Fig. 1: A page from Sohan Singh’s pri­son dia­ry con­tai­ning trans­la­ti­on of Ger­man words into Urdu and Eng­lish. Cour­te­sy: Vol­ker Kummer’s Pri­va­te Collection

Table of Con­tents
The Pro­blem of Metho­do­lo­gi­cal Natio­na­lism | Euro­pean Archi­ves: Pro­ven­an­ce and Per­ti­nence | The Pri­son Note­book as a His­to­ri­cal Source | The Lega­cy | Cos­mo­po­li­tan Sol­dier­ing | Col­ditz Oflag IV C | Dr.  Biren­dra Nath Mazumdar’s Sound Recor­ding | End­no­tes | Biblio­gra­phy

This pie­ce is dedi­ca­ted to the memo­ry of pri­soner Sohan Singh and his trans­na­tio­nal nur­tu­rer, the ‘hob­by his­to­ri­an’ Vol­ker Kum­mer, a mem­ber of the Anna­burg Asso­cia­ti­on for the Pre­ser­va­ti­on of local histo­ry and Heri­ta­ge (Anna­bur­ger Ver­ein für Hei­mat­ge­schich­te und Denk­mal­pfle­ge) who relent­less­ly sear­ched for eye­wit­nesses of WWII in India. I am indeb­ted to Pro­fes­sor Rahul Peter Das, the cus­to­di­an of Vol­ker Kummer’s pri­va­te coll­ec­tion, who ent­rus­ted me with it. While han­ding over his coll­ec­tion, Kum­mer urged Pro­fes­sor Das to give it to a ‘real’ his­to­ri­an. I am hum­bled to be its reci­pi­ent and hope that I have been able to do jus­ti­ce to it. Kummer’s insti­tu­tio­nal coll­ec­tion is housed in Anna­bur­ger Amts­mu­se­um.

The abo­ve image is taken from the pri­son note­book of a Bri­tish-Indi­an Pri­soner of War, jan­gi qai­di, in con­tem­po­ra­ry Ger­man par­lan­ce[1], Sohan Singh. He spent three years in the cast­le pri­son of Anna­burg loca­ted in Sax­o­ny. During his cap­ti­vi­ty he fil­led 64 pages of his pri­son note­book. Anna­burg had the lar­gest con­cen­tra­ti­on of jan­gi qai­dis and was the recrui­ting ground for Sub­has Chandra Bose’s INA or the Indi­an Legi­on during WWII. Accor­ding to Bri­tish sources, out of 12,000 Bri­tish-Indi­an pri­soners, who lan­ded in Ger­man camps, not more than 3200 trai­ned ulti­m­ate­ly as the 950th Regi­ment under the SS.[2] The Inter­na­tio­nal Red Cross visi­ta­ti­on report’s hig­hest tal­ly of Anna­burg inma­tes recor­ded on 15.5.1943 puts the total strength at 4323 of whom 2736 were out with labour detach­ments.[3]

While the Legio­na­ries have been a sub­ject of seve­ral books in India and abroad, ordi­na­ry jan­gi qai­dis who did not defect have attrac­ted litt­le aca­de­mic atten­ti­on. This negle­ct can be attri­bu­ted to both metho­do­lo­gi­cal approa­ches and lin­gu­i­stic bar­riers of the mul­ti-lin­gu­al Euro­pean archives.

