Monday, November 19, 2018

Patel-Nehru rift over Tibet & China was deep

My article Patel-Nehru rift over Tibet & China was deep appeared in the Deccan Chronicle

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The most serious cause of discord was the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese “Liberation Army” in October 1950.

On October 31, the world’s tallest statue, the Statue of Unity dedicated to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, was unveiled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.The work on the 182-metre tall statue has been completed after round the clock work by 3,400 labourers and 250 engineers at Sadhu Bet island on Narmada river in Gujarat. Sadhu Bet, located some 3.5 km away from the Narmada Dam, is linked by a 250-metre-long long bridge.
Unfortunately, for several reasons, scarce scholarly research has been done on the internal history of the Congress; the main cause is probably that a section of the party would prefer to keep history under wraps. Take the acute differences of opinion between Sardar Patel, the deputy prime minister, and “Panditji”, as Nehru was then called by Congressmen. In the last weeks of Patel’s life (he passed away on December 15, 1950), there was a deep split between the two leaders, leading to unilateral decisions for the PM, for which India had to pay the heaviest price.
The most serious cause of discord was the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese “Liberation Army” in October 1950. In the course of recent researches in Indian archives, I discovered several new facts. Not only did several senior Congress leaders, led by Patel, violently oppose Nehru’s suicidal policy, but many senior bureaucrats too did not agree with the Prime Minister’s decisions and objected to his policy of appeasement with China, which led India to lose a peaceful border.
On November 11, 1950, the deputy prime minister of India addressed a meeting organised by the Central Aryan Association to commemorate the 67th death anniversary of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. It was to be his last speech. What did he say? The Sardar spoke of the potential dangers arising from what was happening in Tibet and Nepal, and he exhorted his countrymen: “It was incumbent on the people to rise above party squabbles and unitedly defend their newly-won freedom.” He cited the example of Gandhi and Swami Dayanand.
Sardar Patel then criticised the Chinese intervention in Tibet; he asserted that to use the “sword” against the traditionally peace-loving Tibetan people was unjustified: “No other country in the world was as peace-loving as Tibet. India did not believe, therefore, that the Chinese government would actually use force in settling the Tibetan question.” He observed that the Chinese government did not listen to India’s advice to settle the Tibetan issue peacefully: “They marched their armies into Tibet and explained this action by talking of foreign interests intriguing in Tibet against China.” The deputy prime minster added that this fear was unfounded; no outsider was interested in Tibet. The Sardar continued by saying that “nobody could say what the outcome of Chinese action would be. But the use of force ultimately created more fear and tension. It was possible that when a country got drunk with its own military strength and power, it did not think calmly over all issues.” He strongly asserted that the use of arms was wrong: “In the present state of the world, such events might easily touch off a new world war, which would mean disaster for mankind.”
Did he know that it was his last message? “Do not let cowardice cripple you. Do not run away from danger. The three year-old freedom of the country has to be fully protected. India today is surrounded by all sorts of dangers and it is for the people today to remember the teachings of the two great saints and face fearlessly all dangers.”
The deputy prime minister concluded: “In this kalyug we shall return ahimsa for ahimsa. But if anybody resorted to force against us we shall meet it with force.” He ended his speech citing Swami Dayananda: “People should also remember that Swamiji did not get a foreign education. He was the product of Indian culture. Although it was true that they in India had to borrow whatever was good and useful from other countries, it was right and proper that Indian culture was accorded its due place.” Who is ready to listen to this, even today?
Days earlier, Patel had written a “prophetic” letter to Nehru, detailing the implications for India of Tibet’s invasion. In fact, Patel used a draft done by Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, the secretary-general of the ministry of external affairs and Commonwealth relations. However, Nehru decided to ignore Patel’s letter.
Witnessing the nefarious influence of K.M. Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to China, who ceaselessly defended China’s interests, Bajpai, the most seasoned Indian diplomat, had lost his cool. On October 31, in an internal note, he detailed the sequence of events which followed Tibet’s invasion and the role of Panikkar, whose attitude was compared to Sir Neville Chamberlain’s towards Hitler.
Bajpai’s anger demonstrates the frustration of many senior officers; the account starts on July 15, when the governor of Assam informed Delhi that, according to the information received by the local intelligence bureau, Chinese troops, “in unknown strength, had been moving towards Tibet from three directions.” Not only was Panikkar unable to get any confirmation, but he virtually justified Beijing’s military action by writing: “In view of frustration in regard to Formosa, the Tibetan move was not unlikely.” During the next three months, the Indian ambassador would systematically take the Chinese side.
After receiving Bajpai’s note, Patel wrote back: “I need hardly say that I have read it with a great deal of interest and profit to myself and it has resulted in a much better understanding of the points at issue and general, though serious, nature of the problem. The Chinese advance into Tibet upsets all our security calculations. … I entirely agree with you that a reconsideration of our military position and a redisposition of our forces are inescapable.”
Some more details of the seriousness of the situation filters through Inside Story of Sardar Patel: The Diary of Maniben Patel, the daughter of the Sardar. In an entry on November 2, 1950, Maniben wrote: “Rajaji and Jawaharlal had a heated altercation about the Tibet policy. Rajaji does not at all appreciate this policy. Rajaji very unhappy — Bapu (Patel) did not speak at all.”
Later in the afternoon, “Munshi complained about Tibet policy. The question concerns the whole nation — said he had written a personal letter to Panditji on Tibet.”
Later, Patel told K.M. Munshi: “Rajaji, you (Munshi), I (Patel), Baldev Singh, (C.D.) Deshmukh, Jagjivan Ram and even Sri Prakash are on one side, while Gopalaswamy, Rafi, Maulana (Azad) are on his side.” There was a vertical split in the Cabinet; and it was not only about Tibet. The situation would deteriorate further during the following weeks.
On December 12, Patel was divested on his portfolios. Nehru wrote: “In view of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s ill-health it is absolutely necessary that he should have complete rest and freedom from worry, so as to be able to recuperate as rapidly as possible. …no work should be sent to him and no references made to him in regard to the work of these ministries.”
Gopalaswami Ayyangar, from the “other side”, was allotted the ministry of states and Nehru kept the ministry of home. The Sardar was only informed after the changes were made. He was a dejected man. Three days later he passed away.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Chinese dichotomy

