During the Second World War, photographers captured a series of images depicting the recruitment of Indian men into the British Indian Army. They form a small part of a wider collection of photographs that primarily covers the activities of Indian Army Units and the Home Front in India at a time when India was a colony of the British Empire.

The photographs were produced as part of a wider effort to document the war but also used by the press and as propaganda in India, Britain and across the Allied nations. Their original captions date from 1942 and help us understand the aspirations behind their commission. Crucially, however the text can also be interrogated to discover the social, military, and political context within which they were created. 

Generated by a combined effort by different departments in India and Britain these photographs retain the traces of the Press and Censorship Bureau of the Ministry of Information, the British Government Department responsible for propaganda and official news at home and abroad, as well as the Bureau of Public Information, which was part of the Government of India.

We invite you to explore the stories behind some of these images, with new captions written by researchers looking at how they can uncover new perspectives on recruitment to the British Indian Army in 1942. They reveal what was not discussed by the original writers: histories that have been obscured or excluded in the colonial context within which they were produced.

Part of Provisional Semantics, a research project from Tate, The National Trust, Imperial War Museums and the Decolonising Arts Institute at the University of the Arts London. 

New captions written by Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal, Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics team. 

A young recruit’s weight being measured as part of the army selection process
© IWM IND 1251

Original caption: A new recruit who has passed the doctor being weighed

New caption (2021): In this photograph a young recruit’s weight is being measured as part of the army selection process. The weight of new recruits was a major source of anxiety for the Indian army. As the war went on and demands for troops became more urgent the Indian army was forced to relax its weight standards, recruiting underweight personnel.

Malnutrition and hunger were already common in a subcontinent where colonial rule had reduced much of the population to poverty before the war. As allied armies bought up available food stocks during the war, food prices rose and food stocks fell. For many young men the army became an attractive avenue of employment because it promised an escape from a life of hunger and malnutrition. This was not lost on Indian army authorities which actively sought to bring new recruits’ weight up to standard. The Indian Council of Medical Research noted that new recruits put on 5 to 10 pounds within four months of joining the service.

The loudly trumpeted claim that the Indian army was the largest volunteer army in the world belies the fact that many of its recruits were confronted with two stark choices; serve or starve. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

Two men seated at a table while another man stands between them. The man standing is being handed an advance of pay.ng is being handed
© IWM IND 1254

Original caption: New recruits for the Indian Army in Northern India receiving an advance of pay on enrollment. Recruiting is proceeding apace throughout India, unaffected by the Congress campaign

New caption (2021): This is one of the few photographs in this collection that directly mentions Indian politics. The caption that was originally provided with this photograph, approved for publication three days after the outbreak of the Quit India Movement, boasts about the success of the recruitment drive in the face of opposition by the Indian nationalist Congress party. The original caption talks about the desirability of the soldiers pay, sometimes referred to as the ‘King’s Shilling’.  For many poor Indians the army continued to be a key source of employment in a colony in which a regular income continued to be difficult to secure.

Though Indian nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were ardent anti-fascists, they were outraged when British Viceroy Linlithgow declared India to be at war with Germany on 3rd September 1939 without consulting any Indians. Indian Nationalist anger only deepened as the colonial government refused to concede independence to India until after the war and went so far as to use wartime legislation to repress the Indian National Congress. Photographs like this one are meant to illustrate that the lives of ordinary Indians, like the bare-chested candidates in this photograph, continued to be dominated by concrete concerns about earning a living rather than by elite calls for independence.

Further, the well clothed civilian and military officials seated at the table are meant to convey the message that the colonial government is increasingly handing over the reins of power to educated Indians willing to work with it. Despite this photo’s message the ‘King’s Shilling’ had lost some of its sheen in the traditional recruiting ground of Punjab, where wartime profits from farming proved more enticing. The Indian army would instead be forced to turn to east and south India where the promise of regular pay would be difficult for starving men to say ‘No’ to. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

An Extra Assistant Recruiting Officer in Bangalore questioning men applying to be enrolled in the Indian Army.)
© IWM IND 1255

Original caption: An Extra Assistant Recruiting Officer in Bangalore questioning Madrasis applying to be enrolled in the Indian Army

New caption (2021): As the war went on and traditional recruiting grounds were depleted, the Indian Army was forced to expand recruitment to the south. Southern India closely followed Punjab in providing men for the British Indian Army. One of the oldest defunct Indian Army regiments, the Madras regiment, the origins of which dated back to the 18th century, was re-raised on 19th July 1942.

