Shared Sorrows – 10

February 10, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 10



Even as prisoners within the Ottoman Empire, Sisir Sarbadhikari and his fellow Indian POWs were constantly reminded of their inferiority in the imperial hierarchy. Sisir touches on this theme often, especially in relation to the sums that were disbursed to the POWs according to the laws of war. On February 12th 1917, he remarks that an official had visited the hospital and distributed money to the prisoners: ‘Five liras for the whites, four for the Russians and three liras for us. The money comes from British or Indian POW funds, but still the Russians get more than us. Not only are we a defeated race, we’re also black.’ (153) [i]

Next year, in July he returns to this theme: ‘Some funds have arrived for us from the Red Cross Society – 3 liras for the British, and one and a half liras for us. We all refused it… [But] After much persuasion … we agreed to take the one and a half liras. What we said when we refused the money was that white soldiers are paid higher salaries in India (bharatvarsha) because they are serving in a foreign country and therefore have extra expenses.’… But that argument doesn’t work in this instance. Turkey is not our country, just as it is not theirs … The differences and distinctions that have been created between whites and blacks in all things is deeply insulting to us. A Hindustani sepoy receives  half the pay that a white soldier gets; his clothing and uniform is different too – the white’s is better. But the white Tommy and the black sepoy both put aside their love of life to go to war, they both suffer equally – yet in the midst of shared hardship, everything possible is done to make things better for Tommy.[ii] Even his rations are different – Tommy drinks his tea with sugar, we drink it with jaggery. And what tea it is! Sacks of it lie in front of the store; people walk over it with their boots. If there’s a canteen then we aren’t allowed into it; only whites can buy from them… A lot can be written about this.’ (187-8)


[i] Racial issues recur constantly in both British and Indian writing about the colonial army, irrespective of class and rank. Writing about the diaries of Amar Singh, a Rajput nobleman, Santanu Das observes: ‘‘Slur’ is a recurrent word and emotion in the diaries; a constant oscillation between class privilege and racial discrimination forms their emotional core. Experiences of ‘slight’ range from the refusal of the English soldiers to salute him (though he was King’s Commissioned Officer) to being teased for not eating beef to being ‘very rudely’ asked to leave the room when important military details are discussed. The personal and the racial are interlinked’ (Indians at home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: towards an intimate history, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011. Elsewhere, in the same article Santanu points to the British insistence on maintaining racial boundaries: ‘In In Kut and Captivity (1919), Major Sandes writes that on reaching Baghdad, ‘our first business was naturally to get separate accommodation for the Indian officers’: ‘we explained also that Indian officers … were always of inferior ranks to British officers’.[i] Even in captivity, the colonial, racist hierarchy is put forward as ‘natural’.’

[ii] In this passage, as elsewhere, Sisir consistently uses the Bengali words gora for to refer to ‘white’ soldiers. He uses kalo (black) to refer to himself and other Indians.




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