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Book Talk: The ‘Menial Class of Follower’: World War one and the Servant Problem in the Indian Army

Radhika Singha, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

October 29, 2020 · 12:00 pm1:20 pm · via Zoom

Center for Collaborative History

Part of the Colonialism and Imperialism Workshop series, this book talk will be focused on Prof. Singha’s book, “The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914–1921” (C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd, 2019).

Though largely invisible in histories of the First World War, over 550,000 men in the ranks of the Indian army were non-combatants. From the porters, stevedores and construction workers in the Coolie Corps to those who maintained supply lines and removed the wounded from the battlefield, Radhika Singha recovers the story of this unacknowledged service. The labour regimes built on the backs of these ‘coolies’ sustained the military infrastructure of empire; their deployment in interregional arenas bent to the demands of global war. Viewed as racially subordinate and subject to ‘non-martial’ caste designations, they fought back against their status, using the warring powers’ need for manpower as leverage to challenge traditional service hierarchies and wage differentials. ‘The Coolie’s Great War’ views that global conflict through the lens of Indian labour, constructing a distinct geography of the war–from tribal settlements and colonial jails, beyond India’s frontiers, to the battlefronts of France and Mesopotamia.

Radhika Singha is a Professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has worked on crime and criminal law, identification practices, governmentality , borders and border- crossing in colonial India.

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