Reading the Embattled Text: Muslim Sipahis of the Indian Army and Sheikh Ahmad’s Dream, 1915-1918

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Gajendra Singh, Lecturer in South Asian History at the University of Exeter. Gajendra explores another potential source of the ‘voices’ of subordinates – the letters of Indian Muslim soldiers written during the First World War – and again reveals the complex vectors of power that operated around a medium of communication that was on the one hand designed as a means of monitoring the speech of subordinates, but on the other provided a space for communication that frustrated and eluded such designs.

Gajendra Singh*

I ought to start with an apology. I feel conscious of writing to an audience that will contain many English/British social historians. For South Asianists, English social history (particularly the work of EP Thompson) provided first the model of how one could listen to and write (re-write) the ‘voices of the people’[1] and then, following a closer synthesis between postcoloniality and poststructuralism, the precise model that exposed the impossibility and hubris of such an endeavour. Further, the substance of this post is a distillation of some of the ideas that emerged from my previous work rather than an articulation of my current research. This previous work of mine focused on the war testimonies of Indian soldiers – of the 1.7 million Indian sipahis (or ‘sepoys’) that were enlisted by the Imperial Government of India to fight in the First World War. Traces of this Indian presence can be found in the Imperial propaganda and in the Imperial ephemera of the day.

This post will not, however, offer a further analysis of these Indian ‘presences’ in wartime imagery. I will instead discuss those spaces and moments when soldiers were not fighting, and in which they could write and share their war experiences in their letters. This post will relate the production and circulation of colonial Indian soldiers’ testimonies to the porous and impermanent nature of their identities. It will talk in particular about Indian Muslim soldiers’ identities and of their appraisal and re-appraisal of Islam in the trenches. And, it will end by explaining why, and what I mean, when I choose to read such texts as embattled.


Indian Wounded at Brighton, 1915. Q53887. Photograph Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

On the 11th July 1916, Captain G. Tweedy, the Chief Censor of Indian military correspondence in France, alerted his superiors to a slip of paper he had found hidden in an otherwise anodyne letter by a Punjabi Muslim sipahi. It was the nature of the concealed missive, as much as the fact that it was hidden, that alarmed Tweedy. It took the form of a message that had been relayed from the Prophet Mohamed, and the injunctions contained therein directed the Muslim soldiery of British India to put their loyalty to their faith before any loyalty to their Sahibs:

I Sheikh Ahmad of Medina saw in a dream the Prophet reading the Koran. He said to me “Sheikh Ahmad I am weary beyond all measure of their sins. Between two Fridays 9 lakhs of people died, of whom only 70,000 were in the true faith and all the rest were Kafirs. God Almighty sent the angels to me with the following message “Mahomet, look at the condition of your followers. I can bear it no longer and I shall have to change the state of things because your devotees are full of sin. They have given up their prayers and do not give the Zakat to the poor. They devote themselves to theft and backbiting, fornication, false evidence, eating swine’s flesh, and misappropriation of others property. They do not keep their caste and do not give alms to the poor and disobey my orders. They are too much devoted to the world and in fact all Mahomedans are guilty of these sins. Therefore I think it necessary to change them into the original type of Mahomedans.” His Highness the Prophet prayed God to bear with His people and promised to issue further instructions to Islam and said “If they do not hear this last injunction then Thou are the Master do as Thou pleasest.” Then the Prophet said to me “Instruct all the followers of Islam that the Day of Judgement is at hand and the sun will soon rise in the West and the mountains will begin to burn. These are the signs of the end of the world.” […] Now I issue clear orders to the faithful to avoid the sins I have mentioned and that they should call to mind the manifold pains and anxieties the Prophet has undergone for their salvation. Do Musalmans want the Prophet to spend all his time in begging God’s forgiveness for their sins? The Prophet has clearly said that if you do not obey this last call he will have nothing more to do with you and will implore the Almighty no more for you. Whoever will copy this message and circulate it from city to city and read it out to others the Prophet will stand by him in the Last Day, and who does not do this will be his enemy and he will do nothing to save him however regular and abstinent his life may be. Sheikh Ahmad takes a solemn oath that this dream is true, and that if it is not true he prays God to smite him dead as an unbeliever. This news has come form Medina the Holy. Impress on every Mahomedan to obey the instruction if he wishes to escape from Hell fire.[2]

That this letter was written, posted and recorded at all was due to particular, and peculiar, discourses of colonial military paternalism in the colonial Indian Army. Indian sipahis were the epitome of Kipling’s half-savage and half-child; in need of a nurturing, civilizing hand and back-of-the-hand-discipline. They were both to be provided with more generous welfare provisions[3] and disciplined more harshly than their white peers (flogging, for instance, was used as a summary punishment in the Indian Army until 1920).[4] The attitude of the Indian Army towards letters by its soldiers was shaped by these discourses of military paternalism. From the beginning of the First World War, the Indian Army encouraged its soldiers to write home to assuage feelings of anxiety, loneliness and despondency. The Army provided green-coloured, self-sealing letter cards in which soldiers were encouraged to scribble their thoughts once per week. Military officials remarked with some amazement at the numbers of sipahis that had learnt to write just so they could pen their own letters.[5]

Soldiers keenly requested language primers and newspapers, and even took to incorporating French phrases in their prose to add to or cover any gaps in their knowledge of their vernacular: ‘Of course people would laugh, but “can en fait rien” [sic]’.[6] For those that remained illiterate or unable to write a full letter, there was an intimate, shared literacy that accompanied the asking of a friend or acquaintance in the platoon to help pen a letter; a collective literacy of shared language, metaphor and sentiment. By the autumn of 1915, there were up to fifty thousand letters being written by, to and between Indian soldiers in France every week, and, one would expect, tens of thousands more from sipahis in East Africa and the Middle East.

But although sipahis were allowed to speak they were never permitted to speak freely. The decision to allow Indian soldiers to voice their fears and concerns was made to further institutionalize and perfect military paternalism. After Indian soldiers arrived in France in the winter of 1914, their letters were no longer to be censored as they were in British battalions – by an orderly reading out aloud a selection of letters to a junior officer who was entrusted to excise any that betrayed operational details. In the Indian Army a special Chief Censor of Indian Mails was appointed whose purpose, with the help of his staff, was to read, analyse, translate and record every letter sent by and to a sipahi in the field. The space of speech was created as an intelligence exercise: to monitor disillusionment and counter seditious activity,[7] as well as the more mundane task of preventing the exchange of operational information. And in the written records of sipahis’ testimonies there was a constant need to translate even poetic verse into English, because ‘native’ words could not be trusted to convey the correct meaning unless they were placed in soothing parentheses next to their English equivalent. It is the product of this paternal need to record soldiers’ speech that will be analyzed here. It made possible the prospect of mistranslation and misinterpretation; of censors not being linguistically able enough to transcribe and translate Indian vernaculars, and missing the intended sentiment of the author even if they were. The collated letters were not simply products of an uncritical acceptance of the ‘paternalism of the colonial state’[8]. The letters were rather marked by indeterminacy. They were and remain full of grey areas between author and censor, product and intention; of sipahis manipulating their speech out of an awareness that it was being misconstrued.

The missive from Medina emerged from this indeterminate, liminal terrain. It came to be termed the ‘Snowball’ letter[9] because it helped to frame a debate that Muslim soldiers conducted over their religion, and the frequency with which it was referred to increased as the War raged on. At the time, Tweedy, as Chief Censor, busied himself with trying to find where the letter had originated from in (what proved to be a vain) hope that it could be stopped at its source. For the purposes of this post, however, the precise origins of the missive are unimportant. As it was read, received and transmitted by soldiers it was internalized and altered to reflect their own realities. Vernacular words and concepts such as lakhs and caste infiltrated the religious prose; the words and metaphors of the missive changed each time a soldier transcribed or quoted from it; and the actions it inspired resulted in everything from increased numbers fasting during Ramzan to outright mutiny. Furthermore, the letter came to be used as a response to, and operated in a space created by, Muslim reform movements in South Asia and earlier attempts to interfere with the religious practices of Muslim sipahis that were sanctioned by British and German military authorities. All this can be read and read about in some recent publications[10] and I do not want to dwell on the matter further here.

The point with which I want to end is how one can read such a text (or approach a reading of such a text). The Snowball letter is merely one example of the depths of the frustration of colonial officialdom and the depths of soldiering polysemy. Soldiers’ letters as a whole, although censored and conditioned, translated and re-transcribed, contained (and continue to contain) references to unknowable spaces and shared memories. Shared truths and knowledges were often elided over or only tangentially mentioned: ‘you will understand what I mean’, ‘think over what I say’[11] Each invocation of collective memories and spaces allowed for specific meanings and ideas to be relayed that were only partially decipherable by the Censor and which can only be guessed at by readers of the material today. The fact that military letters were conditioned and regulated by the Army, but rarely interrupted and excised, provided a greater incentive for sipahis to use only partially interpretable language and concepts. And, it caused a deep irresolvable frustration in the office of the Chief Censor: ‘The first extract illustrates how almost impossible it is for any censorship of Oriental correspondence to be effective as a barrier. Orientals excel in the art of conveying information without saying anything definite.’[12]

This frustration was compounded further with the appearance and then re-appearance of the Snowball letter. It proved impossible for the Chief Censor to regulate and stop, and the missive came to be termed the Snowball letter because the frequency with which it was transmitted or referred to increased as the war raged on. It was both the manifestation of a particular eschatological dream that had been circulating for a century and a half before the First World War in the wider Islamic world,[13] and infused with contemporary, South Asian relevance. Its form and tone was shaped by the street debates of Muslim reform movements in colonial India as well as by German and Ahmadiyya propaganda in the trenches in France. And as the letter was transcribed and re-transcribed and then passed on, the language of the letter slipped into the everyday prose and concerns of soldiers. The borrowed prose became a way of conveying the horrors of trench warfare; its apocalyptic tone and prospect of redemption given new relevance amid the broken bodies and unburied corpses of France – ‘God knows whether the land of France is stained with sin or whether the Day of Judgement has begun in France. For guns and of rifles there is now a deluge, bodies upon bodies, and blood flowing.’[14]

Viewing the Snowball letter, and sipahis’ testimonies more broadly, as embattled is to link linguistic double-play to material reality: of the twisting and fracturing of soldiers’ cultural and social identities in their trenches amid ‘the rank stench of those bodies’ which ‘haunt me still’.[15] The physical, intimate space of how letters were written forced soldiers to think through their horror and address their fragile mortality, of their own fantasies and desires, and why, as non-Britons, they were fighting at all in this War. Islam provided a language in which soldiers could communicate the otherwise incommunicable. All this could occur in the knowledge that the space of letter-writing only had the illusion of intimacy and was in fact the product of military and colonial methods of control. Writing about this embattled production of text – of testimony as a process, praxis or act rather than static or dead text – is to try to adopt a poetical reading of contested voices and their silences as a way to explore the life histories of these individuals. But, it is also to recognize the historians’ complicity in further embattling and conditioning these voices. That we must write mindful not just of novel approaches that help to liberate historical voices for analysis but also of the historians’ conceit in delimiting them at the very moment of liberation. As Sowar Dorana Khan commented at the end of a letter that he had penned: ‘This is not a letter, it is a live coal placed on my flesh.’[16] It is a reminder both of the effects that the production of testimony could have on his identity and lived reality and of the violences implicit in repackaging such testimony as history.

* Not to be cited without permission of the author.

[1] Discussed at length by Raj Chandavarkar before his untimely death. Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, ‘“The Making of the Working Class”: E.P. Thompson and Indian History’; Vinayak Chaturvedi, Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, (London and New York: Verso, 2000).

[2] As transcribed by Sipahi Gasthip Khan, (Punjabi Mussalman), France, to Pir Sahib Akhbar Khan Badshah, Jhelum, Punjab, India, 4 July 1916; Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, 1915-1916, [hereafter CIM 1915-1916]; Military Department Papers, Asia and Africa Collection, British Library, L/MIL/5/827, Part 5.

[3] Concern over the low pay of Indian soldiers, and the difficulty for the Indian Army to obtain funds for a significant increase in wages until 1921 (when the pay of sipahis was increased from Rs. 11 to Rs. 16 per month) led to the implementation of a raft of irregular payments over and above the regular wage. The most systematized form of irregular payments was batta, which was initially implemented to cover fluctuations in the price of food grain, but which became a fixed payment worth Rs. 2 anna 8 per month in 1887 and Rs. 5 in 1914. Individual British officers were even encouraged to provide gifts to their soldiers as part of the batta system, and as a way of reinforcing the special bond between the ‘native’ soldier and his white superior. See Kaushik Roy, Brown Warriors of the Raj: Recruitment and the Mechanics of Command in the Sepoy Army, 1859-1913, (New Delhi: Manohar, 2008).

[4] In peacetime George Hamilton, the Secretary of State for India between 1895 and 1903, estimated the number of soldiers of the Indian Army being flogged annually at ‘one in two thousand’ or one every other battalion. This probably increased in the First World War. No official record was kept but at least one case is known of a sipahi being flogged in Mesopotamia (recorded because he was attached to a British battalion), and officers, perhaps inspired by the frequency of the practice in the Indian Army, wrongly administered the punishment among other colonial troops from the Caribbean. See Gerard Oram, Worthless Men: Race, Eugenics and the Death Penalty in the British Army During the First World War, (London: Francis Boutle, 1998), and Richard Smith, Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of National Consciousness, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).

[5] ‘Under stress of necessity many Indian soldiers during their stay in Europe have learned to read and write their own languages, and primers and spelling books come in large quantities from India to [soldiers in] the Army.’

Captain E.B. Howell, 11th December 1915, CIM 1914-1915, Part 8.

