Mahmood Awan


World War One (WWI) began on July 28, 1914. Now that a hundred years have passed, it is time to introspect both Punjab’s role to ‘save the civilization’ and the socio-political impact of the war recruitment on Punjabis.


Internationally, WWI is remembered through reenactments, public events in Europe, and websites documenting historical events. In Canada, the 100th anniversary has been commemorated by the Canadian government through exhibits, the expansion of the honour guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, as well as the issuing of a special edition silver coin created by the Royal Canadian Mint. However, missing from local and international dialogue is the grave impact the role had on people of color living in colonies, including Punjabis.


At the beginning of the war, strength of the Punjabis in the British army was around 100,000 and then it rose exponentially. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) UK gives a count of 1.2 million soldiers from the subcontinent, while as per David Omissi and Rajit Mazumder, during the war years, till December 1919, 1,440,437 men were recruited, including 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants.


By the end of the war, Punjab had provided some 360,000 combat recruits (almost half of the total combat force from the subcontinent), including 136000 Muslims, 88,925 Sikhs and 23,000 Hindus.


The main recruitment ground was the Dhan-Potohar area of the then Rawalpindi district and in the war employment drive 120,000 Punjabis were recruited from this area alone. The majority of them were Muslims and Sikhs. Out of nine Victoria Crosses (VCs) awarded to the entire army from the subcontinent for valour and bravery, eight of them are Punjabis but at the hefty cost of 61,041 Punjabi soldiers dead and 67,771 wounded.


An army train is crossing bridges in leaps, taking our poor sons locked away — this is one of the countless departing images narrated in Punjabi folk songs by women for their soldier sons and beloveds. There is this unbearable pain, rage and lament about induction of Punjabi youth as colonial subjects where women cry and their men stand speechless.


Chandler once wrote: “to say goodbye is to die a little.” But for Punjabi mothers and lovers these goodbyes were outright deaths, foretold bereavement gestures of lonely travelers.


Looking at the socio-economic indicators of war recruiting areas, it is obvious that the primary reason of this huge enrolment was poverty and hunger. Mulk Raj Anand captured this trauma in his remarkable novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ (1939) where Lalu, the main protagonist and a Punjabi peasant, gets himself recruited in the army for the sole purpose of reclaiming the piece of land his family lost, as a reward for serving.


But when he returns home, he finds his family destroyed and his parents dead. This was every returning soldier’s tale.


There were propaganda songs as well to encourage war registration, which were sung and delivered at the behest of local lords who were assigned recruitment targets and who never shied away from using intimidation and coercion.


But the promised life was a hell, a horrific experience culminating in nameless graves of these peasant boys all over Europe, Africa and Persian Gulf still waiting their visitors since a century.

This becomes more saddening while reading their letters from the war front. One soldier wrote:

“No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back.”

Another one grieves: “In one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?”


And this one: “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums [so that] they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen.”


Most of these letters were detained and censored by the war office as they carried strong messages to their fellow Punjabis to stop joining British army for war. Soldiers may have known about that censorship so they started using coded language: “Think this over till you understand it,” or lines like these: “It is to be hoped that Uncle Censor will forward this letter on safely.”

And, after all these losses, when the war ends and wounded soldiers start arriving back home, they are rewarded with the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 by the same army within a year. This brutality in Amritsar, Punjab, depicts how the colonial establishment valued all these sacrifices of the Punjabi soldiers and their families. This also proves that these young boys of Punjab were nothing more than a disposable mass for the English army.


Amarjit Singh Chandan is perhaps the only Punjabi writer to have explored this theme in detail. Recently, he said in an interview: “War songs are propaganda, patriotic, jingoistic. A folk song by its nature is a collective pursuit of masses initiated by an individual. It is an epigram. The folksongs on the wars lie printed on paper but nobody sings them, nobody even talks about them. In personal and collective consciousness intensity of tragedies rarely goes beyond three generations. It is disturbing to note that the loss of thousands of soldiers in WWI is absent from the memory. One main factor was that the British colonial state took much care of soldiers’ families by giving them inãms, jagirs, sanads, pensions etc. After the war, the rewards bestowed were numerous.”


Amarjit Singh is absolutely right but these rewards didn’t erase the scars of war from the Punjabi psyche as almost every second family, particularly in the salt range area of Rawalpindi/Potohar lost a son or a relative. My own great grandfather served in WWI and was awarded a sword of honor and couple of other war awards but he used to express his guilt of fighting for the Crown as a subject in an army where locals were even barred to be commissioned officers because of their nativity and the warped Victorian values of racism.


It is a fact that the British colonizer threw these untrained peasant boys knowingly straight into the jaws of death by exposing them directly to the vastly superior Germans and their lethal weaponry.


Sadly I couldn’t find a single Punjabi folk line that shows how the returning soldiers with war awards and honors were greeted or remembered. A rich oral tradition of ours famous for honoring her heroes is completely silent. But they are being remembered and cashed in by many an organization in the UK, which is busy selling them and their dead comrades as willing and eager soldiers who were dying to proves themselves as Rãj loyalists. They are ignoring the displacement and alienation this war caused all over the Punjab that resulted into a grass root level national movement for independence.


(Special to The Asian Pacific Post)

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