Meet Sergeant Major Gandhi

Meet Sergeant Major  Gandhi

NEW DELHI: The British steamer SS Kinfauns Castle, a British steamer, had arrived at the English Channel in August 1914 from Cape Town in South Africa. One of its passengers was informed that the British Empire was at war against Germany. He would support the British war effort unconditionally and propose to form an Indian volunteer unit upon reaching Britain. He was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a barrister.

Some believe Gandhi was loyal and had faith in the British, while others say Sargent Major Gandhi was an opportunist trying to get political concessions from Britain through the Great War. Gandhi struggled to explain the situation and made contradictory statements in order to justify his position up until the mid-1920s. Gandhi, however, understood Britain's cause as a just cause and was worth fighting for until the end.

"We must understand that Gandhi was a politician at the time. He did, however, contradict himself many times. At that time, India did not demand total independence or 'poorna Swaraj'. It was a country with dominion status.

It wasn't Gandhi, but many political leaders at that time, across party lines, supported the British war effort in varying degrees," says Squadron Leader Rana T S Chhina, a military historian.

Gandhi realized that the Indian Army was going to be deployed on the Western Front in late August 1914 and that many Indians would need medical attention. Gandhi suggested that an Indian ambulance corps be raised. This was quickly approved by the British war ministry. Gandhi was not the only one to appeal to Indians to get involved in a British war. During the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and Zulu War (06/06), Gandhi was in South Africa. He had previously raised an Indian ambulance corp in which he served a sergeant major in the British Army. Gandhi was able to convince many Indians to sign up for the corps over the next five months. Some of them later served in hospitals at Southampton and Brighton, where Indian war casualties were treated. His wife Kasturba, Sarojini Naidu and his son, Rahul, helped him in this endeavor. They also wrote a resolution to unconditionally support the British Empire.

 Gandhi took nursing classes but soon became ill and couldn't care for the Indian wounded. Gandhi is a symbol of Indian military medicine. "We still have a photo showing him in military uniform at Pune Armed Forces Medical College," says Brigadier MSVKraju (Retd), formerly head of psychiatry at AFMC.

Gandhi left England in December 1914 for India and arrived in India in January 1915. In that year, Gandhi received the Kaiser-i-Hind Medal.

Gandhi remained a strong supporter of the British cause for the next few decades, but he also fought British imperialism through Champaran satyagraha 1917 and Kheda satyagraha 1918. After Kheda Satyagraha was over, Gandhi began aggressively campaigning for war as a recruit officer for the empire. Gandhi was not recruiting non-combatants, but fighters this time. In varying degrees, other leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Gopalkrishna Gokhale also supported the cause of the empire.

Vedica Kant (a UK-based author) is visiting India to launch her first book. She says, "If I die here who will remember? Gandhi was different than other leaders during the First World War. Gandhi did not expect or demand concessions from the British to support the war. He gave his unconditional support from the very beginning. Gandhi also helped expand the Indian Army's recruiting base to Gujarat and other locations, which were not home to the so-called "martial races" as defined by the British. Kant claims that by 1918, the empire needed men urgently and had to turn to Gujarat, Bengal, Madras, etc. for recruitment.

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 Pollen Dharamshala, in Godhra, was one of many Gujarati recruiting centers. This is where the 2002 Sabarmati Express fire incident left a lasting impression. On April 16, 1918, there was a large gathering of Thakores from Panch Mahals and Rewa Kantha Agency, where Gandhi presented a report about his recruiting efforts. He stated that the Kaira region had made the greatest contribution to Gujarat. Gandhi donated Rs 102 to the war effort from his pocket. The war effort had already raised Rs 4,500 by the end of the day. Rs 1,000 was also collected from the concert that was held that evening. In gratitude, the government gave bonuses to both recruits as well as recruiters.

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