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South Asian Experiences of the World Wars: New Evidence and New Approaches

26 May 2009

Venues: German Historical Institute London and Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Organisers: Centre of South Asian Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, German Historical Institute London, and Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin

Since historiography is increasingly turning to the experiences and memories of war, the problem of a significant but largely ‘forgotten’ non-European participation in the World Wars has received some attention, too. South Asia was famously utilized as an “English barracks in the Oriental seas” throughout the colonial period and, in previously unseen dimensions, as a recruitment base during both World Wars.

Numerous publications have shed more light since the 1990s on the ‘sepoy’ (as the South Asian soldier was called), on both his institutional involvements and his experiences. The exploration of South Asian experiences of the World Wars has been mainly confined, however, to combatants in these writings even though auxiliary non-combatant forces were comparable in their numbers and even though the impact of war was deep and transformative for the families of those shipped to the battlefields of the world as well as for various other groups of South Asian society. With regard to South Asia, the social history of the World Wars still struggles to fully step out of the long shadow of military history.

As for the materials used by historians to recover the experiences of South Asian soldiers, the availability of fascinating and voluminous censorship reports that contain numerous translations of soldiers’ letters written or dictated during World War I, appears to have rendered the search for further material less urgent in the eyes of historians. Non-British archives have hardly been explored for such purposes nor have the remarkable efforts of historians of Africa to generate oral histories of the World Wars inspired similar projects in South Asia.

Yet several recent publications and ongoing research projects seem to indicate possibilities of expanding and transforming the field. This workshop will discuss both the problem of locating/generating new evidence and will, for instance, introduce the rich depositories of various archives in Berlin on South Asian (combatant as well as non-combatant) prisoners of war in World War I Germany, which include numerous unique sound recordings. Considering new methodological and conceptual approaches, the workshop will also seek to develop new perspectives for future research in this field.

For enquiries and registration please contact Ravi Ahuja (email) or Indra Sengupta-Frey (isengupta(ghi)ghil.ac.uk).

Workshop programme (PDF file)