Of Black and Brown Diggers


Over the past few years, the Indian community in Australia has had an active participation in the various Anzac Day marches around the country. Though there was some resistance from the Returned Services League (RSL) in Adelaide, it was quickly reviewed to acknowledge the Indian participation at Gallipoli.



Many years ago, I heard a famous Australian historian say (I believe tongue-in-cheek) that there were three pivotal moments in modern Australian history – the landing at Gallipoli; the sacking of the Whitlam government; and the underarm bowling incident featuring Trevor Chappell. Admittedly, this was many years ago and one is sure that if this had to be updated, the Mabo decision and the musical chairs in the Labor Prime Ministership would be added. But be that as it may,Gallipoli is etched deeply in the psyche of modern Australia.

Over the past few years, as there has been an active acknowledgement of the Indian links to the spirit of the Anzacs, there also has been an increasing understanding of the contributions of the Indigenous Australian or Black Diggers. It is indeed interesting to note the experiences of the Aboriginals who were not considered citizens of Australia. When World War I broke out in 1914, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not considered citizens of Australia, but wards of the local “Protector of Aborigines”. While they were discouraged from enlisting, those who were able to slip through the net were given the same training and challenges as the other soldiers. These soldiers fought valiantly and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, as a black mark in Australia’s history, when the Aboriginal soldiers returned to Australia, they did not receive the same treatment and/or benefits as their mainstream peers. It is only in recent times that our Black Diggers are being acknowledged and recognised for their contributions.

In contrast, the Indian army which participated in World War I came from undivided India (comprising present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka). A total of one and half million men, including soldiers and non-combatants, fought on behalf of the British Indian army as India joined the war. At Gallipoli, 5,010 served as part of the Australian and New Zealand division, and of these it is believed 40 per cent lost their lives. The Indian 29th Infantry Brigade which fought at Gallipoli was particularly much-admired by the ANZACs.

In fact, in the words of Major Alexander, “The ANZACs called every Indian “Johnny” and treated them like brothers and as a consequence the Indians liked them even more.”

He also wrote of the parties of Australian and New Zealand soldiers sitting in the lines eating “chuppatties”.

At this time of year, while many Indian Australians take pride in being part of Anzac parades, it would have been nice to have a survivor, perhaps from the 29th Infantry Brigade, to join in the commemorations and help us remember the fallen.