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At war with ‘white history’

A Calcutta boy, who was drawn to war literature by Wilfred Owen’s poetry, is working to shift the story of World War I from the familiar Eurocentric context to one in which colonial troops from Asia and Africa played a pivotal role.

“It is said that England, Germany and France fought the war. But the story of the more than four million non-white people who also served has long been ignored. For example, more than one million Indians were sent overseas to fight in Mesopotamia, East Africa, France and Belgium, Gallipoli, Palestine, Egypt, Sinai and elsewhere,” said Santanu Das, a scholar on WWI literature and culture who is working on his book, India and the First World War: Words, Objects, Images and Music, and gathering material for an illustrated book on the Indian war experience in the Western Front.

The Presidency College alumnus who now teaches at King’s College, London, was in town recently to deliver the keynote speech at a conference on the Great War at Jadavpur University. During the visit, he dropped by at the war memorial to the Bengali Double Company in College Square, with a BBC World Service crew in tow to interview him on Indian responses to the war.

Significant material on the Asian experience is expected to emerge from a one-million- Euro project, funded by Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA), which Das is heading. Seven museums, including the two biggest war museums of the world — Imperial War Museums in London and In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres — are partnering the project.

“Our project is titled Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents in the First World War. Spaces for cultural encounters were created as soldiers visited towns, markets, pubs, brothels or found themselves in hospitals and prisoner of war camps. We are trying to find records of these exchanges,” said the 40-year-old who has delivered several talks related to the centennial commemoration of World War I across the world.

One of his three principal investigators, Dr Heike Liebau of Germany, is looking for Arabic material from the German PoW camps. “The Turks fought for the Germans. There were also soldiers from the French colonies in north Africa like Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia.” The other two, Geert Buelens of The Netherlands and Hubert Van Den Berg of Poland, are working on neutrals like Sweden and The Netherlands “which became marketplaces of propaganda for the belligerent countries”.

Das, whose initial work Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature had won the Philip Leverhulme Award, is concentrating on material from South Asia. “More than half the Indian combatants were from undivided Punjab of whom the majority were Muslims. Some youths from Bengal formed the Bengal Ambulance Corps to serve Indian soldiers, most of whom went to Mesopotamia,” said Das, whose mother’s uncle had served as an interpreter in France.

“Indian soldiers in France, when on leave, used to billet with the elderly women, often referring to them as their ‘French mothers’. The first war film made in England was on Indians in France,” he said.

At Jadavpur University, Das showed a clip from a film where robust Sikh men were shown dancing and wrestling in the barracks. No substantial record of the war was thought to exist from Bengal till two memoirs were found in Calcutta two years ago — one by Sisir Kumar Sarbadhikary, a medical assistant who had served in Mesopotamia and in the Baghdad war hospital, and the other by Mokshada Debi, whose grandson Captain Kalyan Mukherjee, a doctor, served and died in Mesopotamia. She has written his biography quoting the letters he sent, often expressing frustration at the futility of war and challenging the concept of patriotism in a colonised environment.

Das has also found audio recordings of Indian soldiers at The Berlin Sound Archives, possibly among the earliest recordings of the common Indian’s voice. “At the Half Moon Camp in Germany, sepoys were asked to stand before a phonograph and say something. Some recited poems, others told stories.” But the most heart-rending for Das is a plaintive song by a young Gurkha sepoy who sings how in Germany, he understands no one, misses Nepal and that he is going to die. And he did die soon after.

A digital anthology of the primary material will be created and Das is getting translations done of Bengali memoirs, poems in Urdu and Gurmukhi and Jat gazettes, besides folk songs and poems popular in the barracks. A series of workshops and conferences will be held for the three-year project. A travelling exhibition will traverse Poland, Belgium, The Netherlands, England and Berlin. “I am trying to bring it to India as well,” he said.