‘Punjabisation’ in the British Indian Army 1857-1947 and the advent of Military Rule in Pakistan -III

Major Stringer Lawrence formed the first military units of the East India Company in Madras in 1748, and is regarded as ‘the father of the Indian Army’.

This essay will seek to show the trends of organization, regionalized recruitment policy, and institutional unification of the British Indian Army and how these trends were reproduced by the Pakistan Army after 1947.

Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi

School of History & Classics, University of Edinburgh

Punjabisation with Caution – The Fallout of the Bengal Mutiny

The events of 1857 were unforgettable for the British Officers. The South Indian soldiers (the Bengal army) were in the forefront in the mutiny. The Punjab had no such quarrel with the British. Rather the British were grateful to the Punjabis for their role in suppressing the rebellion. As a result, the Bengal Army was gradually replaced. One lesson learnt from the mutiny was the danger of allowing any one part of the army to attain a vastly preponderating strength over others. The Mutiny was the Bengal Army’s ‘homogeneous’ ‘fusion into one huge body of soldiers’.

Accordingly, ‘the post-mutiny Bengal Army was reconstituted in practically two separate bodies: one comprising the old Hindustani element; and the other carved out of the Punjabi levies which had been raised to put down and overpower the mutinous Bengal Sepoys’. However, the regional recruitment shift was about to repeat the same mistake that was committed in the Bengal army – a vast homogeneous fusion of soldiers of the Punjab. Therefore, to avoid repetition of the Bengal of 1857, the British divided the Punjab. In 1901, the Viceroy Lord Curzon, adopting and modifying an idea of Lord Lytton, created North-West Frontier Province out of the Punjab. The NWFP was administered by a Chief Commissioner with headquarters at Peshawar who was responsible directly to the Government of India.

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The post-Mutiny period saw distinct parts of the Bengal Army (Hindustani and Punjabi) coming gradually into closer contact with each other. The Hindustani regiments were distributed over the whole Presidency, and the Punjab regiments were employed in Bengal and the North Western Provinces. This practice was opposed to the policy that insisted on the importance of keeping each part of the army in its own country during peacetime. Military service not too remote from his home was much more popular with the sepoy than service at a distance and in a climate to which he was unaccustomed. The policy had deeper roots in the divide and rule principle than anything else. ‘If troops were brought together in peacetime, class feeling and espritde corps would become stronger than natural race antagonisms; whereas if the two classes were kept apart, then, should one of them show signs of wavering in its loyalty, the other might of trusted to come in as a foreign and to a certain extent antagonistic body, and over awe it, as happened in the mutiny, which the Punjab troops so effectively assisted the British troops in putting down’. Until then, principles of segregation had been more carefully observed. Similarly, the Hindustani and the Punjabi troops ‘chiefly served within the areas which embraced their recruiting grounds’.

In 1857, the Punjabis constituted about 44% of the Bengal Army and the Punjab Frontier Force, but only a quarter of the entire Armed forces. By June 1858, of the total 80,000 ‘native’ troops in the Bengal army, 75,000 were Punjabis.61 In 1893, the Punjab, which also included the NWFP until 1901 and Nepal, formed 44% of the entire Indian Armed Forces. This further increased to 57% in 1904.

This is the point where one can see a sharp under-representation of other regions. The other castes and classes, as well as areas, were practically ignored in the new army recruitment policy adopted in the post-1857 period. So much so that in 1929, 62% of the whole Indian Army was Punjabi. Now the chemistry of conscription was such that, in Bengal, there were 7117 combatant recruits out of a total population of 45 million; whereas Punjab offered 349689 out of a total population of 20 million. One out of 28 males was mobilized in Punjab; this ratio was one to 150 in the rest of India.

At the outbreak of the First World War, there were 100,000 Punjabis serving in the army, of whom 87,000 were combatants. 380,000 were enlisted during the war, of whom 231,000 were combatants. This made a total of 480,000 who served from the Punjab. According to another estimate, the Punjab supplied 54% of the total combatant troops in the Indian army during the First World War and, if the 19,000 Gurkhas recruited from the Independent State of Nepal was excluded; the Punjab contingent amounted to 62% of the whole Indian Army.

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During the late 1920s, Bombay and Madras furnished only 13000 troops; on average, the Central Province, Bihar and Orissa provided 500 each; and Bengal and Assam offered none at all. Before 1857, the British Indian Army was called the Bengal Army. By 1929, the same Bengal region was contributing none in that army. It was the revenge of the British from the region called the Regional Recruitment Shift. Whatever the recruitment, NWFP and the Punjab kept their numerical lead.

