Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2021 > How Britain Exploited Indian ‘Coolies’ in WWI | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 24, New Delhi, May 29, 2021

How Britain Exploited Indian ‘Coolies’ in WWI | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 29 May 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

Reviewed by M.R. Narayan Swamy

The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict 1914-1921 by Radhika Singha HarperCollins Publishers India (; Pages: 373; Price: Rs 699

This is a breathtaking and path-breaking study into how Indian non-combatants, euphemistically called coolies, served the British Raj during World War I. It has two broad aims: one, to rescue the ‘coolie’ and ‘the menial’ in military employment from their condition of historical obscurity and, two, to find vantage points for developing a less Eurocentric, more transnational account of the global conflict. In both areas, the author, a Professor of Modern Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has succeeded admirably.

Of the 1.4 million Indians recruited to the war up to December 31, 1919, a total of 563,369 were followers or non-combatants. The high proportion of non-combatants may account for the relatively low figure of mortality for the Indian Army in World War I. However, morbidity was very high for non-combatants.

The follower ranks included departmental followers who made up the medical, transport and ordnance services as well as attached followers who were assigned to regiments or other formations as cooks, sweepers, water carriers, grass cutters, laundrymen, blacksmiths and cobblers. In addition, there were the Coolie Corps who were used as porters, to build roads, lay railway lines, cut rocks and burn lime and for other construction work. Much of this was back-breaking, in alien and inhospitable lands, and amid conditions that often amounted to servitude. Mesopotamia drew the bulk of the non-combatants from India followed by France, Egypt, Persian Gulf and East Africa.

When enough volunteers were not available, the British trawled Indian jails for recruitment. The United Provinces accounted for the largest number of non-combatants, followed by Chota Nagpur and Santhal Parganas where Christian missionaries were active. The coolies had no special love for the Raj; they were simply attracted by better food and wages on offer. But the constant flow of Indian labour into Mesopotamia, for example, became controversial after Arab notables complained that this wartime exercise would broaden into a move to settle Indians in the region.

As World War I lurched on, the Army Department prohibited recruitment for follower ranks from Punjabis of all classes, Garhwalis, Rajputs, Nepalese as well as Frontier Pathans. The martial caste label was also maintained through wages, pension benefits, rations and fuel allowance, creating bitterness within the Indian community. ‘Untouchability’ was thereby recast in new forms.

Howsoever much the Indian coolie served the Raj faithfully during the war, the line between the public employee and domestic servant was often blurred. The British Tommy resorted to institutionally-backed violence to ‘discipline’ the ‘natives’. Flogging was widespread.

Nevertheless, military work had its attractions, particularly to the depressed classes. Some regimental and departmental followers also managed to get status parity with combatants. In August 1915, all regimental and followers were granted free rations for active service overseas on the Sepoy’s scale. These concessions followed the discovery that the British were not getting enough followers in India for the war. But as the conflict neared its end, some of the concessions were taken back. Problems also arose when private followers were taken prisoners of war in Mesopotamia. British officials took the line that they were not morally obliged to keep paying wages to their servant or an allowance to his family if he was captured.

There was plenty of use of force and fraud in overseas recruitment. As jail labour was more vulnerable to over exploitation, it spawned a relentless regime of flogging and fines. Some of the prisoners who, on reaching foreign shores, argued they did not know they were to do the work assigned to them were sent back to India to serve their original sentence; others were given no choice at all. But jail recruitment alone could not meet the demand for non-combatant labour. In any case, the labourers were sent not to a British colony but to territory under military occupation, and there was no agency there to monitor their treatment.

This led to relentless work in a harsh environment, with pitifully inadequate winter clothing and frequent ration shortages telling on the health of the men. In Basra, the 1st Madras Porter Corps unloaded supplies in day and night shifts through blistering heat, exposed sometimes to shelling along the riverfront. Many did active service for two years without a single free day. No wonder, only 200 of the 1,000 men recruited from the Madras Presidency survived. In other places, despite the temperature falling below 50 degrees, Indian coolies worked with no boots and only one blanket apiece.

Rest days were few and far between. While men of the Indian Labour Corps and Indian Porter Corps worked for eight and a half to nine hours daily, and 10 at night, the actual working day was longer due to long treks from the camp to worksite and a four-hour midday break to shelter from the blazing sun. For years there was no leave to visit India. At times pay was withheld. Naturally, desertion ensured. Some deserters were given death penalty.

Not all Indians wanted to go to the war theatre. This led to skirmishes between those refusing to be recruited and the military. In 1917, resistance to recruitment led to a major uprising at Mayurbhanj in modern Odisha, forcing the government to call off the enlistment. In some parts of the Indian northeast, the Military Police burnt villages and destroyed or captured food and livestock to starve rebels into submission.

It was after April 1918 that the pace of work relaxed. By then, however, much damage had been done to the recruits — physically and psychologically. Many died abroad and were unceremoniously buried; others met a watery grave. There was brazen discrimination against the Indian coolies. Many who survived the war returned maimed for life. While permanent followers got family pension if they died during service, the families of temporary followers were only entitled to one-time gratuity of Rs 300. What would have been Britain’s fate during World War I if India had not been a colony?

Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.