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Major salute to Indian war effort

In memory of millions who died for a cause
John Major (right) with Baroness Shreela Flather talking to her husband Gary Flather
Former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, now India’s high commissioner in London, places a wreath
Wreath sent by Prince Charles

London, March 11: John Major, the former Conservative Prime Minister, has waded into the immigration debate in the UK by declaring that Indians had the right to be an integral part of British society because their forefathers had fought and died for Britain.

“Many of the children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren, of the war veterans now live in this country,” Major said yesterday in London on Commonwealth Day.

Referring to the status of Indians settled in Britain, the 70-year-old much respected statesman said: “They are part of our society, and I believe it is right that they are welcome here. Their ancestors helped protect and preserve this country — and the freedoms and liberties we enjoy in it. That is their legacy to us.”

“This year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, we should remember what they helped achieve — some by sacrificing their lives — and ensure that future generations learn from their history,” he stressed.

Major’s powerful address, short but emotional, was made at a ceremony held at the Memorial Gates built near Buckingham Palace to mark the contribution to Britain’s war effort by India and other “New Commonwealth” countries — the latter is code for non-white.

Major has always been considered pro-Indian. This explains why on January 26, 1993, he became the first serving British Prime Minister to be accorded the signal honour of being chief guest at India’s Republic Day ceremony in Delhi.

However, his intervention will not please right-wing members of his own party or of the United Kingdom Independence Party who are whipping up an anti-immigrant climate in the country ahead of next year’s general election.

Referring to the centenary of the start of World War I in 1914, Major said: “This year, we remember especially the Great War. One and a half million Indians were volunteers in that war and they fought at Gallipoli or in Persia, Egypt or Palestine. A quarter of a century later, it was an Indian Army that came across the world to join the British Expeditionary Force in France.”

Major, who succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990 and held office until he was replaced by Tony Blair in 1997, emphasised that the Indian soldiers “didn’t stand on ceremony, they didn’t wait until their own homes were threatened: they came because they believed it was the right thing to do — despite the obvious danger and sacrifice. It was a triumph of the human capacity to do what is right. Although they might not have expressed it this way, it was idealism in action.”

Major argued that the descendants of soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice for Britain had the right to be considered an integral part of British society.

“I hope that’s true,” he said. “Certainly, our future is more intermingled than ever before.”

“The Memorial Gates are a place of remembrance,” he remarked. “As we stand here today, I hope we can foresee, in another hundred years, that our descendants will still be standing on this same spot paying tribute to the men and women whose sacrifice honoured the highest ideals of which mankind is capable.”

He recognised that although the Indian contribution was overwhelming, support for Britain also came from the Caribbean and from Africa. “Alongside the massive Indian contribution came troops from the West Indies, who fought in France, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. And, as they did so, Africans fought against Germany in Africa.”

On a fine spring-like day, when the daffodils had burst into bloom in Green Park, Major commented: “It is possible, I suppose, to see these Memorial Gates and just admire them for their aesthetic attraction. That’s perfectly understandable — they are a moving monument — but the real story, the bigger story, is what lies behind them.”

“Millions, literally millions, of men and women from the New Commonwealth fought in the two World Wars, many of them as volunteers,” he stated. “They came from India, from Africa, from the Caribbean. They left their homes, their families, their friends, their domestic security, for a wider cause. Many of them died for that cause. Many more were wounded, often so severely as to handicap the rest of their lives.... We should all be very proud to be here today.”

Yesterday’s ceremony was organised by Baroness Shreela Flather, a feisty Punjabi member of the House of Lords who had a big hand in the construction of the Memorial Gates. She immediately launched into a scathing attack on the BBC for making programmes on what everyone else had done during the World Wars but leaving out the Indians.

While literally hundreds of movies have been made about British, American and other white soldiers fighting by side — the “band of brothers” — few people (Indians among them) are even aware that it was India which provided Britain with the biggest volunteer army.

One story unlikely to be made into a movie concerns a group of frail Sikh veterans in Southall, who got beaten up by racist thugs who objected to the Indians wearing “our medals”.

To ensure the past is not forgotten, Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, brought a group of Indian schoolchildren from his constituency to yesterday’s ceremony.

A Gurkha bugler sounded The Last Post preceded by a salute by Cavalry from the Life Guards.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, spoke of 800,000 Indian soldiers deployed to the Western Front in World War I, of the first Victoria Cross that was won by an Indian (Khudadad Khan), and then read from the Upanishads — “lead me from death to life”.

Wreaths were placed by British service chiefs and representatives of government departments and the high commissioners of several Commonwealth countries, led by India’s former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai. The Prince of Wales also sent a wreath, personally signed — “In grateful remembrance”.