‘For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on The Western Front 1914-18’ by Shrabani Basu

Shrabani Basu is well-known for her book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, the story of heroic sacrifice and courage as an SOE agent in occupied Paris in the war against fascism and her cruel execution in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. Subsequently Shrabani Basu founded the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust and successfully led a campaign to erect a bust of Noor in Gordon Square, London.

For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on The Western Front 1914-18 tells the stories of Indians in the service of the Crown in a very different war, in the appalling mass slaughter of millions as the Great Powers sought to redivide the world with crass disregard for the human cost.

In this new book, launched on November 5, Shrabani Basu traces the lives of a selection of the one and a half million Indian soldiers who volunteered for the First World War, based on extensive research into official records, on letters from the front and from the military hospitals, and on the reminiscences of descendants in villages the length and breadth of what was pre-partition India. As with the Noor book, these are often heart-breaking stories told with the greatest compassion. Shrabani Basu makes no claim to be a military historian, yet her book brilliantly brings to vivid life the initial excitement, then the dreadful horror and carnage of the trenches, as well as the often callous treatment of these brave souls by the British colonial authorities.

Certain commentators have praised the book as bringing out the debt freedom owes to these Indian soldiers and the enduring ties. Perhaps they have not read the book too carefully or are misty-eyed with nostalgia for the Raj! Freedom was certainly not what India and her peoples gained from such heroic sacrifice! Not only did The Government of India Act 1919 maintain and consolidate British colonial rule and the “ties” remain those of master and slave but, as Shrabani Basu recounts, barely five months after the armistice British troops under General Dyer carried out the massacre of some 1,000 unarmed protesters at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar on April 13, 1919. This atrocity and the subsequent bombing of Punjabi cities shocked India and led to a new upsurge in the independence movement. As the author says, new heroes emerged such as Baghat Singh, Raj Guru, Sukhdev and Udham Singh, the avenger of Jallianwala Bagh. The tragic Indian heroes of 1914-18 were, and remain today, largely forgotten. Official histories hardly mention them. As Shrabani Basu so eloquently puts it in her Epilogue, only the songbirds at the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France pay tribute to the memory of the dead.

This informative and moving book is a timely and worthy tribute to those very dead. And it could be said is a just indictment of a system which made and still makes such barely imaginable losses and tragedies possible.

Chris Coleman, Workers’ Weekly Online, November 21, 2015

For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on The Western Front 1914-18 by Shrabani Basu, published by Bloomsbury Publishing, London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney, 2015

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