The ‘Coolie’ Corps: Why Indian Construction Workers, Janitors Were Unsung Heroes of First World War


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Although official historical narratives remember the Indian soldiers who ‘contributed’ to the First World War by fighting for the British empire, there were more than 550,000 Indian men, who participated in the same war as ‘non-combatants’ whom no one remembers.

They were porters, stevedores, construction workers, janitors (sanitation workers who cleaned latrines), washermen, stretcher-bearers, water-carriers, cooks and many other menial job workers. It was through their backbreaking work that the British were able to maintain the supply chains, remove wounded soldiers from the battlefield and tend to the many needs of their army.

One rarely finds their mention in the official literature of the Great war, but Radhika Singha – a professor of Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University – has meticulously plugged that literature gap with her new book, The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour In Global Conflict 1914-1921.

Singha’s book is a result of a decade long research on legal, and military history of the first world war and talks about the labour systems — built on the backs of the menial workers — which collectively sustained the military infrastructure of the British empire. The book views the global conflict through the lens of Indian labour, talking about how Indian tribals, as well as colonial prisoners, were shipped off to far-flung battlefields of France and Mesopotamia, for the vested interest of the British rulers.

Singha’s research on the subject began after she stumbled on a letter from Mesopotamia sent on March 1916, which was marked ‘confidential’. The letter was an urgent call for latrine sweepers from India, but the reason it was kept confidential was that Cholera had broken out in the area. By calling sweepers from India, they were sending Indian labourers in the cusp of an epidemic for their own advantage.

In the book, she collectively calls the menial workers, the ‘Coolie’ corps. She explains that although they were initially viewed as ‘racially subordinate and subjected to non-martial caste designations, they fought back against their status, using the warring powers’ need for manpower as leverage to challenge traditional service hierarchies and wage differentials.’

In the book, Singha writes:

Inspecting the Lady Hardinge Hospital at Brockenhurst, which treated Indians from the Expeditionary Force in France, Sir Walter Lawrence noted an act of local kindness. A burial plot had to be found for a sweeper belonging to a peculiar sect which never cremates. We asked the Woking Muhammadan Burial ground to allow us to bury him there, but they flatly declined. We then had recourse to the Rev. Mr Chambers, the Vicar of Brockenhurst. He came forward and kindly allowed us to bury him in his churchyard.

Lieutenant General George F. MacMunn embroidered this incident into a story about untouchable life, seeking to strike ‘a mingled vein of sorrow and glory’. Bigha, the latrine sweeper in MacMunn’s account, is from the Lalbeghi community, whom MacMunn describes as ‘nominal’ Muslims, though ‘untouchables’. They, therefore, bury their dead instead of cremating them, so that they ‘might face the recording angels like any other follower of the prophet.’ The Imam refuses to bury the outcaste in his ‘cleanly plot’, but the other hospital sweepers insist he has to be buried. Learning of the dilemma, the vicar declares, ‘Surely Bigha Khan has died for England, I will bury him in the churchyard.’ ‘And so Bigha, outcaste Lalbeghi, lies close to a crusader’s tomb’ by the end of the story, ‘in the churchyard of St Agnes Without … Lalbeghi and Norman, the alpha and the omega of social status.’

There is no real churchyard of St Agnes Without, but the grave of one Sukha Kalloo, a sweeper, lies beside some New Zealand graves in the churchyard of St Nicholas at Brockenhurst. Sukha was probably the sweeper of Lawrence’s report and the ‘Bigha’ of MacMunn’s fictional account, as his gravestone is indeed subscribed by the parishioners of Brockenhurst, and it has an Islamic arch instead of the cross which marks the grave of an Indian Christian sapper nearby. MacMunn added a second such tale of ‘pathos and glory’, modelled, he claimed, on another real-life incident.

In this, the regimental latrine cleaner Buldoo, inspired by his childhood play at soldiers with a golden-haired English boy, assumes the identity of a Rajput sepoy and dies leading a heroic counter-attack from a trench in Mesopotamia. Clearly, MacMunn was suggesting that it was in empire alone, in such spaces as the British home and regiment, that the ‘untouchable’ found succour, not, as he crudely put it, in ‘Gandhi and his blather’. But the war’s hunger for manpower had also allowed the unimaginable to be imagined—the sweeper to be cast as a war hero.

Singha explains how the war not only gave those ‘racially subordinate’ to earn their respect, and climb up the ladder in the army to become war heroes, but also gave farmers and farmhands a respectable occupation as soldiers. She writes:

In recruitment propaganda, service as a sepoy or an Indian cavalryman was cast as the only form of off-farm work which did not demean respectable agriculturalists:

Jat ki kamai, kahan-kahan kis kaam mein aati hai Karen kheti hai zamindara, fauji kaam hamaara Aur jitne hain ahalkaar, yeh kamai nek kehti hai. Jat ki [Of all the different forms of work it is only cultivation or military service which is honourable for the Jat].

Some propaganda pamphlets described sepoy service as ‘not work at all!’ The peasant had to be induced to believe that when he put on his military boots, he distanced himself from an existence shaped by backbreaking labour and the vagaries of the weather. He also acquired, propaganda materials suggested, some immunity against the rough handling of his person by the policeman, the creditor and the revenue official.

A World War One recruiting song contrasted the plight of the man outside army life with his position inside: ‘Here you get tattered shoes, out there you get full boots … Here you get shoved around, out there you get a salute.’

Such immunities prioritised the army’s own claims to the person of the sepoy, but they were cast as status enhancing privileges acquired by service to the state.

The world of work was still an insistent reality for the follower ranks. However, they were told that their uniform and fixed monthly wage gave them the prestige of government service. Medical and transport officers who wanted a better deal for their follower personnel had to contend with the hyper-masculine code of combatant service. The rhetoric they used was that the devotion of the follower ranks gave a higher gloss to the valour of the fighting races, rather than dimming it. At the same time, they pointed out that this duty of care exposed stretcher-bearers and mule-drivers to battlefield risk.

They also drew upon contemporary ideas about labour efficiency to argue that better food and kit for followers would allow them to train more intensively and would prevent desertion and invaliding in field service. To track the improvement which took place over 1916–17 in the institutional position of the ‘higher followers’, this chapter focuses on the stretcher bearers, or kahars, and the mule-drivers, or drabis. It also picks out the cook, bhisti (water-carrier), sweeper and syce (groom and grass-cutter) in order to explore the service milieu of the attached followers, often referred to as the ‘menial ranks’.

The following excerpts have been published with permission from HarperCollins.



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