By: Amarjit Chandan

Presented at Across the Black Waters One-Day Symposium at the Imperial War Museum, London, November 7, 1998.

Don’t go don’t go
Stay back my friend.

Crazy people are packing up,
Flowers are withering and friendships are breaking.
Stay back my friend.

Allah gives bread and work
You wouldn’t find soothing shades anywhere else.
Don’t go my friend don’t go.

- Punjabi folk song of the early 20th century

y helping the British colonialists in suppressing the Revolt of 1857, the Punjab Sikh chiefs and soldiers had saved the empire. The Sikh soldiers were taken in the army first in 1846. During 1853-54 they crushed the Santhal rebellion in the Ganga valley. In 1860 the Loodhiaah (Ludhiana) Regiment conquered Hong Kong and Peking. For half a century Sikh ‘soldiers of the Queen’ were instrumental in suppressing the revolts by Pathans in the North West Frontier Province. They were also involved in the overseas campaigns in Abyssinia (1867), Malaya, Egypt (1882-1885), Burma (1885), Afghanistan (1878-1880), East and Central Africa (1891- 1898), and South Africa. According to an estimate, total 70,000 Sikh soldiers lost their lives in World Wars I & II.
A song sheet published in 1898 by Francis Day & Hunter, gives a picture of how, by the end of the century, the Indian soldier had more than redeemed himself in the eyes of the British public. The song, How India Kept Her Word which was sung on the London stage by Leo Dryden, included a reference to the ultimate bravery award, the Victoria Cross, and contained the following lines:

Though mutineers some of them might have been,
They were not trusted soldiers of the Queen,
Britannia, do not blame, I beg of you,
The loyal many for the trait’rous few;
When once again the star of peace has beamed,
Then India’s pledge to you will be redeemed.
They only plead for one reward,
Repaying every loss,
The right to wear like Britain’s sons,
The great Victorian Cross.
India’s reply in the days gone by,
To other nations may have been absurd,
But when Britain’s flag unfurl’d,
They prov’d to all the world,
How the Sons of India kept their word.

By the turn of the century the Punjab was agriculturally the most prosperous province in India and was also the most indebted. The peasant movement of 1906-1907 in the Punjab enlisted the sympathy and limited participation of the pensioners and a few serving regiments in certain districts. The situation drove the peasants - jats (cultivating caste) and artisans - towards seeking other means of subsistence. The colonial state on its part was impelled by its own considerations of strategy and security to narrow down its recruiting base mainly to the Punjab. The best Indian material for the British army, to quote Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Governor of the Punjab, was found mainly in the province under the cover of a socio-biological ideology of martial races. Thus the Punjab became the “sword arm of India”.

15th Ludhiana Sikhs. The Colour Party. Jat Sikhs
Watercolour by Major AC Lovett
Courtesy: National Army Museum, London

A gramophone record cut in Punjabi by Bhai Chhaila Patialewala and played on the new magic machine became very popular:

The recruits are at your door step
Here you eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit...
Here you are in tatters
There you’ll wear a suit...
Here you wear worn out shoes
There you’ll wear boot (s)...

At the outbreak of the war one half of the Indian Army was drawn from the Punjab. The idea that the Indian troops were to fight against the European foe on the western front had been used by the civil authorities through rural men of influence.

Every effort was made to bring home to the people that the war was their war – one for the “defence of their hearths and homes”. (O’Dwyer, M., India as I knew It: 1885-1925) Throughout history, the Punjabis having been exposed to invasions from outside, this was not an unimaginable thought. The most effective of all inducements was 180,000 acres of valuable canal-irrigated land for allotment later to Indian officers and men who would serve with special distinction in the field.

Some 15,000 acres were also set aside for reward grants to those who would give most effective help. In public durbars of various tribes and castes, O’Dwyer made the strongest appeal to their izzat (honour).

Punjabi soldiers sailing from Bombay.1914. Photo: Imperial War Museum. London

The Indian National Congress under the leadership of Gandhi supported the British war efforts in the hope of attaining dominion status. He actively encouraged the Indians to enlist in the army and contribute to the war fund. On the other hand, Ghadar Party’s open call for non-cooperation and armed revolt against the British colonialists went unheeded. After the end of the war Indians were paid back with the unpopular Rowlett Act. The mass unrest against the Act culminated in the massacre at Amritsar
in 1919.
            After the war, the rewards bestowed were numerous: titles of honour from Raja and Nawab to Raisahib and Khan Sahib, robes of honour, swords of honour, guns, revolvers, complimentary sanads, cash rewards, grants of government land, of revenue-free land to individuals and to communities and remission of taxation. 420,000 acres of land were distributed among VCOs and other ranking officers.
Over 40,000 persons received Jangi Inams - special pensions for two lives - for the pensioner and to his next generation after his death. One can imagine about the economic and social impact of these awards in the Punjab.

Wounded Punjabi soldiers in Brighton. England. 1916. Photo: Brighton Museum

            At the beginning of the war, the strength of the Punjabis in the army was 100,000.
During the war 380,000 more were added to it. Apart from men, the Punjab gave Rs2 crores [Rs 20 million] to war funds and ‘invested’ Rs 10 crores [Rs 1 billion] in the war loans. It set out to provide 7 aeroplanes and provided more than seven times seven. (M.S. Leigh, The Punjab & the War. 1922). In the Punjab one man in 28 was mobilised in the war, the corresponding figure for India was 1 in 150. Out of a population of 2.5 million, the Sikhs supplied 90,000 combatant recruits. During the war 1 in 14 of the Sikh population in the Punjab served in it: a proportion ten times greater than that contributed by the population as a whole. (John Maynard, The Sikh Problem in the Punjab 1920-1923. 1977) The price was high: 61,041 dead and 67,771 wounded.
            Lord Hardinge, the then Viceroy of India wrote in his memoirs :

Within six months of the outbreak of war seven divisions of infantry and two divisions and two brigades of cavalry were sent from India overseas. But in addition to these organised forces no less than 20 batteries of artillery and 32 battalions of British infantry, 1,000 strong and more were sent to England. Altogether 80,000 British officers and troops and 210,000 Indian officers and men were sent  from India overseas during the first six months of the war....It is a fact that for several weeks before the arrival of some untrained Territorial battalions from England the total British garrison in India, a country bigger than Europe... was reduced to less than 15,000 men. It was a big risk, but I took it, in spite of the repeated and vigorous protests of the Commander-in-Chief and some of the European community, as I trusted the people of India in the great emergency that had arisen, and I told them so and my confidence was not misplaced.

    (India and the War, 1914, by Lord Hardinge, My Indian                                       Years. pp 102-103).



wo world wars and partition of the Punjab have been the most traumatic for the Punjabis. While folklorists have recorded a few folk songs on the world wars, there is hardly any folksong on Partition, maybe because of the collective sense of guilt. Historical records of tragic events can never reflect the suffering, pain and grief of people as a folksong can do. Though the inadequacy of language remains even in a song. A folksong, unlike a propaganda piece, is least manipulated; it remains vulnerable even after the lapse of time since it was conceived and sung to oneself or in a group of people. Now the folksongs on the wars lie printed on paper. Nobody sings them. Nobody ever talks about them.
            The maximum number of men 120,000 were recruited from the Rawalpindi division and majority of them were Muslims. The Dhan-Pothohar region of the division produced most of the folksongs on world wars. There was hardly any household in Pothohar which was unaffected by the wars. Womenfolk – mothers, sisters and wives – are the protagonists in the songs. They show total frustration, despair, but a faint ray of hope keeps them alive. They persuade the men not to leave home for the front. They curse the firangees (foreigner whites) for the suffering. They hate war and the warmongers, whether the British or the Germans. They wish and pray for the safe return of their men. There is nowhere any hint of martyrdom in these songs. They knew their men were mercenaries and not fighters in the Sikh or Rajput or jihadi tradition.

Wounded Punjabi soldier dictating a letter at a hospital
in Brighton. August 1915. Photo courtesy: Imperial War Museum & BBC


No song shows the anguish of the father whose son has gone to the front. All photographs available of the Indian soldiers in the British army show stern faces with cold and sad looks. It is not a coincidence, that the Punjabi poetry of the early 1950s’ Peace Movement resembles very much in form and content the folksongs composed half a century earlier.


My husband, and his two brothers
All have gone to laam. [l’arme]

Hearing the news of the war
Leaves of trees got burnt.

War destroys towns and ports, it destroys huts
I shed tears, come and speak to me
All birds, all smiles have vanished
and the boats sunk
Graves devour our flesh and blood

He wears a tusser shirt
O train, move slowly
You have a passenger bound for Basra

The sand is hot in the cauldron
Germany stop the war
We do not need it

Trees by the roadside
Wicked Germany, stop the war
There are widows in every household

Potholes on the roads
Poor people’s sons were killed in Basra

In the morning I saddled the horse
For the Basra expedition
Alas, I couldn’t talk to him to my heart’s content
The string flew with the kite
May God forgive me

Germany is on the offensive
The English wouldn’t be able to do anything
May God forgive me

Mothers’ sons have gone to the laam in the foreign lands
May Allah end the laam, my children
May the Five Souls of the Prophet’s family guard you
May Allah bring you back home safe.

Sources:Punjab da lok sahit (Folk Literature of the Punjab), SS Bedi, Navyug, 1968;Punjabi Lokgeetan vich Sainik (The Soldier in Punjabi Folksongs), Devendra Satyarthi, Punjabi University, 1970. Communist Movement in Punjab, Bhagwan Josh, Anupama, 1979; The Indian Army of the Empress, 1861-1903, Alan Harfield, Spellmount. 1990.

Folksongs translated by the author with Amin Mughal

Note: Censored letters written in Punjabi and Urdu by Punjabi soldiers from abroad during WW1 are kept in India Office Library and Records in the British Library, London.  File No. L/Mil/5/826.

VanKoski, Susan. Letters Home, 1915-1916: Punjabi Soldiers Reflect on War and Life in Europe and their Meanings for Home and Self. International Journal of Punjab Studies. Vol 2.1 (January-June 1995). Sage: New Delhi. London.


India Office Records: L/Mil/17/5/2383: Indian Contribution to the Great War. Calcutta. 1923. pp 96-7.

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