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‘India must celebrate its military history too’

Aust-based Indian veterans, who march regularly in the annual ANZAC Day parade to honour their forebears at Gallipoli, suggest a similar commemoration in India.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

 

Having participated in the ANZAC Day Parade for a few years now, many of those who march as part of the Indian contingent are beginning to feel that perhaps India should organise its own memorial event. Indian military history

Indian involvement at Gallipoli in 1915 is now a well-recognised and acknowledged fact. Some 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War I; over 74,000 of them lost their lives, 1,400 of these at Gallipoli alone. Many were awarded the Victoria Cross honour.

Just the like the Aussies and New Zealanders, they fought a war in a strange land far from their own, and against an enemy they knew little about.

Indian contingent at Anzac Day in Melbourne

AT A GLANCE

  • Indian involvement at Gallipoli in 1915 is now a well-recognised and acknowledged fact
  • Yet there is no occasion in India to remember and honour the sacrifices its soldiers made in the two World Wars.
  • The idea has been mooted, but turned down as these soldiers were ‘part of British forces’.
  • Veterans feel India should set aside an annual day to celebrate the nation’s military history.

The Indian contingent at Gallipoli comprised the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade, 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, Indian Supply and Transport Corps, and the 108th Indian Field Ambulance, among others. They served there from late April 1915, through the August offensive, until the final evacuation in December.

“If Australia and New Zealand can go to Gallipoli every year to lay a wreath to the memory of their soldiers, why shouldn’t India?” asks Col Nilesh Bansal (Retd), who has been a proud ANZAC Day participant in Melbourne since 2013.

“I’ve spoken to Indian officials about this,” Bansal reveals, “and I am saddened to learn that apparently the Indian political system and bureaucracy do not recognise or honour conflicts that took place before 1947, considering the participants as ‘part of British forces’”.

Major General Ranjit Nadkarni (Retd), VSM, who has led the 20-strong Indian contingent at Melbourne’s ANZAC Day parade in the past, feels that the annual ceremony including the dawn service, parades and observances at RSL to honour our veterans, mean a lot to men in uniform.

Dashmesh Band in Sydney. Pic: AAP Image/Brendan Esposito

“These ceremonies give respect to all armed forces personnel,” he tells Indian Link. “They are made to feel a valued section of the community. In India we don’t get such recognition, at least not to this extent.” Indian military history

He adds, “I would like to see something of this nature in India, definitely. We do have the Republic Day ceremony but it is a mixed affair, with various other services and states taking part.”

In fact, taking a cue from the Australian observance of ANZAC Day, he goes a step further and suggests a day set aside to celebrate .

“The 1971 conflict for example, in which I myself participated, created international history, giving rise to the birth of a new nation Bangladesh. The nation owes the Armed Forces. We should set aside a day for military personnel alone, besides Republic Day.”

The Indian Consulate in Melbourne hosts a lunch every year to honour the Indian marchers, and both Bansal and Nadkarni have expressed the sense of pride they feel, as members of the community (both Indian and mainstream) come up and greet them as military officers who served their country with devotion.

Indian military history
Brisbane’s Indian veterans join the ANZAC Day march (Source: Avtar Gill)

“Of course, there are people who recognise and value our service in India also,” Nadkarni admits. “When I go to the bank in India for instance, I am amazed at the regard shown to me simply because I am a soldier. But there’s no public forum for such acknowledgment. I think it can be done: the retired community will happily work alongside the serving community to make this happen. Such a move will do the country proud, I feel.”

Gen Nadkarni served in the Indian Army for 38 years. As an Infantry officer he saw action in the 1971 war as a young major, and later in Kashmir fighting terrorists.

As part of his long career he also served as Chief Instructor of the Army at the prestigious Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, Tamil Nadu.

“I taught military history and am fully aware of the battles that took place in Gallipoli in 1914-15,” he offers. “My brigade the 1st Battalion of the Sikh Regiment was particularly active there and this is a great source of pride for me. The Gurkhas and others from India did their bit equally valiantly and we are proud of their service and sacrifice.”

