Indian Labour in a Global Conflict (1914 – 1921)

Indian Labour in a Global Conflict (1914 – 1921)

I began to dip into the archives to find out more about the war experiences of the follower or non-combatant ranks of the Indian Army, sometimes harvesting only a line or two. What emerged was a story of back-breaking work by construction workers, porters, mule-drivers, stretcher-bearers, cooks, sweepers and grooms, a story barely mentioned in the official literature on ‘India’s Contribution to the Great War’.

I have used the word ‘coolie’ in the title of the book to denote a category of labour consigned to the lowest rung of the global market in the nineteenth century, one presumed to be unskilled and infinitely replaceable. My aim was to open a conversation between military history and labour history, and to shine some light on actors consigned to the sidelines of the story of India in World War One. Of the 1.4 million Indians recruited to the war up to 31 December 1919, some 563,369 were followers or non-combatants. For different reasons, both the colonial regime and the Indian intelligentsia preferred to foreground the ‘martial classes’, and to let ‘coolies’ and ‘menial followers’ simply swell the total of India’s manpower contribution. The Government of India wanted to throw a military cloak over the ‘coolie’, to bypass controversies around indentured migration as well as the formalities of the Indian Emigration Act. Educated Indians preferred to dwell on the figure of the valorous sepoy to advance their political claims, rather than on the subjugated figure of the coolie or the regimental ‘menial’.

However, the aim of this book is not only to rescue the coolie and ‘the menial’ in military employment from their condition of historical obscurity. It is also to find vantage points for developing a less Eurocentric, more transnational account of World War One. How can we position India ‘in’ the Great War instead of viewing the latter only as an external conflict to which the nation ‘contributed’? How can we do so while nevertheless retaining a sense of the ‘lumpiness’ of this worldwide conflict, the differences in timeline, form, scale and intensity through which its impact was felt?

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Author Radhika Singha and her book

Jail-recruited labour
Convict sweepers and the mission of sanitary reform

In March 1916, among the letters and telegrams flowing in from Mesopotamia which called for labour of every possible description, we find a letter marked ‘confidential’ and pressing for 450 latrine sweepers. One of the reasons for this secrecy was that news had spread about military setbacks and harsh living conditions in this theatre, and military and civil authorities were discussing the option of impressment. In addition, cholera had broken out in Basra— something which had to be concealed from those being sent into the thick of this epidemic. In this context, the Quartermaster General in India suggested the assistance of the Salvation Army, ‘already largely connected with Doms and [the] class from which latrine sweepers are drawn’. Frederick BoothTucker, Special Commissioner for the Salvation Army in India and Ceylon, proposed that sweepers be recruited from jails using Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allowed conditional release. He also suggested that some ‘Dom’ communities, targeted as ‘criminal tribes’ in India, could be tapped: in Gorakhpur and other districts members of the Dom tribe not yet ordered into settlements but who it is desired to bring under control, should be given the option of enlisting as sweepers, but failing this they should be required to find security in the usual manner, and if they fail, should then have the same offer repeated to them in lieu of going to jail.

Some background will explain why a Quartermaster General turned to a Salvation Army Commissioner when sweepers were required. As pointed out in the previous chapter, work regarded as ‘traditional’ for certain ‘untouchable’ communities often turns out to be an occupation forged under modern institutional and economic imperatives. Vijay Prashad has shown how much the equation between latrine sweepers and the community known as ‘Chuhras’ owes to colonial municipal and public health drives. Under one such drive, some of the communities being registered as ‘criminal tribes’ were forcefully made over into sweepers for municipalities and military cantonments. This was also the conjuncture at which the Government of India was drawing upon missionary organisations, in particular the Salvation Army, for assistance in turning ‘stigmatised’ and ‘vagrant’ populations into useful labour. Such exercises were cast as measures through which the ‘welfare’ of such strata could be secured and their potential criminality contained. Missionary organisations found a position at the policed end of the labour and services market in India, one made up of industrial and agricultural settlements for ‘criminal tribes’ and juvenile reformatories.

