Much has been written about the bravery and tenacity of the British Indian Army in the Mesopotamia Campaign (1914-18) and how its role was instrumental in the Allies defeating the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia.
Civilians from India also went to the region to aid in non-combatant roles such as the building of the Basra-Baghdad Railway.
The bulk of the people involved in the campaign were those from so-called “martial races” such as Punjabis, Pathans, Marathas and Rajputs, but those of us with roots in Kerala have been told stories of family members being involved in one of the World Wars. Unfortunately, it’s only those who families were already part of the economic and intellectual elite at the time of independence who have documented details of their relatives who were involved in history-making events. For families that started from scratch to survive economically, such stories were buried in the rush of life. Newspaper archives in the most unlikely places, though, bring forgotten facts back to life.
A Palakkad Iyer in Baghdad
The Malaya Tribune, a daily newspaper that existed between 1914 and 1951 and was published simultaneously in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Penang and Singapore, carried a small but interesting article with a May 6, 1918, Palghat dateline.
Headlined “Indians in Mesopotamia,” it is about a young man from Palakkad who was given an important posting in Baghdad (then spelt Bagdad). “Intimation has been received here that Mr P U Narayana Iyer, B A of Palghat, has been appointed the first Commissioner of the District of Bagdad in the conquered province on a salary of Rs 750 a month,” the paper said. For 1918 that was indeed a very good salary for what definitely would have been considered a hardship posting in a country that was ravaged by a war.
It is not clear what the paper meant when it said Iyer was a young man on “this side of thirty.” A graduate of the University of Madras, he was obviously fluent in English. From the time that Indian army units went to Basra and beyond, many civilians looking for opportunities also went to Mesopotamia. “He was one of the earliest to volunteer in the non-combatant section of the Field Service in Mesopotamia and when the enemy country was brought under civil administration, he was taken on in the superior grade of service,” the paper added.
Narayana Iyer was obviously a brave young man who shunned the customs and beliefs from within his community that he was forbidden from crossing the ocean. It must have been a matter of great pride for Iyer’s family that he received such an appointment after living in Mesopotamia during a World War. The fact that this made the news in Malaya surely meant that it was published in Indian newspapers at that time.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no further information about Iyer in the public domain. The British Archives probably have more on the activities of this civil servant. There’s no clarity about what happened to documents from the post-World War 1 period in Baghdad, when the US and its allies invaded Iraq in 2003.
What is known about this period is the fact there were some in British-Indian colonial circles who toyed with the ludicrous idea of attaching parts of modern-day Iraq to British India and resettling Indians there as a mark of gratitude for supporting the war effort. Similarly absurd proposals were made (and rejected) even for parts of East Africa.
A revolt against British policies in Iraq began as early as 1920 and Iraqis resisted the British Administration that held sway over the country until independence in 1932.
In modern day Iraq, the role played by Indians in building the Basra-Baghdad railroad is celebrated and there is a genuine warmth for those Indians who lived in the country after the First World War. This was something that culminated into a good diplomatic relationship after both countries became independent. As for Narayana Iyer, one can only hope that his surviving family members or descendants come forward and help us piece the puzzle of his interesting and extraordinary life.
(The author is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai.)