My article The Chinese Dichotomy appeared in the Edit Page of The Pioneer
 

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Though China is keen to become the world leader in promotion of Buddhism, it will never happen because of the gap between the Marxist theory and repression on the ground

China is a country full of dichotomies. Take Buddhism. On one side, China promotes Buddhism; on the other hand, Beijing severely represses the Buddha dharma. On October 28, the World Buddhist Forum opened with fanfare at Putian, in Fujian Province. According to the official release, it was attended by a record number of over 1,000 Buddhist monks, scholars and representatives from 55 countries. Zong Xing, Vice President of the Buddhist Association of China (BAC) and Xiao Hong, a deputy secretary of the China Religious Culture Communication Association (CRCCA), the joint hosts, gave a press conference.
Xiao announced that the forum wanted “to carry forward the positive Buddhist cultural spirit, promote exchanges between Buddhism and other religions and make contributions to building a community with a shared future for humanity.” That sounds good. One of the themes of the meet was “Buddhism and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)”, a project dear to President Xi Jinping. A couple of weeks earlier, the Global Times had reported that a two-day symposium in Qinghai Province discussed the way Buddhism could better serve the BRI and resist separatism.
The website tibet.cn noted: “Guided by the core socialist values, the symposium aims to encourage Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to the socialist society and teach the religion to serve the construction of the BRI.” Was the Fujian Forum a great success? It does not appear so reading the rare comments which appeared in the Chinese Press. One of the problems was that Master Xuecheng, the BCA president and Abbot of Longquan Temple in Beijing, had to resign in a hurry in August.
The 52-year-old was accused to have coerced nuns into having sex, overseen illegal construction work and embezzled funds. The claims were made in a 95-page document published on July 31; it immediately went viral on Chinese social media, bringing support to China’s #MeToo movement. It is not that Xuecheng was not well-connected with the Communist Party; he was a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), but in the present days, even tigers fall (President Xi had warned the ‘tigers’ and the ‘flies’ that he would not accept corruption).
One of the BCA’s Vice Presidents was Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese-selected Panchen Lama. He made a timid appearance on the first day. He spoke on, “to live together in harmony through the Middle Path”, a purely religious topic; Norbu emphasised a common future for humanity and the fact that the creation of a ‘common-destiny community’ is more and more accepted the world over. He mentioned the Buddhist precepts of living in symbiosis, equality, tolerance, compassion and harmony: “We are one family living in the same house,” he said. There was no word of praise for Xi.
His presence was hardly reported by the Chinese media, probably because he did not eulogise Xi Jinping and he ‘forgot’ about the BRI in his speech. The only big shot was You Quan, director of the United Front Work Department, which looks after religious affairs for the Party’s Central Committee. He hoped that “Buddhist communities would look deeper into Buddhism values and contribute wisdom to promoting the well-being of humanity and safeguarding world peace.”
Here comes the dichotomy. While Beijing promotes Buddhism’s humanitarian precepts, it takes repressive measures against Buddhist practitioners. For the third consecutive year, the authorities banned a major Tibetan prayer festival in Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist institute in Tibet, situated in Serthar County in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. The monastery had a population of 30,000 Buddhist nuns and monks before it was partially destroyed by the ‘authorities’ last year.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), a Chinese official announced that the Dechen Shingdrup festival would be banned this year. He cited Chinese ‘religious affairs management laws’. Further, outsiders should not be invited to Larung Gar. A source told RFA’s Tibetan Service: “The notice advised village leaders and Chinese Communist Party committee members to inform the public that they would not be allowed to enter the village for any religious events. …In past years, when it was allowed, the festival lasted for a whole week.” Human Rights Watch  published a new report on the ‘Four Standards Policy’ recently introduced in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The ‘standards’ are competence in Buddhist studies, political reliability, moral integrity capable of impressing the public and willingness to play an active role at critical moments. In other words, be good Communist Buddhists.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, commented: “Chinese authorities have always placed heavy constraints on religious freedom, especially in Tibetan and other minority regions, compelling Tibetan monks and nuns to be propagandists for the Communist Party takes Government intrusion in religion to abhorrent new levels.”
