On 11 November 2018 at 1100 hours local time,world leaders will gather at the little town of Ypres in Belgium to mark the centenary of the armistice to end the World War I in which 1.5 million (15,00,000) Indian soldiers participated as part of the largest volunteer army in the world, of which 57,000 then gave their todays, in Flanders Fields, to secure our tomorrows.
The original Gabar Singh was Gabar Singh Negi of the 39th Garhwal Rifles, who received a Victoria Cross for his courage and supreme sacrifice in the battle for Neuve Chapelle in 1915. Another Indian, Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis, won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the World War I in 1914 at Hollebeke in Belgium. Not a horse whisperer of "the far pavilions" either.
The experience of Indians of all communities, castes and creeds fighting side by side shoulder to shoulder in the muddy trenches of Flanders Fields spawned a new sense also of community among all Indians which found expression first in the Khilafat Movement of 1919, the energy of which was then directed by Mahatma Gandhi into the non-cooperation movement in the struggle for our independence.
The Indian participation in Flanders Fields was reflected also in the short story "Usney Kaha Tha", written in 1915 by Chandhradhar Sharma "Guleri". The story happens to be the first one ever written in the language we now call Hindi and celebrate today as our official language. Sarojini Naidu, the nightingale of India, penned a poem in tribute to the Indian soldiers, which will be read out in the memorial to be held at London on 11 november 2018.
A musical concert in memory of the Indian soldiers who fought and fell in Flanders Fields a hundred years ago will be performed for the last time on 11 november 2018 at the little coastal Belgian town of Knokke-Heist, by an extraordinary man who does more than just lay a wreath and stand in silent remembrance at the Indian War Memorial as the last post sounds over Flanders Fields. In gratitude to India for supporting them in their darkest hours, maestro Hans Vermeersch, classical violinist, composer and conductor, has paid his personal tribute to the martyrs of India every year since 2002 in an annually performed memorial concert supported,thanks to the Indian Army, by the participation of Indian bagpipers from some regiments that fought, fell and finally carried the day, 100 years ago in Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow. His story is given below as through him, we will also remember them...
Maestro Hans Vermeersch is a Belgian composer, violinist and symphony conductor married to Indian Finla Noronha,who has devoted his energies to promoting Indian music worldwide, particularly of Tagore, Nazrul and the Carnatic tradition. He founded the Rajhans Orchestra of Flanders. He has taught himself to read Tagore's Bengali swaralipi, convert the scores into western staff notation and arrange them for western orchestra. He has also unearthed copies of Tagore's original notations from the British Museum, Musee Guimet Paris and Aw Bake of holland and claims now to play Rabindrasangieet in the way Rabindranath and his companions actually composed them during their tourneys to Europe.
One of his ancestors sailed to Calcutta on a Dutch East India ship in 1729. He has created a musical compososition about Christmas in Calcutta 1729 as well as programmes dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi and a large number of other Indian and Egyptian themes. His daughter Shyama is an accomplished violinist and trainee archaeologist .
Since 2002 when the cwgc and Indian embassy in Brussels erected the first memorial to the Indian soldiers at Menin Gate in Ypres (photo attached), he has dedicated, at his own cost and initiative, an annual concert to the memory and honour of the 57000 Indian soldiers who died in Flanders Fields in the first world war, hosting every year two bagpipers of an Indian Army regiment which fought there in World War I. The Indian embassy and commonwealth war graves commission installed the first Indian war memorial at Ypres in 2002. The Indian Ambassador in Belgium usually attends or sends a senior diplomat, while the the Indian Army usually sends an officer at least of the rank of Brigadier every year to lay a wreath and salute the martyrs on 11 November.
A truly unsung hero of the Indian diaspora, maestro Hans Vermeersch deserves recognition and some gratitude of India
The memorial concert on 11 nov 2018 will be attended by the Belgian dignitaries, the Ambassador of India to the Kingdom of Belgium, the Duchy of Luxembourg and the European Union.
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The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Indian Embassy, Brussels, put up the first memorial to the Indian martyrs in 2002. This was replaced by a larger one in 2011.
I hope that on that day, at 1100 hours, we will remember our Indians fallen in Flanders Fields, where the poppies still grow, as the world stands in two minutes of silent prayer while the last post plays in mourning for their lost "todays".
(The author is a former Indian diplomat who has served in Belgium and Europe)