The Japanese Sword (and Other Tales)
When we negate individual and community memories, decolonisation can become a tool of fresh cultural oppression.
“Sir, shukr hain aap apna sar lekein jaa rahein hain, talwar ko bhul jayien” (Sir, be happy you’re going back with your head on your shoulders, forget about the sword.)
There were many ways in which my grandfather liked telling the story of his return from his supply corps station in Rawalpindi during the partition. But the story always ended with this classic line, credited to the unnamed batman of his colleague, Lt. Salim, delivered with dramatic effect at the Lahore railway station. The sword in question wasn’t just any old sword, as our grandfather was at pains to remind us — he had found it in Burma just a few short years before, in a fort abandoned by the Japanese in their retreat during the Second World War. The Japanese officers, according to my grandfather, had died by suicide before surrendering the fort, and one of them had left behind this sword. My grandfather had stored the sword in the armoury at Chaklala, where he was stationed during partition, for safekeeping, and there it stayed, forgotten, as my grandfather boarded his train home, after saying his farewell to colleagues who would soon become “enemies” that he would go on to fight in three wars after.
Like many in his generation, my grandfather did not like to dwell on what was unpleasant. A story that couldn’t be couched as an adventure fit for the grandchildren (or to impress the ladies in the mess, as the case may be) just wouldn’t be told. The horrors of what he faced and what he saw were to remain unspoken until the end of his life. It was only in the last couple of years, when struggling with the side effects of dopamine, which he had to take for his Parkinson’s disease, we were allowed a glimpse into the pain and trauma that a life spent seeing frontline action in four different wars had really meant to him. The memories of the riots that tore through Rawalpindi, of guarding refugee trains in the area, or of watching helplessly as a soldier under his command was hit by napalm in front of him in one of the Pakistan wars, were to only come out when the walls he had built to keep these memories at bay crumbled under his final illnesses.
Interestingly though he rarely saw any difference between his career in the British Indian Army and in the Indian Army post independence. It was, for him, very much a continuation of the same job. It was all a part of his story.
Colonial armies and family memories
As a lower caste cultivator family with limited land, my grandfather’s family’s story is one that we still see echoes of in every uniformed soldier visiting relatives at the farmer protest sites near Delhi. Unable to support themselves through agriculture, it was common for the sons of the family to seek employment with the colonial army, which provided both a livelihood and local respect. How they fared was very much the luck of the draw. My grandfather’s grandfather was to be sent to South Africa, as a member of the 9000 strong contingent of Indian foot soldiers and followers used by the British to win their bloody war against the Dutch Boers. He was to die there in 1899, leaving behind a pregnant wife. Staring at poverty, his son, Govindaswamy (born shortly after his death) was to join the army at the age of seven as a drummer to support himself. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Govindswamy was to join the 1.5 million Indian soldiers deployed by the British in different theatres of war around the world. Like a majority of his fellow Indian soldiers, he was sent to Mesopotamia to fight the Ottomans. Unlike his father though, he was fortunate enough to return in one piece. He was to serve safely in the Second World War before retiring, and living out the remainder of his long life in his hometown of Poonamallee (now almost assimilated into Chennai). He remained a well respected figure who was occasionally known to dabble in local politics. His wife, the formidable matriarch of the family, was to use their land to organise a local hospital during the war for people of all faiths. When she died, her funeral procession even stopped at the local mosque to allow the local imam to pay his respects before she was cremated. Their journey was an incredible one for a man who was born into poverty after the death of his father and who had to work for his own living at the age of seven. It was a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without the colonial army.
His sons followed this path but with different outcomes. My grandfather, Sarangapani, was to complete his schooling and join up as a Subedar — a “Viceroy’s commission” as it was called, a part of the British Indian Army’s efforts to Indianise post 1930. Stationed in Burma, he returned safely, a feat worthy in itself of the Burma Star he was awarded. He rose steadily through the ranks and attended officer training school. Somewhere along the way, he dropped his caste surname and split his given name into a first name and a surname (this surname, “Pani”, is one which my family has used ever since). He retired after a long and moderately successful career in the Indian army as a lieutenant-colonel.
