Letters from the trenches

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Leaving home The two wars occupy little space in Indian consciousness
Leaving home The two wars occupy little space in Indian consciousness

Despite the fact that millions of Indian soldiers fought in the two World Wars, these mega wars that shaped the new world order, fail to find any real space in the Indian consciousness. Unlike in Europe or America, where these wars defined a generation, in India they are confined to school textbooks. They briefly explain the wars, their geniuses and ramifications, but thats about it.

When the wars raged, we were not an independent nation and soldiers from the subcontinent were only serving their colonial masters.

In Gajendra Singh’s book, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars, it becomes clear that there is a narrative missing from how contemporary India looks at the wars — the voice of the Indian soldier. Using the letters written home by Indian soldiers, as well as reports submitted by their British officers, Singh gives a glimpse into the world of the Indian soldier in the British Indian Army, and more interestingly, showcases how the latter thought.

In his first chapter, Singh takes on the British idea of ‘martial races’, which detailed characteristics that make for a perfect soldier and the communities that best reflect them.

Singh highlights the preconceived notions that the British had about different sections of the population and how certain communities were thought to be more European than others. He writes, “The Sikh was the archetype of the perfect soldier: not a religion but a race; not weakened by climate but strengthened by the cool airs of Central Asia. Pathans were how the British wished to see themselves: ‘chivalric’, ‘hawk like’ and imbued with an innate sense of ‘democracy’ and ‘fair-play’. The Brahmin was symptomatic of the failings and virtues of all Indians: inscrutable in their fidelity and their treachery.”

The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy Gajendra Singh Bloomsbury 295 pp; Rs 599
The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy
Gajendra Singh
Bloomsbury
295 pp; Rs 599

Later in the book, he weaves excerpts from letters of soldiers posted on different fronts, as well as reports of British officers and commissions, giving the reader a first-hand understanding of how both sides of the colonial divide perceived the war. He uses them to highlight the discrimination that existed, in terms of pay and law. Indian soldiers were paid a meagre Rs 7 a month, with which they were expected to pay for their food and clothing, resulting in a backlash and letters being sent home and requesting help to find alternative careers. Through those letters, Singh discusses how the battle hardened the Indian troops.

It is hard to get past the race divide that was clearly evident during the First World War. Singh uses letters to bring to life a little-known comical yet horrific phenomenon. How the British went into an overdrive to prevent Indian soldiers from pursuing sexual relationships with British women while recovering at British hospitals. The British authorities viewed it as a threat to white prestige — “European degeneracy and moral decay implicit in the sexual mixing of the colonisers body with that of the colonised”.

Singh later delves into the dark side of war — self-mutilation and the malingering among Indian soldiers. Years of conflict had pushed many to the brink resulting in a cross-section of troops faking illness and injuries. More than half of the Indian soldiers admitted to hospitals came in with injuries to their left hand. Soldiers wrote home seeking methods to injure themselves or cause illness in order to leave the battlefield.

The book isn’t an easy read, but is filled with information and personal narratives that help the reader get a unique understanding of both the British thinking and the life of an Indian soldier. It brings out a side of the World War story that hasn’t really been part of the discourse in India. While facts and events are interesting, the subtle and underlining message of racial discrimination is a running thread through the book. For world war enthusiasts and history buffs the book is a must read.

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