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Why Don’t We Remember our Second World War Dead?

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 By Sudhir Arora

The 15th of August carries a double significance for us Indians – not only is it the day that we attained Independence, it is also the day in 1945 that Japanese Emperor Hirohito went on air on Radio Tokyo to announce his country’s surrender, thus signalling the end of World War II. A war that saw India itself threatened and in which over two and a half million Indians served in uniform, the largest volunteer army in history, of whom nearly 87,000 were killed in action.

A beautiful ceremony, largely ignored in India, took place at the 150 acre National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire (UK) on 15 August 2020, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VJ-Day (Victory over Japan Day). The solemn ceremony was telecast live by BBC TV. It was a belated recognition of the immense contribution of the British-Indian 14th Army, made up mostly of Indian Army formations, towards holding the Japanese at the gates of India, re-conquering Burma, and in the ultimate victory over the Japanese in World War II. The remembrance was led by the British royals Charles, the Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in attendance. The ceremony was held outdoors, the participants seated mostly on wooden park benches, well away from each other. On the bench next to that of the Royal couple was seated the 97 year old Havildar Darbara Singh Bhullar of the Indian Army Signal Corps, a veteran of the Burma Campaign. This was due recognition of the immense contribution of the Indian Army in the defeat of the Japanese on land in World War II.

Havildar Darshan Singh Bhullar laying a wreath
on the 75th Anniversary commemoration of
Victory over Japan Day, 15th August 2020

A short sitar recital, a hymn, the haunting Last Post by a bugler and a plaintive piece by a lone Gurkha bagpiper added to the poignancy of the ceremony – a befitting tribute to the forces that ensured that India was not another of the many countries overrun by the Imperial Japanese Army.

A look at the British 14th Army that took on and defeated the seemingly invincible Japanese is instructive for us in India, in particular. After the disastrous retreat from Burma in 1942, the 14th Army was created under William Slim of the Indian Army, a die-hard Gurkha officer. Within a year and a half, this force grew into the largest operational command in World War II, a million strong, speaking 40 languages. The bulk of these were Indian – at its peak, the 14th Army comprised 13 divisions in three corps (with numerous independent units), of which eight battle-hardened Divisions were of the Indian Army. This was the only force which stood up to, and vanquished, the Imperial Japanese Army which till then had never suffered a defeat on the Asian land mass. The Japanese onslaught was finally halted in India’s North-East, amidst ferocious fighting at Kohima and Imphal, ranked amongst the greatest land battles in history. It was thus primarily Indian Army troops that saved the country from coming under Japan’s rule.

Japanese Surrender at Singapore on 12 September 1945. Seated to
extreme left is then Brigadier K.S. Thimayya, DSO

While Emperor Hirohito had announced Japan’s capitulation on 15 August 1945, the Second World War officially ended on 2 September 1945 when the Japanese signed the formal surrender on board the US Navy battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. The surrender of the Japanese at Singapore followed on 12 September, accepted by Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia. Fittingly, among those present was then Brigadier KS Thimayya, the only Indian to have been given operational command of a Brigade in World War II, and who had acquitted himself brilliantly, winning a well deserved DSO (Distinguished Service Order). He would go on to be one of the most respected Chiefs of the Indian Army.

Yet, most of us in India are only peripherally aware (if at all) of these epic clashes and the saga of Indian valour in World War II. We neither celebrate nor commemorate the incredible bravery of our fighting forces in the World Wars, probably because the ‘history’ taught to us labels these as ‘imperial wars’, forgetting that India itself was gravely threatened in 1944. Britain was preoccupied in Europe, it could not provide more troops for the defence of India and so it was left to a force with mainly Indians in the rank and file to defend their motherland.

Though over 26 lakh soldiers of the Indian Army fought in three continents – Africa, Europe, Asia – in World War II from 1939 to 1945, there is hardly any awareness in the country of the history they wrote with their blood. Their signal contribution deserves recognition within the nation, their bravery should be saluted. Our schools and colleges need to re-look what is said to be ‘modern Indian history’. The impact on subsequent events in India of the Indian Army’s role in World War II is still largely ignored, the story of the Indian Army in the World Wars rarely told outside the volumes of regimental histories.

This is all the more important for us in Uttarakhand as we are home to three major regiments – The Garhwal Rifles, The Kumaon Regiment and The Bengal Sappers – whose record of service in the World Wars is exemplary.

While India Gate in New Delhi serves as a Memorial to the Indian Army personnel who laid down their lives in World War I, there is no Memorial to the Indian Army’s 87,000 dead in World War II, a war fought not in distant lands but at the very eastern gates of India. The Indian Army’s contribution to the free world is recognised in Memorials throughout the world (but sadly, not in India). The Memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France is a tribute by the grateful French for the Indian Corps’ peerless contribution to the defence of France in 1914-15. The Kranji War Memorial in Singapore has etched in granite the names of those who died in Malaya and Singapore in World II. The Memorial Stone says “They Died For All Free Men” in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Gurmukhi. While it may be too late for a Memorial to these brave soldiers, the least that can be done is to at least commemorate their sacrifice. A suitable date should be chosen and their memory honoured.

If others can, we too must remember and celebrate our bravehearts who left indelible imprints on battlefields across the world. It is time we start a movement to commemorate their bravery and sacrifice.

(The author can be reached at sudhir.aroraddn@gmail.com)