The new policy is a continuation of the 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs but with more oppressive clauses. On October 25, the Global Times said that the TAR Government was encouraging Tibetan monks and nuns “to learn about the laws, a move experts hailed as using education to raise local people’s legal awareness.”
Tibet’s Department of Justice announced that “professional working teams organised by the regional department of justice taught the monks about legislation and law enforcement in the region. …Teams are composed of prestigious monks, legal professionals and officials that were dispatched to temples.” Xiong Kunxin, a professor at Tibet University in Lhasa, summarised the issue: Legal education on law enforcement was weak in Tibet “because some Buddhist practitioners consider themselves as people beyond judicial reach.”
Already in August, when Wang Yang, the CPPCC Chairman and a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, visited the Sera monastery near Lhasa, he mentioned the new theme of Xi Jinping’s religious campaign, “Sinicisation of the religions in China.” Wang said that more efforts should be made to integrate Tibetan Buddhism into China’s socialist society; he asked the monks “to firmly uphold the leadership of the CPC, inherit and promote patriotism and be courageous to battle all separatist elements, in order to further protect the national reunification, ethnic unity and social stability.”
Though China is keen to become the world leader in promotion of Buddhism, it will never happen because of the gap between the Marxist theory and the repression on the ground, which are incompatible.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

How old CIA reports reveal that China has been repressing Muslims since the 1950s

The Communists 'advising' the Uyghurs in the 1950s
My article How old CIA reports reveal that China has been repressing Muslims since the 1950s appeared in Mail Today/DailyO

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State-run media Xinhua, however, promotes Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region — home to many ethnic minority groups — as a ‘paradise on earth’

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a 117-page report entitled “Eradicating Ideological Viruses - China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims;” it gave fresh evidence of Beijing’s “mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment, and the increasingly pervasive controls on daily life.”
The US based agency affirmed: “Throughout the region, the Turkic Muslim population of 13 million is subjected to forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law.”

History of abuse
Bloomberg, citing a United Nations’ assessment, said that the Chinese authorities have detained more than one million Uighurs: “As its mosques are shuttered and travel across its borders restricted, Xinjiang - once at the intersection of ancient Silk Road trade routes - threatens to become a black hole in President Xi Jinping’s effort to build new ones.”
But the fact that the Uyghurs are badly treated by Beijing, is not new; one just needs to go through some old reports of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to understand that it has been ongoing process since the 1950s.
One such report of January 1951 states: “Muslims in Sinkiang [Xinjiang] are discontented with the Communist regime. Officially there are no restrictions on prayers, but orchestras play for dancing at evening-prayer time to distract the young, and young men enlisted as soldiers have no time to attend religious services. Gatherings of more than four people are prohibited.”
Another CIA report of September 1952 notes: “Prior to June 1952 the Chinese Communist Government in southwestern Sinkiang Province had adopted a policy of deporting all persons whose families originally migrated to Sinkiang from the area which is now West Pakistan. Deportation was preceded by confiscation of property, and the persons being deported were accompanied to the Sinkiang-Pakistan border by an armed guard.”
Today, the Chinese authorities have detained a number of Uighur women who are married to Pakistani businessmen from Gilgit-Baltistan region. It has deeply angered Pakistan, supposedly China’s all-weather friend.
In 1952, two years after the arrival of the first Chinese troops in former Eastern Turkestan, the CIA says: “all major government departments, including those of agriculture, police, secret police, magistrates, revenue, and engineering, were headed by Chinese officials and advised by Soviet officials.” The Uyghurs were not trusted and removed from all their posts; ditto today.
In March 1953, a CIA report asserts: “In the fall of 1952 no one was permitted to travel from southwestern Sinkiang …where the authorities were engaged in liquidating large numbers of people accused of having participated in the 1944 revolt against Chinese rule.”
The CIA agents reported that the fortification walls surrounding Kashgar had been torn down by forced labor: “All women in both cities were compelled to work at removing the debris resulting from the destruction. The men of Kashgar were being forced to work on the construction of roads and buildings.”

