By Manimugdha S Sharma,
NEW DELHI: Many Indians today argue why we shouldn’t remember the Second World War. They say it was not our war, so we shouldn’t be bothered. They say that the 2.5 million Indians who fought in it were “slaves” of the British Empire who got what they deserved — oblivion. Yet what did this war mean to us?
It was a tale of grit of the poor Naga villager who put his own life in the line to tell the Allies what the Japanese were up to. It was a tale of silent bravery of the Indian mule drivers at Dunkirk who were among the few disciplined men in that chaotic Allied retreat. It was a journey of continuous discovery for the Maratha troops who recovered and restored stolen Renaissance art treasures of Florence. It was about the graceful Manipuri women who left their children behind to build airstrips for the Allies. It was about those lorry drivers who took supplies up and down the front line, ignoring the threat to their lives.
It was about the Indian fighter pilots who duelled with the Messerschmitts and Zeros over the skies of Europe and Burma and flew reconnaissance sorties during Normandy landings. It was also the story of the agarbatti-maker from Madras, whose incense sticks were burnt by the Punjabi Muslim soldier to bid adieu to his dead comrade and by the Rajput soldier to pray. It was about the young Jewish boy from Calcutta who signed up to fight the Nazis. It was about those mahouts from Assam tea gardens who rescued people fleeing from Burma, as much as it was about those wiry Gurkhas whose steely resolve proved tougher than the steel of the Japanese bayonets.
It was as much about the Sikhs at El Alamein who pulled out bullets stuck in the folds of their turbans, counted them with pride, and moved on, as it was about the merchant seamen who went down in their thousands along with their ships while trying to keep India afloat. It was about that family that sent its eldest son to fight the Nazis in Europe and the youngest to power the Civil Disobedience Movement, as it was about that 16-year-old Assamese girl who was shot for trying to raise the flag of freedom atop a police station in a small town that’s barely visible on the map.
It was about those men of Assam Railway who ferried wagons over the Brahmaputra so that the link to the Northeast wasn’t broken, as much as it was about that poor teacher in Assam who was framed in a military train sabotage case and hanged — the only freedom fighter martyred that way during the Quit India Movement.
It was a tale of sacrifice of the poor farmers of Bengal who gave their all to feed the Allied war effort, but unjustly met their end in the famine that followed. It was about the 70-year-old man who regularly walked miles to the post office to find out if his son had sent word from Italy.
The Second World War was about 330 million people fighting for their own independence while feeding and nurturing their 2.5 million soldiers to fight Fascism, Nazism and Japanese imperialism. The Second World War was about a nation in the throes of freedom that used its vast military as a bargaining chip on the dialogue table with the English. The Second World War was the story of our grandfathers, grandmothers, granduncles and grandaunts. It was the story of India. It still is our story, largely forgotten by us. Until now.