Sunday, December 29, 2019

Kate Imy's "Faithful Fighters"

Kate Imy is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Texas.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Faithful Fighters: Identity and Power in the British Indian Army, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Faithful Fighters drops us in the middle of a debate about Nepali soldiers who fought on behalf of the British Empire before the First World War. By 1913 and 1914, word had spread that soldiers were not welcomed back into their homes after service in places such as China, East Africa, and England. Page 99 takes us to January 1914, when Chandra Shamsher—the Prime Minister of Nepal—approached Nepali monastic powers about “authorizing the grant of pani patya to all soldiers who proceeded overseas.” This ceremony was meant to absolve Nepali soldiers from the caste transgression of crossing the ocean. British and Nepali officials believed that caste was the reason that soldiers did not receive a warm reception when they returned home. Some worried that the men were being blackmailed and extorted. Most British officers blamed “religious” authorities for introducing impediments to soldiers’ service. They maintained that soldiers were largely indifferent to caste rules. As the debate intensified, however, some British officers accused soldiers of flaunting their journeys “in the faces of the priests.” Such a “direct challenge” could not be overlooked and the spiritual elites, in British minds, felt the need to punish soldiers “to maintain their hold on the people.”

For readers familiar with South Asian – and especially Nepali – society, life and culture, this page does hint at some of the main dynamics of the book. It shows how soldiers, civilian communities, politicians, religious leaders, and British officials all had different and changing interpretations of the proper role of soldiers’ beliefs and practices in the army. For the uninitiated or non-specialist reader, however, this page alone may prove slightly confusing. Earlier sections give more detailed explanations about the role of caste generally, and pani patya specifically, in the army. Further, the book focuses on many different beliefs and practices, of which Nepali soldiers’ participation in pani patya is just one. Other chapters consider the diversity of the soldiers of the Indian Army – including but not limited to Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Within and between communities there were differing ideas about incorporating identities into the army and maintaining connections with civilian practices. This became especially important as “religious” symbols became central to nationalist and anti-colonial activism. Page 99, therefore, captures some of the complexity soldiers’ identities and loyalties. It also may overwhelm readers who would benefit from earlier explanations and context.

Faithful Fighters focuses on the lives and experiences of multiple soldiers and communities. Readers who had a family member who served in the First World War may be drawn to stories of soldiers’ service during and after the war, as anti-colonialism intensified. Those familiar with debates about food and caste purity in the rebellion of 1857 will be interested to learn how food was complex and contested for all soldiers across religious differences. Some may want to learn about communities considered the most loyal – including Sikhs and Nepali “Gurkhas” – and to understand their instrumental roles in anti-colonial movements. Others may be intrigued by eccentric British officers and soldiers such as Reginald Moysey and H.H. Somerfield whose relative sympathy for Indian men inspired spiritual conversion and sexual intimacy with Indian soldiers. All readers, I hope, will come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for these soldiers’ service and how it often made their lives more challenging. Belonging to a particular community did not dictate identities or actions – nor did gaining employment in a colonial army. All of these men faced conflicting demands for devotion in a world torn by war, nationalism, and empire.
Learn more about Faithful Fighters at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue