Excellencies, distinguished scholars, ladies and gentlemen.
I am pleased to join you all today at the inauguration of the International Conference on Gallipoli 2021. This is the first major commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli to be hosted by any platform of national significance in India. Perhaps, it is only appropriate that it should be done jointly by two venerable, historic bodies – the United Service Institution and the Indian Council of World Affairs. Their coming together with international participation has provided an opportunity to not only reflect on the Gallipoli campaign, but also to assess India’s contribution to World War I. I know that the specific theme today is of Gallipoli Revisited; but this is also an occasion to revisit the larger issue of India’s global participation and presence.
2. The contribution of Indian soldiers fighting in the First World War as part of the victorious Allied armies has been the focus of a joint project between India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the United Service Institution of India between 2014-2018.Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a personal interest in this issue, speaking about it during his official visits to Australia, France, the UK, and Israel. He had presented a silver replica of the statue of an Indian soldier of the 14th Ferozepore Sikhs to his then host, Prime Minister Tony Abbot of Australia in November 2014. I believe that the original stands at the Officers’ Mess of 4 Mech (1 Sikh), the linear descendant of this very unit that fought at Gallipoli. 16,000 Indians were part of the Gallipolimobilization, among the more prominent for any national group. One in every ten actually perished on the battlefield whose singularity is perhaps best captured in the words of a serving German General: "Seldom have so many countries of the world, races and nations sent their representatives to so small a place with the praiseworthy intention of killing one another.”
3. You are all aware that during World War I, over 1.3 million Indians served overseas at the cost of 74,000 casualties. Gallipoli was ofcourse not the only theatre where they distinguished themselves. From the trenches of the Western Front to the deserts of Mesopotamia, from Central Asia to East Africa, Indian valour and fortitude were in evidence across vast geographies of conflict. In fact, intrepid Indian aviators were even among the earliest aces in the skies of Europe. Our casualties are commemorated in numerous memorials and cemeteries around the world. 13,000 names are engraved on the stones of the India Gate that many of us pass every day in New Delhi. By rights, no account of this period should have ignored the contribution of Indian soldiers. Yet, that is not how it has always been in reality.
4. It may be understandable that other powers had their own interest in depicting history to their advantage. After all, this is, at the end of the day, a hegemonic exercise that is part of a larger strategic assertion. However, for many years, in India’s case,hesitations of history made us reluctant to claim this aspect of our heritage. It has now done so by moving beyond traditional military occasions like Armistice Day and recognizing the political significance of Indian soldiering abroad. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself set an example by visiting the Neuve Chapelle Memorial in France during his April 2015 visit and lauding Indian courage and sacrifice there. Two years later, during his historic visit to Israel, he similarly went to the Haifa Memorial that marks the sacrifices of Indian lives during its 1918 liberation. A less reserved Indian embrace of its past was naturally reciprocated by the world.
5. In November 2017, King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium recognized the contribution of Indian soldiers to the defence of Belgium by placing a wreath at India Gate, and inaugurating an exhibition "India in Flanders Fields” in New Delhi. In January 2018, Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu participated in the renaming ceremony of the Haifa-Teen Murti Memorial in New Delhi. In November 2018, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, inaugurated the Indian Armed Forces Memorial at Villers Guislain in France, on land donated by the French Government to mark the contribution of Indian soldiers to the freedom of France during World War I. I have no doubt that we will see many more such gestures in the future.
6. In many ways, the Gallipoli campaign had a resonance far beyond its military significance. The British, French and Germans felt its political and strategic repercussions almost immediately. For Turkey, it holds a special meaning as the birthplace of its modern nationhood. The ANZAC legend too emerged from this gruelling experience, strengthening the national identities of Australia and New Zealand. Each one of the diverse contingents that were deployed obviously carried back its own memories and lessons. That for India perhaps requires more study and greater introspection. The Allied defeat shaped India’s further participation in the war and the subsequent deployment in Mesopotamia. The difference that it made to the strategic outcomes has contributed to the West Asia that we know currently. By 1918, Indian performance including at Gallipoli led to the creation of the King’s Commissioned Indian Officer. We also have some understanding of its implications for our National Movement and the quest for independence, subjects already explored by some noted scholars. Where we could do with more attention are the consequences for India’s emergence on the global diplomatic stage as a national actor.