Colonial military and administrative categories led to the creation of new identities by homogenising distinct groups. So called ‘Madrasi’ troops had little in common with each other besides hailing from Southern India’s Madras Presidency. ‘Madrasi’ troops did not have a common language and spoke Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Most of them came from families of landless labourers who had suffered extreme deprivation as a consequence wartime inflation. 

Most ‘Madrasis’ joined the army to secure an income and exhibited little of the inter-generational loyalty the Indian government had so carefully cultivated among the supposed ‘martial races’. For most, if not all of the candidates in this photograph, this would have been their first experience of military life. The Madras regiment distinguished itself in the Burma theatre and continues to be an important part of independent India’s army.

One of the present day legacies of British rule is the continuing use of the derogatory term ‘Madrasi’, especially by Hindi speakers to denote anyone from India’s south despite the division of the region into five separate states. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal) 

 A "paid recruiter" in Bangalore gives each new candidate for the Indian Army his document before he appears for enrolment [
© IWM IND 1256

Original caption: A ‘paid recruiter’ in Bangalore explaining to new Indian army candidates the significance of their papers

New caption (2021): The man seated on the bench is a ‘paid recruiter’ hired by the Indian army to carry out recruitment in South India, a region from which the Indian army did not usually mobilise military labour. By contrast, recruitment in the North, which had a tradition of military service thanks to the ‘martial races theory’, was often undertaken through family and village networks of veterans.

The reason the ‘paid recruiter’ is explaining the significance of papers to army candidates is that Indian troops were often semi-literate or illiterate, causing colonial authorities to take special care to ensure that recruitment paperwork was ‘properly’ processed for the needs of colonial authorities. Also standing behind the ‘paid recruiter’ are a number of boys, possibly school children tasked with helping with the recruitment paperwork. The recruits themselves are relegated to being seated in the dirt. Literacy rates in India were low since the colonial government had invested little by way of resources in education. This meant that even though India had a very large population, Indian recruits were unsuited for the increasingly technical demands of modern warfare. It is no coincidence that the largest southern unit, the Madras Regiment, was an infantry regiment. Despite being hired in increasingly large numbers, from 1942 onwards, southern troops would mostly be confined to the supply lines while older Northern regiments would do most of the fighting.

Also note the Muslim soldier with the fez in the background. Though Muslims from Punjab were the largest group in the Indian army, southern recruits were largely from non-Muslim communities. (Dr Aashique Ahmed AhmedIqbal)

The Recruiting Medical Officer in Bangalore examining an Indian Army Candidate.
© IWM IND 1259

Original caption: The Recruiting Medical Officer in Bangalore examining an Indian Army candidate

New caption (2021): Though this photo is apparently about the examination of an Indian army candidate, the camera’s focus is squarely on the Recruiting Medical Officer and the Non-Commissioned Officer assisting him.

The Indian officer here is filling a role that would a few decades before have been occupied by a white British officer; that of embodying the colonial government. The recruit’s body by contrast is passive and pliable in the hands of the army doctor who is examining his ear. Photos like this one centering Indian officers were deliberately aimed at promoting the view that Indians, particularly ‘westernized’ and ‘educated’ ones, were increasingly occupying leadership roles in the Indian army.

The original humorous comment accompanying this photograph. ‘Let’s look at this ear..’ has also been edited with a view towards presenting a less frivolous picture of the duties of Indian officers.

In the years leading up to the war, the Indianisation controversy had become a major bone of contention between colonial authorities and Indian nationalists. Indian politicians had pressed for the recruitment of more Indian officers but the colonial government was reluctant to transfer military command from British to Indian hands. With the outbreak of the war British propagandists, sensitive to the need to placate American allies as much as Indian subjects, focused increasingly on Indian officers while keeping British officers ‘out of the picture.’

