The Experiences of Indians Who Fought Someone Else's War

Shrabani Basu's For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front is an engaging chronicle of the lives of Indian soldiers sent by the British Empire to fight in the first world war.

The richness of Shrabani Basu’s book For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front is such that it can be analysed through multiple lenses. We’ve carried a review by C. Uday Bhaskar looking at the military/political aspects of India and World War I. This review by the eminent historian Shahid Amin looks at the sociological aspects of the role Indian soldiers played in the Great War.

The two world wars in which lakhs of Indians fought and died for a colonial king left the sub-continent  largely untouched, though they affected the country greatly. Economic resources redirected towards  the production of ‘war materials’ – largely jute bags, hosiery, boots and saddles – netted windfall profits for Indian capitalists, while economic shortages, rationing and price rise caused much hardship to ordinary Indians.

And post-war, Perfidious Albion’s ‘gift’ of the draconian Rowlatt Act, as recompense for India’s contribution in men and money to the imperial effort, set the stage for the Gandhi-led mass mobilisation against the Raj. While during 1914-19 the ‘political bourgeoisie’, as an Indian scholar has termed it, was hugely enthusiastic about rallying round the King Emperor of India, the mainstream ‘political nation’ was to withdraw its support to the Second World War, leaving it to a greatly indigenised Indian army to fight it out in the deserts of the Middle East, the jungles of Burma and in Nagaland and Assam. The key political event of the Second World War was Mahatma Gandhi’s militant call for Britain to ‘Quit India’, while Japan knocking at our northeastern frontier could never quite get in. ‘Not fought on Indian soil’ is Indian history’s verdict on the two Great Wars of the last century.

Based on official archives and visits to the villages of highly decorated Indian soldiers, and enlivened by slices of imaginative writing, Shrabani Basu’s book is an engaging history of Indian soldiers who perished or were maimed in the killer tranches of  the Western Front. And there were a lot of them! In the sylvan surroundings of the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle, are etched the names of over 4,712 Indian  soldiers and camp followers who died between March 10-13, 1915, while trying to break through German defence, and have no known graves. Standing in a French field surrounded by the handiwork of Yamduta, the Indian Grand Reaper doing England’s work far away from the mustard  yellow fields of the Punjab, Basu felt ‘almost surreal’.

That sense of a grandiose loss for King and Another Country was heightened for this reader by the remnants of a month-old poppy wreath left by a British official, which Basu found tagged with the line: “Our shared future is built on our shared past”. For, recent revisionist writing emerging from the British Isles notwithstanding, the past that most Indians shared with the Raj was nothing if not unequal. Witness the fact that while the senior most Indian officer was subordinate to the junior most holder of the King’s  Commission, an Indian soldier dying for Britain could be awarded the highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. For soldiers like Dost Mohammmad, a Pathan from present-day Pakistan who lived to receive it, it could well be the King Emperor George V himself who would pin it on the chest of the heroic  Indian subaltern.

Shrabani Basu <em>For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18</em> Bloomsbury, 2015

Shrabani Basu
For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18
Bloomsbury, 2015

It was an imperial concern for the ‘natives’, recruited hurriedly, and very often forcibly, literally to hold the line for the Empire thousands of miles away from home, that led to the creation of a ‘comfort zone’ in the killing fields of Flanders and France, and in the military hospitals in Bournemouth and Brighton. Meticulously factoring in religious and caste distinctions, this was ‘colonial care’ at its best: lotas and spouted badhna for the Hindus and Muslims;  waterproof pagris for Sikhs, specially designed by one Lieutenant Colonel O’Conor and fabricated in London; mini kirpans and karas, the latter often given away while billeted in the French countryside as souvenirs to friends (of either sexes), were now being manufactured in Sheffield, a byword for the best cutlery in England and India. The fine-toothed kangha to keep unshorn hair in place could not be procured in either France or the UK, so “the Governor of Punjab saw to it that 4,000 combs were shipped to the soldiers in the first consignment”. Similarly, copies of the Guru Grath Sahib, the Gita and the Koran were procured from England and India; the Maharani of Bhownagar sent 1,500 janeos: officers in hospitals and convalescent  depots were strictly instructed to “give the threads  only to members of the ‘twice-born’ castes”.  Three hundred Indian gramophone records were gifted by the manufacturers in England, while 500 of these were purchased from India. A good many, Basu, rightly surmises, must have been of the inimitable thumri queen Gauhar Jan, who, one may add, was training Jaddan Bai, mother of the future cine-star Nargis, in Calcutta around this time.

Basu is particulary good at chronicling the life, deeds and afterlife of the four Indian soldiers who received the Victoria Cross during the first world war: Khudadad Khan, Darwan and Gabar Singh Negi, and Mir Dast, who lived to savour the honour on his return home. Satoori Devi, the newly-wedded bride of Gabar Singh, chose to wear her husband’s posthumous Victoria Cross on her person her entire widowed life in Chamba in Himachal Pradesh. On the other hand, Bhagwan Ahir, the returnee non-combatant from the Basra campaign, joined as a drill master to the Chauri Chaura nationalists and was arrested wearing his give-away Khaki uniform that he had brought back from Mesopotamia.

Demobilised soldiers, flaunting their war ribbons, figured prominently in several anti-police riots during the course of a prolonged  peasant movement in Awadh; in Punjab, rewarded with the ‘inam’  of substantial landholding, these jawans turned into entrepreneurial agriculturists. The devilishly cold, vermin infested, water-logged trenches on the Western Front had scarred, maimed, rewarded or – as was  largely the case –  ended the  life of thousands of  Indians, fighting a distant Badshah Salamat’s war far away from home.

Shahid Amin is a historian. His latest book, Conquest and Community: The After-Life of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan was publishged by Orient BlackSwan in 2015.