Voices of the sipahis

Issue: 146

Rahul Patel

Gajendra Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars (Bloomsbury, 2014), £27.99


The 100th anniversary of the First World War has brought into scope the “hidden” role of Britain’s Indian colonial soldiers. The recruitment of Indian Sipahis (or sepoys—soldiers) into the British Indian Army was utterly and cynically based on martial and environmental race theories. British army recruiters applied deep-seated racist notions in determining the type of Indian recruit they could and wanted to keep in the colonial army. The essence of the notion of divide and rule was practised most in the military.

By the end of 1919 Britain had recruited nearly 1.5 million soldiers into its colonial Indian Army. Some 130,000 Indian troops were deployed on the Western front in France with the biggest surge in combatant recruitment occurring between 1917 and 1919. Britain recruited an additional 500,000 Indian troops mostly for deployement in Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Egypt and Palestine. They were used to reshape and to extend the empire in the Middle East for the most essential and profitable resource of oil. The Indian Army also had the biggest number of dead and wounded in this “theatre of war”. After 1919 the total numbers were reduced to a force of 200,000 for India—still very large for an all India peacetime garrison-based army.

For the Second World War the British Empire recruited and deployed 2.5 million Indian soldiers. Their foremost role was to quell resistance at home by nationalist and Communist parties and in particular a separate Indian National Army set up in 1943 by Subhas Chandra Bose to lead an armed military uprising against imperial Britain. Secondly, they aimed to stop the Imperial Japanese Army from the east and also to maintain the British Empire in the Middle East, mostly in North Africa. Indian troops were also deployed in Greece. During the Second World War 24,000 Indian soldiers were killed and 64,000 wounded.

Although most of this information might not be included in the secondary school history curriculum of the world wars, it has nevertheless been recorded and analysed by both academic apologists for empire and socialist historians over a number of generations. Even the BBC had to do a good descriptive TV series in its anniversary programmes of the First World War by acknowledging the essential role played by the Indian colonial army in the crucial defence of the British Empire and the racist recruitment process. There is ample historical evidence from recruitment handbooks, colonial journals and newspaper articles, soldiers’ peacetime and wartime letters, correspondence, and court martial dispositions of the insipid racist imperial practices within the British Indian Army. However, as Gajendra Singh argues, imperial Britain created their own sets of historical archives where accounts of the sipahis’ experience ended up as historical records without content or emotion; most of the time they were simply portrayed as static loyal or ungrateful disloyal subjects. Singh’s substantial research (a huge amount from previously unpublished primary archival sources) attempts to reappraise this material and give a presence and a voice to the sipahis.

According to Singh, “the sipahi’s voice was conditioned and curtailed by the manner in which it was recorded” but “the very process of compiling a report of censored letters, courtroom depositions or interrogations mandated that there be some record of the soldier in them. That presence could be significant even if it amounted to a single sentence or was summarised in a pithy aside” (p7). The authorities created a system for recording them and for most part these texts exist only in English. In addition Singh says, “Mistranslation in texts or whether surrogates were found for untranslatable or indecipherable concepts” (p6) complicates an analysis of these documents.

Singh argues that the essay “Discourse in the Novel” by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin opens up a method and a process for looking at these documents in which a single text provides multiple meanings and realities. The concept of heteroglossia—multiple, often contradictory types of speech and meaning within a single text—is particularly useful.

In the context of the sipahis the way the sources express private as well as public utterances becomes significant. Singh says the sources should be analysed “as contested rather than compromised” texts. The reality in which imperial colonial soldiers were positioned and stationed should lead us to assume that there is a “linguistic double-play at work” in their writings.

For Bakhtin (in “Discourse in the Novel”), “at any given moment in its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past… These languages of heteroglossia intersect each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying ‘languages’.” For the purposes of this book the author opens up the archives and texts for the reader to plant themselves into the heteroglossia and the world of the sipahis.

There are numerous testimonies in the long period covered by the book and it is worth briefly highlighting three areas. Firstly, the search through the archives of the recruitment of the Indian sipahis provides substantial unquestionable material which Singh describes as “fulfilling colonial fantasies in pursuit of the martial race”. Recruitment and retention handbooks written by colonial army heads and specialists created the notions of “characteristics, customs, prejudices, history and religion” of martial classes. When these notions did not fit with the reality of rejection of colonial rule new handbooks were commissioned which in turn recreated new fantasies.

Secondly, the stories and testimonies of sipahis who were transferred from the battlefields of France in 1915 to the former workhouse, turned Indian military hospital in Brighton, England are very telling. Their interactions with local people and especially their personal/sexual and marital relationships with women were seen as a “threat to white prestige”. At the same contradictory moment liaisons with sipahis were characterised as symptoms of “European degeneracy and moral decay”.

Thirdly, Singh points to the testimony of sipahis who were part of Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) who were tried for treason at the end of the Second World War in late 1945. He tries to “shed some light on the strings that pulled sipahis’ testimonies in certain directions: various censoring authorities and the individual or collective body of the soldier” but how the sipahis’ own testimonies are paramount in reliving the condition of those “no longer willing to bear arms for the Raj”.

Singh does not attempt to write this history by chronological holistic structuring as most historians would. However, the central purpose is not to give a chronological account but to “emplot” (place in context) the testimonies of the witnesses to historical events.

Using extensive primary source materials, Singh captures the way the sipahis’ own identity is doubly articulated. They ­occupied the periphery of both British and Indian identities, within but outside. Even physical architectural forms reflected this. Indian sipahis were stationed in garrisons between and apart from the British barracks and the Indian towns turning them into both “colonisers and the colonised”.

The book makes it clear that the chronicle is not about political leaders, or great and decisive historical events that are now embedded as part of our mental understanding of Indian history. There is no mention of Mahatma Gandhi (the leader of the Indian National Congress who ended up supporting the British through both World Wars) or the bloodbath division of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan by the empire when ­independence came in 1947. Nor for that matter the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946 where gun turrets turned towards the vestiges of imperial hubris—the Taj Hotel, the Yacht Club and the neo-gothic buildings lining the shores of Bombay. In the same year there were 1,629 industrial disputes involving almost 2 million workers. An all-India railway workers’ strike which would have paralysed the country was narrowly avoided. Police mutinied in Bihar and Delhi. For that and many other episodes of politics of India readers will have to search for and read the other very engaging and consuming writings available.

Singh does admit in the conclusion that constructing a definitive chronicle of the sipahis’ voices was a near impossibility. However, analysing these testimonies shows how the maintenance of British colonial military order was always brittle, fragile and insecure. This book is thoroughly recommended as it provides a very important insight and framework for all of us for understanding the imperial and colonial conditions which we all now have to experience again in their 21st century variety.