Since the Indian Medical Service was one of the few branches of the Indian army to feature Indian officers in substantial numbers, Indian Medical Officers became popular fixtures in wartime propaganda films and photography. In addition to the Medical Officer, the camera also keenly focuses on the stripes on the Non-Commissioned Officer’s shoulder to emphasise that Indians were rising through the ranks of the Indian army at every level. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

Three men sit on an ox cart in India
© IWM IND 1267

Original caption: PRIMITIVE TRANSPORT IN INDIA The immemorial ox cart still holds sway in India, just as in Old Testament times. This quaint conveyance is used to transport merchandise farm produce and passengers. The wheels are built to outlive even the driver and the oxen.

New caption (2021): While the presence of a bullock cart in a photographic collection on the Second World War might seem out of place, photos like this actually played a crucial role in discourse legitimizing colonial rule. The bullock cart was mobilized as a symbol of India’s stubborn traditionalism and timelessness and was contrasted with the train and later the aeroplane, which served as symbols of British modernity.

The original caption for this photo talks about how the bullock cart is a ‘primitive’ form of transport using a distinctly Christian register that places it in the ‘Old Testament times’ before Christ. The erroneous idea that India was a primitive society that might be civilised by British rule was used as a powerful justification for colonialism. Yet the presence of bullock carts in India at a time when Britain was waging industrialised war is also indicative of a central contradiction in this very argument.

If British rule could modernise India then that must imply that British rule would have to come to an end at a point when India passed the threshold of modernity. However, if India was an innately primitive land which could never be modernised, as shown by the primitive transport extant after more than a century of British rule, then colonialism in India had no justification.

As things stood, the lack of investment in India in transport and infrastructure would prove disastrous for the Allied war effort. Indeed, a poorly thought out ‘scorched earth’ policy aimed at destroying traditional modes of transport, like fishermen’s boats, to deny them to the enemy would contribute to a deadly famine in Bengal in 1943. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

A portrait phtograph of an Indian Christian from the Shahpur District of the Punjab.
© IWM IND 1273

Original caption: An Indian Christian from the Shahpur District of the Punjab, candidate for the Indian army

New caption (2021): While photos of bare-chested recruits hailing from various regions and communities were common at the time, this one is remarkable because it portrays a member of a religious community that was very much a minority in the Indian army.

Though the colonial government had distanced itself from conversions, colonial rule did see a moderate increase in Christian conversions. This photograph was most likely taken with the intention of showing it to a British Christian audience, as indicated by the pencil markings designating it for sharing with the Geographical magazine. The tick mark on the candidate’s chest indicates that he has passed at least one leg of the recruitment.

Though the Indian army was dominated by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, troops drawn from religious minorities, like Christians and Parsees, came to be valued for their reliability in policing communal violence between larger groups. Indian Christians along with Anglo Indians were often prominent in technical trades in the military and the railways since they often received an English education in Christian institutions. Punjabi Christians continue to have a presence in both Indian and Pakistani Punjab. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

A portrait of a Pathan of the Uri Tahsil, Kasmir
© IWM IND 1274

Original caption: A Pathan of the Uri Tahsil, Kashmir, candidate for the Indian army

New caption (2021): Rugged mountains contrast with the gentle smile of a young Pathan candidate for the Indian army. Pathans, hail from the Muslim Pashtun ethnic group which inhabits South and Central Asia. Pathans were famed for their fighting skills especially in mountainous terrain. They were among the most prominent of the ‘martial races’ from whom the British Raj traditionally recruited its army.

This Pathan hailed from the princely state of Kashmir. The indirectly ruled Indian princes made substantial contributions to the British in the hopes of gaining a favourable position in negotiations after the war.

The ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, hoped to carve out an independent state once British rule ended. This was not to be as a Pathan force, backed by independent Pakistan, invaded his state in 1947.

