In both, the 1914 to 1918 World War One and the 1939-1945 World War Two, without the contribution of millions of Indian soldiers, Allied victories would not have been possible. the history of the world wars, and indeed the world, would have been very different. Through this conference we will revisit the commendable role of Indian soldiers who fought in the two World Wars. It is also an opportunity to reflect and assess India’s contribution to the establishment of the post-World War II order.
By the end of the World War I in 1918, over 1.3 million Indians had served overseas, with over 74,000 casualties. Our soldiers fought from Central Asia to East Africa, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the Western Front.
According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission, about 138,000 soldiers out of these over 1.3 million from India were in Europe during the First World War. Most of these soldiers were deployed in the Ypres Salient in Flanders in Belgium and at nearby Neuve Chapelle in France during the period 1914-15. A large number lost their lives in the campaign to halt the German advance. Indian soldiers had arrived in Europe at a critical period of the First World War and despite serious limitations in equipment and lack of training, as compared to the European soldiers, they were able to not only hold their section of the line, but also prove their valour and capabilities.
The supreme sacrifice of Indian soldiers in Europe is recorded in the World War I memorial in continental Europe. In 2002, at the request of the Government of India, an Indian Memorial was erected on the lawn South of the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Memorial for Indian soldiers has also been erected at Villers-Guislain in France, In fact, it was our then Vice-President Shri Venkaiah Naidu, who in November 2018 inaugurated this memorial which was constructed on land donated by the French Government . This national memorial for the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in France during the First World War, features the Ashoka emblem. There is also the Indian Memorial in Neuve Chappelle in France and the Chhatri Memorial on the Brighton Downs in the UK. The India Gate Memorial in New Delhi stands as a memorial to the Indian soldiers who died in the First World War. The National War Memorial in New Delhi commemorates and represents the gratitude of an Independent India to its Armed Forces.
The War acted as a catalyst for social, military and political change within India including accelerating India’s freedom movement towards complete independence. . One of the military outcomes was the admission of Indian citizens into the commissioned ranks of the Army, previously denied to them. On the diplomatic front, after the war, India participated in the peace conference held in Versailles, signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 and became an original member of the League of Nations which lasted for less than 30 years before collapsing with the onset of the Second World War. India, thus, had become a part of multilateral structures a century ago.
The Indian Army in World War Two expanded to over 2.5 million making it the largest voluntary force during the war. On top of this, 14 million Indian manpower worked round the clock to keep the war factories and farms running.
Indian Divisions saw action in nearly every Theatre of World War II, from France and Italy in Europe, to East Africa- Eritrea, Sudan, to North Africa and the Western Desert to include Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. They fought in the Middle East and in jungles of Burma and Malaya, as well as in Singapore, Hong Kong in South East Asia. The 30 Victoria Crosses that the Indian soldiers won during WW II stand testimony to the valour of the Indian Army and their extraordinary devotion to duty.
It was during the Second World War that the Indian National Army (INA) popularly called ‘Azad Hind Fauj’ was formed and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose took its command in 1943. He announced theformation of India’s independent Provisional Government of Azad Hind (Free India) on 21 October 1943. INA's role in India's freedom struggle remains an important part of Indian history and Netaji remains an inspiration.
In 1945, when the Conference to establish the United Nations Organisation was held in San Francisco, India participated and signed the Charter becoming a founding member of the United Nations. Earlier, India participated in the negotiation that established the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in July 1944, becoming a founding member of these multilateral institutions as well.
Since its independence, India has been a strong advocate of multilateralism, actively participating in forums on issues including on de-colonisation, development agenda, global trade, climate change, maritime security. India has played a constructive role in shaping the global narrative at these platforms.
In peace keeping, since the inception of the first UN Peacekeeping Operations in 1948, India has been one of the largest, oldest and most active contributors. Since 1948, India has cumulatively contributed over 260,000 troops in 49 out of the 71 UN peacekeeping missions deployed to maintain international peace and security. India's contribution to peacekeeping missions is multifaceted, including providing troops, police, and civilian personnel.
In addition to troops, India has also provided helicopters, logistics support, and medical teams to UN peacekeeping missions. Indian police officers have been deployed to help maintain law and order in conflict zones. In 2007, India became the first country to deploy an all-women contingent to a UN Peacekeeping mission. India has earned a reputation of a reliable and effective peacekeeping partner.
With its long experience in peacekeeping, India sees the need for peacekeeping reform to make the UN missions more effective and efficient in achieving their objectives. The Security Council’s mandates to UN peacekeeping operations need to be rooted in ground realities and correlated with the resources provided for the peacekeeping operation. For this, it is critical that troop and police contributing countries should be fully involved at all stages and in all aspects of mission planning.
Also, seven decades on, the multilateral institutions with UN and Bretton Woods Institutions at the core are being challenged. This became evident in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine. The world is no longer what it was, yet institutions have remained frozen in time in terms of composition and structure. In 1945, when the United Nations was established, one of the main objectives was to save ‘succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. Many new global challenges have emerged during the last seven decades, such as terrorism, radicalism, pandemics, threats from new and emerging technologies, disruptive role of non-state actors and intensifying geopolitical competition. This agenda calls for more effective decision making by global institutions. It will not be possible to solve twenty-first-century challenges with a system designed for the twentieth century. Multilateral architecture needs to be fit for purpose.
India has consistently called for reformed multilateralism. With its idea of reformed multilateralism thus, India hopes to instil new life into global institutions that are in need for institutional strength and structural changes, including the Bretton Wood Institutions. Reforms will be important for the relevance and effectiveness of multilateral bodies whether the UN, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. The global development architecture would require intense efforts to enhance the coherence and consistency of the international monetary, financial and trading systems. This would be critical to ensure sustainable development, including strong, sustained, balanced, inclusive and equitable economic growth for all. India been advocating a global economic architecture that is more representative with greater representation of developing countries in the decision-making bodies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In the context of the UN, it is India's belief that no reform of the United Nations is complete without the expansion in the membership of the UN Security Council in both the permanent and non - permanent categories. By any objective criteria, such as population, territorial size, GDP, economic potential, civilizational legacy, cultural diversity, political system and past and ongoing contributions to the activities of the UN — especially to UN peacekeeping operations — India is eminently qualified for permanent membership. India has affirmed its willingness and capacity to shoulder the responsibilities of permanent membership.
As a nation that is poised to be a great power, with the will and capability to contribute to the world, India positions itself in the emerging international order with its guiding philosophy of 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam' that is the world is one family, highlighting India’s resolve towards linking national progress to international peace and stability.
This conference seeks to provide a platform for a more nuanced perspective on the wars and the contribution of the Indian soldiers. It also seeks to discuss not only the military aspects but also the diplomatic and political dimensions that shaped our goals and strategies. We have eminent speakers and we look forward to hearing their views.