Communists take over
By the end of year, all profitable business, including the silk industry in Hotan had been taken over by the Communist authorities: “Private business was discouraged, and almost all shops had been turned into government owned cooperative stores. The salaries paid to shopkeepers were barely enough to cover their living expenses.”
And like the Communist officials would do in Tibet a couple of years later, the new government of Xinjiang told the people: “the Chinese in the administrative structure are there simply to teach the natives of Sinkiang the art of governing, and that soon the full governmental administrative responsibility would be turned over to the people of Sinkiang.”
The same report cited a long list of purges, arrests and executions.
More than 60 years later, ferocious repression and forced assimilation still takes place in the restive region; the Uyghurs face repression, reeducation and relocation.
On July 6, The People's Daily noted that Beijing has relocated “461,000 poverty-ridden residents to work in other parts of the region during the first quarter of the year,” in a bid to “improve social stability and alleviate poverty.”
The report asserted that the Xinjiang government planned to further transfer 100,000 residents from southern Hotan and Kashgar prefectures by 2019, to get employed somewhere else.

Current practices
Yu Shaoxiang, an ‘expert’ at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Global Times: “poverty alleviation in Xinjiang is more difficult compared to other places because, aside from poverty, Xinjiang also faces ethnic issues.”
The irony is that this region is the hub the ‘humanist’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is to bring prosperity and happiness to the local populations.
It does not mean that China does face serious challenges, not only from infiltration from its friend in the South, but also from the Syrian-trained Uighurs returning to Xinjiang.
But can this be a pretext for such drastic policies?
On August 31, during a hearing at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Hu Lianhe, the Chinese representative countered  the claims that the Muslim minorities was being subjected to extrajudicial detention and political indoctrination. Hu denied the existence of ‘re-education camps’, asserting instead that China is ‘a victim of terrorism’, and that the Xinjiang has only initiated a “special campaign to crack down on violent terrorist activities according to law.” He however admitted to the trial and imprisonment of ‘a number of criminals’ and that people guilty of minor offenses were sent “to vocational education and employment training centers…to assist with their rehabilitation and reintegration”
In the meantime, Xinhua promotes the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, as a ‘paradise on earth’. It affirms that 130 million tourists visited the Western province during the first nine months of 2018. Can you believe it? But for sure, the Han tourists did not visit the reeducation camps.

Friday, November 9, 2018

A French 'Tiger' in India

George Clemenceau was French PM (and War Minister) during WWI
Bodhisattvas in his table
French President Emmanuel Macron recently stated that the commemoration of the 100th year of the end of World War I between the Allies and Germany was an occasion to promote a ‘recast multilateralism’. The presence in Paris on November 11 of the representatives of all those who participated in the War, including Germany, demonstrates this choice.
France has not forgotten India’s participation; Paris recently offered India a piece of land to construct the ‘Indian Military Memorial’ for Indian troops at Villers Guislain, in Northern France. The memorial comprises a bronze Asoka emblem and a plaque, honouring the Indian soldiers who died in the War.
But there is more to the relations between India and the War; read the story below and you understand the meaning of multilateralism between France and India.