Many Pathan veterans of the Second World War would serve among the Pakistani forces in the Kashmir war against India. Pathan forces would take Uri Tehsil, the young candidate’s home, before losing it to an Indian offensive. Uri town and its surroundings now sit on a tense border, the Line of Control, between India and Pakistan. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

A Punjabi Mussalman- a Sudhan of Kotli Tahsil, Mirpur State, candidate for the Indian army
© IWM IND 1289

Original caption: A Punjabi Mussalman- a Sudhan of Kotli Tahsil, Mirpur State, candidate for the Indian army

New caption (2021): This photograph is a classic example of the ‘military ethnographic’ approach that underpinned the Indian army’s recruitment policy. The camera’s domination of the near naked colonial subject, in hundreds of photos like this one, is at once unmistakably homoerotic and also clearly aimed at reassuring British men about their position at the apex of both gender and racial hierarchies. The ability to make Indian men from certain regions and communities pose near naked for photos helped reassure the Indian army that it could still exert total control over the bodies of its most ‘masculine’ subjects.

Racial hierarchies were constituted by a pseudo-scientific ‘martial races’ theory which designated Punjabis as the ideal soldiers. The image of the masculine loyal Punjabi could be fruitfully contrasted with the ‘effeminate’ nationalist Bengali by colonial propagandists to undermine the latter’s claims to represent Indians. As anti-colonial sentiment swept the Punjab in the 20th century British recruiters reduced the recruitment of Sikh Punjabis, who were increasingly sympathetic to the Indian National Congress, in favour of Muslim Punjabis who were considered less tainted by disloyalty. Punjabi Muslim men were the largest group in the Indian army representing 35 per cent of the total number of combatants, followed by Sikhs who made up a litte over 10 per cent.

Pictures like this one are aimed as much at addressing deep anxieties about masculinity as they are about representing a particular ethnic ‘type’. In the longer term the focus on recruiting Punjabi Muslims would result in empowering the army as the most significant branch of the state in independent Pakistan. ‘Martial races theory’ thus contributed to the rise of military rule in Pakistan less than two decades after these photos were taken. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

A portrait of a recruit for the Indian army from Dal Lake Srinagar, who joined the Indian Hospital Corps
© IWM IND 1293

Original caption: A recruit for the Indian army from Dal Lake Srinagar, who joined the Indian Hospital Corps

New caption (2021): This is a rare picture of a non-combatant recruited into the Indian Hospital Corps from the princely state of Kashmir. The recruit in this photo is noticeably middle aged. Note that neither is the man’s ethnicity nor is his body semi-naked are mentioned here as in many of the other photos in this collection. The recruit’s weather-beaten expression too is different from the proud photos taken of combatant recruits.

This picture is relatively rare since military photographers preferred to focus on the more glamorous combatant arms of the Indian army. Yet hundreds of thousands of enrolled non-combatants performing a variety of roles such as porters, stretcher bearers and washer men. Combined with non-enrolled followers they easily outnumbered the regular soldiers of the Indian army.

Non-combatants or camp ‘Followers’ did not receive the same pay or benefits as their combatant counterparts despite being a crucial part of the war effort and often risking their lives in dangerous theatres of the war. Not surprisingly non-combatants were drawn mostly from the ranks of destitute, lower caste groups which is why the ethnicity of the man in this photo is not commented on in the original captions.

The recruit in the photo above most likely served as a stretcher bearer in the Indian Hospital Corps, which would be re-organised as the Indian Army Medical Corps on 3rd April 1943. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

An Indian Army recruit rejected on medical grounds has his thumb impression taken and is paid a compensation subsistence allowance
© IWM IND 1302

Original caption: An Indian army recruit rejected on medical grounds has his thumb impression taken and is paid a compensation subsistence allowance.

New caption (2021): Photos like this one were intended to convey the strength and efficiency of colonial rule in India. The purpose of this photo is to present the rejected recruit as a beneficiary of the Raj’s generosity and a symbol of the high standards of the Indian army. Note also the cross marking the recruit’s rejection drawn on his chest, a good example of the colonial army’s practice of marking men’s progress through the recruitment process on their bodies.

This posed photograph is remarkable in a number of ways. Like many others it conspicuously does not feature any white officers even as it foregrounds Indians in leadership roles. Elite educated Indians from both civil and military backgrounds oversee the process, their status marked by their seating, their ‘Westernised’ clothing and above all their literacy evidenced by a small mountain of papers.

