Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire
By YASMIN KHAN
Aug 2 2017
OXFORD, England — Two and a half million soldiers drawn from Britain’s empire in South Asia fought in World War II. But they are missing from many British commemorations and accounts of the war — an absence reinforced by Christopher Nolan’s new film “Dunkirk,” which does not feature any of the Indian soldiers who were present at the battle.
The Indian soldiers at Dunkirk were mainly Muslims from areas of British India that later became Pakistan. They were part of the Royal India Army Service Corps — transport companies that sailed from Bombay to Marseille. The men brought with them hundreds of mules, requested by the Allies in France because of the shortage of other means of transport. They played a significant role, ferrying equipment and supplies.
The Germans captured one Indian company and held the men as prisoners of war. Others were evacuated and made it to Britain. Paddy Ashdown, a British politician, has spoken of his father’s being court-martialed for refusing orders to abandon the Indian troops under his command.
World War II is memorialized everywhere in Britain. The catchy wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” appears on greeting cards, coffee mugs, doormats. Towns still organize Christmas fairs with a World War II theme. Balls and parties that involve dressing up in 1940s styles are common on university campuses.
Yet Britain’s fixation with the war doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the subject. The focus on Britain “standing alone” sometimes risks diminishing how the war brought pain in many places, right across the globe. The war, especially when viewed from the East, was about two empires locking horns rather than a nation taking on fascism. Above all, the narrative of a plucky island nation beating back the Germans omits the imperial dimension of the war. Many people living in the colonies were caught up in a vicious conflict beyond their control.
Britain was always dependent on the colonies — in India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — for men, materials and support, but never more so than in World War II. Some five million from the empire joined the military services. Britain didn’t fight World War II — the British Empire did.
This has real significance for British South Asians. Baroness Warsi, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, said both of her grandfathers fought for Britain in World War II, a connection that 20 years later inspired her father to move from Pakistan to Yorkshire.
But others are unaware that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers were involved in two world wars. Generations of British schoolchildren, including me, sat through history lessons about World War II and never heard about the connection to Asia. British South Asians have only tentatively started to see their own place in this “British” story.