Intimate Connections: India, Empire, and the Great War

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:50 AM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Santanu Das, King's College London
India joined the First World War as part of the British Empire, contributing more than one and half million men, including 900,000 combatants and 600,000 non-combatants. Coming largely from the peasant-warrior classes of North India, many of these men served in places as far-flung as France, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, East Africa, Egypt and the Far East. Fighting for the empire at a time of nationalist uprisings, these soldiers have been doubly marginalized: they are often forgotten in the nationalist-elitist historiography in India as well as in the modern memory of the war which has remained largely Eurocentric.

The twin aims of this paper are recuperative and analytical. The trajectory of the Indian war experience across three continents provides a map of the global aspects of the First World War. This paper will at once try to open up, investigate and connect the categories of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’, putting pressure on either terms, with reference to two lines of enquiry: first, the responses to the First World War within India (from the native princes, the political bourgeois, the subalterns and the attendant complexities), and second, the ‘global’ experiences of the soldiers and how they were understood by these men in local terms (cognitive frameworks, class, history of emotions). How was the war understood locally in relation to questions of race and empire? How did the sepoys connect to the English Tommies or the people in Mesopotamia? Starting with material from archives in India and Europe as well as newspaper accounts, photographs, original sound-recordings from the time and literary representations, I shall investigate the shifting and complex relation between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ through a focus on the national politics within India 1914-1918 and the individual histories of some of these Indian men serving in France and Mesopotamia.