Pukka purveyors of martial arts

The Sepoy and the Raj - Fidelity and Honour - The Development of British Land Forces in South Asia, 1600-1947
August 25, 1995

Any history of the Indian army written today will be compared with Philip Mason's classic study of the subject, A Matter of Honour, published in 1974. This was highly informative and beautifully written, but had naive political assumptions. The steadfast loyalty of most colonial Indian soldiers to their British masters was lauded as proof that the sepoys were "true to the salt (they had) eaten". Mason would hardly have put that argument on behalf of British mercenaries serving a foreign conqueror of Britain. Nor did he go beyond the era of British rule. The three books under review are free of Mason's archaic premises, and, taken together, they contribute substantially to our grasp of this army's potential and limitations.

Why study the Indian army, though? There are several good reasons. First of all, the increasing fragility of the Indian political system. The political scene in India is dominated by the growing decadence of the only large and truly national political force, the Congress Party, and an apparent inability to develop an alternative ruling party. The army is the one important Indian institution which still enjoys high public regard, and there is often talk of its eventually having to take over the government. As the possible future ruler of the world's second largest nation, this army is worthy of far more serious scholarly attention than it has received.

Again, this is the fourth biggest army in the world, playing a key role in what the United States government has described as the most dangerous potential source of war anywhere today: the tense relationship between India, Pakistan and China, all nuclear powers. Since independence in 1947, India has fought three major wars against Pakistan, and one against China.

Moreover, the Indian army has a rich historical background. Before 1947 it was a central stronghold of British imperialism, about whose strengths, weaknesses, and outlook the history of hardly any other single institution can tell us so much. From that imperial past the Indian army inherited, and to an astonishing extent has managed to preserve, a distinctly curious recruiting doctrine. The fact that a large portion of its soldiers are Gurkhas who are not even Indian nationals is only one of the strange consequences. When people talk of the possibility or desirability of this army's taking charge of the national government, its peculiar British-derived character forces one to ask: is it, even now, a truly national army? Is it really conceivable that it can fulfil the kind of political role that the Pakistani army, for example, often has?

T. A. Heathcote gives a concise, clear survey of the period from 1600 to the British withdrawal in 1947. His conclusions are often pithier than those in Lt Gen. Menezes's prolix work. Menezes has the advantage of several decades' of Indian army service, both before and after independence, and often has far more detailed knowledge of key events, as well as carrying the story to the present. But his is a narrow institutional history as seen by an insider: he is too eager to award good or bad marks across the centuries to the various personalities associated with the Indian army's fortunes, with little sense of the broader historical context. David Omissi covers the period between the Indian Mutiny and the second world war. His is the most rewarding of the three books in terms of exploring the mutations, ambiguities and ironies of British policies.

None of these books actually poses what would seem to be the most obvious question of all. What was it about India that made possible Britain's raising and maintaining of such a large mercenary army there and its use to control a native population constituting one-fifth of the human race, as well as to wage several major campaigns abroad, over nearly two centuries? Once conquered, India, and the Indian army, only posed a serious armed challenge to the British on one occasion: the Mutiny of 1857. That docility is all the more remarkable in that the British often had to overcome stiff resistance from native Indian forces during their wars of conquest. Heathcote and Menezes recount in detail the major defeats inflicted on the British by Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Menezes points out that Wellington regarded his victory over the Marathas at Assaye (1803) as the narrowest of all his victories, including that "damn close-run thing", Waterloo. The story related by these books makes the basic reason for India's quiescence clear enough: India is a harder country than most in which to raise a widespread rebellion against any determined central authority. Its capacity for developing broad political movements has been weakened by the caste system which divides people into thousands of communities rendered mutually exclusive by religiously ordained sanctions.

Of course, the British were quick to realise the usefulness to them of India's uniquely strong communal exclusivities. From the beginning their Indian soldiers were organised along the lines of caste and religion. But the Mutiny showed that these divisions were not strong enough by themselves to prevent rebellions. A transformation now occurred in the pattern of British recruiting. Broadly speaking, the army ceased to be derived from peoples of the Hindi-speaking belt and south India, the political and cultural heartland of India; they were replaced by peoples of less complex culture and politicisation from the periphery, like the Gurkhas, Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. An elaborate mythology concerning the alleged "martial races" of India was developed to justify this change. For these three books analysis of the "martial races" theory and its far-reaching influence is central. The doctrine's burden was that a few Indian communities were by nature warlike; most were, also by nature, abjectly unfit for military purposes. The warlike, except for the Mongoloid Gurkhas, were tall, light-skinned north Indians in whom the British discerned Graeco-Roman features. The unwarlike happened to be the short, dark-skinned peoples of central and south India. Ironically, the British only realised this after conquering India with soldiers from races now declared "unmartial". Menezes is indignant at the unfairness of it all. Much space in his book is taken up with showing that the charges of inferior performance made against regiments of Marathas, Tamils and others deemed unmartial largely arose from crude racial bias. Omissi is much more to the point when he concludes that racialism was subordinate to anxiety to insulate the army from politicisation.

How did India's independence affect the martial races principle of enlistment? Startlingly little, as Menezes relates. A decision was made to raise no new ethnic-based regiments, but those already existing have been almost religiously preserved. Formally, Indians of all ethnic backgrounds have the right to military service. In practice, except for those who wish to enlist as officers, there are few opportunities unless one springs from one of the proverbial heroic stocks: Sikhs, Dogras, Jats, Rajputs, Marathas, Garhwalis. These, together with Gurkha mercenaries from Nepal, continue to dominate the army.

Despite its eccentric recruiting practices, the Indian army has usually been effective, both before and after independence. It has suffered some debacles. The one which most seriously called its reputation into question was the defeat at the hands of China in the border war of 1962. But as Menezes notes, only 24,000 under-armed Indian troops, out of a total force of 400,000 were involved in that affair. They were placed in ludicrously difficult terrain on the orders of politicians in Delhi. These histories tell of several similar blunders committed by the British rulers.

Yet a crucial weakness identified by Heathcote in the Indian army of the first world war era still exists today: "The scale of casualties sustained from the impact of modern weapons demonstrated that the policy of drawing recruits from only a small number of selected communities was suitable only for small campaigns of limited duration." India has been fortunate indeed that it has never been faced with the need to wage a war both massive and prolonged. Its army's structure remains, as in British days, one which can wage long campaigns only when they are of a limited nature - a point of great strategic significance.

Any army reflects its society. Of no army is this maxim truer than India's. The anglicised officer caste, the restriction of recruiting to favoured minorities, the rituals of parade ground and mess, all stubbornly retained from British days, reflect sharply India's failure to go beyond political decolonisation to a decolonisation of social structure and culture. Now, as under British rule, the Indian army is the instrument of an English-speaking ruling elite contemptuous of the culture and needs of the vast, and increasing majority of Indians who are non-English-speaking. In his chapters on the post-independence period, Lt Gen. Menezes fails to notice this cardinal fact. But then, pukka Indian Army officer that he is, he would, wouldn't he?

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs, specialising in Asia.

The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860-1940

Author - David Omissi
ISBN - 0 333 55049 8
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 313

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