Sonia lays WWI Indian ghosts to rest

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 10, 2006

YPRES (Belgium): On the 11th hour, of the 11th day (November 11) of the 11th month of the year 2006, Sonia Gandhi becomes the most senior Indian leader ever to lay to rest the ghosts of Indian soldiers who fought and fell here in World War I.

Eighty-eight years after the so-called Great War ended, leaving a variously estimated 43,000 to 65,000 Indians dead on the battlefield, Gandhi marks the ultimate sacrifice of the men who valiantly fought a white man’s war, thousands of miles away from home, in a cause that was not their own.

Flying into Belgium on Friday, for a three-day visit, Gandhi’s first scheduled official act is the trek to Ypres, the flat, battle-scarred wastelands in the west Flanders region, 130 km from Brussels.

At the Menin Gate, which is dedicated to soldiers with no known graves, Gandhi finally paid long-overdue tribute to India’s heroic, generally-unheralded effort to help win Britain’s war for the heart and soul of Europe.

In so doing, Gandhi redresses a famously perverse act of official Indian indifference.

Observers said it was especially poignant that Gandhi decided to visit Ypres and the Menin Gate, the route so many Indians and other British imperial army soldiers took towards the fighting, many never to return.

Observers said the chairwoman of the governing UPA coalition is the most senior Indian leader to pay tribute to India’s WWI dead, most of whom were canon-fodder in line with Siegfried Sassaoon’s famous lament in his poem, ‘On Passing The Menin Gate’: “Who will remember passing through this Gate / The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?”

Ypres, which has become legendary in literature and film as ‘the Western Front’, is littered with graves and headstones and its pockmarked earth blooms every year with blood-red wild poppies that have become a symbol of WWI savagery and suffering.

Every year, European and Commonwealth leaders, veterans and bereaved families gather here still to remember and vow never again to wage so brutal a war, but India officially pays little heed.

Now, Gandhi’s visit changes all that.

Interestingly, in a sign that her government is intensely conscious about paying its debt to history, Gandhi’s Ypres tribute comes nearly nine weeks after Pranab Mukherjee visited a memorial to the Indian dead at Neuve Chapelle, 300 km north of Paris, where the Indian Corps fought its first major battle in the Great War.

An estimated 1.3 million Indians served in WWI, with the men seeing extensive service on the Western Front; in the Battle of Gallipoli; in the Sinai, Palestine and Mesopotamia Campaigns; the Siege of Kut and in the Battle of Tanga in East Africa.

Rashmee Roshan Lall