The Problem of Methodological Nationalism

Sol­dier­ing in orga­ni­zed twen­tieth cen­tu­ry war­fa­re spil­led over the boun­da­ries of nati­on-sta­tes, yet nar­ra­ti­ves of war have been pen­ned within the frame­work of metho­do­lo­gi­cal natio­na­lism.  The iro­ny of the natio­na­list para­digm beco­mes gla­ring in view of the fact that the num­ber of Bri­tish-Indi­an sol­diers rea­ched the mark of 2.4 mil­li­on and beca­me the lar­gest army ever rai­sed by any war­ring force. Bri­tain fought the war as an empire, yet when it comes to mytho­lo­gi­zing the war, the tight skin of Bri­tish natio­na­lism squeezed in the expe­ri­en­ces of a diver­se Bri­tish-Indi­an army, ren­de­ring the colo­ni­al sol­diers invi­si­ble in histo­ry, memo­ry and memo­ri­a­li­sa­ti­on. Bri­tain was quick to mytho­lo­gi­se the war as “people’s war” cele­bra­ting “the Blitz spi­rit of war­ti­me Bri­tish cities”, “the Col­ditz myth” and the Bri­tish soldier’s stoic mas­cu­li­ni­ty. Howe­ver, colo­nis­ed sol­diers trai­ned and fought with the same spi­rit, ethos and cul­tu­re were lar­ge­ly kept out of the poli­tics of repre­sen­ta­ti­on and myth­ma­king. Sol­dier­ing in cap­ti­vi­ty added yet ano­ther lay­er to the whitening of his­to­rio­gra­phy. Despi­te the suc­cessful escape attempts of a few Indi­an offi­cers, Kocha­vi (2005) men­ti­ons Bri­tish-Indi­an sol­diers in three pages in total as mere sta­tis­tics and Macken­zie (2005), while bus­ting the Col­ditz myth, does not even regis­ter the pre­sence of Bri­tish-Indi­an soldiers.

A second pro­blem facing rese­ar­chers who wish to explo­re the­se hither­to igno­red lives is that of acces­si­bi­li­ty to mul­ti-lin­gu­al Euro­pean archi­ves, spe­ci­fi­cal­ly for the Ang­lo-Ame­ri­can world’s his­to­ri­ans of South Asia. Though they have recent­ly star­ted addres­sing the invi­si­bi­li­ty of Bri­tish-Indi­an sol­diers by focus­sing on the impact of WWII on the home front, nar­ra­ti­ves from Ger­man cap­ti­vi­ty still elude them as they have not been able to ful­ly use the diver­se mul­ti-lin­gu­al Euro­pean archives.

A third pro­blem is that the South East Asi­an Theat­re of War (com­bats in Bur­ma, Mala­ya, Sin­ga­po­re, and India) has attrac­ted rela­tively more atten­ti­on due to the much lar­ger num­ber of INA sol­diers rai­sed in Japan and their actu­al com­bats against the Bri­tish on the eas­tern fron­tiers of India.[4] The Ger­man nar­ra­ti­ve, with a few excep­ti­ons such as Gün­ther (2003), too has been lar­ge­ly preoc­cu­p­ied with the INA and Boses’s acti­vi­ties rather than the ever­y­day life of ordi­na­ry captives.

European Archives: Provenance and Pertinence

Under­neath the rich natio­nal and inter­na­tio­nal pro­ven­an­ce based Euro­pean hol­dings in the For­eign Office Archi­ves, Ber­lin, Inter­na­tio­nal Red Cross Archi­ves, Gen­e­va, ITS, Bad-Arol­sen, Mili­ta­ry Archi­ves, Frei­burg,[5] to name a few, the­re is a lay­er of unutili­zed mate­ri­al based on the per­ti­nence-prin­ci­pal, such as pri­va­te coll­ec­tions of Indo­phi­le his­to­ri­ans and acti­vists, that has the poten­ti­al of adding new per­spec­ti­ves and depth to the expe­ri­en­ces of war. This post com­bi­nes the­se two types of sources, with a focus on the lat­ter as a case stu­dy, to recon­s­truct a uni­ver­se of cap­ti­vi­ty in Sax­o­ny, which saw the lar­gest con­cen­tra­ti­on of Bri­tish-Indi­an POWs.

