Human Guinea Pigs

Although their role is underplayed in most World War II histories, tens of thousands of Indian soldiers fought and died fighting for the British, against the Germans and the Japanese. They did not exactly have a choice: after all, they were subjects of the mighty British Empire. However, many of them were willing conscripts and played an important – if unsung – role in British victories in Burma, Malaya and Indonesia.

By and large, the Indian soldiers were treated fairly by their British superiors, but there were lapses. One of the most serious was using them as human guinea pigs by a British chemical warfare research organization, then the world’s largest, to test the effects of mustard gas on humans. The tests on the Indians were part of a deadly program of identifying the exact amount of the gas that could prove deadly on the battlefield.

The trials started in the early 1930s and lasted till India gained independence in 1947; and were part of a study by British scientists to ascertain if the poisonous gas inflicted greater damage on ‘people of color’ than on whites. The scientists had been posted to the Indian sub-continent to develop chemical warfare agents for use against the Japanese. Several hundred Indians were part of the trials, according to documents released by the UK’s National Archives.

It is unclear if the Indians were told about the potentially serious medical implications of the trials before they were sent to the gas chambers by scientists from Porton Down, the UK’s chemical warfare research laboratory; but it seems highly unlikely. Remember, the tests were conducted during the days of Empire. It is hard to believe if anyone would have agreed, if they knew beforehand what was going to happen.

Several of the Indians suffered so severely they had to be hospitalized, with severe burns. Many of the Indian servicemen, who were sent into the gas chambers wearing no more than drill shorts and open-necked khaki cotton shirts to gauge the effect of mustard gas on the eyes, also had to be hospitalized after the experiment.

Some British servicemen, recruited over time to take part in similar experiments, recently won compensation for being duped into being treated as guinea pigs. But it is doubtful whether British authorities are willing to entertain compensation claims from the affected Indian soldiers or their heirs and successors. Officials have been quoted as saying that the trials took place in a different era and the studies in India “included defensive research”. I suppose that is the way of all conquerors.