The Indian Contingent

K6 soldiers’ names

At the core of a person’s identity is their name. A name is an essential tool to humanise somebody – when your name is taken away, you start to lose your identity. We are all given names by our parents when we are born, and some people acquire other names later in life, through marriage, as a nickname or by changing their name. By looking at the names of the K6 men we can learn a lot about who they were and where they came from. The linguist Tariq Rahman, in his study of onomastics in Pakistan, points out the importance of names, suggesting that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet shows us that names ‘are a matter of life and death and not pointless labels’, and that ‘names have cultural capital’. In South Asia the study of names has long held a fascination for locals and imperialists alike, with R.C. Temple’s 1883 work on Punjab an example of orientalists’ desire to categorise and understand, drawing on census data from the district of Ambala. Within the complex society of colonial India, names were a clear way to indicate one’s religion, signifying implicit meanings to the in-group, while declaring one’s faith and caste alignment to members of other groups. The seventh day after a birth in a Muslim family brings the ceremony of aqiqah or shaving. On this day the baby’s head is shaved, the adhan or call to prayer is recited into their right ear, and then the child is named. One of the father’s obligations to his new child is to give her or him a good name, one that serves to ‘bind… the child into the family unit’, often by reflecting the name of a grandparent. Within Islam (and almost all of Force K6 were Muslims), there are names that are preferred and names that are shunned. A hadith says:

Call yourselves by the names of the Prophets. The names dearest to Allah are Abdullah and Abdur-Rahman, the truest are Harith and Hammam and the worst are Harb and Murrah.

This indicates that in the time of the prophet, some Bedouin families gave their sons names that would seem very strange today – harb being the Arabic word for war, for example, while harith means ploughman. As Rahman says, ‘the giving of a name… is an act of power’.

A look at the list of K6 personal names gives a fascinating insight into their religions and origins. As part of the research process for the thesis and book I compiled a database of over 2200 names of men (and one woman) associated with Force K6, drawn from a wide variety of archival documents in the UK and South Asia. This specificity of names makes the men of K6 real, concrete – it draws them out of the shadows of anonymity. Of the 2187 Indian names on that list, just fifty-two are Hindu, Sikh or Christian, giving a percentage of 97.7% Muslim and 2.3% non-Muslim. Nearly half of the fifty-two non-Muslims are sweepers, six are officers and five are VCOs with medical responsibilities: all categories that fall outside the core jobs of drivers, tradesmen and NCOs. It is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about the correlation between name and occupation from the database. Almost all the tradesmen are Muslim, except one Hindu dhobi (laundryman), one farrier who may be a Hindu (his name was Guggar), three Hindu water carriers and twenty-four of the twenty-nine sweepers. There were, however, five drivers with non-Muslim names, including Jug Lall and Waje Singh (of whom more anon). Colonial administration required precise nomenclature, but nomenclature that fitted their needs. It is impossible to have a modern bureaucratic state without names, but in this case the names recorded are different from local practice, focusing exclusively on given names and service numbers. Just as white British soldiers usually had a first name and a surname, so the records show most of the men of K6 with two names, but the father’s name and village name is almost never recorded. The tradition in Muslim India, however, has no surname or fixed family name, and a ‘caste’ name is also optional. So men would be known by their given name (single or double), plus their father’s name, or village of origin or caste name. In a few cases, where there were VCOs with identical names (VCOs’ service numbers not usually being recorded), they are differentiated by use of the capitalised Roman numeral, giving us Jemadar Ghulam Mohd III and Jemadar Ghulam Mohd IV on the same list for repatriation in December 1942. The potential for confusion was considerable.

insert the photo of Sgt Khan in Ballater here, with the following caption:
Sergeant Khan at Ballater, with Sheila (wearing glasses) and Brenda Bideau. Out of the many photos of Fore K6, this is one of the few where the soldier is named, albeit rather briefly (photo courtesy of Miss JL Legge)

