Imperialism and the Indian Army

By Neil Stewart

The Labour Monthly – May 1947

European domination over India has been in the past maintained more by the use of Indian troops than British.  In the wars of conquest of the 18th century, the frontier wars against the Sikhs and the Afghans, in the Mutiny, in the conquest of Burma and in the innumerable little struggles in and near India, it has been the Indian Army, rather than the European troops of the Honourable Company, or the Regiments of the Line, which has been the predominating factor.   This was frankly expressed by Sir John Malcolm, Governor of Bombay, in 1832:

“Our Eastern Empire has been acquired, and must be maintained, by the sword.   It has no foundation, and is not capable of having any, that can divest it of that character; and if the local army of  India, but above all the native branch, is not preserved in a condition which, while it maintains its efficiency, preserves its attachment, no commercial fiscal or judicial systems we may improve or introduce, can be of permanent benefit”. (Quoted in the Eden Report, 1884).

The task of the military and civil leader, therefore, was to maintain the loyalty of the army.   The Mutiny was a terrible lesson;  it was taken to heart and minutely analysed by the Peel Commission of 1859, and twenty years later by the Eden Commission.   The mass of evidence taken by these commissions showed how the Mutiny had been made easy by the fact that caste and religious differences in the old Bengal Army had been smoothed away.   A pro-British Moslem commentator on the Mutiny recorded as follows what had taken place:

“Government certainly did put the two antagonistic races in the same regiments, but consistent intercourse had done its work, and the two races in regiments had become one.   It is but natural and to be expected that a feeling of fellowship and brotherhood must spring up between men of a regiment, constantly brought together as they are.  They consider themselves as one body, and thus it was that the differences which exist between Hindus and Mohammedans had, in these regiments, been almost entirely smoothed away.

“If a portion of a regiment engaged in anything, all the rest joined.   If separate regimens of Hindus and separate regiments of Mohammedans had been raised, this feeling of brotherhood would not have arisen.” (The Causes of the Indian Revolts”.  Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.  Calcutta, 1873).

There were many who saw that British rule depended upon maintaining the existing divisions amongst the Indians.  One of the most brilliant and able British soldiers in India, General Sir Charles Napier, wrote only a few years before the Mutiny:

“The moment these brave and able natives learn how to combine they will rush on us simultaneously and the game will be up”.   (“Life of General Sir Charles Napier.”  W.N. Bruce.  London 1885).

The opinions of a number of personalities famous in British-Indian history were offered to the Peel Commission with a view to demonstrating that communal divisions were the basis of British safety in India.   Lord Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay, wrote in a Minute (14th May 1859) presented to the Commission:

“But suppose that whole native troops to be formed into one grand army, the component parts of each regiment being as heterogeneous as possible, and suppose some cause of discontent to arise which affects all castes alike, the danger would undoubtedly be far greater than that which overtook us last year.

“I have along ago considered this subject, and I am convinced that the exact converse of this policy of assimilation is our only safe military policy in India.  ‘Divide et impera’ was the old Roman motto and it should be ours.”

With a near simile Lord Elphinstone compared the policy of ruling India with the watertight compartments of a boat:

“The safety of the great iron steamers which are adding so much to our military power and which are probably destined to add still more to our commercial superiority, is greatly increased by building them in compartments.   I would insure the safety of our Indian Empire by constituting our native army on the same principle;  for this purpose I would avail myself of those divisions of race and language which we find ready to hand.”

The military leaders were in complete accord with this point of view.   A memorandum by an old Sepoy officer, Major-General Sir H. T. Tucker, also envisaged the encouragement of caste and religious differences as the most hopeful solution:

“The strong necessity which exists for so dividing and separating into distinct bodies the ‘different nationalities and castes,’ the rulers in our Eastern Dominions may deem it safe to entertain in our armies, so as to render them as little dangerous as possible to the state….

“The introduction of other elements would be advisable … anything, in short, to divide and so neutralise the strength of the ‘castes and nationalities’ which compose our armies in the East.”

A Minute by the Chief of Staff in India, Sir W. R. Mansfield advocated not merely communal division, but communal antagonism as the main contribution to better control:

“I am strongly of the opinion that Mussalmans should not be in the same company or troop with Hindoos or Sikhs, and that the two latter should not be mingled together.   I would maintain even in the same regiment all differences of faith with the greatest care.   There might be rivalry or even hatred between two companies or troops.

“The discipline of a native regiment, instead of being impaired would gain by it, as regards the greater question of the obedience of the whole to the commanding officer.   The motto of the regimental commander in chief must b for the future ‘Divide et impera’.”

“Divide and rule” was the policy freely and openly accepted by the leading military and civil personalities in India.   The Earl of Ellenborough, Governor General of India for 1841 to 1844, also advocated this policy in a Minute to the Peel Commission:

“The fewer elements of combination there are in the native army the better;  and therefore the more nationalities and castes and religions, the more secure we shall be.”