The new recruits, representing the Indian masses meanwhile stand bare-chested, mainly in the background, while turbaned functionaries bring order to the proceedings. It also features Indians from different religious backgrounds, including Sikhs and Muslims, making the case that Indians can work together under the colonial government, at a time when India’s political parties were divided on religious lines.

Key to the photo is the pressing of the illiterate recruit’s thumbprint by a Sikh government officer implying that elite Indians were now a part of the ruling class and can help govern their less fortunate compatriots’ without a  white man in sight. (Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal)

Crowds of Northern Indian recruits collecting at a recruiting centre for the Indian Army.
© IWM IND 1266

Original caption (1942): Crowds of Northern Indian recruits collecting at a recruiting centre for the Indian Army.

New caption (2021): This photograph was taken in 1942 at an Army recruiting centre in Punjab in northern India. A large group of young men are waiting for the gates to open. Some are bare-chested, in preparation for their inspection.

The photographer has climbed up above the gates, so that the viewer is looking down on the men, who are queuing up, their individuality lost in the massing of the crowd possibly for the purpose of scale and impact.

This picture was one of 15 used to illustrate a two-page article entitled India’s Warrior Sons in the Royal Geographical Society Geographical Magazine in October 1942. The article, written by Frank Burton Leach, a senior British officer in the Indian Civil Service, was a propaganda piece, designed to reassure people in Britain and the Empire that the men of India (and Punjab in particular) were ready to fight, signing up in large numbers, and doing so as volunteers rather than by conscription. Individual motivations for volunteering are hard to recover. There was a long tradition of recruitment to the British Indian Army from Punjab but recruits often felt indebted to the British government and the King for their livelihoods. The promise of a steady income, along with other benefits to signing up, such as land grants and irrigation facilities, was attractive for some, as was the possibility of further advancement in the army. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

The "walk" of would be recruits to the Indian Army being inspected. If this is good the candidate is passed on to the army doctor.
© IWM IND 1268

Original caption (1942): The "walk" of would be recruits to the Indian Army being inspected. If this is good the candidate is passed on to the army doctor.

New caption (2021): Potential Indian Army recruits walk past a line of other candidates. A group of onlookers gather on the wall at the back. The photograph presents recruitment as an important spectacle to be witnessed.

These recruits appear to be walking the line to demonstrate their masculinity and ‘suitability’ for military service. In many cases, this is the point of transition from farmer to soldier.

This photo was taken in Punjab, now divided between India and Pakistan. Then in the northernmost corner of colonial India, Punjab was a region of mountains, plains and fields, these all visible in the background. British rhetoric often referred to Punjab as both the ‘sword-arm’ and the ‘bread-basket’ of the British Empire in India. It was a crucial part of both military and agricultural planning, and central to the imperial project. For nearly a hundred years, the men of Punjab formed the backbone of the army while their families worked in the fields. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

A Pujabi patriarch proudly accompanying his on newly enrolled in the Indian Army to the railway station.
© IWM IND 1269

Original caption (1942): A Punjabi patriarch proudly accompanying his son-newly enrolled in the Indian Army to the railway station.

New caption (2021): Double portrait of a father and son, taken on the day that the young man joined the Indian Army. The father carries a parasol to protect him from the sun.

The photo was taken in Punjab (now divided between India and Pakistan) by an unknown photographer some time before August 1942. Recruiting into the Indian Army was intensified in 1942 in response to the successful Japanese attacks on British-occupied South East Asia, which advanced right up to the border with India.

In contrast, consider two other photos in the IWM collection H 17179 and H 17180. These show a young white, British man joining the British Army in the same year. The captions provide the name of the recruit and the photographs follow him through the recruitment process. Here, however, the young Indian man and his father remain anonymous. The official colonial gaze repeatedly focussed on the strength of numbers in the British Indian Army over individuality, highlighting how the ethnic ‘types’ of Indian men enlisting was of primary importance for British authorities. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

New recruit to the Indian Army and ex-soldier, both Punjabi Mussalmand-Makhans of Shahpur District.
© IWM IND 1270

Original caption (1942): New recruit to the Indian Army and ex-soldier, both Punjabi Mussalmans--Makhans of Shahpur District.

