Lending Centrality to the Humble ‘Coolie’
Sabyasachi Dasgupta
THE COOLIE’S GREAT WAR: INDIAN LABOUR IN A GLOBAL CONFLICT, 1914-1921 by Radhika Singha HarperCollins, India, 2020, 520 pp., 699.00
April 2021, volume 45, No 4

Jat ki kamai, kahan-kahan kis kam mein aati hai

Karen kheti hai zamindara, fauji kam hamaara

Aur jitney hain ahalkaar, yeh kam ainek kehti hain


This quote from an army recruitment propaganda pamphlet around World War I exemplifies the ethos of the average Indian sepoy. For him cultivation and soldiering were honourable professions and he was careful to distinguish himself from the menial followers in the army who performed the avowedly lowly tasks. The menial labourers were in reality a motley crowd comprising sweepers, latrine cleaners, porters, mule and ox-cart drivers, stretcher bearers etc. Radhika Singha in her book euphemistically refers to these diverse set of men performing in reality extremely valuable and fundamental tasks for the British Indian Army in the Mesopotamian war theatre and European war theatres during World War I. This brings us to the fundamental tenor of Singha’s book, a work which seamlessly traverses disciplinary boundaries and in the process challenges the Eurocentric approach to the study of World War I by lending a centrality to the Indian role, albeit that of the non-combatant.

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