Sohan Singh’s pri­son note­book is a rare pie­ce of his­to­ri­cal evi­dence pre­ser­ved by Kum­mer. It is uni­que, illus­tra­ti­ve, ins­truc­ti­ve, and emble­ma­tic as I shall show in the fol­lo­wing pages. Singh was one among the innu­me­ra­ble Sikh sol­diers who ser­ved the impe­ri­al army from its incep­ti­on. The Sikhs were cate­go­ri­sed as a mar­ti­al race by the Bri­tish and nur­tu­red with bene­vo­lence to ser­ve the mili­ta­ry needs of Empire ther­eby hoping to ensu­re their loyal­ty. Singh was also a typi­cal young sol­dier who joi­n­ed the army in the wake of an aggres­si­ve recruit­ment cam­paign, in which the phy­si­cal qua­li­fi­ca­ti­ons were lowe­red and the age bra­cket expan­ded to mobi­li­se lar­ger num­bers.  Most of the new ordi­na­ry recruits were ‘peasants in uni­forms’ with few opti­ons of ear­ning a living in vil­la­ges. A care­er in the army ent­ail­ed a pro­mi­se of incen­ti­ves, offers, reco­gni­ti­on, ear­ning while lear­ning, bes­i­des the tra­di­tio­nal bene­fits of pay, wel­fa­re, and land grants.[6]

When Singh was taken pri­soner, he was bare­ly 18. With litt­le for­mal edu­ca­ti­on and trai­ning, young recruits were sent to face the fury of Rommel’s high­ly pro­fes­sio­nal and well-equip­ped Ger­man army divi­si­ons. Most of them were cap­tu­red in North Afri­ca wit­hout offe­ring much resis­tance and were brought to Ger­man pri­sons via Ita­li­an camps.

The Prison Notebook as a Historical Source

Singh’s pri­son note­book has the size of a pocket­book. It does not have a cover, the hand­wri­ting is faded and smud­ged in places, and the edges of the yel­low britt­le pages have fray­ed at the bot­tom. It has no page num­bers and dates to give us a sen­se of time. None­thel­ess, it is a rare ego docu­ment that gives us a peek into the mind of a regu­lar jan­gi qai­di and thus a valuable pie­ce of tex­tu­al evi­dence from the kind of pri­soners who found it chal­len­ging to navi­ga­te through their ever­y­day life in a cul­tu­ral­ly and lin­gu­i­sti­cal­ly stran­ge cos­mos and taught them­sel­ves how to deal with it.

The note­book is per­haps the only sur­vi­ving pie­ce of wri­ting by a jan­gi qai­di. It offers clues to his hopes, aspi­ra­ti­ons, dreams, and desi­res alt­hough it is coded at times. The first few pages show his efforts to learn words in Ger­man by not­ing their mea­ning in Urdu, the script he was most fami­li­ar with. He noted down Ger­man terms for body parts, ani­mals, clot­hing, rela­ti­ons and so on which he wro­te next to their Urdu equi­va­lents, as the cover page image shows. In the next few pages, one could see a tran­si­ti­on from Urdu to Eng­lish as he scribb­led more words of ever­y­day use in Ger­man and English.

Another page from Sohan Singh's prison diary containing translation of German words into English.
Figu­re 2: Words of dai­ly use from Eng­lish-Ger­man dic­tion­a­ry in Sohan Singh’s pri­son Notebook

His note­book ent­ries from then on show a pat­tern of lear­ning from a bi-lin­gu­al Eng­lish Ger­man dic­tion­a­ry. Seve­ral pages the­re­af­ter con­tain beau­tiful­ly writ­ten Sabads from Gur­ba­ni (Guru Nanak’s prea­ching in the holy book of Sikhs, Guru Granth Saheb) in the Gur­mukhi script. This method of lear­ning was quite typi­cal for self-taught peo­p­le in India until the very recent advent of the com­pu­ter, whe­re lear­ning by wat­ching You­Tube tuto­ri­als or voca­bu­la­ry trai­ner appli­ca­ti­ons has beco­me commonplace.

