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First World War, Through The Lens Of Indian Labour, An Excerpt From The Coolie’s Great War by Radhika Singha

Radhika Singha

The Coolie’s Great War by Radhika Singha views that global conflict of the First World War, through the lens of Indian labour, constructing a distinct geography of the War—from tribal settlements and colonial jails, beyond India’s frontiers, to the battlefronts of France and Mesopotamia. An Excerpt: 

When we bring follower labour into the frame, ‘untouchable’ and ‘tribal’ communities edge their way into the story of India in the Great War—so too do jail populations and those categorised as ‘criminal tribes’, the latter recruited for an extraordinarily wide spectrum of war work within India as well. We can also factor in, however notionally, the labour of women and children, whose role in sustaining the infrastructure of military stations and maintaining continuity of work at construction sites became more visible as men left fosr the war. Most importantly, the non-waged work of women on family farms allowed men to seek waged work in the army. One report stated confidently that recruitment had not disrupted agriculture in Gurgaon district because women of most castes worked in the field. However, reporting from the adjoining tract of Delhi, Chief Commissioner Malcolm Hailey said that Jat women were obstructing recruitment, because with so many men being taken they were being sent into the fields, ‘and quite apart from any marital or maternal feelings, they resent the enforced labour’. An article explaining the impact of war upon rubber plantations in southern India uses the illustration of a woman tapper to describe the profitable extraction of Ceara rubber. A British war documentary on tea, highlighting the far-flung resources of empire, shows happy women labourers on Assam plantations.

We can also factor in, however notionally, the labour of women and children, whose role in sustaining the infrastructure of military stations and maintaining continuity of work at construction sites became more visible as men left for the war.

European women and some upper-class Indian women organised medical care, got socks knit and shirts tailored, packaged troop ‘comforts’ and pushed up war loan subscriptions. The list of honours and awards in India gives us a glimpse of this activity. Women doctors were inducted into military hospitals in India, an indication of the drain upon the civilian medical infrastructure, rudimentary as it was, for military use. News of British women making their entry into new spheres of work and employment captured the imagination of educated Indian women. A fourteen-year-old Parsi girl pointed out that one of the good things emerging from the war was that women had proved they could do all the work of a man, and fight too. More broadly, the paucity of work on the extraction of material resources from India has obscured the wartime role of millions of small producers on farms and rubber and tea plantations, and in textile factories and mines. In April 1919, acute pressure on the supply of silver for minting rupee coins brought this contribution forcefully home. The Government of India was faced with the prospect that millions of small producers might stop bringing services and agricultural products to the market if there were not enough rupee coins in circulation. This ‘secession’ would have strangled the war effort. The silver crisis of 1917–18 did much to disrupt the notion that India was at the periphery of the war.

Also Read: An Excerpt From Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana By Arshia Sattar

Excerpted with permission from THE COOLIE’S GREAT WAR: INDIAN LABOUR IN A GLOBAL CONFLICT, 1914-1921 by Radhika Singha, published by HarperCollins.

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