The study of the early histories of Indian soldiers has suffered a considerable amount of neglect, particularly with respect to their role in the two World Wars. However, the centenary of the World War I has occasioned the release of many books on the subject. Kant’s and Singh’s books join Roy, Liebau and Ahuja’s fantastic history of South Asian prisoners of war, David Omissi’s fine work on sepoys’ letters and Steven Wilkinson’s book on a later period that also picks up some of the same themes, particularly that of the Theory of Martial Races.
Even a fleeting review of the literature shows the continuities between the soldiers of the Raj and those of the post-Independence armies of the subcontinent. Yet, work in this field has been rather limited. Kant is justified in saying that the soldiers and their experiences of war ‘have failed to acquire any wider social recognition in India’s historical consciousness’. Given that armies take immense pride in their traditions and legacies, it comes as even more of a surprise that that institutional memory has not spilled over into the public domain. The absence of archival material is normally a reason why there are gaps in scholarship though this does not seem to be the case in respect to the World Wars. Kant brings together a comprehensive selection of photographs of the sepoys (including pictures of goats being slaughtered, a makeshift horse hospital and men in trenches) and Singh’s book comes with audio recordings not unlike those recorded by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, and together the two volumes weave a complex tapestry of narratives.
Two themes resonate in the books under review. First, both claim that the participation of Indian soldiers in the war is largely forgotten and then discuss how it is remembered. This is a more difficult issue to address than would seem at first glance, primarily as some commentators in the past have taken the view that the soldiers ought not to be remembered at all, because they were mercenaries and worked for monetary gain, and at odds with the aims of the Indian nationalist movement. Recent work challenges many of these assumptions, pointing out that in fact, the nationalist movement under Gandhi’s leadership supported recruitment for the war in its early days, remained keen on the idea until a point, and on being unable to leverage it politically, abandoned it. This ambiguity is significant because it highlights the various pressures under which soldiers were operating. Incentive to join the army included recompense, an opportunity to uphold their honour and a chance to serve their sovereign. Yet, this strand of history has suffered from a curious case of presentism, where it is almost entirely forgotten that the World Wars and Indian Independence led to large-scale societal upheavals and that concepts underpinning those societies changed drastically in their meaning and significance. Of particular significance to this literature are the concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘victory’, which were reimagined in nationalist terms as being quite closely linked to each other i.e. in saying that a military has been victorious, we mean that it has been successful in preserving the freedom of the nationstate. In fact, this is quite easily gathered from the sepoys’ letters, where they refer to the World War I as ‘the war of kings’. This evolution of concepts has made it quite hard for public memory to come to terms with a time when victory in war promoted the idea of the British Empire, not the idea of India. It is essential, therefore, to emphasize that soldiers owed allegiance to the sovereign, which means that during the World Wars, it was owed to the ruler of Great Britain and post-Independence, is owed to the Indian Republic. Nationalist histories ignore this continuity and therefore assume that a sepoy’s fidelity is in perpetual conflict.
Kant’s book gives this question wide treatment and does not gloss over how closely this recruitment was tied to the idea of Empire, and therefore to the idea of Home Rule, especially for Gandhi. I’d lay even more emphasis on the hierarchy of motivations that worked to make this recruitment a success for the British—in one fascinating snippet, Kant discusses the parcels sent from home to the ‘heart of empire’ including five hundred copies of the Koran sent by the Begum of Bhopal and waterproof covers for puggaries. It is interesting to note that religious impulses never left the men, and in letters they were asked to protect against temptation (a tad more difficult for the men from Bagli whose Thakur sent them chocolate). Many of these aspects raised by Kant, involving the religiosity of men, their liaisons with European women, their longing for tropical climes, could all easily belong in social and cultural histories and so, this work also raises larger questions about military history necessarily remaining in the military domain and out of the reach of civilian scholars. It can be argued that a strict civil-military separation as is found in post-Independence India has unfortunately seeped into scholarly investigation and writing on the subject of war in general, and the military in particular. Kant is on point in discussing, for instance, how India Gate and Teen Murti, both popular architectural landmarks in Delhi were in origin, war memorials. Even more riveting is the story of Subedar Mir Dast who received his Victoria Cross from the King himself. Singh has a photograph of Sepoy Khudadad Khan winning his Victoria Cross for holding out in Ypres and narrates the story of the Jodhpur Lancers who were astonished to find themselves covered in snow, something they had never seen before. Death is an inescapable theme, of course, with sepoys dying of mutilation, malaria, Khamsin winds and in a few cases, sentries being frozen to death, found in a standing position the following morning. In fact, the Allied powers lost so many men to gas attacks before the invention of gas masks, that when they came around The Ludhiana Sikhs (Sikh 2) had to wear theirs over their turbans! These were unforeseen circumstances that presented peculiar challenges, and were dealt with rather innovatively. While these stories are presented here as part of military history, they could also as easily fit into other genres, resolving to some degree the issue of how sepoys ought to be remembered.
