ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Military History Meets Labour History

The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict 1914­–1921 by Radhika Singha, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2020; pp 396, 699.


Radhika Singha has produced an unusual book on World War I. Instead of focusing on the usual suspects—soldiers—she has written a book on one of the most marginalised groups of military participants—labourers of the Indian Army. Colonised, coloured, and often hailing from stigmatised sections of Indian society, these labourers served at the very bottom of the military establishment. Historians have largely neglected them so far. Scholarship on World War I has traditionally focused on political events, military operations, technological aspects, as well as the causes and effects of the war. In the last few years, historians have increasingly turned to questions of remembrance, experience, representation, gender, logistics, and environment. But throughout this period, the focus has largely remained on the armed forces, not only for India, but also for other parts of the world. This is what makes Singha’s focus on the labour corps uncommon. It is also the first monograph-length work ever to be dedicated to the study of labourers in the context of South Asian armed conflicts. The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict 1914­–1921 is hence a landmark volume in more senses than one.

This is all the more remarkable since Singha is not technically a military historian; for most of her career, she has been a historian of criminal law in colonial India. Yet, in the first instance, this book is an intervention in the historio­graphy of South Asian warfare. Hence, we must begin by situating this work within the larger context of this field. Military histories of South Asia originated in the colonial period as studies of combat, commanders, and campaigns. Marginalised in the post-independence decades, this form of military history has seen a resurgence in recent years. Meanwhile, the 1980s saw the rise of a new generation of historians who—in a bid to understand the social basis of war—started studying the army as a social institution in different historical contexts. This is what is known as New Military History. Growing rapidly as a subfield since then, this has given us rich social histories of armies, martial communities, and politico-military groups.

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Updated On : 21st Jul, 2021
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