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World War 1 Indian soldiers drove social, political change at home

The centenary of the First World War begins on 28 July. Hostilities broke out on 28 July 1914.

Bhaskar Raman & Aditya Sakorkar  New Delhi | 20th Jul 2014

A troops ship leaving Bombay Harbour.

ndian soldiers, who fought in World War I, were on a mission to transform their homeland even as they faced machineguns on the frontlines in Europe and West Asia. Thousands of recruits left crushing poverty in Punjab and present-day Haryana to fight in the war, whose centenary starts on 28 July, only to be transformed by their travels. These soldiers went beyond caste barriers, discovered the value of education and learnt about everything — from architecture to nutrition. When they returned, many of them became agents of social and political change in India.

A century later, the development and prosperity in the region is the result of the seeds sown by those soldiers, says Prof K.C. Yadav, director of the Haryana Academy of History and Culture (HAHC) in Gurgaon. "The exposure to France, England and the other modern societies of Europe led them to question our condition," Yadav said. "Even while they were still on the frontlines, they began to work to bring education, equality, cleanliness and hygiene to their villages," he said.

The soldiers were preoccupied with education. Before the war, Haryana's literacy rate was a mere 4%. During the war, a "Jat Boarding House" was built in Rohtak to accommodate school students. The word spread to the regiments fighting in France, Palestine, Turkey and Mesopotamia, and they began to collect funds to support the project. The Jat Regiments contributed 1 anna from every rupee they were paid, and raised Rs 400, according to letters from soldiers preserved at the HAHC. Rooms at the Boarding House today have memorial stones recording the names of the regiments that contributed to their construction.

A similar boarding house was funded for Ahirs in Rewari, as were other educational institutions. Later, when they returned from the war, the soldiers made sure their children, even the girls, were educated.

The soldiers had also been inspired by the architectural styles they had seen abroad. Back at their villages, they designed kachcha bungalows that were much better ventilated and lighted, and had better sanitation than the village houses then. The small village of Kosali in Haryana, which sent 243 soldiers to the Great War (at least one from almost every family in the village), became known after the war as baawan bangley ki Kosali (Kosali of 52 bungalows), says Yadav.

Military protocol meant that the Haryanvis' language became more polished and refined. Where earlier they would address everyone, regardless of age, as tu, they now began to use words like aap and ji. Their diets, which comprised mainly grains and dairy products, became more balanced as they learnt to cook vegetables. "It was the military kitchens that taught them even to add tadka to their daal," Yadav said. "There was a dietary revolution. Menus changed and were enriched."

Many of the soldiers who returned to their villages after the war also became quite wealthy. They were able to buy land with their savings. Some were gifted "war jagirs", parcels of land as rewards for bravery. Many broke the caste barrier to become moneylenders.

Military life also helped break down traditional social barriers. "Now people belonging to different castes dine together at the same table," wrote Jemadar Tek Chand of the 6th Jat Cavalry in a 1918 letter to the Jat Gazette. "Our minds have opened up... First people from different Hindu castes ... and after that Hindus and Muslims learnt to live together."

Some war veterans retired as soldiers and some were discharged after hostilities ended. The retirees got a pension and other benefits, and remained loyal to the British government. The Government of India Act of 1919 gave them the right to vote in, and contest, the Legislative Council elections. "In the Haryana Legislative Council elections of 1920, Sir Chhotu Ram, who went on to become one of the tallest leaders in Punjab for more than a decade, was defeated by Rtd. Risaldar Swaroop Singh," said Yadav.

Those who were discharged, mostly young people who had not been in the army for long, found themselves suddenly unemployed, and felt betrayed. When M.K. Gandhi and other Indian leaders issued a call to the public to support Britain in the war, it was with the hope that in return, India would be made what Gandhi called "a partner in the empire". Instead, the Imperial Legislative Council enacted the draconian Rowlatt Act in 1919, which Motilal Nehru summed up as Na vakeel, na daleel, na appeal (No lawyers, no defence, no appeal)". "These factors led to unrest in Punjab and other regions, culminating in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre," said Yadav. "The popular mass movement that got us freedom after World War II had its origins in World War I."

In all, 1.3-1.4 million Indians fought in the war, according to Yadav. About 60,000 died, while many more were grievously injured. "We were friendly with Germany," said Yadav, "there were strong cultural ties. The hostilities were not in our part of the world, nor were they a threat to us in any way. Still, we had to fight because we were part of the British Empire."

While this may seem an unmitigated tragedy, the soldiers of the day saw it as an opportunity for social transformation. "I wish this war to linger on for some more time," wrote Jamadar Tek Chand in his letter, "so that our people get an opportunity to come out and have new experiences, which would, after inculcating love for their community and their people in their hearts, enable them to build healthy relationships among themselves."

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