Not surprisingly, the most common first name on the list is Mohammed, with 317 entries. There are fifty-one Alis, but just eighteen Ahmeds. Names starting with ’abd are common, as indicated by the hadith quoted above. This prefix is the Arabic word for slave and should traditionally be accompanied by one of the names of God, thus Abdul Rahman breaks down as ‘abd = slave, el = of the, Rahman = compassionate: the slave of the compassionate. There were thirteen Abdul Rahmans in the database (including two variant spellings) and twelve Abdullahs, among a total of ninety-five names starting with ’abd. The single most popular name on the list, however, is Khan, which appears as a first name twenty-five times and a second name 515 times: 540 altogether. Thus over a quarter of the men had the name ‘khan’. This ultra-common name has diverged from its origin – Temple explains that it used to be the equivalent of ‘Chief… in Scotland, among the clans, but nowadays Khans are as common… as Esquires in London’. There were also eighty-five men with the name ‘Shah’ as first or second name, a Persian word meaning king. The fact that so many of the men had names which are closely related to the traditional canon of Muslim names does not, of itself, indicate that these men or their parents were especially religious. Rather, it shows a combination of custom and aspiration: these were the names available to Muslims having children in the early twentieth century, and a more ‘pure Muslim’ name may indicate the parents’ desire for their new child to be a good follower of the faith.

More interesting perhaps are some of the less popular names that indicate local Punjabi preferences and roots outside Punjab. There are, for example, a scattering of Muslim names of United Provinces (UP) provenance – including Sadiqui, Naqvi and Jaffery. There are others that are clearly Pashtun, from what was then North West Frontier Province, like Painda or Ajaib. Fifty-two men were called ‘rose’ or gul or one of its derivatives: Gulistan for rose garden or Gulab for rosewater. Other names that derive from nature include Taus (peacock) Budar (moon) and Bagh (leopard or tiger). Some names are more exotic: Misri means Egyptian sugar, and Khor Dil is sister’s heart. Some names may have started as nicknames: Nikka means small and Shoda means show-off. There are also a number of old-fashioned, rural ‘quintessentially folk-islamic names’ such as Piran Ditta (given or granted by a pir or saint) and Allah Ditta (God-given), which occurs eighteen times.

Of particular interest are those occasions when a soldier changed their name, for this may indicate a fundamental shift of identity. There are three instances recorded in the newsletter Wilayati Akhbar Haftawar. In May 1943 there was a double announcement: Jemadar Muhammad Ishrat Yar Khan of Bareilly in UP became M.I.Y. Khan, a strategy designed to ensure easier recording in official documents, and in line with the common South Asian practice of using initials only. At the same time, Driver Abdul Khan of 42nd Company became Abdur Rahman. This is an interesting move and may have taken place for religious reasons. Properly speaking, ‘Abdul’ is not actually a name by itself, but a prefix, as noted above. Calling your son Abdul is an indication of a less educated, less religious family: Temple called it ‘a queer common abbreviated Indian name’. This man decided to move away from the identity granted at his aqiqah and to take one of the names dearest to Allah: slave of the compassionate. Perhaps this mule driver had been on a spiritual journey during his time in the UK. The final example is also of a religious nature. In 1943, 815932 Driver Waje Singh of 25th Company announced he would be changing his name to Shaikh Ghulam Mustafa. The name Waje Singh is a Sikh name, whereas his new name is a Muslim one. The honorific term shaikh may be used to mean ‘teacher’, but is also often used in South Asia to indicate a convert. Waje Singh/Ghulam Mustafa may have been a driver with 25th Company since their departure from Punjab in December 1939, or he may have come later as a replacement. In any event, as a Sikh surrounded by Muslims, he decided to convert. Perhaps, knowing that they were soon to return to India, he wanted to stay with his barrack-mates, and so decided to join them in worship as well as in work. Perhaps he was making a strategic decision to fit in with those around him, to assimilate and conform. In this case the change of name represents both a rebellion from his roots, and an act of conforming to what was around him. A fundamental shift of identity had taken place.