South Asians and the First World War: Reflections

by Dr Natasha Awais-Dean, Project and Communications Manager  of ‘Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents during the First World War’ (HERA)

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Despite there being over 1 million South Asian soldiers fighting in the war alongside two million Africans as well as troops from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, there has traditionally been a rather narrow and Anglo-centric view of how the history of the First World War has been communicated within Britain. Yet, the true story is far more complex and wide-ranging than this suggests.

Over the last two years, there has been greater visibility of the South Asian contribution to the First World War but we still have a long way to go. Now that we have reached the midpoint of the centennial commemoration, how do we keep up the momentum while at the same time find a way, as Dr Santanu Das notes, to go ‘beyond simple recovery and commemoration’ and address the complexity of the history? How do we find creative ways of engaging with the South Asian contribution to draw in fresh generations?

What seems to have been driving this greater visibility of the South Asian war story in Britain is its relation to a broader British Asian identity today – can the contribution of the South Asian soldiers, who served alongside English Tommies, be used to achieve greater racial harmony? Indeed, could this be the key to healing the current racial and ethnic divides in our society (something that we are perhaps feeling now more than ever), but without sanitising any of the horrors of the war or ignoring the racial hierarchies and inequalities that marked the colonial war experience? The need for authenticity is paramount, to maintain integrity in dealing with this often messy history in both an ethical and, crucially, productive manner.

And so on 27 April 2016, a diverse and eclectic group of academics, museum curators, artists, military personnel, community activists, and representatives from funding bodies came together in the Council Room at the Strand Campus of King’s to discuss these very issues. Linked by the common purpose of wishing to gather and disseminate knowledge of the involvement of South Asians in the First World War, they were brought together at King’s by Das and his HERA-funded research project, ‘Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict’ (CEGC project), working alongside Ajay Chhabra, Artistic Director of Nutkhut, Iqbal Husain from the National Archives, and Eleanor Harding from the Heritage Lottery funded project Far From the Western Front. This event was timed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Fall of Kut on 29 April 1916, possibly the most significant date for Indians in the First World War.Fig 1

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Proceedings for the evening kicked off with a selected 9 of the group giving a brief introduction to the work that they (or their project) is engaged with, assessing the current state of play and seeking answers for the future. The second half of the evening then opened up debate to the floor, giving all those present the opportunity to contribute, comment, and debate on this subject area that has up to now been given scant consideration. Those that were present were guided by the common goal of wishing to further increase the visibility of participation by South Asians in the First World War, to reach out to different groups, and ultimately, to bring the story of the South Asian experience to the school curriculum.

The scholar Rozina Visram addressed this issue of school curricula. Her research focuses more broadly on the subject of Asians in Britain over the past 400 years but she is captivated by the Indian contribution to the First World War. Visram was surprised by the scale of South Asian involvement in WW1, a chapter in history largely unknown to the wider public. Much of Visram’s work in the 1970s and 1980s led her to address racism in schools by working with students. Perhaps through the telling of the South Asian story today to school-aged children we can hope to draw in disenfranchised young people to the story of the Great War by showing how their ancestors were a part of this history.

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An important and interesting exchange that emerged throughout the evening – by situating South Asians into the hitherto nationalist, or at least Eurocentric, story of World War One (where they rightly hold a place) – was a lively debate around whether it can serve as a tool to promote better integration of British Asians in today’s society. The Ministry of Defence funded project We Were There Too, represented by Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Dr Manish Tayal, seeks to explore, commemorate, and share stories of the contribution of Indian soldiers, sailors, airmen, and their families. Avaes Mohammad from the independent think-tank British Future spoke about a project undertaken with New Horizons in British Islam working with communities in Leicester, Birmingham, and Woking. Engagement with young audiences (Muslims and non-Muslims alike) in Birmingham was particularly telling. Mohammad reported that interviews with descendants of Indian soldiers living in their city revealed that the unearthing of the South Asian contribution helped the British Muslims feel more British. They were instilled with a sense of pride because they too may have had relatives who fought for Britain and this contribution is now being recognised.

There was lively exchange between Mohammed and Das and others, who gently queried such notions of ‘pride’ and ‘celebration’ of warfare and whether such sentiments were prompted by a sanitisation of the horrors of war or the racial inequalities. While Das pointed out that the war was particularly painful for the South Asian Muslims who were fighting fellow-Muslims in Turkey, Iqbal Husain introduced the idea of dissent. This was one of the most productive outcomes of this part of the discussion, giving us a fresh look at the South Asian contribution, as well as a reflection on what it means to be British. And by following the trajectory of the dissenting and anti-war British poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whether legitimate dissent to war, as much as of loyalty and honour, can be part of the British Asian identity.

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But what is helping in this new understanding? Jasdeep Singh from the National Army Museum explained how there has been a concerted effort to work with community groups to re-examine existing museum collections, which has led in turn to a re-identification and re-classification of material. Correct attributions assigned to artefacts draws in new audiences, for these people suddenly see ‘their’ histories represented. It is important to acknowledge that moving beyond a narrow academic focus allows us to make the past come alive and tangible through the objects we see or touch, or through the words written in letters and diaries that transcend generations or through public re-enactments. These elements bring the past into the present, forcing us to question these often difficult realities of war, of empire, of racial divides.

