| Sonia at the Menin memorial. (AP)
London, Nov. 11: Sonia Gandhi yesterday visited the Menin Memorial Gate in south-west Belgium and laid a wreath in tribute to the 65,000 Indian soldiers who fought for the western allies 80 years ago in the First World War in the great battle of Ypres.
Her action follows that of Pranab Mukherjee, who had not been shifted to external affairs from defence when he visited the Indian Memorial in Neuve Chapelle, 300 km north of Paris, in September to pay respect to 16,000 Indian soldiers who died in France during the 1914-1918 war.
Their gestures suggest that the Indian government is starting to take note of the sacrifices of Indian soldiers in the two world wars.
But it was not enough to prevent a scathing attack on India and Indians allegedly for forgetting their own that was launched in London yesterday by Baroness Shreela Flather, who has been the driving force behind the construction of the Memorial Gates in Hyde Park.
It cost £2.8 million, of which “only 10 per cent came from Indians”, was inaugurated by the Queen in 2002 and “commemorates the service and sacrifices of five million men and women from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean, who volunteered to fight with the British in two world wars, 1914-1918 and 1939-1945”.
Flather used the occasion of a service yesterday to express her bitter disappointment that Indian history books had, in her opinion, largely ignored the valiant efforts made by Indians in the two world wars.
She pointed out that Indian dignitaries who come to London were never taken to the Memorial Gates, although a simple plaque there suggests that the history of Europe might well have been different had it not been for the Indians.
In the First World War, it says that from India, “1,440,500 men and women, including 100,000 Gurkhas, volunteered for service in the Indian Army. They fought on the Western Front, in Gallipoli, Persia, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia”.
In the Second World War, “over 2,500,000, including 132,000 Gurkhas, served in Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, North and East Africa, France, Italy, Greece and throughout the Middle East”.
Figures show that in the First World War, 113,743 Indians were reported dead, wounded or missing. In the second, 36,092 Indians were killed or missing, 64,350 wounded and 79,489 taken prisoner.
With Indian high commissioner Kamalesh Sharma standing silently by her, Flather, a Tory who was born in Lahore in 1934 and became the first Indian woman to be given a peerage in 1990, launched her broadside.
She expressed regret that there was not enough money left to send an education pack and CD-ROM on the Memorial Gates to all schools in the UK.
This had been the intention as a way of informing successive generations of schoolchildren on the history of Indian immigrants. She had felt this would also be a good way of curbing racism if the British knew of the sacrifice made by Indians.
“We don’t want this to be just a pile of stones,” she remarked angrily. “This is our memorial.”
She also slammed the ethnic media in the UK for not doing their job. “They play up celebrities and Bollywood. All this has been a major disappointment to me.”
Flather, a Punjabi woman who has the reputation of being difficult, also has a habit of blurting out unpleasant truths. She was not mollified when told that even as she spoke the Congress party president was laying a wreath in Belgium to the Indian fallen.
A handful of Sikh veterans — Guljara Singh, Mukhtiar Singh Rai and Bhagia Singh Bahia — proudly proclaimed they had belonged to the “BIR” (British Indian Army) but had not understood what Flather had said. On having her comments explained, they nodded: “Thik bol rahe hain (she’s right).”
Sonia is the most senior Indian figure to visit the Menin Gate.
The mayor of Ypres, Luc Dehaene, recalled that the first Victoria Cross was awarded to an Indian soldier (Khudadad Khan). “We have not forgotten the sacrifice of thousands of Indian soldiers to help the invaded people of Belgium.”
The Indian ambassador in Belgium, Deepak Chatterjee, said: “We are touched that their sacrifice is not forgotten.”
It was a sombre ceremony in biting cold, accompanied by the playing of bugles by Belgium’s Last Post Association, and followed by a lament by two pipers of the Indian Army.
Sonia was today due to inaugurate an Indian cultural exhibition, “Tejas — Eternal Energy”, organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in Brussels.
She is a guest of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, and due to receive the Order of Leopold, the second highest civilian award of Belgium.
She is also to get an honorary degree from Vrije Universiteit Brussel (the Free University of Brussels).