India’s Forgotten Soldiers

Indian and British officers inspecting coastal defenses in 1940. Credit Associated Press
Indian and British officers inspecting coastal defenses in 1940. Credit Associated Press

The first time I ever saw my grandfather’s name written out was in a leather-bound register of a thousand pages. Each page was busy with names, and it took me a while to find his: misspelled, in diminutive type, buried deep in the thick, creamy leaves. It was late spring, and I was seated inside a shed at the Delhi War Cemetery, reading with my chin tilted up so the sweat dropped away from the paper: I couldn’t risk blotting out the memory of a war hero.

Outside, the sun blazed off the marble gravestones of about a thousand men who died for the British Empire in World War II. I had come to find my maternal grandfather, who joined the army’s medical service in the summer of 1942: the high noon of India’s freedom struggle, as well as of the war. I searched along the headstones until an attendant pointed out that the Hindu dead were cremated, not buried. The small scratching, with a typo, was my grandfather’s only commemoration.

In July last year, the newly elected government of Narendra Modi announced that it would build a monument to India’s fallen soldiers, honoring a long-standing promise to the armed forces. Arun Jaitley, then minister for both defense and finance, set aside $15 million in his first budget for a National War Memorial. It would bear the names, he said, of “all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country after 1947,” the year of India’s independence.

India rarely cares to remember the soldiers of the Raj, especially those who fought in World War II, which ended in Asia exactly 70 years ago. Japan announced its surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and two years later, to the day, India was free. Since then, the authorized history of the period has dwelt only on those who fought to be free of the Empire, forgetting the many who had fought to defend it.

It is often implied that the Indians who served during World War II were mercenaries, and deserve no part in the country’s military legacy. In fact, the war was the start of the army’s modern era, and the men who were tested by it helped build the Indian military into the professional force it is today.

The intended site for the National War Memorial is right next to India Gate, the social heart of the city, where thousands of Delhiwalas converge each evening to have picnics, tear at candy floss and stretch out under the sky. India Gate is itself a war memorial, built by the Raj to honor soldiers who died in World War I. The government’s new memorial will commemorate those who died since 1947. A hundred yards of lawn and asphalt will separate the two structures — a gap that will unwittingly symbolize the war they leave out.

This is not a minor omission. World War II remains the greatest military engagement in India’s history. Over two million Indians served — at that time, the largest unconscripted army ever — and 36,000 died or went missing, as far afield as Italy, Tunisia and Hong Kong. For the first time, large numbers of middle-class Indians were commissioned as officers, a privilege until then reserved for white men.

These new officers came under great moral duress from both Gandhi’s Congress Party, which had boycotted the war effort, and the rebel army of Subhas Chandra Bose, which aimed to liberate India by force, with help from Japan. Most were for independence in private, but almost none ever wavered in their duty to the Raj. They maintained the confidence of their commander in chief, Claude Auchinleck, who once ordered that “no Indian officer must be regarded as suspect and disloyal merely because he is what is called a nationalist.”

The integration of Indian officers into the colonial army was not always smooth, but it was sustained, and in return they resisted the provocations of Gandhi and Bose, and rose through the ranks. Eventually they got to defend their homeland, when they turned back the final thrust of the Japanese Army into India’s northeast in the summer of 1944.

Yet for those who fell, there would be no triumphal arch — they were too late to be honored by the departing Empire, and too early to be accepted by the free nation-state. Today, if they are remembered at all, their moral status is questioned. Last month, Aakar Patel, director of Amnesty International India, declared that the Indian Army was historically “an army of mercenaries that became a national army overnight on August 15, 1947.”

My grandfather did join up for money, it’s true: At Madras Medical College in 1942, he fell in love with a classmate, and when it was discovered by his family that she was a mleccha, a non-Hindu, he was severed from both clan and inheritance. Scared, broke and struggling with weak lungs, he yielded to the recruitment officers who hovered around campus, promising salary and status.

A few weeks later, he found himself not on the front line opposing global fascism, but in a mud fortress on India’s northwest frontier, helping suppress the Pashtun tribes, a colonial routine over a century old. There was little to redeem that effort, even to himself. But he stayed at his post while winter came, and his bronchitis worsened, until he succumbed to it.

Had my grandfather survived the war, he would have slipped out of the uniform of the colonial mercenary straight into that of a patriot. Other subalterns who had saluted the Union Jack would go on to become the top brass during India’s later, nationalist battles. What never changed was that they refused ideology, and stayed loyal to the civilian administration above all.

That is the real legacy of Indian troops: Whether or not they were patriots, they were always professionals. That tradition sustained the Raj in its last hours, and it sustains a vexing democracy today. India’s government does no justice to the armed forces by honoring the soldiers who lived through World War II and forgetting the ones who did not.

Raghu Karnad is the author of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War and a contributing editor at

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