Another page from Sohan Singh's prison diary containing Sabads from Gurbani (Guru Nanak’s preaching in the holy book of Sikhs, Guru Granth Saheb) in the Gurmukhi script.
Figu­re 3: A page of Sabad from Gur­ba­ni. Source: Sohan Singh’s pri­son notebook

Child­ren as also adults from ver­na­cu­lar schools crammed up words from the dic­tion­a­ry in the hope that one day they would be able to mas­ter the lan­guage of the eli­te. In war­ti­me Ger­ma­ny too, Euro­pean pri­soners often car­ri­ed a bi-lin­gu­al pocket dic­tion­a­ry to faci­li­ta­te con­ver­sa­ti­ons, espe­ci­al­ly with local women. It beca­me an important tool, bes­i­des pre­vious­ly lear­nt skills of plum­bing, gar­dening and car­pen­try that almost work­ed as a social lubri­cant in cul­ti­vat­ing fri­end­ships by fixing locks, doors, bath­tubs, and the like for their Ger­man acquain­tances. Ger­man spo­ken wit­hout syn­tax and grammar beca­me the lin­gua fran­ca of the camp uni­ver­se. Singh’s note­book is a repre­sen­ta­ti­ve exam­p­le of an alien’s desi­re to socia­li­ze and blend in.

A few pages after the­se lan­guage les­sons, he wro­te down some dates with names of fel­low pri­soners, dead, libe­ra­ted or tho­se he was loo­king for. Sad­ly, the details of his men­tal pro­ces­sing are lost to us as we can­not deci­pher why he wro­te down some other dates and addres­ses. But one we know for sure: 24.4.1945, next to which he wro­te, Chutti ka din in Urdu: the day of liberation.

Three Ger­man names figu­re in it too. One that he tried to wri­te hims­elf reads Mahag­ret. Right below that two names were writ­ten in Ger­man style: Mar­ga­re­te Kurt­häu­ser and Heinz Kurt­häu­ser. The­se, I sup­po­se were writ­ten by some fri­end­ly Ger­man who tried to teach him how to wri­te their names cor­rect­ly, most pro­ba­b­ly Mar­ga­re­te hers­elf. Ano­ther name found in his note­book was Hil­de­gard Kossagk.

The Legacy

Singh’s sto­ry did not end after libe­ra­ti­on. On 15.02.1974, he wro­te a let­ter from Baz­pur to Kurt Kos­sagk, Hildrgard’s hus­band.[7] By then he had taken the title of Sub­e­dar. He remin­ded Kos­sagk that he had work­ed on his farm. He told Kurt that he was the owner of a big farm, had bought a Roma­ni­an trac­tor, and work­ed on the farm with his sons. This half page let­ter was writ­ten in Ger­man. Bar­ring a few gram­ma­ti­cal errors, the let­ter was able to com­mu­ni­ca­te its pur­po­se. He wis­hed to tra­vel to Ger­ma­ny to visit them at his own cost and reques­ted for help with visa and other for­ma­li­ties. Howe­ver, his wish did not mate­ria­li­se due to tra­vel rest­ric­tions during the Cold War.

After the col­lap­se of the Ber­lin Wall, his sto­ry took ano­ther turn. Vol­ker Kum­mer, the hob­by his­to­ri­an of Anna­burg, tra­ced him and Singh beca­me a regu­lar item on Kummer’s tra­vel itin­era­ry along with Netaji’s Rese­arch Cent­re in Cal­cut­ta. Singh hos­ted him with gre­at warmth and hos­pi­ta­li­ty on each visit. The local news­pa­pers in Sax­o­ny car­ri­ed spe­cial colum­ns on Kummer’s visits and repor­ted about the gre­at con­ver­sa­ti­ons they had despi­te his school Eng­lish and Singh’s limi­t­ed abili­ties to under­stand him. It was repor­ted that in 2008, the 84 years old Singh once again expres­sed the wish to visit Anna­burg with a com­pa­n­ion. Kum­mer hoped to rai­se funds from Annaburg’s Asso­cia­ti­on, Ger­man-Indi­an Socie­ty (Deutsch-Indi­sche Gesell­schaft), and others. Howe­ver, his efforts and Singh’s wish did not bear fruit. Long after his return to his roots, his fami­ly, and tra­di­tio­nal pro­fes­si­on in which he made gre­at advan­ces, Singh’s spi­rit sored high on a trans­cul­tu­ral hori­zon despi­te his ina­bi­li­ty to cross natio­nal borders. 

