Fam­i­lies re­call

Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur) - - 09 - Dar­wan Singh Negi fought in the trenches in the Bat­tle of Fes­tu­bert. In the Bat­tle of Gal­lipoli, 2nd Lieu­tenant Regi­nald Sa­vory (above right) was given up for dead. But Se­poy Uday Singh (above left) went look­ing for him and found he was alive, though seve

It took Santanu Das, a pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture in the UK, 12 years to write his re­cently-re­leased book, ‘In­dia, Empire and First World War Cul­ture: Writ­ings, Im­ages and Songs.’ His re­search took him to ar­chives across seven coun­tries in three con­ti­nents. He met de­scen­dants of those who had been a part of the war and searched for anec­dotes and mem­o­ries within his own fam­ily. Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view:

Which were the ma­jor states and re­gions of In­dia that sent sol­diers to the First World War?

In spite of In­dia’s vast pop­u­la­tion, the men were re­cruited from a nar­row ge­o­graph­i­cal and eth­nic pool, spread across North­ern and Cen­tral In­dia, the North West Fron­tier Province and the king­dom of Nepal in ac­cor­dance with the the­ory of ‘mar­tial races’. Ac­cord­ing to this con­struct, only cer­tain eth­nic and re­li­gious groups – such as the Pathans, Do­gras, Jats, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Sikhs, among oth­ers – were deemed fit to fight; in­ci­den­tally, th­ese were men from ru­ral back­grounds who had tra­di­tion­ally been ‘loyal’ to the govern­ment, as op­posed to the politi­cised Ben­galis who were branded ‘ef­fem­i­nate’. Var­i­ous strands – from Vic­to­rian in­ter­est in phys­iog­nomy and Dar­win­ism to in­dige­nous no­tions of caste and po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion – com­bined to form this elab­o­rate pseu­do­sci­en­tific the­ory. Forged in the af­ter­math of the Se­poy Upris­ing of 1857, it was enor­mously in­flu­en­tial and shaped the for­ma­tion of In­dia’s armed forces.

The to­tal num­ber of men en­listed from Pun­jab, in­clud­ing both the Bri­tish districts and the In­dian states, was 470,000, in­clud­ing 400,000 com­bat­ants and 70,000 non-com­bat­ants.

How were th­ese men re­cruited?

In 1914, In­dia had the largest vol­un­tary army in the world, though a ques­tion mark hangs over the word ‘vol­un­tary’. For most, sol­dier­ing was a source of liveli­hood. It is not, how­ever, pos­si­ble to im­pose a com­mon mo­tive for en­list­ment of the 600,000 com­bat­ants. If the First World War sol­dier is usu­ally flat­tened into an iz­zat-driven se­poy or a hard­ened mer­ce­nary, we need to find a more so­cio­cul­tur­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally nu­anced vo­cab­u­lary. Eco­nomic ne­ces­sity or in­cen­tive, fam­ily and com­mu­nity tra­di­tions, an in­ter­nalised ethos of ‘mar­tial races’ and the cult of heroic mas­culin­ity were all fused and con­fused, hint­ing at a com­plex struc­ture of feel­ing that went beyond the re­duc­tive cat­e­gories of or­ganic loy­alty or mer­ce­nary im­pulse: in­stead, what we have is a com­plex, and at times am­biva­lent, emo­tional world where loy­alty to one’s reg­i­ment and com­rades would co-ex­ist with reservations against the colo­nial state.

The whole re­cruit­ment cam­paign can be di­vided into three rough phases: from 1914 to 1916, it was largely ‘vol­un­tary’, even if pro­pelled by eco­nomic in­cen­tives; in 1917, we see the be­gin­ning of the use of force; and from April to November 1918, it was largely coercion. In the sum­mer of 1918, the Lieu­tenant-Gov­er­nor Michael O’Dwyer promised to raise 200,000 men over the com­ing year. Andrew Thomp­son, the chief sec­re­tary to the Pun­jab Govern­ment, ad­mit­ted to a se­ries of co­er­cive mea­sures. In­deed, the Congress Re­port on the Pun­jab Dis­tur­bances in 1919, widely held to be writ­ten by Gandhi, is par­tic­u­larly il­lu­mi­nat­ing. Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1918, the district of­fi­cers and lo­cal za­il­dars and lam­bar­dars, re­sorted to a spree of bru­tal mea­sures: lists were com­piled of fam­i­lies which had more than one son; re­cruits be­gan to be bought and sold for large amounts of money; farm­ers who did not of­fer their sons were de­nied re­mis­sion from in­come tax. The num­ber of men charged with of­fences or ‘chal­laned’ went up by 300% in 1918 and charges were dropped when they en­listed; in At­tock and Mian­wali, men fled to the North West Fron­tier province to avoid be­ing re­cruited; wa­ter-sup­ply was cut off to parts of Mul­tan.

