Earlier this year, I joined a friend on a ceremonial visit to a Brisbane cemetery. Part of my friend's Sufi practice involves reminding himself of his mortality by visiting a cemetery every Friday.
As we walked through the Muslim section, we noticed some well-preserved graves of young men, most of whom did not make it to their 25th year. The gravestones were decorated with the calligraphy of verses from the Koran.
Among the deceased was one 24-year-old named Allah Ditta (a name which literally means Gift from God), a member of the 14th Punjab Regiment.
Ditta was one of any number of Indian soldiers who fought the Japanese at Malaya and Singapore during World War II. Following the fall of Singapore, many of these Indian troops were taken to the notorious POW camp in Changi. These soldiers were fighting as part of an army defending possessions, then current and former, of a colonial power.
Indians and Australians fought the Japanese side by side, trying desperately to keep the Japanese away from the Australian mainland. Indians of all creeds paid a heavy price in property and lives to prop up the Raj, the British Crown's most prized possession.
Indians didn't just fight the British in their epic independence struggle. As a means of obtaining independence, many Indians followed Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi's instructions and fought with the British. Often forgotten are the sacrifices these Indian troops made to defend British colonial possessions in South-East Asia against Japanese invaders in World War II.
This was not a war to defend India as such. Many Indians would have initially warmed to the idea of their colonial masters being humiliated by an Asian power.
Melbourne author Neelam Maharaj's 2007 historical novel Surviving Heroes tells the stories of Indian soldiers and their families who fought the Japanese in Malaya and Singapore. This historical novel is woven around the life of Ramesh Kapur, an Indian officer in the British army.
Ramesh and his fellow Indian soldiers were encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to join the British war effort. Yet Indian troops were subjected to racial discrimination and humiliation by their British commanders. The Japanese knew this, and they sponsored the highly respected Indian National Congress dissident Subhash Chandra Bose to raise the Indian National Army from among Indian POWs.
Of course, patriotism combined with war can make scoundrels of even the most loyal. Gandhi strictly forbade Indians from using violence to fight the British. Hence, Indian POWs joining the INA to fight the British with Japanese help knew they would be regarded as traitors to Gandhi's non-violent struggle.
At the same time, the POWs witnessed firsthand Japanese brutality against British, Chinese and Malay soldiers, and civilians slaughtered in cold blood. For Ramesh and his colleagues, joining the victors against the enemy at home must have been tempting. At the very least, it would have been seen as the fastest route to joining their loved ones back home.
Some of Ramesh's closest friends joined the INA's march through Burma. But when the tide turned, the army was abandoned by fleeing Japanese forces and charged with treason by the British. Its leader, Bose, died mysteriously in a plane crash during the dying days of the war.
Of course, the Indians weren't the only soldiers subjected to racial discrimination and humiliation. Thousands of indigenous Australians, some as young as 16, fought for their country in every overseas military operation.
Among them was Reginald Walter Saunders, the first Aboriginal to be promoted to a commissioned rank. Reg Saunders’ father and uncle had both served in World War I. When World War II came along, Reg and his brother Harry also joined in
the war effort.
Reg served in such far away places as Libya, Crete, Palestine and New Guinea. Reg's brother lost his life while fighting on the infamous Kokoda Track.
Indigenous servicemen and women have often been ignored in Anzac Day celebrations, often relegated to the back of the Anzac Day marches organised by the RSL. As the National Indigenous Times editorialised on Anzac Day 2005:
“The truth about our black Anzacs is that thousands fought in overseas wars, hundreds died, but very few were ever formally recognised, or rewarded. When black soldiers returned home, they were not permitted to access returned servicemen land grants. They were denied war pensions and they were refused membership of (and entry to) RSL clubs all over the nation. Most who died after their return were buried in unmarked graves.
So blackfellas were good enough to fight alongside white Australia, but that’s where the newfound equality ended. How could this happen in a nation that defines itself by the noble digger?”
No doubt those who espouse the white armband view of history will be offended at my bringing up these issues on an occasion such as this. After all, we have all benefited from the sacrifices of our past generations who gave their lives so that we might be free.
But what sort of free nation believes that the only way to improve the lot of its oldest inhabitants is to breach racial discrimination laws?
So today, at the going down of the sun, make sure you remember Geoff Shaw. He served six years in the army, seeing active combat in Borneo and Vietnam. If he can make it to a march in a major metropolitan city, chances are the RSL won't now relegate him to the back of the procession as happened in past years with other indigenous diggers.
But then, he probably can't afford the airfare given that half his veteran's special pension will be quarantined.
Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer. First published in the Canberra Times on ANZAC Day, Friday 25 April 2008.
Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf