Challenging Assumptions

I came to the Subterranean Sepoys Project full of enthusiasm and very keen to learn about the Sub Sepoys Workshop OneIndian soldiers deployed on the Western Front in WW1.

I never thought this process would also involve me having to learn some painful truths about myself too, specifically re the need for me to broaden the lens through which I seem to see the world.

Researcher Premila Triveda uncovers the close familial bond between Indian sepoy and British officer.

sepoys_DSC_3399_webI came with very much a ‘Blackadder view’ of the WW1 and the Western Front, seeing it as a pointless and tragic waste, lions led by donkeys and sacrificed in their tens of thousands for a few feet of land. When I found out that Indian Sepoys had been recruited in to join in the trench warfare, I immediately thought of Imperialist Britain at the time, the arrogant way in which she seemed to ‘own’ and control so much of the world and how she could summon help from her far-flung colonies to fight in wars that were not of their making and ostensibly nothing to do with them. I imagined the Indian sepoys in the trenches, under the command of British officers, who would unquestioningly treat them as inferiors and have little respect for either their Indian values, skills and talents.

I saw the sepoys in France, far sepoys_DSC_3414_webfrom home, alienated, miserable and disaffected, perceived as ‘other’ and continuously subjected to both institutional racism built into the imperialist/colonialist structure and personal racism not only from their own British officers but also from others they came across in the field whose very war they were fighting. All these assumptions were made from my stance as someone who has experienced racism all their life, worked for many years to actively counter it and very much views the world through an anti-racism lens.

sepoys_DSC_3647_webBut I was soon to find out that many of the clear-cut assumptions I was making at the start of this project in 2014 perhaps did not completely hold when applied to people and situations in 1914. For example, in workshop 1 was surprised to hear that:

  • the sepoys were an established part of the British Army in India and many were proud of this association, achieving some degree of status and financial security through their military links (albeit confined to the lower ranks)
  • many sepoys felt a loyalty towards Britain and their imperial masters, and saw it as their duty to fight for Britain when called to do so in WW1; others felt co-operating with Britain could make it easier for India to gain/negotiate independence later
  • the sepoys in the British Army in India certainly were under the command of British officers but relationships were not necessarily hostile; eg officers often saw it was in their best interest to keep the sepoys on side and avoid the risk of sedition, consulting with Indian officers as to how best to do this in culturally appropriate ways
  • as evidence of this attention to cultural needs, British Indian Army battalions were sent to France accompanied by orderlies and resources to cater for the religious, cultural and dietary needs of the sepoys
  • sepoys_DSC_3500_webin France, relationships between the sepoys and their British officers did not seem to be any more racist or imperialist than they had been in India; relationships were already established and there was a feeling that they were a kind of (albeit very paternalistic) family, all in it together and there to carry out a specific job together. When Will spoke to us later as a British officer, he seemed to be saying that his responsibility was to maximize likelihood of military success and he didn’t seem particularly concerned re the sepoys’ personal lives or their emotional state, since (as I learnt later during the drama activities) being a soldier meant putting those aside as much as possible and just getting on with the job in hand

sepoys_DSC_3682_webAll these facts (and more) made me think and, while I could still see that everything in 1914 was overlain with the cloak of imperialism and colonization, things were maybe not as black and white as I had originally thought. I work as a trainer focusing on social inequalities (particularly those due to racial and cultural difference) and as such am constantly reminding people of the dangers of making assumptions and stereotyping. And yet that was exactly what I was doing. Suddenly I was exposed and realized I would have to be a bit more open-minded if I was ever to ‘get’ the sepoys and the experiences they went through a hundred years ago. This awareness also made me think about how difficult it was going to be for Avin to get the tone of the play right, especially in terms of relationships and power dynamics between the various players. It would be so easy to go completely down an anti-imperialist, anti-racist path, and I guess that’s what people like myself might expect and want and also feel cheated if it’s not there. But obviously it’s much more sepoys_DSC_3404_webcomplex and multi-layered than that. I’m wondering if that needs to be part of the play too, the challenge of seeing history through current eyes and ideology? Maybe the play could be formatted as a conversation between one of the last sepoys alive and a young Asian brought up in a very different socio-political time, and the barriers he/she has to get through in order to get the sepoy experience? But maybe that’s a different play and I should be focusing more on what Avin has in mind.

So maybe I should just get on with it and things will work themselves out in my mind in the end. Researching the sepoys’ letters and building up a picture of their human as well as military lives will certainly be fascinating. I just need to do so with a more open mind that focuses not only on the evils of imperialism and racism but also the actual experiences of those termed the subterranean sepoys

by Premila Trivedi