Black Pepper, Red Pepper: India and the First World War

A book with rare photographs and anecdotes highlights the divide between Indian soldiers and their European counterparts during WW I

Updated: October 25, 2014 12:16 pm

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By: Shahid Amin

Book: If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?: India and the First World War
Author: Vedica Kant
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 1,995

1914 saw the outbreak of World War I, whose  centenary is being marked this year. Especially the UK and France are commemorating the great loss of limb, life and money that it brought in its wake over the next four years. The brutal, often hand-to-hand, combat between soldiers of rival armies entrenched behind barbed wires took place not just in Europe but also in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and East Asia. The approximately 6 lakh jute bags needed per day for trench warfare by July 1915 all came from India. So did 6,57,737 soldiers. British India also supplied 70 million rounds of ammunition, 1,500 miles of rails, 3 lakh tonnes of steel (provided solely by Tata and Sons from their Jamshedpur plant), 86,000 horses, 65,000 mules and ponies and over 5,000 each of draught bullocks and dairy cattle.

In this brilliantly researched and beautifully illustrated book, adds writer Vedica Kant, the figures for animal contribution, “include horses and mules obtained from abroad and shipped to the various theatres of war after being trained in India”. In addition, landholders and urban elites contributed £26 million (£628 million in current value) from their own pockets and extracted from the tént (dhoti fold at the waist) of their peasants and labourers. Two years on into the Great War, in early 1917, the government of India offered London a lump sum of £100 million (over £8 billion in current value) as a “special contribution” —  a sum larger than the country’s total income for that year!

Here, then, was a colony feeding the gargantuan appetite of the mother country for men and money, which it now required from its “jewel in the crown”. This was the first time that Indian soldiers (referred to as “black pepper” in their letters home, so as to bypass the eagle eye of the Censor of Mail) were joining hands with the white men (“red pepper”) of England and the settler colonies of Australia and New Zealand against those other whites — the devious and dangerous Germans. Britons were, of course, grateful, and are repeating that gesture in this centenary year of the Great War. In a speech at the Indian Imperial Club in London, ex-Viceroy Curzon  had described the arrival of the Indian sipahis, recruited very often under duress from the fields and villages of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and peninsular India, as a “landmark in our connection with India”. As New Delhi, the new capital of the Raj, was being planned, the government of India offered a very special tribute to the “dead of the Indian armies who fell honoured in France and Flanders, Mesopotamia, and Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Near and the Far East in 1914-1918”. This is New Delhi’s iconic India Gate, its subsequent appropriation by the Amar Jawan Jyoti notwithstanding.

The other site has life-sized statues of three Indian soldiers, lances resting next to their strapped leggings, in front of the house of the commander-in-chief of the Indian army. This is the Teen Murti roundabout in front of independent India’s greatest research library, Teen Murti Bhavan, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s official residence. Kant, who has done so much to bring to life the times of the Indian soldiers fighting an imperialist, or at least, a colonial war, rues that these sites have receded from our collective memory. She is right, for if the historical significance of these two iconic World War I monuments ever figure in Amitabh Bacchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati, the  average contestant is likely to “phone a friend”.

But if hundreds of rare photographs (culled from repositories in England, France and enemy country Germany, where Indian prisoners of war were humoured — if that is the right word — with specially earmarked burial and cremation sites) convey a bridging of the racial divide during Great Britain’s hour of crisis, that impression, going by her text, is only skin deep. The picture of inter-racial bonhomie and conviviality conveyed in such images —  many hospital beds for Indian soldiers, arranged in the chandeliered  central hall of the Brighton pavilion, the mustachioed Lord Kitchener greeting the injured Victoria Cross awardee, the Afridi Pathan Mir Dast during his stay in hospital; a Highlander bagpiper entertaining Indian soldiers recuperating in a hospital garden, or a British officer offering cigarettes to a group of Indian sipahis — in no way bridges the chasm between the white officer and the Indian subalterns.

Indian soldiers were sick of being fed back into the killer trenches after recovering from injuries — something that Dost Mohammad (his brother deserted to the German side at Neuve Chapelle along with 24 other sepoys) complained to the King in person. Despite repeated demands, the British resisted granting King’s Commission to Indians, which would have allowed them to become officers in the army, for, as the Commander of the Indian Corps in France, noted: “There is in fact no solution: the European and Indian are built on different lines, the one to command men, the other to wait for guidance before he issues his command”.

In the killing fields of Flanders and Neuve Chapelle “the black pepper and the red pepper” didn’t really mix; the level-headed German sociologist Max Weber took to saying that the Entente armies comprised “niggers, Gurkhas, and the barbarians of the world”. In fact, in the summer of 1915, the German Foreign Office put into circulation a pamphlet titled ‘Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Coloured Troops upon the European Theatre of War by England and France’.

Each reader will have her favourite photograph from this book. Mine is on page 22. It shows an Indian soldier of the 7th (Meerut ) Division thumb-impressioning his pay sheet. A white hand presses firmly the soldier’s left thumb, daubed with “India ink”, on a sheet of official paper. The contrast between the exceedingly black hand of the Indian sepoy and the white official’s hand stands highlighted in this quotidian photograph from World War I.

Shahid Amin is professor of history at Delhi University

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