The evidence before the Peel Commission echoed the report of the Punjab Committee of 1858, which was composed by three men famous in the history of British India, Sir John Lawrence, Sir Neville Chamberlain and Sir Herbert Edwardes.   It said:

“As we cannot do without a large native army in India, our main object is to make that army safe;  and next to the grand counterpoise of a sufficient European force comes the counterpoise of Natives against Natives.

“It is found that different races mixed together do not long preserve their distinctiveness;  their corners and angles and feelings and prejudices get rubbed off, until at last they assimilate and the object of their association to a considerable extent is lost.

“To preserve the distinctiveness which is so valuable and which, while it lasts, makes the Muhammedan of one country despise, fear or dislike the Muhammedan of another, corps should in future be provincial, and adhere to the geographical limits within which differences and rivalries are strongly marked.

“By the system thus indicated two great evils are avoided;  firstly that community of feeling throughout the native army, and that mischievous political activity and intrigue which results from association with other races and travel in Indian provinces.”

A more clear and frank case for the encouragement of communal strike could hardly be made out.

The result of the Peel Commission was that the balance between Indian and British troops, and between the various races in India, was in future carefully kept.   There were 60,000 British to 140,000 Indian troops.   All scientific arms and personnel of arsenals and depots were British.   A number of Gurkhas were recruited whose antagonism towards the Indians was known.  Brigades were formed with two British, one Indian and one Gurkha battalion, thus ensuring that the number of fighting troops (including the artillery, the predominant arm of the 19th century battlefield) were British or Gurkha.

The recruiting of Gurkhas had been advocated before the Mutiny by General Sir Charles Napier, when Commander-in-Chief.   He wrote:

“The Gurkha will be faithful, and for low pay we can enlist a large body of troops whom our best officers consider equal in courage to European troops.   Even as a matter of economy this will be good;  but the great advantage of enlisting these hill-men will be that with 30,000 or 40,000 Gurkhas added to the 30,000 Europeans, the possession of India will not ‘depend on opinion,’ but on an army able with ease to overthrow any combination among Hindoos or Mohammedians or both.”  (“Life of General Sir Charles Napier.”   W. N. Bruce.   London, 1885).

The next examination of Indian Army organisation was by the Eden Committee, which met in 1879, and whose report was published in 1884.   It approved the continuance of the case and religious divisions of the Army:

“Our desire is to maintain the great national divisions of the army…. The armies of India should be divided into four complete and distinct bodies, to be called army corps, so distributed that they shall be deprived, as far as possible, of community of national sentiment and interests, and so organised, recruited and constituted as to act in time of excitement and disturbance as checks each upon the other.” (p.30).

This policy had already been borne out by the Mutiny, when the armies of the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, helped by the irregulars from the Punjab, which had all previously kept separate from each other, fought against the mutineers.   The Commission came to the conclusion that in the Bengal Army the policy of “divide and rule” was not being correctly put into practice:

“At the present time the Sikh and the Poorbia, the Mussalman from the Punjab and of Oudh, serve side by side in all parts of the vast and ill-defined tract called by the Bengal Presidency…

“The natural consequences are that the distinctive characteristics of the soldiers, both in creed and nationality, tend to amalgamate, and thus a common feeling is formulated which might dangerously unite them to a common end”  (p.32).

The advice of the Commission was to divide the Bengal Army into two halves, each separate and distinct, so as to prevent any possible recurrence of the Mutiny:

“In working out the deals of the propose division of the army, our main object has been to define the territorial formation of the Army of India with due regard to the great principle of ‘divide et impera.’”  (p.33).

The Moslems had been considered the most savagely anti-British element in the Mutiny, while the Hindus were considered the least seditious.  Therefore, while there were a few all-Hindu units, there were no all-Moslem units, and the majority of infantry battalions and cavalry regiments were made up of the different religions.   An infantry battalion might have one Punjabi Moslem, one Sikh and two Hindu companies.  The Hindus would usually be of different castes or races, such as Jats, Dogras, Brahmins, Kumaons or Rajputs.   A Number of Pathans and other Moslems from the North West Frontier Province and the Tribal Areas were also recruited as an offset to the Moslems from the Punjab.   The Indian Army, though extremely efficient as a fighting force, if not in its higher administration, was a body of separate little communities, each having little contact with the other, and the whole welded together by British officers.

Urdu was the common language in which orders were given.  As Urdu, or some similar language, is spoken by the majority of Indians, the language problem did not present any difficulty.

The organisation of the Indian Army upon communal lines was not just a phase of 19th century politics.  It was carried on up to the present day, except when emergency or necessity enforced a change.   It is noticeable that where caste or religious barriers are not recognised, as in the Royal Indian Navy, the situation that led to the Indian Mutiny arose once more and Moslem and Hindu united.

Communal distinction in the army is, in fact, a reflection of the consistent policy which has been applied to the whole of India and which has successfully held it under European rule for close on two hundred years.  The encouragement of communal distinction in the army has been paralleled by the encouragement of communal distinction among civilians;  this is “the great system of ‘divide et impera’” whose result has been the present political deadlock and the terrible massacres of Bengal, Bihar and the Punjab.