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Story of Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers made Bowman cry


British historian Ghee Bowman was working on a project on multicultural history in his hometown, Exeter, when he chanced upon three photos from 1940s England that showed Indian soldiers with mules. Fascinated, he dove into the archives in London where he found the war service diary of the 25th Animal Transport Company — a document that told him the moving story of 300 soldiers of the Indian Army who set out from Punjab in 1939, came down to Bombay, sailed across the sea, arrived on the beaches of Dunkirk in France and were among the 3-lakh-odd soldiers who had escaped the Nazis on the brink of World War II.

“I started crying while reading it,” confessed Bowman, explaining the genesis of his book ‘The Indian Contingent: The Forgotten Muslim Soldiers of Dunkirk’ in a virtual Times Litfest session that saw Congress MP Jairam Ramesh probing the historian about the Indian Army’s lesserknown contributions in Europe. Neither Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film ‘Dunkirk’ nor other modern works on World War II acknowledge these men who were headed by Major Akbar Khan–one of the senior most officers of the Indian Army at the time. When asked about this public amnesia, Bowman pointed to the vastness of the Second World War. “It was so big, global and complicated that these soldiers got swept up by the tides,” said Bowman, although he did discover a fairly-recent Disney film set in World War II that showed four Sikh soldiers doing a traditional dance on the streets of London.

Hinting at the “complicated politics” of the time, Bowman stated that while many in India were not in favour of supporting Britain in World War II, popular opinion in England was entirely for the war. “For an Indian in 1939, the decision to support the British must have caused a lot of tension,” said Bowman, citing that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose tried to recruit many of these soldiers from the Indian Army in the German Army at the time. “Around 3,000 Indian soldiers joined,” said the historian.

Another key insight arrived when Ramesh wondered if Bowman’s beliefs as a Quaker–a member of a Christian movement devoted to peaceful principles–had sparked his book. “Quakers are internationalists and strong believers in multi-culturalism. So, for me, hearing these stories of these men who lived so happily in Britain and France, and were able to integrate and be welcomed, was heartening,” said Bowman, stressing on the importance of knowing that relations between India and Europe were good in the 1940s given his nation’s current backdrop of “racism against Muslims and other people from South Asia and elsewhere.” “We need to find the stories that point us toward a better future for humankind,” concluded Bowman, a self-confessed pacifist who is mulling a book on “Indian prisoners of war during the Second World War and the great escape.”

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