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Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in the late 1920s. Image source: Wikipedia
  • In 1914, Gandhi served as a sergeant-major of the British Army and in the next five months, he managed to convince Indians to join the corps
  • Gandhi got affected with pleurisy and left England in December and came India in January, 1915
  • In 1918, regarding the war effort, Gandhi donated a sum of Rs 102 from his own pocket

In August 1914, in South Africa, a British steamer SS Kinfauns Castle had reached the English Channel from Cape Town, when one of the passengers received important news: Germany and the British Empire were at war. When, the person reached Britain, he declared absolute support to the British war effort and suggested to raise an Indian volunteer unit.

This person was none other than the barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Political gurus and Historians have always taken a great interest in the matter and struggled a lot to understand, why a follower of non-violence and peace had offered support to the British Empire during the First World War.

There are many debates going around regarding the incident. Some believe that Gandhi, being a loyalist had a great faith in the British, while quite a few believe that he saw an opportunity to exact the political concessions from the British during the First World War.

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Right up to the mid-1920s, Gandhi too struggled to explain his stand and gave contradictory statements. But, when the war ended, Gandhi felt Britain’s cause a righteous one and fought for it.

Young Indira with Mahatma Gandhi during his fast in 1924. Image source: Wikipedia

“We have to understand that Gandhi was a politician back then, and like all politicians, he did contradict himself several times. But at that time in India, there was no demand for total independence or ‘poorna swaraj’ but dominion status. So it wasn’t just Gandhi but most political leaders of that time, cutting across party lines, supported in varying degrees the British war effort,” says military historian Squadron Leader Rana T S Chhina (Retd), according to a TOI report.

Gandhi was clear that the Indian Army would be needed on the Western Front. Therefore, he was also certain that many Indians would get wounded and need medical attention. As a result, Gandhi suggested raising an Indian ambulance corps and due to Gandhi’s loyalty towards the British, it was soon sanctioned by the British war office.

This incident took place in 1914, but this was not the first time that the Indians were asked by Gandhi to join British force and support them during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War as well as in Zulu War in 1906. He served as a sergeant-major of the British Army and in the next five months, he managed to convince Indians to join the corps. After joining, some of them also later served in the Brighton and Southampton hospitals where Indian victims were treated. Gandhi was accompanied by Kasturba (his wife) and Sarojini Naidu, who also supported the British Empire unconditionally.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu at the 1942 AICC session. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Soon, Gandhi got affected with pleurisy and left England in December and came India in January, 1915. This was the year, when Gandhi was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal, said a TOI report.

After coming back to India, he continued to support the cause of the British but he also fought the British rule in India by organizing several movements- Champaran Satyagraha in 1917 and the Kheda Satyagraha in 1918. After, Kheda Satyagraha ended he became actively involved in campaigning for the war as a recruiting officer of the empire and appointed fighters. Other leaders who joined him were Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopalkrishna Gokhale and Mohammed Ali Jinnah who promoted the empire’s cause in several degrees.

Vedica Kant, a UK based author came to India to launch her first book, ‘If I die here, who will remember me? India in the First World War‘ says, Gandhi was not like other leaders. “Like others who demanded or expected concessions from the British in return for support to the war, Gandhi, right from the beginning, gave unconditional support. Gandhi was also instrumental in expanding the recruiting bases of the Indian Army to Gujarat and other places: places that didn’t have the so-called martial races as identified by the British. By 1918, the empire was in dire need of men and they had to look to Gujarat, Bengal, Madras etc for recruiting,” she adds.

Among the many recruiting centres that were set up, one was also set up in Gujarat was set up at Pollen Dharamshala in Godhra. This was in April 16, 1918 where a large gathering took place- Thakores of Rewa Kantha Agency and Panch Mahals as well as common people were present when they heard about Gandhi presenting a report about his recruiting work. Gandhi mentioned that the Kaira area had contributed the maximum in Gujarat.

Mahatma Gandhi after being assasinated in New Delhi, January 30, 1948. Image source: Wikipedia

Regarding the war effort, Gandhi donated a sum of Rs 102 from his own pocket. The money collected amounted to Rs 4,500 and additional 1,000 rupees came from a concert held in the evening. As a result, the British government felt a sense of gratitude and awarded recruiters and recruits.

“Voluntary enlistment is the right key to self-government, to say nothing of the manliness and broadmindedness it confers. The honour of our women is bound up with it inasmuch as by enlisting ourselves, we shall acquire that capacity for self-defence, the absence of which at present makes us unable to protect our women and children… The opportunity for military training now open to us all will not present itself in the future… A man who is afraid of death is constitutionally incapable of passive resistance. For a proper appreciation of the true significance of passive resistance the power of physical endurance needs to be cultivated. He alone can practise ‘ahimsa’ who knows ‘himsa’ not in the abstract but in fact,” Gandhi addressed in a mass gathering in Borsad taluka on June 26, 1918.

After the war ended, when British came with repressive measures, Gandhi lost faith in the system. He as well as others started categorizing Indian soldiers, who volunteered for the war as mercenaries and this is where the whole thing went wrong, says Kant. “The Indian Army fought with the consent of the Indian leadership. And that’s why our soldiers cannot be called mercenaries. Now, people today may not like it that so many Indians fought for the empire, but you can’t just write them out of history,” she further adds.

Due to the ongoing politics between the Indian leaders and the British, Indian soldiers never found their rightful place in the pages of history.

-by Deepannita Das, sub-editor at NewsGram. Twitter: @deepweep



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