7. In the aftermath of Gallipoli, India was included in the Imperial War Cabinet even though it was not a Dominion. This, in itself, was a recognition of the importance of its military contribution to the Allied efforts. The consequence was the inclusion of India in the British Empire Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. India thereby obtained the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles and became a founder member of the League of Nations. Decades later, India’s contribution in the next World War similarly enabled its presence at the Washington Conference in 1942 with 25 othernations. The resulting Declaration by United Nations set in motion the contemporary structures of multilateral institutions that we are familiar with today, including the UN and its specialized agencies, the IMF and the World Bank. To those who have been reluctant to recognize the significance of the Indian war effort in the 20th century, we could well ask whether the early experience of global engagement could have come without participation in these conflicts. And that is necessary to stress because these diplomatic exposures were really the foundational lessons in the evolution of India’s world view.
8. Insofar as World War I and the Gallipoli campaign were concerned, we should also remember that the war effort had the support of mainstream Indian political opinion at that time. It was hoped that by supporting Imperial Britain in its hour of need, India would place it under moral debt and thereby advance its own aspirations. This infactwas advocated by none less than Mahatma Gandhi himself. These disappointed hopes, as we all know, accelerated the movement towards complete independence. They also later shaped the Indian political attitude towards World War II. Each experience offers its own lessons in realpolitik. But cumulatively, they laid the basis for a suspicion of the West that was further reinforced by the decisions of the Cold War. Today, the rebalancing of the global order may have created new convergences.Greater national confidence with less ideological baggage has encouraged stronger interactions.But the past does explain some of the scepticism, especially on developmental issues.
9. This conference is devoted in large measure to an exchange of comparative lessons from the Gallipoli experience. It is natural that this subject should be addressed by group of military historians assembled from across the world. And I’m equally conscious that lot of the discussion would be on the political, strategic and diplomatic repercussions of this. But I would like to take the opportunity, both as a Foreign Minister and a student of international politics, to share some thoughts about the political consequences of this campaign and that era. As you would note, there is so much food for thought from this extraordinary event that its ripples are felt even a century later.
10. The most obvious question is that of soldiering for common good. It is worth recalling that Indian soldiers during the World Wars were motivated neither by conquest nor acquisition. Their driving force was infact a military ethic, honour and the dignity of a professional soldier. This shaped their self-perception and behaviour abroad, building an image of discipline and responsibility.The standards with which the Indian military is associated with at home and abroad, like so many things, has its history too.This is particularly relevant to an India that is now poised to enter a different phase of its evolution.But I would also submit that this holds points of interest for the rest of the world as well.
11. The exemplary demeanour of Indian soldiers in World War I, on or off the battlefield, has set us on the long road to peacekeeping. With 50 missions and 2,53,000 soldiers – in addition to police personnel – India has been the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping.Indians have served with distinction in regions close to Gallipoli and continue to do so even today.The largest number of UN troops who have made the supreme sacrifice are also from India. Our soldiers bring with them a culture of empathy and fairness, seeing friends and partners rather than aliens or strangers. Indian peacekeepers are rarely perceived as an external imposition; indeed, they are easily woven into the fabric of local society.As a result, they can go beyond their assigned role to become catalysts of change.
12. The story of the first ever all-female Formed Police Unit for UN Peacekeeping in Liberia in 2007 is noteworthy in that regard. The Unit was instrumental in combating sexual and gender-based violence in that country. The inspiring presence of Indian women in uniform encouraged a process of empowerment in Liberia. The number of women applicants infact to the Liberian National Police trebled in the next two months. Female enrolment in the Liberian Police Academy went up from four per class in 2006 to 30 per class in 2007, and to 100 per class in 2008. Recruitment of women in the Liberian Security Services rose from 10 to 17 per cent.So we have a case here where Indian women peacekeepers were seen as a force for good, worthy of emulation; just as the ramrod straight Indian soldiers doing duty in the cold, frosty battlegrounds of World War I Europe had won the respect of their peers and locals alike.These actually have been the best ambassadors that India could have had in contemporary times.
