I have not soiled my hands with dirty work,” the young Winston Churchill wrote to his mother in October 1872, from the dust-blown outpost of Inayat Killi. He’d watched, instead, as his soldiers fed an injured Pashtun insurgent into a kiln, the man screaming as his skin melted off his bones. Imperial Britain wielded “fire and sword in vengeance”. “We destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs”.
Liberal Indians mourned, this past week, as the eternal flame of the unknown soldier — sheltered under India Gate, where the names of 13,300 men killed in the First World War are inscribed — moved to the new National War Memorial. The moving of the flame seems, to some, as part of an ongoing extinguishing of the Indian Army’s heritage of secularism, decency and righteousness.
The story of the Indian Army’s colonial heritage is, however, somewhat darker than this nostalgic narrative. Indian colonial-era soldiers did demonstrate courage and honour but they also slaughtered their own people.
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A blood-stained history
Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns were machine gunned, bombed and strafed into submission in the course of the British Indian Army’s long war in what is now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Bhil adivasis were butchered in their hundreds by soldiers of the 7 Rajput and 104 and Wellesley’s Rifles at Mangadh Hill; Abor tribesmen Armed with bows and arrows were machine-gunned in the north-east by Sikh and Gurkha units. Iranian villages were torched in 1911, and Chinese civilians executed en-masse as the Indian Army put down the so-called Boxer rebellions in 1900-1902 by troops from the Baluchi, Punjab, Rajput and Sikh regiments, as well as the Jodhpur Lancers.
“Even hearts of stone would have melted and felt compassion,” wrote the 7 Rajput Regiment soldier Gadhahar Singh of the killing in China. “But it was not necessary for my heart to be moved by pity”.
In the course of the Second World War, Indian troops liberally used the lash and bayonet against protestors at home. There is, of course, that matter of what happened on 13 April 1919: The officer who gave the orders was British, but the soldiers who fired bullets on to unarmed protestors were all Indian and Nepali, from the 1st battalion of the 9th Gurkha Regiment, the Baluch Regiment and the Rajput Regiment.
The argument that we ought to mourn all Indians who fell in the World Wars is problematic for other reasons, too. Three thousand POWs joined the Free Indian Legion, swearing an oath to “obey the leader of the German race and state, Adolf Hitler”. Fighting alongside the Wehrmacht against the French Resistance, the Free Indian Legion developed an especially unsavoury reputation.
In an interview to the British Broadcasting Corporation, a French resistance fighter recalled that, “a lady and her two daughters were raped and in another case they even shot dead a little two-year-old girl”. In addition, Indian POWs fought in Nazi anti-Partisan operations in Italy—a campaign characterised by genocidal violence.
The case of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army illustrates the complexity of the issue. There’s no doubt that Bose was a patriot, fighting for Indian Independence. At once, it is also true that he was silent on Japan’s horrific war crimes against Asian peoples, ranging from chemical warfare against civilians in China, and the massacres in Arakan. He did little, either, to protest the mass killings and incarceration of Indian nationalists in the Andaman islands.
Although experts agree Bose was deeply uncomfortable with Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, newer scholarship has flagged his silence on the genocide. The uncomfortable question of Bose’s vision for India—he wrote of “a synthesis of Communism and Fascism”—remains hanging.
History, unlike God, is not in the business of passing judgment. It is safe to say, however, that the ethics of his choices will be debated for many more generations.
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The soldiers who went to hell
Scholar David Omissi’s magisterial study of Indian soldiers’ letters home in the First World War gives us a sense of the hell they inhabited. “At some places corpses are found of men killed in 1914, with uniform and accoutrements still on,” soldier Daya Ram wrote to his family in Ambala. “Large flies, which have become poisonous through feasting on dead bodies, infest the trenches, and huge fat rats run about there”.
Few Indians who fought in 1914-1918 chose this hell. George Morton-Jack has noted that much of the soldiery was recruited through networks of feudal power, with families being promised lands and money in return for sacrificing their sons.
Looking back at the recruitment through eyes conditioned by modern India is deeply discomfiting. Even M.K. Gandhi, historian Aaravind Ganachari has noted, “who received the Kaiser-i-Hind (first class) in 1915, was a recruiting agent for the British from the beginning”. In a 1917 letter, the chief recruitment officer for Bihar wrote to Gandhi asking for men to serve in Mesopotamia: “The men get Rs 15 per month while in India and Rs 20 overseas. Rs 3 capitation fee for each man brought in.”
In a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi invoked memories of its conquest by Muslim warlords: “To wipe out the blot on the face of Gujarat, people should take to careers in army. This is the best way of learning to defend Ahmedabad”. In another, at Ras, he claimed fighting for the Empire would “give us honour and manhood”.
Even these speeches didn’t yield the numbers that were desired. L. Robertson, a senior bureaucrat, delicately called for “a measure of coercion, [though] the name may be avoided”. In Bijapur district, that meant village-level quotas, “selected by ballot or any other method”.
Even millions more, economic historian Amiya Bagchi has demonstrated, paid with their lives far from the battlefield. Imperial India’s government cost the Indian economy a staggering £585 million. Following the war came famine, and the millions of deaths of the Great Influenza.
To argue that these Indian soldiers were mercenaries, is to draw the wrong lessons. Like Indian politicians, bureaucrats, police officers or farmers, they too were products of a feudal, backward polity—exactly what the nationalists sought to overthrow. Unlike many post-colonial countries— Algeria or Vietnam, for example— India inherited its colonial institutions, including the Army, largely intact. That helped ensure stability for the new country, but involved a glossing-over of painful parts of history.
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Learning from history
Hindu nationalists, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are indeed guilty of using the armed forces for partisan purposes. In 2016, to give just one example, election posters featured images of the cross-Line of Control strikes, and soldiers in uniform. Following the Kargil war, Army Chief General Ved Malik had successfully protested such propaganda, demanding the forces be left out of electioneering.
Invoking the Army’s colonial heritage to challenge this vulgar use of nationalism, though, is shot through with a self-defeating élitism. Liberal nostalgia for the age of chhuri-kaanta, batmen, and bagpipers playing Abide With Me speaks of a tone-deafness to the transformation of the country in recent decades. Key to that change is that India’s people are no longer deferential to the aesthetics and values of an old, English-speaking élite.
The debate we’re seeing tells us something about the vulgar use of patriotism by Hindu nationalists; it tells us more about why Liberals are proving unable to fight it.
Liberalism in India desperately needs to learn a language as familiar with Ye desh hai veer jawanon ka as Scottish hymns; to be at home in a loudly-colourful Model Town living room as a mouldering Lutyens bungalow.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)