Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

Forgotten Heroes: Indian Soldiers in World War-II


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: World wars and Indian Soldiers in World wars



  • On the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent over Europe, bringing an end to a brutal first world war that drew in soldiers and contributions from around the world. Indian soldiers and their contribution are not widely recognized in India.

Background of Indian involvement World War II

  • Fight against Fascism: Two conflicts and a reticence Indian reticence over these two conflicts arises from the uneasy relationship between the Indian contribution to fighting fascism on a global stage and the nationalist movement for freedom at home.
  • Betrayal of nationalistic expectation: The success of the first is seen to have come at the cost of the second. It began with the betrayal of nationalist expectations of greater autonomy for India in return for support during the Great War.
  • No consultation with Indian leaders: This was compounded by the bitterness of Viceroy Lord Linlithgow declaring war on Germany on India’s behalf in 1939 without consulting Indian leaders, and further roiled by the pitting of Indian against Indian when Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army sided with the Axis Powers in the hope that this might bring freedom.
  • Fighting for India and for World: But the failure of Indian independence to follow automatically from India’s participation in the wars does not mean that the war efforts extended colonial rule, or were all about protecting Britain: there was fighting on Indian soil to defend India.


What is Indian soldiers role in World War II

  • Support of nationalist leaders: Almost 1.5 million men volunteered to fight in the Great War. Indians mobilized four days after Britain declared war on Germany, with the support of nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi.
  • War in Europe, Asia and Africa: Indians fought with valor and distinction in the trenches of Europe, West Asia and North Africa, earning 11 Victoria Crosses along the way. Of those men, about 74,000 never came home.
  • Largest volunteer for war: India raised the largest ever volunteer army, of 2.5 million, for the Second World War. More than 87,000 of those men are cremated or buried in war cemeteries around the world and in India.
  • Thirty-one Victoria Crosses: 15 % of the total Victoria crosses went to soldiers from undivided India. Without Indian soldiers, non-combatant labourers, material and money, the course of both conflicts would have been very different as acknowledged by Field Marshal Auchinleck, Britain’s last Commander-in-Chief of the Indian.

The issue of Non-recognition of India’s contribution

  • Indian soldiers are honored by Britain: In Britain, the contribution of the Commonwealth including the Indian subcontinent is memorialized in the Commonwealth Memorial Gates that lead up to Buckingham Palace. The Gates commemorate the campaigns where Commonwealth soldiers served with distinction; there is also a canopy inscribed with the names of the Commonwealth recipients of the George and Victoria Crosses.
  • Indian soldiers fought the Britain’s war: Much of India’s recent history is encapsulated in these gates, in a spirit of gratitude and equality. Britain, after all, has much to be grateful for, but Indians seem less keen to acknowledge this. British perfidy, however, does not in any way reduce the sacrifices of those who fought for freedom. Those who went abroad to fight alongside white British soldiers returned with the knowledge that they were equal to their colonial masters. In not recognizing and honoring this, we push those men back into colonial subjugation.
  • Britain betrayed the hopes of freedom: Some of this ambivalence owes itself to the atrocities of colonial history, which must be acknowledged too. Britain may have handed out 11 Victoria Crosses over the course of the First World War, but it betrayed the hopes of nationalists with the imposition of martial law after the war ended, culminating in the horror of Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919.


Does India fought the war for its own sake?

  • Indian fought the Japanese: These were not just European wars to defend foreign lands. India was threatened in the Second World War by advancing Japanese forces who got as far as Burma/Myanmar. They were repulsed in the battles of Imphal and Kohima between March and July 1944. These were brutal battles. In Kohima, the two sides were at one point separated by the width of a tennis court. A Commonwealth cemetery on Garrison Hill, Kohima, contains this epitaph (by John Maxwell Edmonds): ‘When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us, and Say/For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today’.
  • Ultimate sacrifice for India’s freedom: The memory of the almost 10 million battlefield deaths in the First World War and the 15 million or more who were killed fighting the Second World War is now honored in countries around the world on November 11, with nationwide silences and the laying of wreaths. Not so much in India apart from in Army cantonments and at the British Consulate in Kolkata even though over 1,61,000 men made the ultimate sacrifice for India’s freedom.


  • Seventy-five years after Independence, it is time to honor India’s immense contribution to the world wars and move it from a footnote in another country’s history to the main stage, where it belongs. These were India’s wars too.

Mains Question

Q. What role the Indian soldier played in Second world War? What are the issues regarding non recognition of contribution of Indian soldiers in world wars?

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