A Tiger among Politicians
Whenever one thinks of the Great War, a name comes to mind, Georges Clemenceau.
Born in 1841 in Vendée, the hotbed of the monarchists during the French Revolution, Clemenceau came from a lineage of physicians. His father never really practiced, but he was attracted by political activism, following the ‘Radicals’, a Party not enamoured of Catholicism.
Though a lifelong atheist, Georges had an interest in religious matters from the early age. He joined politics as an anti-clerical, often fighting the French Catholic Church, strongly believing that that the Church and the State should strictly be kept separate.
From November 1917 to January 1920, he was the Prime Minister of France and he played the central role in the victory of the allies; he then became known as ‘Père la Victoire’ (‘Father Victory’) or ‘Le Tigre’ (‘The Tiger’), as he always favoured a total victory over the German Empire and militated for the restitution of Alsace-Lorraine to France. In 1919, he became the main architect of the Treaty of Versailles at the Paris Peace Conference.

Clemenceau at Guimet Museum (behind the central pillar), c. 1890
Clemenceau the philosopher
There is another aspect to George Clemenceau; he was a great humanist, thinker, traveler and lover of India and its philosophies.
Mao once said: “The philosophers have so far only interpreted the world, the point is to change it." Clemenceau first changed the world by giving Victory to the allies, while being a philosopher at the same time.
This reminds me of Sir Francis Younghusband, the British ‘imperial adventurer’. During his stay in Lhasa in 1904, he had become fond of the Ganden Tripa, the senior-most Tibetan Lama. In spite of the political difficulties and their personal backgrounds, they often sat together to discuss religion and philosophy. They developed a very close rapport. On his return to England, he became a great adherent of the philosophy of Ahimsa.
But in the case of Clemenceau, it was not a ‘sudden conversion’ as for Younghusband, he had spiritual inclinations from his early years in politics.
Already in July 1885, he gave a speech in the French Parliament: “Inferior race the Hindus? With this great refined civilization that is lost in the mists of time!” He also spoke of the Buddhist religion which later migrated from India to China, but left “this great efflorescence of art of which we still witness today the magnificent remains.”
He would always remain fond of Buddhism.

Clemenceau sitting with Agvan Dorjiev
the 13th Dalai Lama's emissary in Europe, in 1898
The Guimet Museum
Clemenceau was involved in the creation of the Guimet Museum in Paris. He was close to Emile Guimet, a rich industrialist from Lyon and a passionate about oriental religions. He traveled all over Asia and once back in France, he decided to create "a didactic place dedicated to Buddhism, and, in general, to religions around the world.” Guimet Museum was inaugurated in Paris in 1889; later Clemenceau even attended Buddhist ceremonies organized by the museum.
On February 21, 1891, when a puja in honor of the founder of the Shinshu sect was performed by two Japanese monks, Clemenceau sat in the front row; a journalist asked the future Prime Minister: “Now, you can’t stop us going to the Mass?” Clemenceau quipped: “What to do, I am a Buddhist!”
For him, Gautam Buddha was at the top of the thinkers’ hierarchy; he is indeed "the greatest preacher of peace and fraternity that has appeared in the world". Clemenceau called him the ‘sublime monk’, who preached the love of his neighbor and this without proclaiming the existence of an almighty God. He greatly preferred Buddha to Jesus, probably due to the omnipresent Church in Catholicism at that time in France.
The Tiger also liked the fact that Buddhists did not proselytize. In 1905, he told L'Aurore, a French newspaper: “With what impatience do I wait for the day when we will see Buddhist and Shinto missionaries coming to Marseilles who will come and try to convert us!”
From 1917 to 1920, when he served as Prime Minister and War Minister, he kept several statuettes of bodhisattvas placed prominently on his desk.

Clemenceau in Ellora, a few months after retiring as French PM (1920-21)
Clemenceau the Traveler
But Clemenceau knew that it was not enough to read books about philosophy, he decided to immerse himself into the cultures he was studying.
Months after his retirement, at the age of 80, he embarked on a long journey to Egypt, Sudan, Ceylon, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and finally India.
As soon as he arrived in Calcutta on December 5, 1920, he fell extremely sick; worried doctors advised his immediate repatriation to France.
The Tiger was not going to listen to the orders of the doctors: “Whether I die in Calcutta or in Paris, on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it does not matter, but you would not want me to come to India’s door and then return to France without having visited India. Either I will die or I will visit India!”
He recovered and went on a long journey in India starting by Benares.
He often wrote to his friend, the great impressionist Claude Monet: "I have come to Benares to take the most prodigious bath of light ... A large clear blue river, with an imposing curve of white palaces, which fades in the powder of dawn.” He tried to attract his friend to India: “if my name was Claude Monet, I would not like to die without having seen Benares.” He wrote about “a humanity crazy with expressive colors” which animates India: “I do not want to go to heaven if Benares is not there,” he asserted, adding that even: “the incomprehensible cult of these sacred cows, coming in the morning to eat the flower malas with which I was garlanded,” finds an explanation.
Clemenceau was very fond of Asoka, the King who renounced violence, he wrote: “The reign of the great Asoka is one of the purest human glories,” an antithesis of what Father Victory had been known for during the Great War.