[6] Abdul Jaffar Khan, (Hindustani Muslim), Signal Troop, Sialkot Cavalry Brigade, France, to Dafadar Inayat Khan, Rohtak, Punjab, India, 20th August 1916, Part 7. The expression ‘ca ne fait rien’ also entered the everyday speech of British, Dominion and American soldiers (as ‘san fairy ann’, ‘san ferry ann’, ‘sanfarian’ etc.). W.H. Downing, Digger Dialects; J.M. Arthur and W.S. Ramson (eds.), (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 183. Hugh Kimber, San Fairy Ann, (London: Robert Holden & Co., 1927).

[7] ‘Towards the end of September 1914 the Lahore and Meerut Divisions of the Indian Army, with the normal complement of British troops included, began to arrive in France. The Force was disembarked at Marseilles and after a few days’ rest there was conveyed by train to Orleans. The route chosen for the troop trains was a circuitous one leading through Toulouse and other places in south-western France. While the force was in transit a member of the Indian Revolutionary Party [Ghadar Party], if it may be so called, was arrested in Toulouse, and upon examination his pockets were found to be stuffed with seditious literature intended for dissemination among Indian soldiery.

The authorities, thus set upon their guard, decided that, at least during the stay of the Indian troops in Europe, their correspondence must be subjected to systematic examination, and cast about as [sic.] a suitable person to appoint as Indian Mail Censor. It was not easy to find anyone possessing anything like the requisite qualifications, but eventually Second Lieutenant E.B. Howell, a member of the Political Department of the Indian Civil Service, who chanced to be serving in France as an interpreter attached to a regiment of Indian cavalry, was chosen and directed to undertake this duty.’

Captain E.B. Howell, ‘Report on Twelve Months’ Writing of the Indian Mail Censorship’, 7th November 1915; Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, 1914-1918, [hereafter CIM 1914-1918]; Military Department Papers, Asia and Africa Collection, British Library, L/MIL/5/828, Part 1.

[8] Rajit K. Mazumder, The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab, (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), p. 258.

[9] The term is used as early as August 1915, when the Censor at the time (E.B. Howell) makes mention of a chain letter from Medina circulating among the troops. Howell doses not see fit, however, to include the text of the letter in his fortnightly reports.

[10] Cf. Gajendra Singh, ‘Throwing Snowballs in France: Muslim Sipahis of the Indian Army and Sheikh Ahmad‘s Dream, 1915-1918‘, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 48, no. 4, 2014; & Gajendra Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy, (London and New York, Bloomsbury, 2014).

[11] Anon. (Sikh), Military Hospital, England, to Brother, India, 14 February 1915, CIM 1914–1915, Part 1.

[12] Howell, 15 February 1915, CIM 1914–1915, Part 1.

[13] Cf. Singh, ‘Throwing Snowballs in France’.

[14] Amir Khan, (Punjabi Musalman), 129th Baluchis, France, to brother, Lance Naik 
Zaman Khan, 34th Regiment, Rawalpindi, Punjab, India, 18 March 1915; CIM, 1914–1915, Part 2.

[15] Siegfried Sassoon, “The Rank Stench of those Bodies Haunts Me Still”, 1916.

[16] Dorana Khan, (Pathan), 38th Central India Horse, France, to father, Gul Aslam Khan, Jangi, Peshawar, NWFP, India, 3rd April 1916, CIM, 1915–1916, Part 4.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Embattled Text: Muslim Sipahis of the Indian Army and Sheikh Ahmad’s Dream, 1915-1918

  1. [I’m posting this comment on all of this week’s posts – those by Nick, Emily, and Gajendra – as I was struck by a common theme I observed in all of them, so really it is something for each of you to think about]

    All of the posts this week seem to me to demonstrate that even in the most hierarchical of power structures, where the voices of subordinate groups are most heavily restricted, their very restriction is often born out of a recognition of their agency.

    So, in early modern England explicit articulations of same sex male desire were silenced because it was recognised that allowing them a voice could destabilise dominant ideas about order and social relations. In the context of the South Seas Mission, ‘gossip’ about the character of Revd Simpson was on the one hand dismissed as flippant, whilst at the same time the powers that be sought to hush it up, or to use gossip as a powerful tool themselves, and ultimately its spread did serve to bring Simpson down. Indian Muslims soldiers in the First World War were permitted to write letters, but their officers allowed them to do so only so that they could monitor and police the voices of the soldiers – they were fearful of the power of discontent and divided loyalties, and ultimately here too the soldiers managed to use their letters to communicate in a way that evaded the attempt at control from above.

    Building then on a comment from last week in response to Will Pooley’s post – that we need to be careful about seeing the silences of the people as imbued with agency, when many were examples of the people being actively silenced – it seems to me that even in instances when structures of power worked hardest to silence the people we can often tell a story of the agency, either inherent or realised, that marginal voices had in their own time.

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