His older brother Kodandan, a bright, sporty boy, who spent most of his childhood annoying his younger brothers with his displays of quick mental mathematics, was not as fortunate. Joining up during the Second World War, he was captured by the Italians. He spent most of his war in an Italian prisoner of war camp and returned home mentally shattered. He never recovered his mental health, and unable to hold a job, he died in poverty.
For our family, colonial armies have meant many things — they have meant death far away from home, leaving a wife and child without support and torture in an Italian prisoner of war camp. They have also meant unprecedented social and economic advancement beyond the shackles of our hereditary caste and class identity.
Much of the modern writing around colonial armies focusses on their exploitative nature. And that’s systemically speaking absolutely correct. It is difficult to characterise the routine dispatch of entire swatches of humanity to risk their lives in wars far away that had absolutely nothing to do with them as anything other than exploitation. And yet, at a personal level, reducing three generations of my family to nothing more than victims of colonial exploitation with no agency has meant burying or ignoring three generations that did so much to break out of their historic restraints to forge a new class identity for themselves.
Colonial armies and community memory- Bhima Koregaon
Dealing with the complex nature of our interactions with the processes of colonialism is something that communities struggle with as much as individuals. The annual Bhima Koregaon celebration commemorates the Battle of Koregaon in 1818, when 800 soldiers of the 1st Regiment of the Bombay Native Infantry of the East India Company’s army successfully held back a 2000 strong force of the Peshwas. The company forces were made up predominantly of Mahar troops. The idea that a predominantly Dalit regiment could defeat forces comprising the so-called warrior castes remains an incredibly powerful act of subversion of the caste system, and is celebrated as such. The celebration is hugely popular and draws tens of thousands of participants every year.
And yet, this celebration is often targeted violently by right wing groups in India as being “unpatriotic” for commemorating a British victory over the Indian Peshwas. The Mahar Regiment of the Indian army (which has since produced two army chiefs) itself dropped the pillar of Koregaon from their regimental emblem after independence. In 2018 the celebration descended into riots causing both loss of life and property.
To decolonise, right wing groups argue, the Dalit community must take no pride in their victory at Koregaon Bhima and give up their right to celebrate it. They must no longer gather at the obelisk that honours that victory. They must recast their heros as villains for being on what they see as the wrong side of Indian history — the side of the colonial oppressor. In other words, decolonisation, far from being a tool of emancipation, is used as a stick to beat down the attempt by a historically oppressed community to redefine and control their own identity and memories.
Decolonisation and new cultural hegemonies
This is not surprising. In India, decolonisation has historically allowed very little room for self-expression by individuals and communities. From the imposition of Hindi on the southern states to the erasure of the Urdu script from official government documentation, the decolonisation discourse in India, however well intentioned, has always been a quest for uniformity. In some ways, it sought to replace the colonial cultural hegemony with a homegrown one, instead of dismantling it altogether and embracing plurality.
While notions of what this homegrown uniform culture should look like have changed over the years — from the secular nationalist discourse of Nehruvian times (which embraced plurality of faith, but tended to erase differences of caste, language and region) to the more rabid upper-caste cultural hegemony of Hindutva— the core idea has remained the same. Decolonisation, much like colonisation, is something that multiple groups in power have continuously sought to impose top down. In the hands of Hindu nationalists, this has meant that any attempt to resist the imposition of a Hindu upper-caste cultural hegemony is now termed unpatriotic, “anti-national” and colonial in nature.
At the root, we must acknowledge that colonisation affected individuals and not just abstract systems and institutions. Colonial soldiers like those in my family were not just a statistic or measure of oppression. They were people, with families who lived lives in which they made choices that pushed against the structural and societal limitations that they inherited. In doing so, they both suffered and thrived.
When we acknowledge this, it becomes clear that decolonisation cannot be discussed solely at the level of the nation or in the sharp binaries of the coloniser and the colonised. To force anyone who has been colonised to entirely abandon or disparage their own history or family and community memories in the name of decolonisation is both cruel and counter productive.
To be effective, decolonisation must be a continuous ongoing discourse. It must create space for discussions where we can engage with our memories and with each other and it must allow us to share our own memories, identities, family and community histories without labelling or imposition. If we lose sight of this, decolonisation, instead of being empowering, can become a tool of fresh cultural oppression.