Clemenceau in Elora (1920-21)
'Le Soir de la Pensée' (The Evening of the Thought)
On his return from India, Clemenceau worked on his philosophical testament Le Soir de la Pensée, which shows not only his great erudition, but also his deep understanding of India’s philosophical thought.
Several chapters mention India; one is entirely consecrated to The Philosophies of India. Clemenceau admitted having experienced a ‘delicious joy’ in discovering the Ramayana, the Vedas and the Buddhist scriptures.
He acknowledged that he had grasped only the superficial aspects of the Indian Thought: "I do not know by what excess of daring I try to summarize aspects and developments of the Hindu thought in a few lines. [But] this subject holds me and leads me.”
Elsewhere he says: “By her Vedic hymns and her great poems, we find unexpected resemblances to Greece. …The genial feature is that it does not formally reject any affirmation which could bring some doubt to the proclaimed belief.” He continued: “The cosmogonies of India cannot be counted. All contradictions accumulate, without ever losing confidence, always ready to assimilate everything.”
Hundred years after the Armistice, this aspect of Father Victory should be remembered, though his philosophical views never interfered in his political decisions as one of the main actors of the Great War.

(I am grateful to my colleague Christine Devin for her numerous inputs in this story)

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Recast multilateralism

More than 60 heads of States will jointly commemorate the 100th year of the end of World War I between the Allies and Germany. A hundred years after the bitter war, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also participate in the Armistice celebrations, perhaps because today there is no longer a victorious or defeated nation; the entire world, including India, suffered too dearly for between 1914 and 1918.
For what? Nobody is sure now.
The French daily Le Figaro explains the dichotomy: “Commemorate means making choices.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has decided to go for a week-long ‘memorial and territorial journey’ through the different sites of the Great War. For the French, the numerous functions are more than a celebration of a victory; there is a triple message in the event: one, to remember the ‘poilus’ (‘the unshaven ones’) as the French soldiers were known during the War; then to celebrate the capacity of the French nation to rebuilt itself and finally, and perhaps most importantly, to promote a ‘recast multilateralism’.
The presence in Paris on November 11 of the representatives of all those who participated in the War, including Germany, demonstrates this choice.
At the same time, France has not forgotten India’s participation; Paris recently offered a piece of land to construct the ‘Indian Military Memorial’ for Indian troops at Villers Guislain, in Northern France. The memorial comprises a bronze Ashoka emblem and a plaque, honouring the Indian soldiers who died in the War.
Some 130,000 Indian troops, including Sikhs and Gorkhas, fought in France and Belgium during the bloody conflict during which more than 9 million people died; a quarter of the Indian contingent never returned to their native provinces; during the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in France in March 1915, the Sikhs regiments lost 80% of their men.
Some of the French battlefields where Indian soldiers showed their bravery and dedication to a cause which was not theirs, are today part of the History of France.
A few years ago, David Omissi, a military historian wrote Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18; this edited collection of letters sent by Indian soldiers to their family in India is deeply touching.
Jawans of the 9 Bhopal Infantry, 15 Ludhiana Sikhs, 47 Sikhs, 57 Frontier Force, 58 Frontier Force, 59 Frontier Force, 89 Punjabis, 107 Pioneers, to quote a few, valiantly fought for a country that they did not know; they could not even speak the language.
For these Indian soldiers, it was their first trip to Europe (and for many, their last as they ended being buried on the front). As he arrived in France, an Indian soldier wrote to his family: “What is Paris? It is heaven!” He soon discovered that the trenches were Hell.
Another bewildered jawan described London: “in the train that goes under the earth … a strange and wonderful experience — they call it the underground.” Nobody had even heard of a ‘Tube’ in his native Punjab.
Already on October 7, 1927 France officially acknowledged India’s participation in the World War and expressed its deep gratitude; a memorial in Neuve-Chapelle was inaugurated by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies who paid a vibrant homage to the Indian soldiers.
France and Britain had decided to express their deepest appreciation for the role of Indian soldiers, though it is not clear for which cause they fought so bravely. This is often the case in wars and a century later, the reasons for the conflict become more blurred.
Isn’t it a lesson of international relations: today the Germans and the French are great friends trying to build Europe together?
It is undoubtedly better that way.