Cosmopolitan Soldiering

Through this illus­tra­ti­ve sto­ry I would like to dwell on the con­cept of cos­mo­po­li­tan sol­dier­ing of the jan­gi qai­di in WWII. Alt­hough a few pri­soners made suc­cessful escape attempts, most rea­li­zed it was a tough and futi­le exer­cise and tried to go on with their lives with as much accom­mo­da­ti­on and fle­xi­bi­li­ty as allo­wed them to navi­ga­te through the camp life, mono­to­no­us at best and cruel at worst, along with fin­ding venues for crea­ti­vi­ty and enter­pri­se whe­re possible.

The lar­ge majo­ri­ty saw cap­ti­vi­ty as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for trans­na­tio­nal, cross-cul­tu­ral inter­ac­tion to miti­ga­te their distress, amu­se them­sel­ves or ful­fil their wis­hes. In Anna­burg the­re were POWs of other natio­na­li­ties too with whom jan­gi qai­dis bar­te­red, play­ed, socia­li­sed, and indul­ged in for­bidden acti­vi­ties. Bose hims­elf visi­ted the camp thri­ce for his recruit­ment dri­ve. This brought along an oppor­tu­ni­ty to exer­cise indi­vi­du­al agen­cy. The camp beca­me a cent­re of rumours, spies, and mutu­al rival­ries for resour­ces. Men were lured with bet­ter food, attrac­ti­ve uni­forms, and local girls to join the INA and when this did not work seni­or legio­na­ries gave las­hings to the non-com­pli­ant ones. With­dra­wal of the Red Cross par­cels and post from home were other methods of repri­sals. Even then, the majo­ri­ty stay­ed as ordi­na­ry captives.

The­se loy­al ‘peasants in uni­form’ under­went a trans­for­ma­ti­on of their own kind under the influence of their mates, inter­na­tio­nal pri­soners and employ­ers, if they hap­pen­ed to be kind, as was the case with Singh. Despi­te lan­guage bar­riers they assu­med, con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, habits and ways of doing things as they were done by others around them. This crea­ted a cos­mo­po­li­tan envi­ron­ment of lear­ning by doing. Singh’s exam­p­le shows that jan­gi qai­dis lear­nt the lin­gua fran­ca of the camp uni­ver­se. Singh may not have been alo­ne in spen­ding some quiet time in the libra­ry lear­ning Ger­man with the help of a bi-lin­gu­al dic­tion­a­ry. He came out of cap­ti­vi­ty a self-taught poly­glot, howe­ver limi­t­ed in his com­mand of Ger­man. His spi­rit to learn taught him to navi­ga­te in his ever­y­day life in mul­ti­ple lan­guages, so much so that he even wro­te a let­ter to Kurt Kos­sagk in Ger­man in 1974. 

The lar­ger point that I am making through this micro case stu­dy is the cross-cul­tu­ral, trans­na­tio­nal cos­mo­po­li­ta­nism that brought to bear its influence on the jan­gi qai­dis. Loo­king at the expe­ri­en­ces of sol­dier­ing in cap­ti­vi­ty through the lens of the sol­dier, which Singh’s note­book helps us in doing, we can dis­cern that the con­cerns of ordi­na­ry sol­diers were at vari­ance with tho­se of the poli­ti­cal eli­te whe­ther Bri­tish, Ger­man, or Indi­an nationalist.

Colditz Oflag IV C

Let us zoom out of the pri­son note­book and zoom into ano­ther Cast­le pri­son, Col­ditz, also loca­ted in Sax­o­ny. This Renais­sance style hun­ting lodge was tur­ned into Oflag IV C which housed “incor­ri­gi­ble” offi­cers from all pos­si­ble natio­na­li­ties who had attempt­ed escapes on ear­lier occa­si­ons. Rever­end Cour­ten­ay, a Bri­tish inma­te of Col­ditz, cal­led it a punish­ment camp whe­re all pri­soners with nui­sance value were thrown in and were regu­lar­ly bea­ten for bad beha­viour. This did not dam­pen their spi­rit and they con­tin­ued with their pranks, escape attempts, adven­tures, and amusing acti­vi­ties. The Rever­end remem­be­red having laug­hed the most in his life in Col­ditz becau­se of the peo­p­le the­re. He descri­bed the nui­sance makers as tre­men­dous­ly skil­led, deter­mi­ned, aggres­si­ve, and spi­ri­ted, who, among other enter­pri­sing acti­vi­ties, even for­med an escape com­mit­tee to help whoe­ver wan­ted to escape and deve­lo­ped a gre­at sen­se of soli­da­ri­ty.[8] Courtenay’s wit­ty and light-hear­ted ren­di­ti­on of life in Col­ditz offers quite a con­trast to my second case stu­dy, an Indi­an medic, also an inma­te of Col­ditz, Dr. Biren­dra Nath Mazumdar.

