Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, education, military, nationalism, South Asia, war

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