Role of Punjabi Soldiers in World War I: ‘WWI was a tale of multiple Ramayanas all waiting to be told’

During the discussion, it came to light that 50 per cent of the recruits were Punjabi Muslims, 36 per cent Hindus, 12 per cent Sikhs and 1 to 2 per cent Christians.

Written by Oindrila Mukherjee | Chandigarh | Published: April 17, 2018 9:22:20 am
Lt-Gen (Retd) K J Singh with Atamjit Singh, a Punjabi writer, and other guests during the seminar on ‘World War I: Role of Punjab’, organised by Aitihasiki and the Department of History, Panjab University Alumni Association, in association with Department of History and Department of Evening Studies at P L Anand Auditorium, Panjab University, on Monday. (Express Photo/Kamleshwar Singh)

Remembering A K Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas removed from Delhi University’s syllabus in 2011 to much criticism, Lt Gen (Retd) KJ Singh said World War I was also a tale of multiple Ramayanas. “There are too many stories waiting to be told, so there’s no wrong, no right,” added the former Western Command GOC-in-C.

Lt Gen Singh was speaking at a panel discussion on the theme — World War I: Role of Punjab — at the P L Anand Auditorium in Panjab University on Monday. The topic of the session was Recruitment of Punjabi soldiers across caste and region and impact on culture and society.

During the discussion, it came to light that 50 per cent of the recruits were Punjabi Muslims, 36 per cent Hindus, 12 per cent Sikhs and 1 to 2 per cent Christians. However, Sikhs were more in proportion than Punjabi Muslims when it came to military age. He also mentioned the audio files of over 300 Indian PoWs, recorded in German camps, waiting to be researched. He asked the students of the university to come forward and take up the proposal of researching these voices, so that the world, and most importantly, the country knows their stories. These voices are recorded in different languages such as Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Gurkha, Tamil and Bengali, among others.

“All it requires is two to three dedicated research scholars. Their voices should be heard by their families. Why can’t we do it? That’s what the soldiers wanted and I failed in front of the defence department. This is the kind of challenge we have to accept to discover new Ramayanas,” said Lt Gen Singh.

Col (Retd) Perminder Randhawa, who is in possession of 70 audio files that are housed in Guru Granth Sahib Bhawan in Sector 28, said these soldiers came from varied backgrounds and a majority of them were Punjabis.

According to information, 43 out of these 70 recordings are of Punjabi-speaking soldiers belonging to various districts of undivided Punjab such as Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Amritsar, Ferozepur, Ludhiana and Hoshiarpur, among others.

Three recordings are also of Hindi-speaking Muslims from Nabha district. From these 43, 29 recordings are of Sikh soldiers, 13 of Punjabi Muslims and one of a Hindu Thakur soldier.

Part of the Humboldt Archive, a unique World War I project from the Halfmoon camp outside Berlin, these voices have found a place in many foreign productions on the contribution of Indian soldiers to World War I.

The 2007 documentary, Halfmoon Files, has been screened across the world. The Ghostly Voices of the World War One by the BBC is another such production that tells the story of these Indian soldiers.

Lamenting the lack of interest among bureaucrats and academicians in these files, Col Randhawa said, “Last year, I sent a proposal to the PMO’s office to make a film on each of these 100-year-old voices that are still somehow alive. I also requested the governor here to take up the project, but nothing happened.”

While the voices of some soldiers such as Mall Singh, Bela Singh and Jasbahadur Rai have already generated interest among the masses, Randhawa added that we need to hear all the voices and tell all the unheard stories. “The Humboldt University did not send many of the recordings to me as they probably contain material that shows Germany or the UK in bad light, but the ones that are available also tell stories of the human condition. We can gather some information, some insight into the psyche of the soldiers who went to fight a war that was not theirs,” said Col Randhawa.

Sikh soldier Mall Singh’s voice, then just 22 years old, is now famous across the world for its heart-rending message. It tells the story of a man from Ferozepur district in undivided Punjab who wants to go back to his country for food.

Panellists, during the discussion, said there were many narratives and the British tried their best to suppress them all. “They conspired to lure people into joining the Army by giving away land. We’re trying to build a narrative of ‘Bharat’ right now. But did we have an India even back then? Parties back then were also trying to put an Indian narrative together,” said Lt Gen Singh.

The first session on ‘Deployment of Punjabi soldiers in World War I and its effect on Punjab politics’ was moderated by Kharar MLA Kanwar Sandhu. Prof Anju Suri, Prof Sukhmani Bal Riar, Prof Sukhdev Singh Sohal, military history expert Mandeep Bajwa, playwright Atamjit Singh and Ajaypal Singh Brar were among others who discussed socio-economic and political factors that motivated Punjabis to join the Army during World War I.

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