The Politics of Giving Gifts: Religious Comforts and Practices for Indian Soldiers in the First World War
Abstract of the talk
During the First World War (1914-1918) India sent over a million men to serve the British Army at various theatres of the war. At the Western Front in France and the Flanders close to a hundred thousand Muslim, Sikh and Hindu soldiers of the British Indian Army faced the gruesome experience of industrial warfare in trenches. This lecture provides glimpses from a book under preparation that deals with religious comforts and practices for Indian soldiers during the war. From colonial presumptions about the “martial races” of Northern India as being religious by nature, military authorities and charities like the Indian Soldiers’ Fund distributed large quantities of religious scriptures and artefacts to the soldiers and arranged rations, spaces, and recreational activities after their divergent religious traditions. While the British press was flooded with fantasies about the soldiers’ exotic customs from the autumn 1914, rumours were spreading in India about mistreatment and religious infringements. Many British officials condemned the soldiers’ religious customs for impeding military discipline, but the supply of religious comforts was believed to serve several political gains and was firmly integrated in war propaganda. The lecture will exemplify how the giving of religious gifts did not merely reflect British perceptions of the soldiers’ religions but was entrenched in a contractual and reciprocal thinking and involved larger political concerns for the British colonial power.