In early 1945, some months before the Second World War formally ended, Indian independence activist and Communist Party member Kalpana Dutt was on a tour of Chittagong in British India. Describing what she saw as she walked along the Arakan Road to Burma, she wrote:

‘Ordinary people do not walk along this road. And yet you will find women in batches digging the earth, or watering the road. These are not ordinary women, they are from the Labour Corps. Their whole being strikes the eye: their looks, their gait, their conversation, everything is out of the ordinary. Their faces are swollen, their appearance is harsh. You could find women of all ages here – both young and old. They have no guardians and no means to fall back upon. Famine has destroyed their homes, and has carried on their husbands and children.’

Tens of thousands of such displaced and destitute women provided the labour fundamental to Allied operations in colonial eastern India during the Second World War between 1943 and 1945. They were part of the Labour Corps, a body of at least thirty thousand women labouring in airfields, roads, and military bases who received little to no mention in official sources. Although virtually no textual records of their participation and contribution exist in official colonial archives, a collection of photographs from the United States Air Force records indicate not only the kinds of working lives they might have led, but also the ubiquitous presence of women in what have traditionally been conceived of as highly masculine spaces. There is much that can be read and seen in these photographs, their construction, and captions.

The early 1940s brought war-induced economic pressures, inflation, the Bengal Famine of 1943, and epidemics that affected eastern India and the province of Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh and the state of West Bengal in India) in particular. Rural, low caste, and indigenous women, mostly non-literate, bore a disproportionate impact of these crises. In the meanwhile, the Japanese had continued to advance towards Bengal’s eastern borders. Consequently, a joint British and American operation was underway, making east and north-east India crucial bases in the Asian theatre of the war. Military infrastructure needed to be built from scratch to support Allied campaigns to recover Burma, fly supplies over the Himalayas to China, and conduct raids on Japan. Such an effort undoubtedly required an army of labourers, and a large number of displaced women and men were in search of work.

The Labour Corps was unregulated, run by contractors, and paid very poor wages. It carried out manual labour that included constructing and repairing buildings, warehouses, aerodromes, storage and fuel distribution systems, carrying heavy loads, and crushing rocks and spreading gravel to build runways and roads. In some places, women were engaged in manual labour by day and sex work by night. Life in the Corps was tough, fragile, and strenuous, but it was also one of few ways to stave off hunger.

‘Women of India cart away dirt and stones in baskets balanced on their heads during the construction of base in India. Hundreds of such women worked alongside the men’ (342-FH-3A35174-52172AC, US Air Force Reference Number 52172AC).

US Army Air Force (USAAF) photographers documented the manual labour performed by colonial subjects through a lens that positioned them as ‘native’ labourers employing methods of the ‘East’ while working under American supervision. Some of these images were published contemporaneously in the official USAAF service journal Air Force. The photographs often juxtapose the ‘ancient’ with the ‘modern’, showing groups or lines of workers carrying wicker baskets on their heads against a background of the most advanced military bomber aircraft. Workers wore sarees that went just past their knees, without blouses, as they walked barefoot on the rubble; the absence of any protective equipment and the contrast with fully uniformed and booted officers are apparent. In one photograph, a saree-clad worker balancing a basket laden with stone on her head is photographed from the back; next to her, several mules can be seen carrying basket loads of stone. Behind them is a heavy bomber airplane, and the caption reads: ‘Without the “Liberator” in the background, this scene might well have come out of Biblical antiquity.’

A woman at work at a base in India (342-FH-3A35160-50752AC, US Air Force Reference Number 50752AC).

Along with an emphasis on archaism, a slow pace of work receives mention in another caption: ‘Concrete moves to the runway forms in trays on the heads of these Indian women – in the tempo of the East.’ Articles in military engineering journals regularly commented on labour inefficiency and exhaustion.

Laying runways (342-FH-3A35179-54228AC, US Air Force Reference Number 54228AC).

In another photograph, a woman is captured mid-motion as she overturns a basket of crushed stone. In the background we can see other women at work, and behind them two uniformed white men stand watching over them. This image is particularly evocative in its portrayal of how arduous the work must have been. In another image (342-FH-3A35188-67296AC, US Air Force Number 67296AC), a group of women unload stone from a truck while a toddler can be clearly seen running around in the background.

Spreading crushed stone at Ondal Army Air Base, 1943 (342-FH-3A35189-A67296AC, US Air Force Reference Number A67296AC).

The women’s faces are rarely in focus, and there is a sense that they are not the objects of the photographs themselves but are eerily depicted as part of the landscape. They are seldom shown looking directly into the camera, and it is unknown if they were aware of or consented to being photographed. In contrast, photographs of USAAF squadrons frequently showed men smiling and laughing, reflecting a camaraderie intended to boost morale, with individual faces clear and very much in focus.

Crew members of the 459th Fighter Squadron, Chittagong, January 1945 (342-FH-3A36234-72616AC, US Air Force Reference Number 72616AC).

Images such as the one above fit a standard vein in military photography. All-male photographs like these inform perceptions of military bases as entirely masculine spaces. Yet the reality in Second World War India could not have been more different. Not only do these photographs provide visual evidence that women were present in highly militarised spaces, they also show that they were engaged in work that would have been considered unfeminine by contemporary standards. In the image below, a group of women can be seen at work, seated on their haunches; there are no men around. At least one of them is wearing a dangling earring and all have bangles on their wrists. They are in the midst of the laborious job of pounding rocks with mallets to prepare gravel for an airfield.

‘Natives of India make gravel by crushing rocks for the use in the construction of an airfield somewhere in India, 17 May 1945’ (342-FH-3A35202-74730AC, US Air Force Reference Number 74730AC).

Wartime work was time-consuming, labour-intensive, largely unmechanised, and gruelling. Yet this work was crucial, and much of the so-called ‘unskilled’ labour was done by women. Written records do not always differentiate between male and female workers – often they are referred to simply as ‘labour’, ‘natives’, ‘hands’, and ‘coolies’ – obscuring the gendered nature of work and the workplace and constraining attempts to historically analyse women’s work in modern South Asia. Photographs are a relatively underused source in this field, but they have radical potential to counteract silences and omissions in textual records by allowing us to see those whom we cannot always hear and that which we cannot always read.

The USAAF photographs of Second World War India show us how landscapes were fundamentally altered through labour undertaken by people whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the war, and provide evidence of the transnational and interracial encounters that produced those transformations. If Kalpana Dutt found the Labour Corps women’s ‘looks, their gait, their conversation…out of the ordinary’, it was because during war and famine, the circumstances were anything but. The Second World War and the Bengal Famine reshaped the everyday lives of tens of thousands of the most ‘ordinary’ rural, low-caste, and indigenous women in colonial India. The roads and runways that sprang from jungles and rural tracts and laid the foundation for the Allied war machine in South Asia were built on the backs of these women.

Urvi Khaitan is a doctoral student in economic and social history at the University of Oxford researching gender, labour, and empire in twentieth-century South Asia. She is particularly interested in the effects of war and famine on women’s work and survival, and her doctoral thesis aims to examine working women’s experiences in the turbulent South Asian economy during the Second World War.

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