Dr. Birendra Nath Mazumdar’s Sound Recording

Dr. Mazum­dar from the Roy­al Armed Mili­ta­ry Corps was cap­tu­red in Etap­les, France, and taken through six­teen or seven­teen Sta­lags befo­re final­ly landing in Col­ditz. At Col­ditz, Mazum­dar suf­fe­r­ed unu­su­al men­tal ago­ny and phy­si­cal tor­tu­re due to his colo­ni­al Other­ness, for being label­led a spy and a Gan­dhi chap by Bri­tish inma­tes, and also becau­se of his stub­born­ness and refu­sal to join the INA. The high­point of pres­su­re came when he was escor­ted to Ber­lin to meet Bose in per­son. After making him com­for­ta­ble by con­ver­sing in Ben­ga­li, Bose said in Eng­lish, “You know why you are here? We are forming the Indi­an Legi­on. I want you to join us.” Mazum­dar said, “I can­not, and I would not”. “Why? I have done it”, said Bose to which Mazum­dar repli­ed, “You had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to resign and escape. I was taught, a pro­mi­se once made, you have got to abide by”. Bose left him with the words, “I do not think we should meet again”.[9] After his return from Ber­lin, he went on a five-week hun­ger strike deman­ding his free­dom and even­tual­ly escaped. He rea­ched Gen­e­va with the help of a French resis­tance figh­ter, cont­ac­ted the Swiss Immi­gra­ti­on Office, got the per­mis­si­on to stay and pur­sue fur­ther stu­dies. Soon he star­ted dating a Swiss girl. He was then forced to dis­rupt his stu­dies and go to Locar­no with other Indi­an soldiers.

The­se are snip­pets from a two-and-a-half-hour oral inter­view, recor­ded in 1996, of the then eigh­ty-year-old RAMC medic in the sound archi­ves of the Impe­ri­al War Muse­um. This was the first time ever that a Bri­tish-Indi­an offi­cer spo­ke to his erst­while mas­ters about his tri­als and tri­bu­la­ti­ons during his Ger­man cap­ti­vi­ty. The twists and turns of his colourful and adven­tur­ous sto­ry give us insights into the peri­ls and pro­s­pects of Indi­an cap­ti­ves, not just in Ger­man Sta­lags (pri­son camps for ordi­na­ry sol­diers) and Oflags (camps for offi­cers), but also at the hands of their own Bri­tish fel­low inma­tes and the Raj in the form of subt­le racism, vei­led thre­ats, loo­ming sus­pi­ci­on, poli­ti­cal taunts, pro­fes­sio­nal rival­ry, and sheer negle­ct in the post-war era. Many a Bri­tish-Indi­an cap­ti­ve may find an echo of their own voice in Mazumdar’s rendition. 

Like the pri­son note­book of Sohan Singh, this rare pri­ma­ry source from the sound archi­ves of the Impe­ri­al War Muse­um opens ano­ther win­dow to the micro­c­osm of cap­ti­vi­ty for tho­se ‘pro­mi­se kee­pers’ who resis­ted all lures and pres­su­res to join the Indi­an Legi­on during cap­ti­vi­ty and were moved in and out of the grey zone of col­la­bo­ra­ti­on until after their repa­tria­ti­on. Having said that, Mazum­dar was an offi­cer, who despi­te facing iso­la­ti­on, hosti­li­ty, and con­stant accu­sa­ti­ons of espio­na­ge from his Bri­tish coun­ter­parts on the one hand, and tor­tu­re or tempt­a­ti­ons from his Ger­man cap­tors on the other, enjoy­ed access and oppor­tu­ni­ties to things sel­dom available to an ordi­na­ry pri­soner in Ger­man cap­ti­vi­ty, such as socia­li­sing with White women, con­ti­nuing his stu­dies in Switz­er­land after a suc­cessful escape, and even­tual­ly, retur­ning to the UK, whe­re he lived with his wife until his death.

