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The Other Army: Indian Laborers in Iraq in WW1

Indian Convict Laborers in Iraq

In the First World War Indian blood was shed most copiously in Iraq. Iraq was a key war-front as it was the most bountiful possessions of Ottoman Turkey. Moreover, it was also quite near India. In 1914-1918 about 700,000 Indian troops were fielded there. By mid-1915, the British expedition was tottering: the tenacious Turks were determined to eject Britain from the region. The capricious and seemingly indolent natives couldn’t be trusted: many Iraqi Arabs supported Turkey. The nomadic tribes were quite predatory. Flood, silt, flies, heavy downpours, storms and deadly diseases significantly hampered operations. Above all, the logistical difficulties in maintaining the huge invasion force were staggering. The Empire recruit more from the “martial races” for fighting, but they needed bodies for the dirty work – i.e. manual labor, and sanitation duties. India, with her teeming millions of wretched and oppressed, could meet this demand.

 

Kuki prisoners

Kuki prisoners

Massive infrastructure works had to be commissioned in Iraq: the British Army demanded thousands of laborers. Porters and mule-drivers were also required in large numbers. The news about the British difficulties had become widespread and few were eager to enlist. The British now pressed the administrative machinery in India and the princely states to “organize” huge labor detachments (with many from tribes and the lower-castes), usually headed by retired soldiers. Resistance to such enlistment, and ethnic and caste conflicts in such detachments contributed to much strife. A notable example is the Kuki Rebellion in Manipur.

Though most were sucked into Iraq, some laborers were sent to European and African fronts also. The British could still not find men for the monumental manual scavenging tasks – the caste element made this very difficult. They considered Impressment, i.e. forcefully commandeering subjects without notice. Some British leaders proposed to hold the “Criminal Tribes” hostage for impressment. The British finally decided to form detachments composed of Indian convicts: they would “persuade” particularly the low-caste prisoners to become latrine cleaners and night-soil carriers, in return for reduction of their sentences. The British propaganda machine had been presenting the Indian war effort as a fully voluntary endeavor. A rather predatory enlistment of low-caste convicts was therefore covered by fig leaves of “reform” and “regaining honor”. Thousands of such “volunteers” were sent into crushing work regimes at half the wages paid to non-convict laborers. In total, about 100,000 Indian laborers were sent to the Iraq front after much bureaucratic and legal acrobatics – the pretexts had to be maintained.

 

The moniker “Jail Labor Corps” was used for convict detachments, even though the convicts soon began to hate it. As planned, they were assigned to manual scavenging. Sometimes they were used to break-up local Arab protests. Despite stringent rules on prominently displaying their identity as convicts, the convict-laborers soon adopted military trappings and insignia. Perhaps they truly believed the British propaganda on regaining honor with their service.  Notions of honor soon became double-edged – the convicts began to refuse to perform “demeaning” latrine duties. Equal compensation and leave was also demanded. The British crushed protests and any attempts by convict laborers to assert themselves. Though some demands were met, servitude was maintained by threat of force. The “free” laborers on the other hand did not cause much problems and were valued for their cost-effectiveness. British leadership considered retaining Indian laborers in Iraq for a longer period, for further imperial projects. However, after the Turks retreated in early 1918, pressure from sections of the government and the Arab leadership forced the British to slowly send back Indian laborers. Some convict laborers and free laborers managed stay behind by deserting or finding employment in other sectors. The labor demand in post-war West Asia provided ample opportunities to those who had acquired new skills. Such Indians perhaps created the precedent and the foundations for the later waves of emigration of Indian laborers into West Asia.

 

Over ten thousand Indian laborers perished in Iraq due to exertion, malnutrition and disease – more suffered resultant infirmities for the rest of their lives. West Asian perceptions of Indian were arguably warped in this period – thousands of Indians slaving away for their masters were a far cry from the prosperous medieval Indian kingdoms which once attracted many Arabs. Adverse impact on tribes and low-caste groups due to enlistment drives was ignored. Contemporary media and the Indian political mainstream also ignored low-caste convicts being scooped up for manual scavenging duties abroad. It was only in 1920 that the Congress passed a resolution requesting Indians to not serve there – but even that was in the wake of an Iraqi rebellion. The ignorance continues to this day. Many are aware and are proud of Indians’ warfighting contributions in colonial wars and the World Wars; the story of thousands of laborers who served in foreign shores during the World War is however largely forgotten.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on July 22, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Sultan and the Dervish

