Between self and soldier: indian sipahis and their testimony during the two world wars
This project started as an attempt to understand rank-and-file resistance within the colonial Indian army. My reasons for doing so were quite simple. Colonial Indian soldiers were situated in the divide between the colonizers and the colonized. As a result, they rarely entered colonialist narratives written by and of the British officer or nationalist accounts of the colonial military. The writers of contemporary post-colonial histories have been content to maintain this lacuna, partly because colonial soldiers are seen as not sufficiently ‘subaltern’ to be the subjects of their studies. The more I investigated the matter, the more I realized how important it was to move beyond ideas of resistance and collaboration. If sipahis (or sepoys) were between the two poles of colonizer and colonized, so their day-to-day existence fell between notions of resistance or collaboration. The problem I still had was finding a means by which I could recover the voice of the colonial soldier. Locating the testimony of Indian sipahis was not as difficult as I first feared. Thousands of censored 'Indian Mails' from the two World Wars were stored by the India Office at Whitehall and are now within the archived records of the British Library. A similar number of interrogation reports of Indian military personnel who defected to the Indian National Army during the Second World War, and subsequently fought for the independence of India, have recently been declassified by the Indian Ministry of Defence and handed to the National Archives of India. Finally, depositions given by soldiers during courts martial in the early part of the twentieth century have survived in several archives. But none of these sources offered a holistic glimpse of what soldiers thought and felt. The presence of the censor, interrogator and the courtroom was literally written across the page and conditioned the voice of the sipahi contained therein. The solution I have adopted in this thesis is to treat the heteroglot nature of these forms of testimony as reflective of Indian soldiers' own heteroglossia. Even though the spaces in which soldiers could speak were compromised, they could nonetheless provide opportunities for soldiers to push the boundaries of what was permissible and what was not. The form of the letter was used to further illicit activities and pass on news of discontent or trouble at home. The space of the colonial courtroom was reappropriated by sipahis in order to thwart the prosecution of their peers. The interrogation chamber was a forum for many soldiers to demonstrate that they no longer considered themselves subject to the rigours of British military discipline. In each example, however, it was not only the boundaries of sipahis' testimony that were being distended, but the boundaries of their own identities. Thus the nature of my thesis is to demonstrate how soldiers could re-read and re-write their own roles within the colonial Indian Army.