army for its contribution.”
During the Lords debate, Gadhia recalled the comment made by David Lloyd George, prime
minister when the war ended in 1918, that “had they (Indian and other Commonwealth troops) stayed at home … the history of the world would have taken a different course”.
Gadhia went on: “The swift arrival of Indian troops on the Western Front in September 1914 was absolutely critical to preventing a German breakthrough.
“A sepoy named Khudadad Khan was awarded the first of 11 Indian Victoria Crosses after valiantly staying at his machine gun when all his colleagues were killed around him.
“In all, 74,000 Indians serving in multiple continents, from the Somme to the Sahara, never returned home.”
Gadhia expressed the hope that remembering Indian soldiers “also sends a powerful signal to Asians growing up in Britain and inspires the next generation to understand their own identity.
“They should know that their parents and grandparents did not just come here as immigrants. Our ancestors fought for this country and for freedom and democracy,
even though they lived in a colony at the time.
“We therefore have as great a stake here as anyone else. Indeed, everyone from the Commonwealth should be proud of the role which their forebears played in shaping the destiny of the world a century ago.”
Lord Bilimoria, whose late father was a distinguished general in the Indian army, also wanted “to reach out across the country, and especially to our youth, to tell them about the amazing service and sacrifice, not just from the Commonwealth, but in particular from India.
“Do we realise that, except for the medical officers, the 1.5 million Indians who served in the First World War were not allowed to become officers?
“More Indians fought for the British between 1914 and 1918 than the combined total for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Some 74,000 Indian soldiers were killed on the battlefields of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but the part they played in the war has largely been whitewashed from history.”
He hoped that “at this huge event at the Royal Albert Hall which will be watched by millions
around the world, the British legion will acknowledge the contribution of the 1.5 million
Indians. If it does not, it will be a missed opportunity.”
The London-based historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama, who has been struggling for more than 30 years to win great recognition for Indian soldiers, submitted detailed proposals to the Royal British Legion on how their sacrifices should be acknowledged.
There was Indian backing for the war effort at all levels, according to Vadgama.
Lord Sinha of Raipur, the first and only Indian hereditary peer, was appointed a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and participated in the Peace Conference of 1917.
General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh of Bikaner, who served in France and Egypt during the war, became the first Indian prince to be a delegate to the Imperial War Conference and cabinet.
The legendary cricketer, Prince Ranjitsinhji, led a contingent of Indian troops to the Western Front in 1914. He also made of the resources of his state in Gujarat available to Britain, while his UK home in Staines was converted into a hospital.
Princess Sophia (1876-1948), the suffragette daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, worked as a nurse and visited various hospitals where Indian soldiers were recovering from their wounds during the First World War.
It has been announced that the Tory chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, Tom Tugendhat, will place a wreath at the war memorial in Delhi this weekend.