New caption (2021): Two Indian men at a recruiting centre for the Indian Army, Punjab 1942. On the right is a veteran who stands to attention and wears shoes. On the left is a recruit who appears very young. Boys younger than 18 were regularly recruited into the Indian Army. The contrast between the two individuals is possibly designed to highlight the material and physical benefits of military service.

This photo is clearly posed – the two men stand against a wall. The photo is taken from a fairly low angle and both men wear only a dhoti. This is how they would have undergone the selection process.

This photo was published in the 18 September 1942 edition of Wilayati Akhbar Haftawar, a newsletter produced in the UK for the Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen in Britain. The caption in the newsletter read ‘Prime Minister Mr Churchill has said that even before calling for recruits some 150,000 soldiers have volunteered for the Indian army. From this we know that there has been no special impact of the Congress campaign’. The campaign referred to is the Quit India movement, promoted by the Indian National Congress party in India. In this way the photograph served as part of the ongoing propaganda campaign designed to keep the thousands of Indian citizens in Britain in line with the colonial government, and to reject the ideas and influence of Indian nationalists. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

A Punjabi Mussalman, an Awam of Shahpur District one of the many recruits to the Indian Army N.Inda.
© IWM IND 1271

Original captions (1942): A Punjabi Mussalman, an Awan of Shahpur District one of the many recruits to the Indian Army N. India. [Picture issued August 1942]

New caption (2021): A young man who has just joined the Indian Army, Punjab 1942.

The young recruit’s hair is oiled and parted. He frowns slightly. On his skin you can see the chalk marks made by the officers who inspected and examined him to check his eligibility and ‘suitability’ for military service. Weight, height, estimated age, ‘caste’, district, standard of education and state of teeth were all assessed and recorded, as well as the unit for which he seemed most ‘suitable’.

In other armies, such as the British Army, a recruit would have carried a slip of paper with him as he progressed through the various checks and assessments. Instead, it is the Indian recruit’s skin that is used. He became an embodiment of the administrative process, exposing how his body has been colonised by administrative and state control. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

Father and son - Jat Sikh, recruits to the Indian Army from the Canal Colony of Shahpur District
© IWM IND 1272

Original caption (1942): Father and son - Jat Sikh, recruits to the Indian Army from the Canal Colony of Shahpur District [Picture issued .....1942]

New caption (2021): A Sikh father and his son have arrived to join the Indian Army.

The men wear turbans according to the Sikh faith, and the father has the full uncut beard traditionally worn by some Sikh men. According to the original caption they come from Shahpur on the River Jhelum, one of the five rivers of Punjab, from which the province gains its name. Together with Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs were the main target for British recruitment in Punjab, and formed an important part of the army, as they had been loyal to the British Empire in the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion and were seen as a ‘martial race’. This is one of several double portraits in this recruitment series, of fathers and sons, with the father often accompanying his son, and sometimes enlisting as well. The commitment to the Indian army is portrayed as intergenerational, suggesting a long tradition of service to the British Empire. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

Portrait of a man who offered to join up
© IWM IND 1280

Original caption (1942): A "bonny young" Kashmiri of Uri Tahsil, who offered to join the Indian army as a recruit. (Passed for publication 13 Aug 1942).

New caption (2021): This man arrived at an Indian Army recruiting centre but was rejected as being too old.

His motivation may have been a material one, knowing that a job with the army meant food and financial security for his family, even if he were to be killed. Or perhaps it was a display of masculinity, military capability and self-worth, especially in his old age. It is also uncertain why this photograph was taken, but the ironic description of its subject in the original caption suggests that this may have been a joke, or captured for propagandist purposes, to show that men of all ages wanted to join the British Indian Army. Many men of this man’s age had already served in the British Indian Army during the First World War with approximately 1.5 million Indian men having fought on the Western Front, in the Middle East and in Africa. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

Portrait of a Punjabi man
© IWM IND 1283

Original caption (1942): A Punjabi Mussalman Indian Army Candidate - an Awan of Jhelum District. (Picture issued 1942).