In all these discussions, we referred almost ubiquitously to ‘Indians’ and ‘South Asians’ without much consideration to what these mean and represent. I confess that prior to these conversations I had never once considered that the South Asian experience in the First World War might resonate with my own story. I had failed to recall that we were dealing with a pre-partition India. As such, this is also very much ‘my’ story too. My paternal family is from Lahore, which is where my father was born in 1950. But pre-partition, the family was based in Delhi. I’ve heard the stories, told second-hand of course by my father, of how my grandfather and great-grandfather had fled with their families. These stories are fascinating for an inquisitive child to hear but I had never once thought to ask whether there might be any war tales to tell. Even when studying the First World War at school, both my brother and I would turn to our elderly neighbour and we never once thought to talk to our grandfather, for this was a tale of white men that had no resonance with our Pakistani heritage. But it turns out we were wrong and now it is 10 years too late to ask my grandfather.

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The fact remains, however, that in the years 1914 to 1918 India was one, with many religions and races. Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus were all Indians. In spite of this, the various activities being conducted for the centenary commemorations seem to focus on individual communities. In the words of Dominic Rai from the cultural venture Salt of the Sarkar, we now focus on a ‘heart divided’. However, given that we live in a time in which people choose to align themselves with a community, it is very often easier to engage them and to initiate debate, reflection, and contribution. This has certainly been the case with the UK Punjab Heritage Association. They focus on the Sikh story in the context of British India and British history. Their approach, as related by Harbakhsh Grewal, is to crowdsource information in an effort to create a people’s history of the First World War. This generates interest and engages people in their histories but difficulties lie in interpreting and presenting the material.

One way of drawing together various communities was explored by the National Archives project ‘Care and Comfort’. Iqbal Husain explained how it focused on the humanity and friendships that lay at the heart of many of the personal relationships during the war. ‘Care and Comfort’ grew beyond just the South Asian story, involving people from a number of communities. For, as it progressed, it became clear that the concepts underpinning the project transcended divisions along the lines of religion or even colour; they spoke instead to a basic human need for comfort in the trauma of the war experience.

Eleanor Harding from the project ‘Far from the Western Front’ spoke about their work and how they are indeed engaging with Indians, Pakistanis, and those of Sikh heritage to draw together their stories for an exhibition and online sources. Nevertheless, she acknowledged how there are differences (despite a shared heritage) and this in turn can lead to tensions. She raised a very important question in relation to this, asking whether if we must now consider the Indian subcontinent as a whole, should we now be treating the Commonwealth war effort as one? Do we ignore nuanced academic narratives and call for a move towards painting history with a broad brush?

There is a real danger that too much complexity may fail to reach or even alienate the very people with whom we are trying to engage. And it is hard, given that today the various South Asian identities are so segmented. And the basic truth is that we seem to have a far greater response when we plug into a single community, ethnic or religious, rather than look to pre-Partition pan-‘Indians’.

So how exactly do we retell the history of the First World War, one that reflects the diversity and the complexity of the war effort without alienating the very communities with whom we speak? We may turn to the creative industries to first captivate the public sphere. And so at the end of May 2016 Dr Blighty took place in Brighton. Conceived by Nutkhut, Ajay Chhabra explained how the theatrical installation retold the stories of the military hospitals in Brighton during World War One. The Royal Pavilion served as a hospital for the wounded Indian soldiers for the first 2 years of the war. Projections on the buildings of the Royal Pavilion were supported by performances and participatory outreach activities, in order to bring to life the experiences of the wounded Indian soldiers that were sent to Brighton and of the locals who came to care for them.

But while we want to use these stories to focus on a shared heritage, we must also remember that it was a difficult history – a history of violence, a history of trauma. And while we can look at issues such as loyalty, we can equally consider concepts such as coercion, dissent, or shame. If Indian war participation was always ‘voluntary’, without conscription ever introduced, the sepoys often came from poor backgrounds and, for many, the financial incentive was huge. Moreover, in summer 1918, as recruitment dried up in India in wake of reports of the horrors of war, coercion was used in the Punjab to recruit soldiers.

These are complex and fraught issues. But really we are not looking for all the answers right now, for we want to keep the conversation alive. We want to continue talking, if only to ensure that the South Asian contribution to the Great War is remembered. But more than that, the story of South Asians in the First World War must be integrated into the retelling of this history.

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To listen to the event, click here.

To watch a short film on South Asia & the First World War, click here.

Read more about the project, from Iqbal Husain, on the National Archives blog here.

I would like to thank the following for their insights and contributions to the evening: Dr Santanu Das, Ajay Chhabra, Eleanor Harding, Iqbal Husain, Dominic Rai, Manish Tayal, Avaes Mohammad, Rozina Visram, Jasdeep Singh, and Harbakhsh Grewal. Thank you also to the many other individuals who attended and made for a lively and considered discussion.

Thank you also to Dr Sejal Sutaria for her assistance with the preparation of this piece.

Photography courtesy of Jeb Hardwick.


** this article was edited to include the link to the National Archives blog.