Remembering the Indian soldiers of Flanders Fields: And their unsung Belgian commemorator

A truly unsung hero of the Indian diaspora, Hans Vermeersch deserves some recognition for his lifelong dedication to India. 

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Indian soldiers of Flanders Field; Hans Vermeersch

On November 11, world leaders gathered in the little town of Ypres in Belgium to mark the Armistice to end World War I in which 150,000 Indian soldiers participated as part of the largest volunteer army in the world. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Indian Embassy in Brussels put up the first memorial to Indian martyrs in 2002. This was replaced by a larger one in 2011. 

A musical concert in memory of the Indian soldiers who fought and fell in Flanders a hundred years ago is performed 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. In gratitude to India for supporting the Belgians in their darkest hour, Hans Vermeersch,  a Belgian musician, has been paying his personal tribute to the Indian martyrs almost every year since 2002 in a memorial concert - supported occasionally by the Indian Army which deputes Indian bagpipers from some regiments that fought - to those who fell and finally carried the day over a 100 years ago in Flanders Fields in Ypres.  

Indian heroes

Among the Indian military heroes 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 was Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis, who won the first Victoria Cross awarded in WWI in 1914 at Hollebeke in Belgium. 

The experience of Indians of all communities, castes and creeds fighting side by side and shoulder to shoulder in the muddy trenches of Flanders Fields spawned a new sense of community among all Indians, which found expression first in the Khilafat movement of 1919, the energy of which was directed by Mahatma Gandhi into the non-cooperation movement in the struggle for India's independence. 

The Indian participation in Flanders Fields was reflected also in the short story "Usney kaha tha", written in 1915 by Chandhradhar Sharma "Guleri". Sarojini Naidu, the political activist and freedom fighter known as the Nightingale of India for her contribution to poetry, penned a poem in tribute to the Indian soldiers, which was read out in the memorial held in London on November 11, 2018. 

Hans Vermeersch

The Flanders Field story is incomplete without Hans Vermeersch, the India-loving Belgian composer, violinist and symphony conductor married to an Indian, Finla Noronha, and a direct descendant of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. He has devoted his energies to promoting Indian music worldwide, particularly of  Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam 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 musical staff notation and arrange them for Western orchestra in an Indo-European fusion.

He has also unearthed copies of Tagore's original notations from the British Museum. So he claims now to play Rabindrasangeet in the way Tagore and his companions actually composed them during their journeys to Europe. 

His forefather once sailed to Calcutta on a Dutch East India ship in 1729, records of which are preserved in the vessel’s log preserved at the Ship Museum at Antwerp, Belgium. So Hans has created a musical composition 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 archaeologist in Egypt. 

Since 2002, when the first memorial to the Indian soldiers was erected at Menin Gate in Ypres, Vermeersch has dedicated, at his own cost and initiative, the annual concert to the memory and honour of the 57,000 Indian soldiers who died in Flanders Fields. He hosts two bagpipers of an Indian Army regiment that fought there. 

The Indian Ambassador in Belgium usually attends or sends a senior diplomat while the Indian Army usually sends an officer at least of the rank of brigadier every year to lay a wreath and salute the martyrs. 

A truly unsung hero of the Indian diaspora, Hans Vermeersch deserves some recognition for his lifelong dedication to India. 

(The writer is a former Indian diplomat who has served in Belgium. He can be contacted at sarva.chakravarti@yahoo.co.uk).