Intrigued about the British Indian Soldier

Most of us grew up hearing the stories of valor of Indian soldiers who fought and gave their blood in the wars that India fought since its indepnedance. I have myself cried innumerable times reading/watching stories of the likes of Cpt Somnath Sharma, Lnc Nk Albert Ekka, Mjr Shaitan Singh and Cpt Vikram Batra.  However, the place India associates with her martyr sons who offered the supreme sacrifice to preserve her independence is an irony itself. India Gate, under which Amar Jawan Jyoti flames in their memory, was first built by the British to honour the British Indian Soldiers, who lost their lives during World War I, defending the same King’s Empire who was an alien ruler of their own land.

I have always been intrigued by the desires and passions which drove millions of Indians to fight and lay their lives for the British – many a times fighting their own countrymen – during about 200 years before independence. What’s intriguing is not that many warrior tribes known for their fierce love for independence, like Sikhs, Gurkhas, many Rajput clans and even some Muslim tribes from the North West Frontier, chose to fight under the British command, what’s even more interesting is that the British Indian Army was the seeding ground for millitary traditions in many castes which were till then employed only in non-millitary pursuits – like the priests classes or the peasant castes from the untouchable fold. 

 I do not have conclusive answers but the realisation of what should have seemed like obvious facts to them is a painful blow for my nationalist (jingoist?) ego and the notion that a soldier enrols only because of his love for his nation :

  1. Tribe, Caste & Religion had more importance in the feudally divided India of the late 18th and early 19th century than any notion of Hindustan/Bharat being a nation. Allliances were made and broken on these lines and as history tells us, British were perhaps the best players to play this game.
  2. Add these to the political incentives that the small but millitarily powerful kingdoms, like Marwar Jodhpur, had in aligning with British interests and the British found a rich and unlimited supply of valiant and faithful soldiers.
  3. Last but most importantly, Economic & Social incentives : Then, like in all ages till recently, a job in the ruler’s millitary should have meant sound economic prospects and immense social acceptability. This should have come easy for the warrior tribes since the British were the only respcectful force left in the subcontinent. But even for the ordinary peasant, when starved for any prospect of earning a steady employment, picking up a rifle to wear the respected/feared red coat should have been an easy choice.

I am not sure if this is the correct or complete diagnosis of the causes. I would love to have greater access to the minds of these men but popular  books on pre-independence India have barely touched this topic. I am not aware of many works on this and my superficial understanding is aided by the perspective gained by the following works :

  • Amitava Ghosh’s The Glass Palace – one of the key characters is a Captain in British Indian Army who later defects to Indian National Army
  • In his collection of essays on Delhi, Khuswant Singh has a specific piece on Sikh soldiers who fought for the British in the Mutiny of 1857. This also reveals the second rate treatment that Indian soldiers in the British forces faced.
  • M M Kaye’s The Far Pavoillions provides a peek into the life of a British Indian soldier at North West Frontier during the Afghan War. She does not dissect or quetion their loyalty any deeply; it seems like the Indophiles of her age, she just takes it for granted.

If you have come acorss any work which delves deeper into the psyche of the British Indian Soldier, do drop me a line.

credit : Shout-out to Ash whose post on the same issue inspired mine

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