ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Reluctant Mobility : Non-combatants Serving the British Indian Army at the  Frontier, 1839-1914.


Chakraborty Malini - Jadavpur University, History, Kolkata, India


14 – Servitude and Mobility in Pre-Colonial and Colonial South Asia


 My paper aims to trace the recruitment patterns of casual and circulatory non-combatant military labour groups assisting the colonial armed forces in the north eastern frontier between 1839-1913. In their attempts to pacify recalcitrant tribes along the frontier, the British Indian Army depended heavily on a plethora of labourers for supply, transport and maintenance purposes, like coolies, bhistis, sweepers, boatmen and animal handlers. I look at the Armed forces as an industrial complex employing labourers on a need basis and argue that this sort of employment allowed a certain amount of economic mobility to the communities recruited by the Army. It is my intention to focus on the labour groups who have remained hitherto marginalized within both labour and military histories. Military historians have attended to the importance of logistics in campaigns but have hardly analyzed recruitment patterns of the logistical workforce. Labour historians have not studied non-combatant military labourers.  Neither have looked at the effect of army employment on these labour groups. Through my work, I attempt to fill this particular lacuna in the existing South Asian Historiography. I intend to create an interface between military and labour history. I have depended on materials collected from different state archives (West Bengal, Assam, Punjab) as well as the National Archives of India, New Delhi.