As China commemorates the 60th anniversary of victory over War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), what strikes the rest of the world is the intensity with which the Chinese keep alive the memory of the Japanese occupation, and the long and bloody conflict that took place. This is especially so when memories of historical conflicts and atrocities in other parts of the world are today being recognized with ceremonies of "forgiveness."
In India, a common question when news of anti-Japanese protests are reported in the media, is why the anger runs so deep when Japan can hold peaceful bilateral relations in other areas. Japan for example, is China's second largest trading partner and both countries ably cooperate on North Korea's nuclear issue.
However, it becomes easier for most Indians to understand the Chinese perspective when the submerged memories of World War II, and how it affected the people of Asia, are considered today.
Memories of World War II have long been submerged in all aspects of Indian life. Official Western historical war records are primarily responsible for this since they heavily play down the role of Indian soldiers and capital in the successes of the battles in Africa and Asia. Within India as well, we often wrongly consider the war as Britain's war, beliefs developed through colonization.
Our anti-imperialist and nationalist historical writing has also contributed to obscuring our sympathy for how nationalist leaders during the colonial period regarded the experiences of China and other Japanese occupied territories and nations.
Leaders of the Indian National Movement for Independence were primarily concerned with liberating India from British occupation during the period between the two world wars.
However, they were also cosmopolitan men and women, deeply engaged with what was happening in Europe and Asia. Intellectuals like Tagore, and political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru closely observed political events in China. While their opposition to imperialism amid colonialism emerged from their feelings towards British colonialism in India, they were even more strongly opposed to Asian colonialism.
In fact, two of the most important leaders of the independence movement Nehru and Subhash Chander Bose led protest matches and demonstrations in support of China during Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and again in 1938 when Japanese troops moved down coastal China.
The Indian acknowledgement of China's acute pain and distress during this period was marked by Nehru's visit to China to meet the Chinese president in 1939 where he confirmed the sympathy and support of the Indian National Congress. Immediately after his return from China, Nehru dispatched the famous Kotnis medical mission to be put into practice within Communist regions.
But Indians also had their own direct experience of the Japanese advance. As Japanese troops advanced into Myanmar in 1942, an entire division of the British Indian Army, consisting of numerous Indian soldiers, was deployed to combat and finally push back the Japanese advance, despite equipment shortages due to resource diversions to Europe. In Singapore and Malaya 70,000 out of one million soldiers were Indian. This was the "forgotten army" of World War II.
Many Indians in later years only heard of their exploits from fathers and grandfathers who were part of the forgotten army. Personal accounts are only marked by one memorial in Kohima, which says poignantly that it commemorates the death of those who gave up their existence to provide a better life for future generations.
The comments at the Kohima memorial tell the tale of India's resistance to the Japanese advance in Myanmar and Southeast Asia, and express its sympathy for the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation.
Few Indians, even those opposed to British imperialism would have traded Western imperialism for Japanese imperialism. Fewer Indians still wanted to build a future under a dictatorial state. Even when one part of the Indian National Congress, under Subhash Bose, broke away to try to gain support from the Axis powers for Indian independence, there was a deep-seated distrust of fascist politics.
The Congress leaders Nehru and Gandhi, strongly rejected Japan's notions of the Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, which was at the root of Japan's program of invasion and expansion.
The experience of ordinary Chinese in the war of resistance evoked not just great sympathy but also immense respect for the Chinese people in India. From Shantiniketan in West Bengal the reputed Chinese scholar, Tan Yun-shan, raised awareness of the horrors of the war. Tan soon became an emissary between China's leaders and the leaders of the Indian movement.
Towards the end of 1937, Nehru explained to Tan in a letter that the Congress would boycott Japanese goods in India. In 1938, just before Tan left on a visit to China, Nehru wrote to him again, asking him to convey India's support to the Chinese people during the War against Japanese Aggression.
This was followed by a letter, from Tagore to Chiang Kai-shek, delivered in person by Tan, assuring Chiang India's support to China in resisting Japanese aggression. An additional letter was also written by Subhas Chandra Bose, asking Tan to convey Congress' support to China during the war.
But many of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Chinese population were also experienced by Indian soldiers held by the Japanese as prisoners of war in Singapore and Malaya. Sixty years on, however, in India, memories have faded and it is time that the history of its fight against Asian fascism should be written anew.
While India's experience of devastation, loss of life and national resources cannot compare with China's, in the telling of the tale we may discover pathways to a better future, to truth and to reconciliation.
(China Daily September 16, 2005)