You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Books
Business Standard

Force multiplier

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Historians tend to be either too romantic or totally cynical when they write the about the Indian sepoy. Seldom has it been the subject of an objective enquiry.
treads the middle path. Kaushik Roy, who teaches history at Kolkata's Presidency College, has selected 11 essays which truthfully tell how the relationship between the British and Indian soldiers evolved over almost 150 years.
The essays bring out the fact that the British exploited the animosity within the different communities of India to perpetrate their dominance in the country. They ruled over the country only with a handful of British soldiers; their mainstay was always native troops. It is a fascinating study of divide and rule.
At one level, the facts are simple. The British accomplished most of their early conquests in the Indian subcontinent with the help of native soldiers of the Bengal Native Infantry""high caste Hindus and Muslims from the Indo-Gangetic plains. During the initial years, most British officers were White Mughals""white in colour but distinctly Indian in taste and habit""who commanded absolute loyalty from their troops.
Starting from the early years of the 19th century, the attitude of the British soldiers started changing. The White Mughals were replaced by Pucca Sahibs who did not encourage any social intercourse with their Indian men. Men like David Ochterloney (Akhtar Looney) and James Skinner (Sikander Sahib) were replaced by people like John Nicholson"" strong and resourceful but full of contempt for native soldiers. (In the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan, brutes are still called Nikalsains.)
The growing resentment against English officers and their high-handedness resulted in the 1857 mutiny or what Subhash Chandra Bose called the first war of Independence. All of a sudden, the sepoy found himself out of favour. He was no longer found loyal, of a good character and physically strong. A new word was coined to describe the sepoys""Pandis""after Mangal Pande, who fired the first shot of the mutiny.
The British then unceremoniously dumped the sepoys and started to enrol Sikhs and Gurkhas, the so-called martial races, in large numbers. They were found more masculine than soldiers from the Indo-Gangetic plains. The trend remained unchanged till the British left India in 1947, taking a few Gurkha paltans with them. So emphatic was the stamping out of the sepoy that till date, the war cries of the old find no place in today's Indian army.
To switch from men from the Indo-Gangetic plains to the communities that supported the British during the mutiny (never mind if the Sikhs as well as the Gurkhas had fought bitter wars with the British), they came up with the concept of martial races. Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dogras and others found themselves christened martial races overnight. The legends around Gurkha bravery, it is worth noting, were carefully built up half a century after the British got a bloody nose during the Anglo-Nepal Wars of 1815-16.
After the mutiny, it was only the Mazhabi Sikhs who got recognition as a martial race after they took part in Younghusband's mission to Lhasa in 1903.
The thinking is still strongly entrenched in the minds of the Indian military machine. Doubts were expressed for the first time over the theory of martial races when the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka took on the Indian armed forces. But it was brushed under the carpet in double quick time.
The other myth the British perpetrated very effectively was that native soldiers could best be led by British officers. In other words, while Indians made excellent solders, and this included the martial races as well, they made bad officers and, therefore, had to be led by the British. This way, the British were able to introduce an unbreakable caste system in the army.
Even Gurkhas could not hope to become more than Gurkha officers in their paltans. No Indian, of course, could serve in a Gurkha outfit. The commanders were all British. This was done to keep the hillmen away from the influence of the "scheming" plainsmen.
Here, it is worth remembering that while one British leader after the other brought shame upon himself during the Anglo-Nepal war, the Gurkha leaders led by example striking terror in the enemy camp.
The myth was finally busted during the Second World War in Malaysia when the British officers fled leaving behind their Indian troops after the country was invaded by the Japanese.
Edited by Kaushik Roy
Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 595; Pages: x+375

First Published: Fri, October 27 2006. 00:00 IST