13. In a world that is regrettably less multilateral than it should be, and wanted to be, common good is increasingly a national initiative. In our own region, India has stepped forward as the first responder when it comes to humanitarian assistance or disaster relief. We are seeing that often, whether it is the civil war in Yemen, the earthquake in Nepal, the cyclone in Mozambique or the mudslides in Sri Lanka.Some of the travails that the Covid-19 pandemic subjected us to were also addressed by Indian military deployments. Our military medical teams contributed to stabilizing public health situations in Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles and Comoros in the last year.Challenges, however, are not only in the times of crisis.The global commons, for example, struggle everyday with threats to maritime security.The dangers of terrorism or organized crime are ever present. Climate change is making natural disasters more frequent. And Human-made conflicts have not receded a century after Gallipoli.Ideally, every significant challenge should have been addressed by an agreed mechanism or regime. But the realities are far sadder and it is increasingly clearer that the responsibilities of the current times will have to be borne more by those who have the capability and willingness to do so. In that sense, the spirit of Gallipoli would continue to guide India’s contribution to global welfare.
14. Soldiering for common welfare is obviously shaped by the attitudes of a society. One that has historically embraced the world, rather than kept it at a distance, has obviously a more willing stance. In contemporary diplomacy, that is also reflected in sincere, genuine support for multilateralism.Where that falls short, it is now expressed in plurilateral initiatives.India is today a vigorous proponent of multilateralism and an articulate advocate of its reform. Those resisting changes in the global order today justify their obduracy as adherence to the military contributions and outcomes of the last World War. But in truth, Gallipoli and other World War events underline that India was among the countries that was short-changed in this respect. Whether it is the past or the future, there is a strong case for global decision-making to be more truly representative.That Indian internationalism has, in fact, only become stronger with time strengthens this case. And understandably it is expressed in dimensions beyond the military one. If India leads an International Solar Alliance or a Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure now, the instincts driving them are not that different.This is true as well of the widening development partnerships in agriculture, energy, digital or education that extend today from the Pacific Islands through Africa to the Caribbean.
15. Gallipoli is, of course, but one - even though an important - example of India’s global military footprint in the modern era.The World Wars revived opportunities for far-off deployments of Indian power after a considerable gap in its history.But they do remind us of two underlying truths: one, the seamless nature of the world, and two, the global impact of India.Both realities were unfortunately obfuscated by recent history that divided the world into artificial compartments even while downsizing Indian power. However, the rebalancing of the world order and the ensuing multipolarity is driving a long-awaited correction.India is today in the midst of reclaiming history and re-asserting its interests beyond orthodox silos. It is evident in the Act East policy, the Indo-Pacific vision, reviving ties with Gulf and West Asia, and the outreach to Africa.It is equally clear that connectivity – a concept that Gallipoli so strongly symbolizes – has become even more salient in the 21st century Great Game. As Indians look at the world with fresher and clearer eyes, global battlefields where we have shed blood to determine momentous outcomes are both a reminder and an inspiration.
16. History means different things to different people at different times. Gallipoli is no exception, and all its participants had their own take of it. But our understanding of its significance also evolved with the passage of time. The past naturally continues to cast its shadow in all countries, be it in terms of a larger outlook or a narrower policy. The relationship is always stronger with those when we have bled together.Sometimes, specific experiences shaped our thinking: like those of Indian soldiers on the Western Front in 1915 subjected to the use of chemical weapons. At another level, the camaraderie of the past is always a factor in the relationships for the future. This sentiment was very much in evidence when Prime Minister Modi was in France in 2015. As India braces for a multipolar world with new equations, these are building blocks of no small value. In India, if we have been selective in our reading of past events, the subjectivity reflected the politics of the day. For decades, a great tradition and a valiant record got less than its due, even though our current capabilities are built on those very foundations.Indeed, our historical assessments were tailored to serve more contemporary and immediate objectives.As we now finally move beyond, perhaps the time is ripe for objectively revisiting our global contributions.A confident nation can be equally confident about its past.At the very least, it would be helpful to a society that should be preparing seriously for what awaits it.
17. Ladies and gentlemen let me conclude by once again expressing my appreciation for this laudable initiative at convening an international conference on Gallipoli.It is a timely message to us that India has always been relevant to global events and must continue to think in that mode. It is a reminder too that our interests and influences are much broader than competitors might suggest.And most of all, it is an affirmation of the value of India as a cross-roads ideal to encourage and hold meaningful and thought-provoking conversations.
Thank you for your attention.