Coolies on the frontline

Book cover of The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict (1914-21)
In the centenary year of World War I in 2014, scads of books appeared on India’s contribution to that “Great War”. Most of them drew on the trove of letters that sepoys on the Western and Mesopotamian fronts wrote to paint a poignant picture of ordinary Indians who crossed the kaala paani in the service of the superpower of the day. It was all politically correct, subaltern history that had segued into a justification for greater self-government by leaders of the Indian national movement. Ignored in these accounts were the non-combatants —stretcher-bearers, muleteers, sweepers, washermen, cooks and labourers collectively known as coolies — who accompanied this grand army to foreign battlefields.

You spot them on the edges of photos — in Gallipoli, the Somme, Kut Al Amara and other foreign fields of carnage. The number of coolies serving in World War One was not small. “Of the 1.4 million Indians recruited to war up to 31 December, 1919, some 563,369 were followers or non-combatants,” writes Radhika Singha, professor of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in The Coolie’s Great War .  Their recruitment to overseas combat theatres was the result of the growing manpower shortage as the war wore on in Europe and West Asia.

The unacknowledged presence of these workers was part cover-up and part political. The British formally drafted them under the Indian Army Act under the label of “war service”. This “military cloak” was principally used to bypass the controversies surrounding indentured labour — then the focus of strong objection from nationalist leaders. But Indians were equally complicit. “Educated Indians preferred to dwell on the figure of the valorous sepoy to advance their political claims rather than the subjugated figure of the coolie…,” Dr Singha writes.    

Recruitment under military auspices also allowed for the “blanket of censorship” over work conditions and treatment. The difference between indentured labour and impressment was a fine one. If the Indian Army restricted its recruitment of combatants from its designated “martial races” (Punjab, North-west frontier, Nepal), the pool for the Indian Labour Corp ranged from Afghanistan through the tribal belts of central and eastern India to the north-east and even jail labour.

The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict (1914-21)
Author:  Radhika Singha
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 699

The criticality of their war work did not extend to equal treatment, either with the British Labour Battalion or sepoys. 

Dr Singha record that British Labour Battalions had the status of enlisted soldiers and received 6.4 million medals cast in silver, but “Native Labour Units” in France received 110,000 British war medals in bronze, an illustration that “their services were placed on a symbolically lower footing.” Flogging remained a form of punishment for sepoy and coolie, though it was abolished for British soldiers in 1881. It is worth noting that officers often preferred coloured orderlies and even the ordinary Tommies had access to their services.

The differential with the sepoy was also wide, though the gap narrowed as the demand for non-combatant services increased. In 1917, the sepoy received a monthly wage of Rs 18 against Rs 15-19 for a stretcher bearer and Rs 16 for a sweeper bhisti or syce. It was only after strikes and protests that the army agreed in 1918 to free rations on active service and in peace, kit allowance and better clothing.

Dr Singha has not sought to simply “rescue the coolie” from “historical obscurity”, however. This work is part of a wider recent effort by historians to reinterpret World War I as a larger inter-imperial struggle for territory and resources in Africa and Asia, which had a deep impact on the post-war international order. Thus, she locates The Coolie’s Great War  “in the longer history of the deployment of Indian manpower in arenas stretching across the land and sea frontiers of India”, which is why her analysis stretches to 1921.

The result is a closely researched work that, in the relative absence of abundant literature, scours available documentation to build up an admirably comprehensive picture of the work conditions and cultural encounters of Indian labourers in alien lands during the war and the impact of this deployment on the coolies themselves and on post-war approaches to labour. Among its many revelations is that coolies often took part in combat, sometimes overseas but mostly in the British empire’s perennial frontier wars when the regular army was otherwise engaged, sustaining heavy casualties too. “The duality of the coolie-warrior is never fully acknowledged in accounts of frontier expeditions,” Dr Singha writes.  

This deeply interesting narrative is enhanced by some rare photos but marred by lazy publishing. Wodges of jumbled archival references and narrative footnotes, sometimes occupying half the page, are likely to deter all but the determined aficionado. The footnotes are fascinating —we learn, for instance, that Jim Corbett officered a Kumaon labour company and George Orwell’s father, an opium agent in Bihar, served with the Ranchi labour company, both in France. These narrative notes could have been included as regular footnotes on each page and the voluminous archival references usefully consigned to a separate section, sparing the reader the tedium of confronting multiple ibids at the very least.   

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