How about Gandhi showing up to help in the British effort in WWI?
British steamer SS Kinfauns Castle had reached the English Channel from Cape Town in South Africa in August 1914 when one of the passengers received important news: the British Empire was at war with Germany. Upon reaching Britain, he would declare unconditional support to the British war effort and propose to raise an Indian volunteer unit. He was barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
“Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the First World War. Some say Gandhi was a loyalist who had great faith in the British; some say Gandhi was an opportunist who tried to use the Great War to extract political concessions from Britain. Gandhi himself struggled to explain it and gave contradictory statements to justify his stand right up to the mid-1920s. But until the end of the war, Gandhi understood Britain’s cause to be a righteous one and worth fighting for.
“We have to understand that Gandhi was a politician back then, and like all politicians, he did contradict himself several times. But at that time in India, there was no demand for total independence or ‘poorna swaraj’ but dominion status. So it wasn’t just Gandhi but most political leaders of that time, cutting across party lines, supported in varying degrees the British war effort,”
says military historian Squadron Leader Rana T S Chhina (Retd).
By late August, 1914, it had become clear to Gandhi that the Indian Army would be deployed on the Western Front and there could be many Indians wounded needing medical care. So Gandhi proposed to raise an Indian ambulance corps that was soon sanctioned by the British war office. It was not the first time that Gandhi had appealed to Indians to join a British war: during the Second Boer War in 1899-1902 and Zulu War in 1906, Gandhi, then in South Africa, had raised an Indian ambulance corps in which he served as a sergeant-major of the British Army. In the next five months, Gandhi managed to inspire many Indians to join the corps, some of whom later served in hospitals in Southampton and Brighton where Indian war casualties were treated. In this cause, he was aided by his wife Kasturba and Sarojini Naidu, who also drew up a resolution for unconditional support to the British Empire.
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“Gandhi himself took nursing classes, though he soon fell ill with pleurisy and couldn’t himself tend to the Indian wounded. “Gandhi is considered to be an icon in Indian military medicine. We still have a photo of him in military uniform at the Armed Forces Medical College, Pune,”
says Brigadier MSVK Raju (Retd), formerly the head of psychiatry at AFMC.
Gandhi left England for India in December, 1914 and arrived in January, 1915. That year, Gandhi was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal.
In the next few years, Gandhi continued to espouse the cause of the British, though he also fought British imperialism through Champaran satyagraha in 1917 and the Kheda satyagraha in 1918. In fact, after Kheda satyagraha ended, Gandhi aggressively started campaigning for the war as a recruiting officer of the empire. This time, Gandhi wasn’t recruiting non-combatants but fighters. Other leaders like Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mohammed Ali Jinnah also endorsed the empire’s cause in varying degrees.
According to UK-based author Vedica Kant, who is in India for the launch of her first book, ‘If I die here, who will remember me? India in the First World War’, Gandhi was different from other leaders. Kant says,
“Like others who demanded or expected concessions from the British in return for support to the war, Gandhi, right from the beginning, gave unconditional support. Gandhi was also instrumental in expanding the recruiting bases of the Indian Army to Gujarat and other places: places that didn’t have the so-called martial races as identified by the British. By 1918, the empire was in dire need of men and they had to look to Gujarat, Bengal, Madras etc for recruiting,”
One of the many recruiting centres in Gujarat was set up at Pollen Dharamshala in Godhra (now mostly remembered for the Sabarmati Express burning incident of 2002). There, on April 16, 1918, a large gathering of Thakores of Rewa Kantha Agency and Panch Mahals, and common people heard Gandhi present a report on his recruiting work. He said Kaira area had contributed the most in Gujarat. Gandhi then donated a sum of Rs 102 from his own pocket for the war effort. At the end of the day, Rs 4,500 had been collected for the war; Rs 1,000 more came from a ticketed concert held in the evening. The government, in gratitude, awarded bonuses to both recruits and recruiters.
Then on June 26, 1918, Gandhi addressed a mass gathering in Borsad taluka and said,
“Voluntary enlistment is the right key to self-government, to say nothing of the manliness and broadmindedness it confers. The honour of our women is bound up with it inasmuch as by enlisting ourselves, we shall acquire that capacity for self-defence, the absence of which at present makes us unable to protect our women and children… The opportunity for military training now open to us all will not present itself in the future… A man who is afraid of death is constitutionally incapable of passive resistance. For a proper appreciation of the true significance of passive resistance the power of physical endurance needs to be cultivated. He alone can practise ‘ahimsa’ who knows ‘himsa’ not in the abstract but in fact.”
After the war, though, following the British government backtracking on its assurances of granting self-government to India and coming up with repressive measures, Gandhi lost faith in the empire. He and many others started seeing the Indian soldiers who volunteered for the war as mercenaries. “That’s where we went wrong. The Indian Army fought with the consent of the Indian leadership. And that’s why our soldiers cannot be called mercenaries. Now, people today may not like it that so many Indians fought for the empire, but you can’t just write them out of history,” Kant says.
It was this politics between the British and Indian leaders that robbed the Indian soldier of his rightful place in history.
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