About marching in the annual ANZAC Day parade, he says, “I feel proud to be Indian, and an ex army officer. I’m proud that there is some recognition for Indian soldiers.”

anzac day perth indian contingent
Indian veterans march in Perth (Source: Cdr Rajesh Mittal)

His words are echoed by Capt Johnny Joseph of Brisbane, formerly of the 8 Kumaon Regiment in India. Indian military history

“There is no occasion in India to remember and honour the sacrifices our soldiers made in the two World Wars,” Joseph tells Indian Link. “And that is why the ANZAC Day parade is significant to me. The Australians and the New Zealanders were in the forefront at this historic military operation no doubt, but our countrymen were there too, besides others of course like the South Africans. The annual parade today is our way of honouring, respecting and giving recognition to the Indian soldiers who fought and died there. The authorities tell us they were part of ‘British’ forces, but they were our men.”

Capt Joseph speaks warmly about the contingent of descendants – some of them little children – who carry their family members’ portraits in memory.

“The character of the ANZAC Day parade is different from India’s Republic Day,” he notes. “It’s less structured, but the respect for the men and women in service comes through very strongly.”

Indian military history
Consul General of India (Melb) felicitates Indian veterans in an annual ANZAC Day lunch

Indian military history

Vickram Grewal marched as part of his RAAF unit in Canberra for the first time in 2018. But he has been marching since 2007, when the first Sikh contingent was permitted in the Sydney parade. As part of the Sikh Council of Australia, Grewal was instrumental in liaising with the RSL to establish a case by putting forward accounts from history of the Sikh participation in Gallipoli.

“That Sikh legacy must be remembered and honoured,” he says with conviction. “Forget the political aspect of it, the history is there for all to see. The awareness must be raised in India as well.”

The Sydney contingent that he helped put together has grown to nearly 50 participants.

The three appearances of the Dashmesh Band, an all-Sikh bagpipes band from Malaysia, made it even more special -going a long way in showcasing the diverse and inclusive nature of this quintessential Australian event.

No other Indian contingent has been accompanied by a marching band.

“Marching behind a band makes it even more special for us,” Bawa Singh Jagdev, a veteran participant in the parade, tells Indian Link. “For the centenary year, we put in a request with the Indian High Commission to allow a band from the Sikh Regiments in India to accompany us in the parade. It would have been a wonderful acknowledgement of the Sikh participation in Gallipoli and would perhaps have helped in the bilateral relationship as well, but it was not to be.”

In Adelaide, Marvin Bunting has been paying his respects at the Dawn Service for more than 30 years, showing up in his Regiment Cap from 161 Medium Regiment (Basantar River), and wearing his medals.

“I come in honour of the fallen, and to say thanks for the peace and harmony we live in today that came about as a result of their sacrifice,” he says. “It also allows me to relive the memories of my past, and in a way, fly the flag for my country.”

He served in the Indian Army (artillery) for 12 years, and was posted in the J&K sector during the 1971 war. The Delhi-born Bunting is a third generation army man: his grandfather Tom Bunting went to India from Britain in 1900 as a soldier of the British Raj, and his father Trevor served in the Air Force.

Indian military history

Returning to India for the 50th anniversary of his commission recently, he was reunited with his Army colleagues. “It struck me then not only that the nation should perhaps be treating its veterans a bit better, but the sacrifice of the fallen be better remembered.”

(An Indian contingent has participated in Adelaide’s ANZAC Day parade before, after having won a hard-fought battle to be allowed to, but have been intermittent since.)

Much like Marvin Bunting, Melbourne’s Nilesh Bansal describes in some detail putting on his regimental cap and tie and pinning on his medal accoutrements in preparation for the parade. “I feel proud to be marching as a representative of our veterans who participated at Gallipoli,” he says.

Having served in the Indian Army for 22 years, he counts his 12 years in Kashmir (including Siachen) in counter insurgency operations as his highpoints. He talks with pride about raising and commanding a Brahmos (surface to surface supersonic cruise missile) regiment, making it to the prestigious Defence Services Staff Course and serving as part of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

“Walking through the WWII cemetery in Ethiopia, I came across tombstones of many Indian soldiers,” he recalls. “They lie there forgotten. If we don’t honour our soldiers, who else will? Many Indian Army regiments do so at their own levels, and it is heartening to see old battles and sacrifices still remembered at least at this level. I think that we as a nation should honour our soldiers; whichever banner they fought under, they were Indian at the end of the day.” Indian military history

READ ALSO: The diggers in the trenches: About ANZAC Day

Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni Anand Luthra
Rajni is the Editor of Indian Link.

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