Iraq: on duty once again?
Recently, the idea that India should claim a share of war booty by sending soldiers to Iraq was perhaps repulsive. But it happened once before during World War I. RADHIKA SINGHA looks at the past.
LESS than a year ago it seemed that Indian soldiers might actually be sent off to support the military occupation of Iraq by the United States. Elections have set aside that discussion, and I hope it has been buried forever. Once before during World War I, India's manpower had been used with profligacy to extend another superpowers' quest for oil and influence in Iraq then made up of the three Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. Of the roughly 1.3 million Indian combatants and non-combatants sent overseas to fight for the British empire, the largest chunk were routed to Mesopotamia. The refineries of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Abadan provided a crucial reason for seizing Basra. In 1911, recognising the vital importance of oil for the British navy, Winston Churchill had acquired 90 per cent stake for the British government in this corporation. Easy victories at the outset encouraged the idea that the Indian Expeditionary Force could march right up to Baghdad. However men and supply lines were dangerously overstretched, and the Turkish forces at Csetisphon inflicted a savage blow on the Sixth Division advancing under General Townshend. It had to retreat down the Tigris to Kut ul Amara where some 13,500 British and Indian troops and followers waited out a siege for five months before surrendering to the Turkish forces on May 1, 1916. The siege of Kut, it is routinely stated, was harsher for Indian soldiers because "caste prejudice" made them reluctant to eat the horses and mules which kept eating into grain reserves. I read this and wondered. The alternative it seems was inconceivable that barley could have been conserved for British and Indian soldiers alike, instead of preserving meat on the hoof. British officers pencilled out amusing menus featuring horseflesh and one Major Stewart's "devoted batman was killed while bringing his mule-steak lunch to his dug-out".
A relieving force made three attempts to lift the siege, with a casualty rate which rose to the heart-rending figure of 33 per cent. A Parliamentary Commission noted the sickening horror of the conditions in which the wounded had to be crammed onto boats and carts and evacuated without medical treatment.
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
Rudyard Kipling, Mesopotamia, July 1917
Kipling, like many others, blamed the Government of India for trying to conduct the occupation of Mesopotamia too thriftily. But in fact the war in Iraq made staggering demands on India's fragile economy.
The onus of humiliating reverses was also cast on a supposedly finicking, too easily exhausted, and sometimes unreliable "native force". But the landscape of Mesoptamia also looms large as an inimical force. Contemporary accounts abound in metaphors of mud, flood and freezing rain, disease riddled settlements, and marauding pastoralists. It was this landscape which had to be invested and conquered for the military and commercial ends of empire and this was where the Indian coolie came prominently into the picture.
Basra had to be transformed into a port from which a major military campaign could be conducted. Roads, bridges and railways had to be constructed, unreliable rivers and water channels harnessed for transport and irrigation. The army command sent telegram after telegram pressing for labour from India to construct wharfs, quays, barracks, and storage units, and to provide a myriad other services. This could mean literally, like the Hebrews of old, digging into the mud of Mesopotamia to mould bricks for construction material. Porters were also needed to unload coal, munitions, food, and construction material and re-load it to send up river. Local labour was scarce, and the Arabs who were being "rescued from Ottoman tyranny" were usually described as vicious marauders or treacherous informers. Often a village or two or more was/were levelled to keep the locals in line.
... deployed by the British Empire.
Searching for this story in the National Archives I came across an urgent letter from the British military command in Mesopotamia asking for 450 latrine sweepers from India. This was followed by a flurry of telegrams pressing the issue. To put it impolitely, the s*** was piling up in Basra. But why was this correspondence put into a confidential file? Sweepers in the bazaars of India had heard enough about conditions in Mesopotamia to resist going overseas. The military and civil authorities were discussing whether they could impress this labour. There was another reason for discretion. Cholera had broken out in Basra, a fact which had to concealed from public knowledge, especially from those who were being sent unawares into this epidemic front. One suggestion was that the so called "criminal tribes", always under the shadow of the police, could be given a choice between some form of internment or going to Mesopotamia. The solution finally chosen was to recruit in jails, persuading low caste prisoners to become latrine sweepers for a remission of sentence.