Siddi Maula seated

A recurring theme in history is the confrontation between the head of state and a popular, and usually unorthodox, religious leader. Such challengers assert that the king does not possess the “divine mandate” anymore – and that his overthrow is a moral responsibility. Sometimes the godman need not frontally attack the establishment; his mere existence and the ideas propagated by word and deed could suffice. Congregations and movements centered on this personality would become conduits for hitherto unexpressed discontent against the king. Sovereigns – especially weak ones or those facing other crises – have feared and persecuted such popular religious leaders. Episodes such as the founding of the Veerasaiva movement, and the Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq-Hazrat Nizamuddin confrontation (“Hunuz Dilli Dur Ast”) are well known to us. The alleged plot of the Sufi dervish Sidi Maula, in the wake of the turbulent rise of the Khiljis, is a less known but telling episode in this regard.

 

Jalaluddin Khilji captured power in the so-called “Khilji Revolution”, where non-Turkic emigrant Muslims and Indian converts overthrew their Turk overlords (who were obsessed with race and lineage). Many young men, commoners and nobles alike, saw this change as a new beginning: they could now aspire to forge careers in a subcontinent full of opportunities. However, they were soon disappointed – Jalaluddin Khilji was not keen on massive military campaigns. Perhaps war-weariness or his advanced age had got to him. Also, he was a comparatively equanimous and forgiving man. These traits were however seen as weakness by many from his own camp. Discontent deepened when he forgave enemies who were vanquished with great losses from the Khilji side. Moreover, his attacks on neighboring Hindu kingdoms had failed. The Revolution had already earned the Turks’ enmity – now the Sultan’s traits and failures created enemies in his own camp.

It was at this juncture that many discontented parties gravitated towards the institution of the highly popular Sufi dervish Sidi Maula. He was a Persian saint who had established a Khanqah (Sufi Hospice) in Delhi many years ago. Highly unorthodox and liberal, he attracted countless devotees from all castes and creeds, including prominent personalities of the Sultanate. Till his untimely death, Sultan Jalaluddin’s heir was also an ardent devotee. The Dervish had vast charities and fed and supported thousands. The orthodox Ulema however considered him a heretic. As a non-partisan institution, the Khanqah ostensibly served both the (newly dispossessed) Turks and the Khilji camp. Soon, reports reached Crown Prince Arkali Khan that the Sultan’s enemies were plotting under the aegis of Sidi Maula. Some alleged conspirators were from the Khilji camp – a few held key posts in the Sultanate. Some were associates of his late elder brother (whom he once competed with). Some conspirators were fallen Turk nobles.

 

Reports and rumors about a great conspiracy piled up: an unholy alliance of traitors had convinced Sidi Maula to use his vast influence to overthrow and kill Sultan Jalaluddin, marry the princess and proclaim himself the Caliph. The office of the “Caliph of All Muslims” had for all purposes been extinguished when the Mongols trampled to death the last Caliph, when they razed Baghdad not so long ago.  There were self-appointed successors in Cairo, but they were toothless figureheads. A reigning Caliph in India – the ascendant frontier of Islam – could be a powerful rallying call.  The Sultan returned to Delhi from a campaign and the imperial machinery swung into action. Sidi Maula, his associates, and other alleged plotters were arrested quickly. They were brought to an open court under heavy guard. The Ulema had also smelled blood and arrived in force. Sidi Maula asserted that he has no interest in politics and intrigue; the other accused also claimed innocence. However, the Sultan dismissed these claims. Perhaps Arkali Khan’s evidence was too compelling – perhaps the Sultan simply feared the dervish’s influence. Jalaluddin ordered varying punishments for the rest of the accused but saved Sidi Maula for last. The dervish asserted his innocence again, but this only infuriated the Sultan. He ordered the Ulema to kill Sidi Maula. The clerics enthusiastically obliged and struck Sidi Maula with razors and rocks. Arkali Khan then ordered his elephant to trample the wounded dervish underfoot.

 

The gruesome murder did not save Jalaluddin Khilji’s regime: the reasons behind the discontent remained. Also, the potent enemies of Jalaluddin Khilji did not even feature in this alleged plot. A great conspiracy was actually underway within the Sultan’s own family, led by his nephew and son-in-law Ali Gurshasp. The ambitious Ali Gurshasp laid careful groundwork, deflected all suspicion and played on his uncle’s affection. He soon killed the Sultan when the latter visited to congratulate his nephew’s victories in the Deccan. Ali Gurshasp soon crowned himself and adopted the regnal name Alauddin Khilji. In subsequent wars, Jalaluddin Khilji’s loyalist faction was annihilated.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on July 8, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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