| Margaret Thatcher at the Memorial Gates and (bottom) wreaths for the martyrs. Pictures by Amit Roy
London, Nov. 9: The battlefields of Europe, West Asia and Africa are littered with the graves of brave Indian soldiers who fell in two world wars, but Bollywood has never thought of making a movie on them nor do many of their own countrymen remember them.
However, to her great credit, Lady (Margaret) Thatcher did today.
Now aged 82, in frail health and with her memory not what it used to be — and lonely too after the death of her husband Denis four years ago — she was a stooping figure as she walked to the Memorial Gates and laid a wreath made from red poppies in memory of the Commonwealth soldiers — the overwhelming majority of them Indian — who “gave their today for our tomorrow”.
In her time, Thatcher was a controversial politician but there is about her, as there was with Winston Churchill, a touch of greatness. Certainly, she seems to have a sense of history, for although the Memorial Gates have been up since 2002, neither Tony Blair nor successor Gordon Brown have found time to attend the annual ceremony that honours the Indian war dead.
And there were many. In World War I, 1.5 million Indian troops fought for Britain on the Western Front, in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Italy. When it ended, 113,743 Indians were reported dead, wounded or missing.
In World War II, which ended 62 years ago, 2.5 million Indian soldiers “volunteered” for Britain. They served in the North African campaign against the Germans; in Eritrea and Abyssinia against the Italians; in West Asia, Iran and Iraq; in the Far East; in Italy, where they took part in some of the bloodiest fighting at the siege of Monte Cassino and elsewhere.
By the end of the war, 36,092 Indians had been killed or were missing, 64,350 were wounded and 79,489 taken prisoner.
Lady Shreela Flather, who has been the moving spirit behind the construction of the Memorial Gates — four stone pillars and an adjoining Chhatri — was unable to come today because of complications with the pacemaker in her heart. But she sent a message through her husband, Gary Flather, QC, praising the “great contribution” made by Thatcher: “She hosted a dinner which produced so much funding that led to the project being realised.”
Shreela, never one to understate her case, often declares: “Had it not been for Indian soldiers, Hitler might well have won.”
However, unlike the Indian crush in Leicester Square yesterday to see Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone at the world premiere of Om Shanti Om, veterans, diplomats and officials mostly made up the crowd today, though there was also a party of schoolchildren.
Indian high commissioner Kamalesh Sharma, who is away campaigning to become the next Commonwealth secretary-general, was absent, as was Pakistan’s high commissioner Maleeha Lodhi who clearly wishes to avoid the embarrassment of being asked what she thinks of President Pervez Musharraf’s emergency. They were represented by their deputies, Asoke Mukherji and Abdul Basit.
On a morning with bright autumn sunshine, the Bishop of London, the Right Reverend John Chartres, flanked by Lord Karan Bilimoria, chairman of the Memorial Gates Committee, was in lyrical mood.
“We meet in the clear light, we meet as the leaves fall,” he said. “It’s such a show of gold on this scene — a very appropriate tribute to the fallen.”