When African soldiers fought side by side with Indians

“La la la it’s hard working for you, captain” goes a song. No, it’s not a Congress worker singing to say how difficult it was to run a successful campaign for Captain Amarinder Singh; it’s an African unit trying to keep up morale in the treacherous jungles of Burma in the Second World War.
Long before vigilante mobs went on a rampage in Greater Noida, Indians and Africans were fighting the war on the same side. Military historians say a unique and potent weapon in the form of the 14th Army was forged in India by unifying the fighting potential of different races and cultures.
The core of the 14th Army was Indian with troops from the subcontinent constituting 60-65% of the force. Only 13% of this army was ethnic British. But of the rest, 90,000 (some historians say up to 1,20,000) were black African troops. In the summer of 1943, troop carriers brought these Africans to India and Ceylon from Chad, Gold Coast, Gambia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, South Africa, and Nigeria. Of the 90,000 men coming from Africa to defend the Indian Empire from the Empire of Japan, over 50% were Nigerians.
Seventy years hence, the country that these men defended is seeing uninhibited displays of racism. Greater Noida is the latest example, where mobs have attacked black Africans, calling them ‘habshi’, drug peddlers, even cannibals. Soldiers of the Japanese empire — one of the most racist regimes in history — also thought Africans were cannibals.
A war veteran named Estos Hamiss was quoted by David Killingray and Martin Plaut in their book, Fighting For Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War: “The Japanese were very much afraid of East African Division (black people). The Japanese do claim that the African eat human flesh. When the EA soldiers killed an enemy (Japanese), they set fire and roast him.” The same book also quotes one Musa Kihwelo who had served in Burma with King’s African Rifles (a highly decorated regiment in which former US president Barack Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, also served as a cook in Burma) about how men of the 6th battalion terrified captured Japanese soldiers by killing one or two and pretending to eat them. “While they started to pretend to eat the ‘meat’ the other Japanese captives who survived would flee for their lives.
This was intentional so that they would spread the news that they were fighting against the cannibals who particularly enjoyed eating Japanese flesh,” Kihwelo says, adding that it was an “inhuman trick” that none of the European officers knew about. However, it was the Japanese who were accused of cannibalism in the later stages of the war and even tried for it.
The Second World War brought together distinct, often irreconcilable cultures. African troops fought shoulder to shoulder with Indians, British, Australians, Chinese and Americans. Thousands were killed or wounded. The dead are commemorated in various war cemeteries in India, Burma and elsewhere.
At the Imphal War Cemetery maintained by Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 45 black Africans are commemorated. But unlike other Allied soldiers, there are no details of these soldiers in the casualty list. Even the details of Indian laborers are mentioned, but not of black troops. Why?
“Firstly, the British Army did not keep detailed records for many of the African servicemen that enlisted in their forces and, therefore, there was very little for us to add to our records when details of casualties were passed to us,” says Peter Francis of CWGC. “The second reason is that much of the additional information in our records was supplied by families after the war. As part of that process, the CWGC wrote to families but this approach didn’t work for many African families — particularly those that had oral traditions rather than written.” Many historians and war veterans say this reflects how the black African contribution has been completely airbrushed in western records of WWII.
But many African veterans of the war have shared fond memories of India and Indians on various platforms. “Indians are wonderful people in a wonderful country. Their women particularly are very beautiful with long, flowing hair down to the waist,” a veteran recalls in a documentary. Another says Indians, Africans, and African-Americans were like brothers.
Africans were particularly inspired by India’s freedom movement that was underway at that time. One soldier recalled meeting Gandhi in Madras. He saluted Gandhi like a soldier and asked him what India would do for Africa. To that, Gandhi apparently replied that India would give Africans moral support provided they fought the British non-violently.

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