Religion

Religion may have been the opiate for the masses to Karl Marx but during the First World War, it seemed to pervade every aspect of life, whether at home or on the front. While the importance of the Christian faith and the resulting crisis for European soldiers and civilians during the war years has been widely documented and examined, the role of religion with reference to the colonial war experience has been explored much less. Religion, in a colonial context, was not just a matter of private faith and feeling; it was a tool of transnational statecraft and propaganda for the belligerent European nation-states, an agent of cross-cultural encounters and dialogue in the actual theatre of war, and an active ingredient in wartime discourses at the colonial home front around the state of Western civilisation. Many of these different discourses came together quite powerfully in the case of undivided India.

On 14 November 1914, in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Sheikh-un-Islam declared a holy war against Britain, France, Serbia, Russia, and Montenegro and promised the Muslims who opposed this call 'the fire of hell'. Speaking on behalf of the Caliph, the spiritual head of the global Muslim community, he had tremendous authority. As Hew Strachan notes, 'This was a call to revolution which had, it seemed, the potential to set all Asia and much of Africa ablaze [...] the message was translated into Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Tatar'. During the war years, this became an intensive, well-orchestrated, and multi-stranded mission - the so-called 'German jihad-strategy' - with immediate war aims but also with long-term strategic implications. German officials established contact with anti-colonial revolutionaries from India and Morocco and even built a mosque in the POW camp at Wunsdorf so as to win over the Muslim POWs from the Allied prisoners. German propaganda was largely unsuccessful, but it caused considerable anxiety among the Allied powers. Britain called upon powerful Muslim figures across its empire - from religious leaders in India and Egypt to the Aga Khan - to ensure loyalty from its Muslim subjects. In fact Shi'a Muslim sepoys had expressed reservations about fighting near the holy sites in Mesopotamia; the 15th Lancers from India refused to open fire on their Muslim brethren in Basra. Religion was thus exploited both for propaganda by the belligerents and for resistance by the colonials.

But how did religion infiltrate the daily lives of soldiers and cultural contact? With memories of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British were very attentive to the religious needs of the colonial troops, as well as their dietary requirements which included the substitution of lamb for bully-beef for the Hindus and Sikhs. Archival photographs and records reveal Maori choirs singing in services and West Indian chaplains writing about their men's experiences. Similarly, photographs of Sikh soldiers singing the shabad [religious songs] behind the trenches in France, of Hindus celebrating the festival of Dusserah in the POW camp of Wunsdorf, and of Muslims praying facing Mecca speak volumes about the role of religion. The full extent of British 'sensitivity' to the religious needs of the Indian sepoys was on show in the Brighton Pavilion Hospital for wounded Indians, with its three water taps for the Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh sepoys, respectively and nine kitchens for men belonging to different castes. Ironically, it was during this time that religious and caste distinctions among the Indians were breaking under the pressures of war. Thus, Tara Singh wrote from France on 17 July 1916: 'We all ate at the same table. Our company was composed of five sepoys (of whom three were Sikhs and two Muslims), two sweepers and three cooks; but we all ate together at the same table. Moreover, we have often eaten food and drunk tea prepared by Muslims'. Cultural and religious encounters took place not only on the European/non-European axis, but often between people divided by questions of class, caste, and religion from the same province. Some of the most moving accounts of religion as private faith come from battlefield testimonies. In his letters home from Mesopotamia, published in the memoir Kalyan Pradeep: The Life of Captain Kalyan Mukherjee, I.M.S. (1928), the Indian doctor Kalyan Mukherjee noted coming across a severely wounded English officer; when Mukherjee offered him water, he looked forlornly at the cross on his neck, tried to kiss Mukherji's feet and died.

If the power of religion ranged from government propaganda to matters of private faith and feeling, it also became grounds for critique of the West. In his famous lecture on 'Nationalism in the West' delivered across the United States, the Indian writer and Nobel Laureate Sir Rabindranath Tagore noted that 'this European war of Nations is the war of retribution'; instead, he stressed the need for an Eastern spirituality as an antidote to Western strife. Many intellectuals from across Asia and Europe would suggest the importance of non-European forms of religion and culture in their critique of Western civilisation. Religion therefore played a vital role during and after the war years: it ranged from moments of intense personal faith, crisis or resistance on the battlefield, and processes of inter-cultural transfer behind the front. It was used by both belligerent European nation-states for propaganda purposes and by its critics in Asia and the Middle East to undermine the authority of European empires.

Santanu Das & Heike Liebau