As a source, the eye­wit­ness account of Singh’s pri­son note­book gives us a visu­al expe­ri­ence with seve­ral gaps, coded nota­ti­ons, inter­rupt­ed tex­tu­al flows, and lack of cohe­rence, whe­re­as Dr. Mazumdar’s detached and mono­to­no­us aural ren­di­ti­on is cha­rac­te­ri­zed by the accu­ra­cy of details, fluen­cy of speech, poli­ti­cal awa­re­ness, and unwa­ve­ring deter­mi­na­ti­on. The­se dif­fe­ren­ces owe to their dif­fe­rent class ori­g­ins and trai­ning that offe­red them dif­fe­rent sets of tools and oppor­tu­ni­ties of social mobi­li­ty. In seve­ral other ways, howe­ver, the expe­ri­en­ces of the­se ‘pro­mi­se kee­pers’ inter­sect. Despi­te the lures and thre­ats by the legio­na­ries and the guards, both stuck to their guns. Both sought trans­na­tio­nal cont­act, main­tai­ned pro­fes­sio­nal ethos, and show­ed com­ra­dery in the face of adver­si­ty. Mazum­dar got his clue to why he was being ost­ra­cis­ed by Bri­tish inma­tes. The French and Dutch inma­tes told him that they cal­led him a spy. Until then he thought he was just being teased as the ‘bloo­dy Gan­dhi chap’. Mazum­dar then over­he­ard the word spy in the wash­room. He went up to Major Hen­ry and asked, “Did I hear you say I am a spy?” Then he gave him five minu­tes to with­draw his state­ment after which he hit him on his head. The six feet tall Bri­tish offi­cer fell flat on the flo­or. The Ger­mans on their part also con­tin­ued to exer­cise pres­su­re tac­tics such as not shif­ting him to an Indi­an camp which might have ended his sen­se of iso­la­ti­on and fee­ling of vic­ti­miza­ti­on[10] at the hands of his own Bri­tish col­le­agues. He final­ly made a suc­cessful escape attempt from a moving train and rea­ched Gen­e­va. While in Gen­e­va, he con­fron­ted ano­ther Bri­tish offi­cer when the lat­ter told him not to socia­li­se with a Swiss girl and only with his coun­try­men. Majum­dar retor­ted, “You can­not chain me. I am a free man”.[11]

Mazum­dar final­ly sett­led in the UK with his wife after the war while Singh beca­me a suc­cessful farm owner. What they both prac­ti­ced long the­re­af­ter was deri­ved from les­sons they had lear­nt in cap­ti­vi­ty: resi­li­ence, adven­ture, and recipro­ci­ty across lines of nati­ons, colour, and faith. This pie­ce is a small tri­bu­te to the ‘cos­mo­po­li­tan spi­rit’ of the jan­gi qaidi.


[1] This is how Indi­an POWs were addres­sed in camp noti­ce boards and offi­ci­al ins­truc­tions. The camp lan­guage was Hin­du­sta­ni writ­ten in Roman script.

[2] TNA WO 208/802

[3] ACICR, C SC, Sta­lag IV D/Z 15.05.1943 

[4] For recent lite­ra­tu­re on the visi­ba­li­sa­ti­on of Bri­tish Indi­an sol­diers in WWII, the impact of the war on the home front and mili­ta­ry-socie­ty rela­ti­onship in South Asia see: Bar­ka­wi 2017, Bay­ly 2005, Douds 2004, Rag­ha­van 2016, Khan 2015 and Khan et. al. (ed.) 2017.