However, at this conjuncture the government was single-mindedly concerned about getting sweepers, whereas the Salvation Army clung to its broader agenda of social and moral transformation. Booth-Tucker wanted ‘the wives and families of prisoners and tribesmen … to be ordered into a Salvation Army settlement, to be supported by a family allotment of Rs. 8/– deducted from the wages of each sweeper.’ The Home Department concluded that high-handed intrusion into domestic life would compromise recruitment, and decided not to involve the Salvation Army for fear of associating recruitment with proselytising. Instead, provincial governments were directed as a matter of ‘utmost importance’ to get prisoners to volunteer as sweepers. In addition, district magistrates of the United Provinces and Bihar and Orissa were urged to recruit sweepers from among the criminal tribes of Doms, noticeably in Gorakhpur, Saran, and Champaran, who, although not in jail at the moment, are always more or less on the verge of it. If the opportunity of earning an honest and lucrative living were explained to them, in preference to the precarious mode of living which they now follow … it is to be hoped that further recruits might be obtained.

At the level of such a deeply ‘polluting’ occupation, the line between criminal and low-caste mattered little. Jail recruitment could be used without embarrassing questions about the degree of pressure used, and no particular offence was regarded as a bar to service; the Home Secretary noted that ‘[n]o one is likely to worry much where we get sweepers from’. The blurring of this line had one advantage for jail-recruited sweepers. They were initially given the same wage, Rs. 15/–, as free sweepers, a decision attributed to the higher risk of disease they faced. There may have also been fewer restrictions on them because they were not organised into a distinct Labour Corps. Lane commented disapprovingly that ‘[t]hey were in every sense “free” in the Force, so much so, that two jail-recruited sweepers, who had been in the country under a year, were given leave in the spring of 1917 from some unit.’ This fact became known because a Jail detachment at Qurna found out and asked for the same privilege.

With suspicious swiftness, no less than 1,017 prisoners were found ready to ‘volunteer’ to go to Mesopotamia as sweepers in 1916. Securing sweepers in sufficient number was crucial to the improvement of military hospitals in Mesopotamia, an issue on which the British public demanded reassurance. By autumn 1916, the accumulation at Basra of one Egyptian and ten Indian Labour Corps, together with dock labourers and craftsmen for the Inland Water Transport, had built up fears of a sanitary catastrophe. As one Health Officer observed: ‘in the first years of the British occupation, I suppose on an average there was no square yard of open space in Basrah free from a faecal deposit.’ Where homes did not have cesspits, any open space was used. The solution, he wrote, was to build latrine blocks with receptacles fashioned from disused kerosene tins, and to dispose of the solid waste in incinerators: ‘For this work the Indian sweeper caste were imported, and they trained a number of Arab sweepers—although it must be admitted that the Arab never took kindly to these duties.’ Modern sanitation and modern medicine were also expected to encourage the demographic growth of the Arab population, without which commercial and agricultural expansion could not be contemplated. Health reports from Mesopotamia give us a glimpse here and there of the Indian sweeper engaged in this mission of sanitary reform.

However, municipalities and jails in India could not be entirely denuded of sweepers, so ‘untouchables’ in the Indian Labour and Porter Corps and among the hospital followers were also hustled into latrine work. Some of the men in the Jail Corps resisted this work, arguing ‘that they were only sent out to sweep mule lines, and remove litter … but they would not deal with human excreta.’ Others, wrote Lane, claimed that they did not know they had been brought out for this task. Some of those who refused were sent back to India to serve their original sentence; others were given no choice at all. Colonel Patrick Hehir, Assistant Director of the Medical Service, admitted that ‘[a] certain proportion of those sent out were of the wrong class: many of them would not at first do conservancy work in latrines, although the conditions of field service necessitated our compelling them to carry out whatever duties were assigned to them.’ There is a tragic entry in the war diary of the 14th ILC recording the summary court-martial of one Medid Ramaswamy, for attempting to commit suicide by tying his legs and neck with his turban and throwing himself in the river. He was sentenced to six lashes, the officer noting that ‘[t]he case was very unfortunate as the fault lay with the Enlister. The man being of a caste which could not do sweeping work.

Excerpted with permission from The Coolie’s Great War by Radhika Singha, HarperCollins Publishers India. You can buy the book here.

Watch Radhika Singha in conversation with Mini Menon, as they discuss more about the role the Indians played in the First World War.

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