New caption (2021): At an Army recruiting centre in Punjab, north India.

This young man smiles at the camera with a direct gaze. As with all the photos in this series, his name was not recorded by the photographer. The original caption describes him as a ‘Punjabi Mussalman – an Awan of Jhelum District’. The term ‘Punjabi Mussalman’ was used by British recruiters (often shortened to PM) as a catchall for various Muslim groups in Punjab and other parts of northern India, and then as a way to classify regiments. The areas that these men came from now fall within modern day Pakistan. The Awan people were considered one of the so-called ’martial races’ of Punjab. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

A martial father and his educated son from the Uri Tahsil, Kashmire, both candidates for the Indian Army.
© IWM IND 1294

Original caption (1942): A martial father and his educated son from the Uri Tahsil, Kashmir, both candidates for the Indian Army.

New caption (2021): Father and son from Kashmir hoping to join the Indian Army, 1942.

They stand to attention in this posed shot. The father’s jacket is military in style. He carries a walking stick and wears a long moustache and side whiskers. He is described in the original caption as a ‘martial father’, while the son is described as ‘educated’. The implication of the caption is that there is room for all sorts of men within the army, those with frontline combat skills as well as others with formal education and therefore more technical knowledge. The British Empire and Allied war effort, the photograph implies, should not fear a shortage of soldiers. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)


Original caption written in 1942: Punjabi volunteers crowding round the gates of an Army recruiting office, 1942.
© IWM IND 1300

Original caption (1942): Punjabi volunteers crowding round the gates of an Army recruiting office [Picture issued ........1942]

New caption (2021): The gates of an Army recruiting office in Punjab. A soldier or policeman holds back the crowd.

By depicting a large group of men trying to enter the office, this photograph is perhaps intended to show the eagerness of the men to volunteer for the Indian Army.

These men are mostly Muslims. The British called them ‘Punjabi Mussalmans’, and they came from parts of Punjab which are now largely in Pakistan. The British wartime recruitment efforts were built around the so-called ‘martial race’ theory, now widely rejected as unsubstantiated and ideologically driven. Certain religions and groups were deemed to be naturally able soldiers, while other groups were only targeted for recruitment during this war when the need for men increased. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

 Indian recruits collecting in the grounds of a local Malik [Chief] in the Punjab
© IWM IND 1301

Original caption (1942): Indian recruits collecting in the grounds of a local Malik [Chief] in the Punjab [Picture issued ......1942]

New caption (2021): The beginning of the recruitment process. A group of mostly young men are waiting to see if they will pass the first test to join the Indian Army.

Some men look at the camera, some look off to the side. Some are bare-chested, ready for their medical inspection. The original caption records that this was taken in the grounds of the local Malik or chief. In this way, local class and administrative structures are shown to become part of the military recruitment process. Although this was a time of resistance to British rule in India, this photo demonstrates to its British audience that Indian feelings even at the local level included support for the war effort. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

New Indian Army recruits boarding the train to join their units
© IWM IND 1304

Original caption (1942): New Indian Army recruits boarding the train to join their units [Picture issued ....1942]

New caption (2021): After being selected to join the army, these men are boarding a train to join their new units.

The train is used here as a symbol of modern efficiency – these men are on the way to a highly industrialised twentieth-century war. They became part of the 2.5 million men of the Indian Army who served in the war, in France, East Africa, North Africa, Italy, Burma and South East Asia. A caption on the back of this photo - later crossed out - read ‘Good luck laddies, the day’s work is done’. The men’s journey to a war that would transform the Indian subcontinent, however, was only just beginning. (Dr Ghee Bowman and the Provisional Semantics Team)

More from Provisional Semantics


What can a photographic collection depicting the recruitment of Indian soldiers tell us about the British Indian Army in 1942? Read essays by the researchers involved in Provisional Semantics exploring this topic.

Read Anxieties and Absences by Dr Aashique Ahmed Iqbal

Read Reflections on Provisional Semantics by Dr Diya Gupta

Read Anticipated and unanticipated audiences: a multiplicity of voices by Jess Crombie


Further context
Explore the context behind some of the concepts discussed in this article.