Mule drivers were also desperately sought. Here jail recruitment was rejected on the grounds that the service had come close to combatant status. Military service had to be distinguished as honourable employment. Nor did Government want to expose the fact that it was finding it difficult now to get recruits and coolies for the army. The war effort in India always had to be projected as a voluntary endeavour. However, when it came to this most humble and necessary service then, as one official put it no one would care much whether latrine sweepers were recruited from jails. The Punjab government, with a rather suspicious swiftness, found men in its jails, said to have agreed to go. Thus encouraged, the Government of India began to scour jails for "volunteers" in larger numbers to make labour corps for Mesopotamia. However, this time round, there was a press release and a reform objective was discovered. By volunteering to go, prisoners would win a remission of sentence and efface the stigma of jail. Mesopotamia would be the making of them. Some 16,000 prisoners were sent into an incredibly taxing work regime, in a very harsh environment, with half the wages of those in the "free" labour corps. The epithet Jail Labour Corps stuck to them and they were punished if they removed their prisoner identity discs.
Nevertheless the kaidis made their own efforts to transform their status. One strategy was to try and transform the stigmatising disciplines of jail into the honourable disciplines of the military. The men sent as sweepers began to refuse to clean latrines, saying they would only clean away mule droppings. Some of those in the labour corps began to fashion head gear and clothes resembling the soldier's uniform. They would cultivate a military bearing, trying to take a disciplinary flogging with manly indifference, and giving a smart salute after it. Prisoners appointed as overseers asked for the designation havildar, evoking police or military service, instead of the jail designation daffadar. The outlines of another strategy also began to take shape. This was the claim that by "volunteering" for Mesopotamia they had recovered their capacity to enter into a contract for their labour. Working in detached parties, often side by side with free labourers they began to ask that equal work be rewarded with equal pay. Like the free labourers recruited to Labour Corps, those in the Disciplinary Corps began to insist that their labour was not indefinitely at the disposal of the military authorities. They had been sent for "two years or the duration of the war". There was a dispute over the interpretation of this phrase. This was not surprising, given the keen need to keep labour in Mesopotamia long after hostilities were over. The demand to be sent home even led to a strike in the Bombay Jail labour corps with quite tragic results for those who had emerged as its leaders.
What did India gain from the territory and political influence acquired by Britain in World War I? There was some talk about permitting Indians to settle in German East Africa and in Iraq, but this faded away. Some Indian nationalists too began to have second thoughts about sharing in war booty. The Congress Non-cooperation resolution of 1920 asked soldiers, clerks and labourers to refuse to serve any longer in Mesopotamia.
The huge and diverse demand for labour in Mesopotamia provided some opportunities for those who could fight their way out of earth work and porterage to acquire skills in construction work, electricity, carpentry or railway maintenance. The war conjuncture probably created networks and precedents for the subsequent influx of Indian labour into the Middle East from the 1920s. However Britain's Air Ministry in Iraq also began to deport and restrict the entry of those it did not require this included Indian pedlars, sailors, unattached labourers, and poor pilgrims familiar sojourners in the ports and towns of Arabia and the Middle East. Ironically one of Britain's claims in Ottoman territory had been the free movement of its "Muhammedan subjects" through the ports and holy places of Arabia and Iraq.
Perhaps many humane and well meaning people in the United States suffer from a lack of imagination about what it means to have an alien war machine roll up on one's door step, imposing terrible priorities "all for one's own good". We in India should not suffer from this same incapacity. Our history tells us of the weave of imperial and corporate interest which in 1915 to 1916 left "the flower of the Indian army ... buried under the banks of the Tigris from Shu'aiba to Ctesiphon".
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