[5] Das poli­ti­sche Archiv Aus­wer­ti­ges Amt (PAAA), Inter­na­tio­nal Tra­cing Ser­vice (Inter­na­tio­na­ler Such­e­dienst) archi­ves in Bad Arol­sen (ITS), Fede­ral and Mili­ta­ry Archi­ves in Frei­burg (Bun­des­ar­chiv – Abtei­lung Militärarchiv/BA/MA Frei­burg).

[6] For recruit­ment stra­tegy and cam­paigns during WWII, see Khan 2015, pp.40–49, Rag­ha­van 2016, pp. 64–78, Bay­ly, 2005 281–5

[7] Baz­pur is loca­ted in the Hima­la­yan foot­hills of Kumaon, Utta­rak­hand. It is an afflu­ent city who­se inha­bi­tants are main­ly Pun­ja­bi migrants from the post­war, post-Par­ti­ti­on era. The­se indus­trious and enter­pri­sing migrants tur­ned the Tarai (wet­land) into an ara­ble agri­cul­tu­ral land and beca­me lar­ge estate owners. Baz­pur is clo­se to Nai­ni­tal, a famous colo­ni­al hill sta­ti­on, and Rudra­pur, an indus­tri­al town.

[8] Impe­ri­al War Muse­um (IWM), Sound Archi­ve, 10771 

[9] Impe­ri­al War Muse­um (IWM), Sound Archi­ve, 16800

[10] PAAA R 40985. On 21.5.42 the Ger­man Mili­ta­ry High Com­mand (OKW) wro­te to the For­eign Office in respon­se to the Swiss delegation’s recom­men­da­ti­on that it was out of the ques­ti­on to trans­fer Mazum­dar to an Indi­an camp due to spe­cial reasons. The com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on also sta­ted that doc­tors and spi­ri­tu­al lea­ders could be gran­ted spe­cial pri­vi­le­ges such as spe­cial rooms, dou­ble let­ters, post cards, weekly 2.5 hours walks out­side the com­pound if their beha­vi­or was unob­jec­tionable. The deni­al of such pri­vi­le­ges was a rou­ti­ne punish­ment given to trou­ble­ma­kers, bes­i­des beatings.

[11] Impe­ri­al War Muse­um (IWM), Sound Archi­ve, 16800


Bar­ka­wi, T., Sol­diers of Empire: Indi­an and Bri­tish Armies in World War II. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017.

Bay­ly, C. A., Tim Har­per, The For­got­ten Armies: Britain’s Asi­an Empire and the War with Japan. Lon­don: Pen­gu­in, 2005.

Douds, G. J., “The men who never were: Indi­an POWs in the Second World War”. South Asia: Jour­nal of South Asi­an Stu­dies 27, 2 (2004): pp. 183–216.

Khan, Yas­min, The Raj at War: A People’s Histo­ry of Indian’s Second World War. Lon­don: the Bod­ley Head, 2015.

Khan, Yas­min, Gajen­dra Singh, and Ash­ley Jack­son (eds.), An Impe­ri­al World at War: Aspects of the Bri­tish Empire’s Expe­ri­en­ces at war 1939–45. Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2017.

Kocha­vi, Arieh J., Con­fron­ting Cap­ti­vi­ty: Bri­tain and the United Sta­tes and Their POWs in Nazi Ger­ma­ny. North Caro­li­na: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Caro­li­na Press, 2005.

Gün­ther, Lothar, Von Indi­en nach Anna­burg. Ber­lin: Ver­lag am Park, 2003.

Macken­zie, S. P., The Col­ditz Myth: Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth Pri­soners of War in Nazi Ger­ma­ny. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004.

Rag­ha­van, Sri­nath, India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia. New York: Basic Books, 2016.

Van­da­na Joshi, Sri Ven­ka­tes­wa­ra Col­lege, Uni­ver­si­ty of Delhi

MIDA Archi­val Refle­xi­con

Edi­tors: Anan­di­ta Baj­pai, Hei­ke Liebau
Lay­out: Mon­ja Hof­mann, Nico Putz
Host: ZMO, Kirch­weg 33, 14129 Ber­lin
Cont­act: archival.reflexicon [at]

ISSN 2628–5029