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Book Review: Why the Coolie Was a Central Figure in World War I

Radhika Singha’s book on the World War I tackles gaps between the histories of labour and mobility and the way in which they are retold.

The Indian coolie became a fairly well travelled figure by the end of World War I.

Indeed, the war time years offered a unique opportunity to him to fashion a new professional identity, which could transcend the traditional limits imposed by caste entrenched rural hierarchies, and reach toward a more contractual, legalised role. 

Radhika Singha’s riveting account of the World War I helps us in further connecting the gaps between the histories of labor and mobility, with those of war and international politics. In examining the interconnections between them in more detail, we find our understanding of all of these themes increases further. 

The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921, Radhika Singha, Hurst&Co (UK), Harper Collins (India), 2020.

The war provided a moment in which a different kind of professional identity – contract based, legalised, and with terms for compensation upon discharge. India’s participation in this international conflict thus provided a kind of opening into the economic reconstitution of its work force. 

India contributed a sizeable share of the British war effort: its citizens were sent to destinations as diverse as Aden, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Burma. Its participation, thus, was essential for the broader efforts of the war, and securing it involved a process of tapping into Indian rural labour and refashioning it into a wartime resource.

Yet, this process of systematisation was also influenced by international considerations about the necessity of having access to supply of labour from India, along with the conveniences of the government in power.

But, Singha points out, “How the martial caste status of the Indian sepoy and the race superiority of the white soldier were also anchored in the ‘menial’ status assigned to the attached followers, those charged with the care of the fighting man” [p.16]

While, on the one hand, it was critical to offer commensurate compensation for the millions of supporting labour in their contributions to the war effort, on the other, formulations of service had to be composed keeping in mind the racialised and caste-based prioritisations of the empire. 

Thus, the war time status of coolies had to be defined in a way that would not disturb the other ideological foundations that upheld the Raj: while the coolie was doubtless indispensable, the official recognition afforded to him could not take precedence over soldiers recruited from the martial races.

Through this process, she points out, “A modern managerial discourse about manpower efficiency also found freer expression in the discussion about follower ranks than it did in the consideration of combatants” (p.7)

This process also entailed a transformation of the perception of the value of the work of substantial sections of agrarian peasantry in Bihar, Assam, then Orissa, as well as north India, as being part of a supply chain for the international demands of the war effort.

Singha’s focus on the coolie as the central figure in the Great War upends several assumptions about the nature of the conflict and the reasons for its continuance. For one thing, she points out, “A focus on noncombatants also corrects the Punjab centric narrative of the First World War.” [p. 19].  

Also read: The Colossal Indian Contribution to A War That Wasn’t Its Own

Examining this process in detail, moreover, also offers fascinating insights into how ‘military’ and ‘nonmilitary’ identities bleed into each other: indeed, are even dependent on each other. India’s military might, therefore, also depended on being able to define the contours of the nonmilitary actor: the coolie.

Although engaged in labouring in the same theatres of war, India’s military personnel were defined in relation to how the noncombatant was to be treated. In becoming the kind of actor that was able to furnish the requirements of imperial power for broader geopolitical gains, thus, it was important for the government to also attempt to reform its workforce and offer compensation that was attractive enough to be able to support the claim to leverage this position.

Secondly, the necessity of securing Indian labour for the war effort also affected the way in which the public campaigning to secure these was done.

British exercises in propaganda had to be crafted “In keeping with the sensitivities of Muslims soldiers and publics in mind, the Government of India avoided any extreme vilification of the Ottoman Sultan.”

Indian troops during the Second World War. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For the British, acquiring public support for the war effort in a subcontinent – a third of whose armies were Muslim – the War was an exercise in crafting different ideological alliances for its justification. For example, one way of carrying this out, was for the Indian government to “drew upon Muslim princes such as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Begum of Bhopal and spiritual figures like the Aga Khan to convince Muslims that Britain had gone to war with Turkey only because of its alliance with Germany…”.

Although the Ottoman empire was obviously crucial actor in the course of the war, it was important for the British to draw on alternative ideological constellations that could describe this in terms of an ‘anti- German’ campaign, rather than being perceived as a specifically anti Ottoman project.

But the propaganda around the war also served important purposes closer to home: “Between 1914 and 1920 the colonial border making complex was repurposed for global war”.

Indeed, “colonial satraps in Indian border provinces began to give an imperial cast to regional frontier ambitions”. The forging of India’s regionalist policies: the making of its boundaries, and the conceptualisation of the ‘frontier’ line was, she points out further institutionalised as a consequence of India’s participation in the war.

Indeed, these experiences highlight also the World War I subsumed within it a number of older regional conflict which could now continue unabated within a different context. For example, the process of recruitment along the Assam was also calibrated with by the prolonged process of defining the ‘inner line’ and hacking out a boundary along the tracts of Assam and Burma. Thus, “The Assam government’s willingness to supply labor for France sprang from its eagerness to display the hold its officers had over the hill tribes, especially those in the lightly ruled or trans-frontier tracts, where it aimed to redraw the border”.

Participating in the recruiting exercise, thus was also part of the campaign, for the government of Assam, to demarcate the border in accordance with its own wishes, even at the expense of Kuki and Chin communities who belonged to the area and traversed its stretches. 

Also read | Explainer: How and Why the Assam-Mizoram Border Dispute Escalated, Leading to Five Deaths

Singha lays out an argument about how understanding the experience of the Indian noncombatant is important because it helped define the kind of geopolitical actor India would become, regionally and across the world. The book works on an enormous canvas – stretching from modern day Egypt, Iraq, Myanmar and France, as well as the centres of planning the war effort in the United Kingdom and in India – but its strength lies in its ability to tie together the narrative of the micro local, into a central feature of the considerations shaping global politics.

This approach further destabilises the boundaries between military and labour history; international and national histories; imperial and sub imperial histories. It shows how the study of international history should encompass landscapes and causal drivers that contain the footsteps of beleaguered coolies looking for a raise from the empire as much as by European statesmen immersed in the intricacies of Austro-Hungarian politics.  

Dr Pallavi Raghavan is Assistant Professor at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She is the author of Animosity at Bay
An Alternative History of the India–Pakistan Relationship, 1947–1952.