What was the aver­age pay for th­ese men ?

The aver­age pay of the se­poy or in­fantry­man was ₹11 and he re­ceived batta or spe­cial al­lowance for for­eign or field ser­vice; a sowar or cav­al­ry­man was paid ₹14, and an ad­di­tional ₹20 for the horse, to­talling ₹34.

Ben­gal’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war, though sig­nif­i­cant, was dif­fer­ent in na­ture from that of the rest of In­dia. Tell us a bit about it...

Due to the preva­lence of the ‘mar­tial race’ the­ory, the po­lit­i­cally con­scious Ben­galis were con­structed as ‘ef­fem­i­nate’ and thus barred from join­ing the Bri­tish In­dian army. How­ever, dur­ing the war, due to the great en­thu­si­asm and per­sis­tence of a num­ber of prom­i­nent Ben­galis, the 49th Ben­galis – a reg­i­ment of ‘cit­i­zen­sol­diers’ – was formed, ex­panded from the smaller ‘Ben­gal Dou­ble Com­pany’ and gen­er­at­ing tremen­dous ex­cite­ment. In fact, the fa­mous Ben­gali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam joined the 49th Ben­galis in 1917. They were sent to Karachi for train­ing and some of them even went to Me­sopotamia in 1917 where they are re­mem­bered for their rather in­glo­ri­ous record. They never saw com­bat and strug­gled with the desert con­di­tions and dis­ease. A com­mand­ing of­fi­cer di­vided the reg­i­ment into ‘Measles Squad’, ‘The Whoop­ing Cough Squad’ and ‘Scar­let Fever Squad’! More se­ri­ously, there was in­fight­ing and a ju­nior mem­ber opened fire on three se­nior col­leagues while they were asleep, and the reg­i­ment was dis­banded soon af­ter the war.

In ad­di­tion to com­bat­ants, there was a large num­ber of Ben­galis among the labour­ers and las­cars and of­ten one comes across Ben­gali names in their memo­ri­als. There were also a size­able num­ber of distin­guished Ben­gali doc­tors, in­clud­ing two from my extended fam­ily – one of them, Cap­tain Dr Manin­dranath Das, was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross for sav­ing lives in Me­sop­tamia. I had a third fam­ily mem­ber who served as a trans­la­tor – Dhiren Basak. Yet, the best doc­u­mented lives of two Ben­galis who served in that war are those of the doc­tor Kalyan Mukherjee, cap­tured through a remarkable mem­oir Kalyan Pradeep, writ­ten by his 80-year-old grand­mother af­ter he died in Me­sopotamia; and the other is the truly ex­tra­or­di­nary di­ary-cum-mem­oir ‘Abhi le Bagh­dad’ by Sisir Ku­mar Sar­bad­hikari, a med­i­cal or­derly who took part in the Siege of Kut, was taken a POW by the Turks, sur­vived the bru­tal 500-mile march across the deserts and spent the war years in cap­tiv­ity.

Then there was In­dra Lal Roy, who was a stu­dent in Lon­don when the war broke out. A fighter pi­lot, he was cred­ited with eight ‘kills’ and awarded the Fly­ing Cross, the only In­dian pi­lot to be so dec­o­rated dur­ing the war. He was killed in ac­tion in a dog­fight on 22nd July 1918. He was the un­cle of Air Mar­shal Subroto Muk­erji, In­dia’s first air chief. An­other Ben­gali, Jo­gen Sen, vol­un­teered in the open­ing months of the con­flict in the Leeds Pals Bat­tal­ion. Pop­u­lar as ‘Jon’ Sen among the ‘Pals’, he was gunned down on the night of 22 May, 1916. Dur­ing an in­ter­view in 1988, Arthur Dalby, a Leeds Pals vet­eran, said: ‘We had a Hindu in our hut, called Jon Sen. He was the best ed­u­cated man in the bat­tal­ion... “

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.