Blast from the past: Vedica Kant talks about the forgotten warriors of British India
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Blast from the past: Vedica Kant talks about the forgotten warriors of British India

100 years ago, over a million and a half soldiers from British India were fighting the First World War for the Empire. A new book brings their experiences and motivations to the fore.

books Updated: Oct 05, 2014 17:07 IST
Namita Kohli
Namita Kohli
Hindustan Times
india and the first world war,vedica kant,british raj

In The Soccer War, an essay on the war between Honduras and El Salvador in the late 1960s, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinki writes about meeting with a 'mad' soldier to whom the war meant not much beyond managing to stay alive- and a few pairs of boots.

The boots would be taken off by him from the feet of dead soldiers on the battlefield, and used to buy footwear for his children after the war. What the war might mean for each of its soldiers is something that often gets lost in the grand narrative of nationalism, and that of victory and defeat.

Indian soldiers seated in an open top bus heading for a tour of Brighton (Photo courtesy: Roli Books)

In her book, 'If I die here, who will remember me?: India and the First World War' (Roli Books, Rs 1,995), that was released in the capital this past week, author Vedica Kant tries to 'recover' the voice of the soldiers who fought for the Empire, for reasons that went beyond nationalist pride and honor.

Through letters, archival documents, sound recordings and rare photographs, Kant, a London-based risk consultant with a background in history, pieces together the soldiers' experience of travelling to alien lands, fighting an unknown enemy, braving harsh weather, bodily injury and racism- all for a battle that was not theirs.

Excerpts from an interview with the author:
In the book's foreword, author Amitav Ghosh writes about the sepoy's ambivalence to his job since the creation of the East India company's standing armies: the sepoy was loyal, but his loyalty couldn't be taken for granted. Can you explain how this ambivalence comes through in your work?

The popular perception about these soldiers is that they were mercenaries. But it is not that simple. Nationalist leaders such as Gandhi and Tilak were hoping to use the recruitment of Indian soldiers as a bargaining chip to get self-government. Amongst the soldiers, there were several reasons: money, notions of duty, concerns about shame and honour. But after they reached the battlefield, there were ambiguities in their minds and questions about why they were fighting for the Empire's cause.

A Muslim soldier being watched by a German sentry at the POW camp in Wunsdorf (Photo courtesy: Roli Books)

The contradictions are summed up in the case of Mir Dast, an Afridi Pathan, who was given the highest gallantry award in the Empire for his bravery. But his brother, Mir Mast, was a deserter, and involved in anti-British activities. It is hard to fathom how two people in the same family could have such different approaches towards the same war. After the war, there were those who were treated quite well by the British. But those who were dissatisfied with what they got, got drawn to nationalist revolutionary thinking.

Also read: Indian-origin British soldier’s WW I diaries now online

You have written about the relevance of religious politics in the war, an aspect you feel has not been discussed enough before.
A large number of those recruited to fight the war against the Ottoman Empire included Punjabi Muslims, Pathans and Afridis. Initially the British were worried about this decision, because the Ottoman Sultan was also considered as the religious leader by most South Asian Muslims. Eventually necessity won and they were sent to Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt to fight.

There was a reason behind this concern about their loyalty: in the past, Indian Muslims had been very concerned about the fate of the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan wars. This concern existed in some sections even during WWI. But the Indian soldier remained loyal to the British war effort mostly. In fact, religion played a more important political role after the war in the Khilafat movement, which was protesting the peace terms offered to the Ottoman Empire. This movement was also co-opted into a larger nationalist movement by Gandhi as part of his non-cooperation movement in a bid to show communal solidarity against the British in the face of their clampdown on civil liberties, and their reneging on wartime promises of greater political autonomy.

Separate butchers and places for killing and storing meat were provided for Hindus and Muslims at the hospitals (Photo courtesy: Roli Books)

What were the reasons for the loyalty of the Muslim soldiers?
There were individual concerns about loyalty, reward, progression that were more important than a larger Islamic ummah (Arabic for nation, community).

You also mention the use of jihad as a war strategy to mobilise Indian soldiers.
Yes. The Ottomans and the Germans had entered into an alliance for WWI, and interestingly, jihad became a strategy for the Central Powers to strike their British opponents. For instance, during the siege of Kut, the Turks threw seditious pamphlets printed in Hindi and Urdu into the barbed wire of entrenchments when it was dark, calling on the Muslim soldiers not to fight against brothers of their own religion and offering lands and wives to those who deserted. The British, on the other hand, tried to counter this by being extra careful of the religious sentiment.

Interestingly, for the British, necessity overcame ideology at various points, as you have mention in your work.
The war and India's involvement in it was symptomatic of necessity winning over ideology. This was not just the case with sending Muslim soldiers to fight the Ottomans, but more importantly, in sending brown soldiers to fight in Europe, something that had hitherto not happened. By sending Indian soldiers to Europe, the British were taking a huge risk - not just by giving sanction to brown men to kill white men - but also by opening other avenues of cross-cultural encounters and comparisons. Such exposure could become reason for tensions, and it did, especially after the soldiers returned home.

Left: Contingents of an Indian labour corps arriving in France, Right: Gurkha soldiers consolidate their capture of a trench near Merville, France(Photo courtesy: Roli Books)

In the book, many pictures are British propaganda pictures. How did you read those?
One can see the clues if one looks for them, even in propaganda material. For instance, there are pictures of soldiers recuperating in the hospitals, and seemingly being very well taken care of. But when you see the high walls of the hospitals, they tell you how the soldiers' movement must have been restricted. They were not allowed to mingle with white women. Some of these pictures also reveal how conscious the British were to be seen to be taking care of the Indian troops and to avoid any reasons for dissent and mutiny. For example, Hindu and Muslim meat houses were separated.

How hard was it then to 'recover' the voice of the soldier?
There is very less first-person material to understand what the soldiers were going through. Even the letters they sent back home were censored. But the letters and pictures do give us a sense of the soldier's experiences. In one of the recordings, from the sound archives in Germany (that houses hundred year old recordings of Indian POWs), one can hear a soldier longing for home, when he says, "…I don't know when this war will end..but if it doesn't end soon, I will surely die..". It tells us about the loneliness and the alienation felt by the soldiers posted in alien lands. But despite that, they did manage to forge cross-cultural bonds. In the end, the experiences also led them to question - why were they fighting each other at all?

First Published: Oct 05, 2014 16:34 IST