Amarjit Chandan: The Great War & its Impact on Punjabis

Presented at Across the Black Waters One-Day Symposium at the Imperial War Museum, London, November 7, 1998

Don’t go don’t go
Stay back my friend.

Crazy people are packing up,
Flowers are withering and friendships are breaking.
Stay back my friend.

Allah gives bread and work
You won’t find soothing shade anywhere else.
Don’t go my friend don’t go.

– Punjabi folk song of the early 20th century

By helping the British colonialists in suppressing the Revolt of 1857, the Punjab Sikh chiefs and soldiers had saved the empire. The Sikh soldiers were taken in the army first in 1846. During 1853-54 they crushed the Santhal rebellion in the Ganga valley. In 1860 the Loodhiaah (Ludhiana) Regiment conquered Hong Kong and Peking. For half a century Sikh ‘soldiers of the Queen’ were instrumental in suppressing the revolts by Pathans in the North West Frontier Province. They were also involved in the overseas campaigns in Abyssinia (1867), Malaya, Egypt (1882-1885), Burma (1885), Afghanistan (1878-1880), East and Central Africa (1891- 1898), and South Africa. According to an estimate, total 70,000 Sikh soldiers lost their lives in World Wars I & II.

A song sheet published in 1898 by Francis Day & Hunter, gives a picture of how, by the end of the century, the Indian soldier had more than redeemed himself in the eyes of the British public. The song, How India Kept Her Word which was sung on the London stage by Leo Dryden, included a reference to the ultimate bravery award, the Victoria Cross, and contained the following lines:

Though mutineers some of them might have been,
They were not trusted soldiers of the Queen,

Britannia, do not blame, I beg of you,
The loyal many for the trait’rous few;
When once again the star of peace has beamed,
Then India’s pledge to you will be redeemed.
They only plead for one reward,
Repaying every loss
The right to wear like Britain’s sons,
The great Victorian Cross.
India’s reply in the days gone by,
To other nations may have been absurd,
But when Britain’s flag unfurl’d,
They prov’d to all the world,
How the Sons of India kept their word.

By the turn of the century the Punjab was agriculturally the most prosperous province in India and was also the most indebted. The peasant movement of 1906-1907 in the Punjab enlisted the sympathy and limited participation of the pensioners and a few serving regiments in certain districts. The situation drove the peasants – jats (cultivating caste) and artisans – towards seeking other means of subsistence. The colonial state on its part was impelled by its own considerations of strategy and security to narrow down its recruiting base mainly to the Punjab. The best Indian material for the British army, to quote Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of the Punjab, was found mainly in the province under the cover of a socio-biological ideology of martial races. 

Thus the Punjab became the “sword arm of India”…At the beginning of the war, the strength of the Punjabis in the army was 100,000. During the war 380,000 more were added to it. Apart from men, the Punjab gave Rs2 crores [Rs 20 million] to war funds and ‘invested’ Rs 10 crores [Rs 1 billion] in the war loans. It set out to provide 7 aeroplanes and provided more than seven times seven. (M.S. Leigh, The Punjab & the War. 1922). In the Punjab one man in 28 was mobilised in the war, the corresponding figure for India was 1 in 150. Out of a population of 2.5 million, the Sikhs supplied 90,000 combatant recruits. During the war 1 in 14 of the Sikh population in the Punjab served in it: a proportion ten times greater than that contributed by the population as a whole. (John Maynard, The Sikh Problem in the Punjab 1920-1923. 1977) The price was high: 61,041 dead and 67,771 wounded… 

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