Research Project
Singha: Coolie, Menial and Sepoy: Indian Labour and the Geographies of the Great War

I want to explore the mobilization of non-combatant labour from India for the Great War, tracing the connection between war and labour flows to build up a more complex geography of this event. This might help us to understand why a ‘European’ war could be experienced with great intensity in certain pockets in India, a colony often said to have escaped its horrors.
The military construction complex along India’s land frontiers provided a spectrum of labour regimes, which the Indian Army tapped for the Great War. This set up intricate connections between the ‘small’ frontier wars of the colony and overseas theatres of war, with consequences at both ends. The Army Department also tracked the paths carved out by the coolie-recruiter in India, many of which led to so-called ‘primitive’ communities, held to provide ‘a particularly valuable sort of coolie’. Prisons, juvenile reformatories and settlements set up for “criminal tribes” were also tapped. Christian networks played a significant role in some sectors of non-combatant recruitment.
The Government of India was often criticised for the slowness with which it provided labour for military purposes. In part it was reluctant to disrupt the circulation of Indian labour around the Bay of Bengal, which kept rice, oil, tea, rubber and corundum flowing from Ceylon, Burma and Malaya to theatres of war overseas. Within India it had to divide up areas of labour recruitment to check competitive bidding.
The wages and status of non-combatants improved because of the growing importance of ‘ancillary’ military services, and the need to rationalise the use of manpower. How did these changes impinge upon the combatant strata? Finally, I want to assess how those who were recruited also tried to make something out of their war service. There were crucial intersections between the mobilization of labour and resources for the Great War and the shaping of new political constituencies in India – namely, ‘labour’, ‘the depressed classes’ and tribal communities of ‘backward tracts’.

Selected Publications

Singha, R. 2010. “Front lines and status lines: sepoy and ‘menial’ in the Great War, 1916-1920” in H. Liebau, K. Bromber, K. Lange, D. Hamzah and R. Ahuja (eds.): The World in Wars, Experiences, Perceptions and Perspectives from the South. Leiden: Brill, Studies in Global Social History, 5.

Singha, R. 2008. “Passport, ticket, and india -rubber stamp: ‘the problem of the pauper pilgrim’ in colonial India ca. 1882-1925” in H. Fischer-Tiné and A. Tambe (eds.): The Limits of British Colonial Control in South Asia, Spaces of Disorder in the Indian Ocean region. London: Routledge.

Singha, R. 2007. Finding Labor from India for the War in Iraq: The Jail Porter and Labor Corps, 1916-1920. Comparative Studies in Society and History 49(2):412-445.

Singha, R. 2000. Settle, mobilise and verify: identification practices in colonial India. Studies in History 16 (2): 151-198.

Singha, R. 1998. A despotism of law: crime and criminal justice in colonial India. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Paperback, 2000.