A second theme emerging from both books is the context that this war provided for Europe-India relations. Kant calls it a ‘reversal of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, and it is indeed, a journey of many thousands of brown men into the heart of white empire. What makes it spectacular though is that narratives of race, religion and empire, heretofore used to segregate Indians from Europeans were now being used to recruit them. An accommodation of the former two, and an emphasis on the latter allowed for this. In fact, for nationalist leaders such as Gandhi (who recruited almost 200 Indian students for the Indian Field Ambulance Training Corps) and others such as Sarojini Naidu and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, participation in the war was in fact seen as promoting racial equality. The Indian sepoys had fought imperial wars in the past but Singh mentions that earlierThe Book Review / March 2015 11 campaigns in which Indian Expeditionary Forces were used had been largely limited to wars in Africa or China Wars and in operations in the North West Frontier Province. The Viceroy of India was concerned about how killing Muslims in Turkey or Mesopotamia would affect the Muslim populations of India. The War Office in London was concerned that Indians killing white men would be unacceptable. The Indian soldier was thus in a double bind, where his actions were limited by both race and religion.
Keep in mind that this is the early twentieth century, and it becomes quite clear that for Indian soldiers to fight in Ypres and Neuve Chapelle, some of these questions of race and religion were negotiated in unprecedented ways. Naturally then, these stories of Indian sepoys beg larger questions about race relations in Europe, usually dealt with in the context of a normal political atmosphere, but in this instance, cast into crisis by the suddenness of wartime. Even more so, if Indian soldiers were forming intimate personal relationships at their stations, they were doing so in spite of religion and race. Race and religion were not inconsequential to the lives of these soldiers, in India obviously but also in Europe. So by living these lives in Europe, they were also transforming European society. As mentioned above, nationalist leaders sought this intermingling, assuming its best possible outcomes. But so did the rulers of Indian Princely States. Both authors also make the point that India often provided cheap military labour and that this was possible because Princely States contributed hugely, keeping at the war effort well into the four years, providing hospital ships and motor ambulances whilst paying for their soldiers fighting in defence of the Allied Powers. Indian royalty and aristocracy often had ties with Europe in any case, and they were now sending their men to these far-off lands to fight for another sovereign. This is a unique and fascinating aspect of the war effort and one that goes to show how variegated a space the theatre was, an accumulation of so many motives with so many points of origin.
The question that then arises from looking at all this new work is how and why the lack of histories of the Indian sepoys is considered an oversight of Indian history. The Indian soldier is equally unrepresented in both Indian and European histories, and thus occupies a strange place in the colonial relationship, where he is seen as belonging to Empire and the colony at the same time, or in fact, to neither. He is, thus, to some extent, homeless in history. This homelessness within the colonial relationship seeps through to the study of Indian postcoloniality, and poses questions for the notion of postcoloniality itself. The discipline of military sociology, for instance, has not gained the currency that it could in studying the Indian military in its pre-Independence days. There is an opportunity here, in building on work such as that undertaken by Kant and Singh in their books, to discuss Indian political thought as it was taking shape at the beginning of the twentieth century vis-à-vis the life of an Indian sepoy who had served in the World War I on the Western Front. The intellectual currents that we now know as cosmopolitanist and internationalist, taking shape in India at the same exact time, could have drawn rather heavily from the experiences of who were possibly the first transnational subalterns (alongside indentured labour and unskilled migrants). Our self-awareness, in India and in Europe, is affected by the absence of these histories. Both the books under review repair that damage to a considerable extent by offering an account of the trials of those times and of the men who lived through them, far away from home.
Swapna Kona Nayudu is a doctoral candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London.