The mythic gladiator’s salute from imperial Rome, “Morituri te salutant… Those who are about to die salute you”, echoes poignantly through both these volumes, but especially in David Omissi’s collection of letters. What intensifies emotion is the chasm of race, religion and language separating saluter and saluted.
Of course, the creation of new identities and loyalties Gajendra Singh discusses in his cerebral analysis of the British Indian state’s human element may have softened the dilemma. A middle-aged middle class Englishwoman, the daughter of a Second World War hero and herself steeped in military lore, who read my essay on the First World War in Open (‘Where the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row’, 11 August 2014), faulted my description of Indian recruits as mercenaries who ‘saved the sum of things for pay’. “They fought for the honour of the regiment,” she asserted stoutly. Some of the letters Omissi reprints certainly bear her out. ‘For many, soldiering had been the family profession and they were staunchly loyal to their family regiment,’ Sir Mark Tully writes in a Foreword that reminds us that more than a million Indian soldiers served in the First World War, 60,000 died and 9,200 were decorated for valour. “The reputation of the regiment mattered deeply to them.” This is, of course, the colonialist’s interpretation of the colonised. Yet, one could elaborate on it on the basis of some very moving epistles these men composed in Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi. The regiment was family. It became the focus of the devotion that would otherwise have been lavished on kith, kin and caste.
At a time when the idea of India was still amorphous, the Central Government, the sirkar that today’s British writers romanticise as the Raj, was also the fount of all legitimate authority. It commanded the absolute loyalty of these simple folk. As a sipahi wrote to his brother, ‘We shall never get another chance to exalt the name of race, country… and to prove our loyalty to the government.’ Ghulam Abbas Ali Khan, a Punjabi Muslim, could in all sincerity see George V as superior to the Kaiser and Tsar in a letter from France to Risaldar Muhammad Sarwar Khan in Peshawar, concluding, ‘We are ever praying that the victory may be granted to our King, the King of peace.’ They had no reason to suspect Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of wily bargaining when he proclaimed India’s moral obligation to the Allies. “We are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire,” Gandhi urged piously, expecting political return. “Fighting as the British are… in a righteous cause for the good and glory of human dignity and civilisation… our duty is clear: to do our best to support the British.”
Clearly, my comment about mercenaries must be modified. But it need not be abandoned. Singh’s exhaustively researched volume to some extent counters the starry-eyed Omissi-Tully vision by quoting official literature to show how the authorities fostered the Government’s ma-baap image. Like Britain’s ‘Kitchener needs you’ or ‘Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?’ posters, Indian military propaganda depicted an old Muslim saying, ‘I have always heard that all Faujdar officers are kind, more like brothers and fathers to the sepoys.’ Omissi’s 650 letters are taken from ‘a collection of many thousand.’ Singh says Captain Evelyn Berkeley Howell, the first censor, found it impossible to examine even a small portion of the masses of letters that flowed through his office, leave alone track down those entrusted to civilian post offices. While Omissi has undoubtedly tried to be representative, most of the letters are in Urdu, suggesting the writers were Muslim or from the ‘martial races’ or both. Many were warlike Pathans itching for a fight. The younger sons of peasants who signed up for the sipahi’s monthly salary of Rs 11 would write less effusively if they wrote at all. Omissi concedes that some of these ‘illiterate peasants… had been driven from the land, but most were willing labour migrants looking to make the most of the economic opportunities created by the colonial encounter.’
The social quirks that encounter produced didn’t leave the armed forces untouched. Jibes about the ‘British Indian Army’ came back to me recently on reading a foreign diplomat’s recollection that visiting the mess at Kolkata’s Fort William in the sixties he had ‘the extraordinary sensation that if you closed your eyes, accents and conversational topics would make you think you had been transposed to an equivalent British group of senior officers.’ Legend has it that addressing his troops on 15 August 1947, Field Marshal KM (Kipper) Cariappa, OBE, India’s first Indian Commander- in-Chief, blithely announced, “Aaj hum lok sab mufti ho gya!” Cariappa, who affected an exaggerated Sandhurst manner (he was educated entirely in India), meant ‘muft’ (free) and not ‘mufti’ (civilian). Evan Charlton, last British editor of The Statesman, who repeated the joke to me, joined up with two colleagues, Philip Crosland and Lindsay Emerson, when the Second World War broke out. All three suffered cruelly as Japanese prisoners. An account of the heroism of such men might throw another light on the ‘mètissage’ (variously translated as ‘threat to White prestige’ and ‘European degeneracy and moral decay’) Singh mentions, citing a British report on sex, race, European identities and the cultural politics of exclusion in colonial Asia.
His book breaks new ground in many ways, demonstrating why despite the kindness of European hosts and the graciousness of the King and Queen, ordinary sipahis may not always have felt they were treated fairly. Crossing the kala pani and fighting Islam’s supreme head could be called occupational hazards. But there were pay disparities. Flogging was reintroduced for sipahis just as it was being phased out in the British Army. Restrictions on movement and socialising prompted comparison with French generosity towards Algerians. Indians were not included when soldiers who were executed during the First World War were pardoned in 2006 although the defence secretary did mention executions under the 1911 Indian Army Act. Some letters suggest greater risks were taken with Indian lives. When George V asked Subedar Mir Dast, VC, to make a request, the man replied: a wounded soldier should not be sent back to the trenches. Omissi says this was the ‘most important grievance.’ It crops up again and again with additional charges. An anonymous letter to the king written in Urdu from Milford- on-Sea says: ‘No sick man gets well fed. The Indians have given their lives for eleven rupees. Any man who comes here wounded is returned thrice and four times to the trenches.’ Perhaps Western historians might reconsider why so many prisoners of war joined the Indian National Army.
However, whether or not because of Omissi’s selection, the general tone of the correspondence is not carping. Most writers are brave and defiant; some even joyous. Signaller Kartar Singh’s letter in Gurmukhi to a Muslim friend in Punjab—‘We go singing as we march and care nothing that we are going to die’—recalled the sang-froid of a sipahi Jules Verne mentions in his novel, The End of Nana Sahib. Noting that the mutineers whom the British blew from the mouth of canons ‘nearly all died with that heroic indifference which Indians know so well how to preserve even in the very face of death’, Verne writes: ‘“No need to bind me, captain,” said a fine young sepoy, twenty years of age, to one of the officers present at the execution; and as he spoke he carelessly stroked the instrument of death. “No need to bind me; I have no wish to run away.” Such was the first and horrible execution, which was to be followed by so many others.’
As for Singh’s case that sipahis were too lowly even to be classified as subalterns, I would respectfully recall Thomas Wolfe’s haunting lines ‘Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?’ Social scientists rediscover what literature proclaimed long ago!
From the sublime to the banal—one can’t forget the sipahi of popular lore who had been at the front without leave for nearly two years rejoicing at the birth of a son to the wife who hadn’t stirred out of the village during that time. How was this possible? “I wrote home regularly!” the delighted sipahi replied. The story may be apocryphal but the innocence it portrays shines through both books. No subaltern straitjacket can turn yesterday’s sipahi into a sophisticated modern. But, then, neither were senior Indian officers then driven by monetary greed or political ambition. Both merit further study. Amen then to Tully’s hope that ‘more historians will turn their eyes away from the British army and focus on the neglected Indian story’.
(Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books)