During the First World War, despite the emergency, the recruitment number was sharply contrasted between the regions. Bengal, with a population of 45 million, provided 7,000 combatant recruits; the Punjab, with a population of 20 million, provided 349,000 such recruits. NWFP, with a population of 2.25 million, contributed 32,181 combatant recruits.

The Indigenous Indian Army and the British

The military is the ultimate guarantor of a country’s sovereignty and freedom. It is the custodian of a state’s borders and secures internal order for the rulers. According to Umer Hayat Khan, a member of the Committee to enquire into the administration and organization of the Army in India in 1929, ‘It [the British Indian Army] is the only instrument in the hands of the [British] Government to maintain internal peace and to cope with external aggression’. The British Raj, therefore, wanted a stable, strong and well-equipped army loyal to them. The army, though yet not Indianised, was shaped in such a fashion that the British kept a firm control on the institution with central powers in their own hands.

Generally, an army is maintained in the country for external defence. However, soldiers in barracks are also regarded as the last resort to deal with domestic disturbances with which policemen cannot cope. However, this was not the case with British India. Troops were employed in the country many times a year to prevent internal disorder and, sometimes, to quell it. The use of the Army for the purpose of maintaining or restoring order was always on the increase. Even after its preponderant position was firmly established, the army regularly undertook internal security duties in order to foil any bid to challenge British authority and to maintain peace and tranquility.

Amongst the situations that the colonial rulers needed to prepare for were revolts, violent attacks, guerrilla activities, banditry, peasant revolts, lockouts, labor unrest, and Hindu-Muslim communal riots. According to one estimate, the troops were used for internal security duties on 46 occasions during 1860-79. The use of troops in such a way was increased many fold by the end of the nineteenth century, when they were called out 69 times between 1899 and 1901. Sometimes the excessive use of force was employed to curb the independence movement. The Jallianwala Bagh incident of 13th April 1919 was one such occasion. During this incident, troops opened fire on a protest meeting without any warning and killed 379 people. After a couple of days, martial law was imposed in Amritsar and Lahore along with a few more districts of the Punjab. It was the first Martial Law in South Asia in the Twentieth Century.

With regard to external defence, India had to provide against dangers on her North-West frontier. This contrasted with the situation of most of the Dominions of the British Empire in other parts of the world. The 3000 miles of land frontier which separated Canada from the US were undefended by a fort or a gun, and armed conflict with her neighbor was unthinkable. Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland were islands; the union of South Africa was equally unlikely to be invaded. The withdrawal of British troops from such self-governing areas and indigenous recruitment had become the norm. The following table shows that only a fraction of British revenues was spent on maintaining local forces in these countries.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Irish Free [Republic of Ireland] were all self-governing. Therefore, in the light of war preparations of 1914-1918, they developed immensely powerful uniform armies of the highest fighting quality under the stress of emergency. But in peacetime, these countries had no such organized scheme of national defence, as they had no threatening borders and no serious internal movements of dissent which they needed to suppress. In contrast to this situation, India throughout history experienced incursions by foreign invaders via the North West. It was the difficult and necessary role of the Army in India to guard against a repetition of these dangers. Therefore, 60,000 British troops and 150,000 Indian troops (as well as 34,000 reservists) were organized into a Field Army, into covering troops, and into a garrison for internal security, with this task amongst others constantly in mind.

In peacetime, the duty of the covering troops, assisted by frontier levies of various kinds, was to prevent the independent tribes on the Indian side of the Afghan frontier raiding peaceful inhabitants of the plains below. Behind and beyond this belt of unorganized territory lay the direction from which, throughout the ages, the dangers to India’s territorial integrity had come. None of the states behind India (especially Russia) were members of the League of Nations. Hence, a strong though expensive military presence for the defence of the British Raj was necessary. Indian political leaders raised the question of the enormous cost of the British Army in India (‘one British soldier was estimated to cost between three and four times as much as an Indian soldier’). They argued that the replacement of the British by Indians would not only save costs but also involve the indigenous people in the defence of their land, making them more loyal to their land and people. Indigenous recruitment would result in an increase in the British Indian Army along the North-Western borders but at much less cost.

The perceived Russian threat to India was one of the major reasons for indigenous recruitment from the Punjab and NWFP. Keeping a very cautious country[1]Afghanistan- in view, Russia was the prime fear of the British Empire from the North West. The Russo-Afghan cordiality was not only threatening to India but also to the entire empire.84 The Simon Commission of 1930 observed: ‘The North West frontier is not only the frontier of India; it is an international frontier of the first importance from the military point of view for the whole empire’. Therefore, the Russians were kept at bay by the British by their defensive arrangements on the border and by maintaining Afghanistan as a buffer zone. In 1886, the Punjab Frontier Force which was looking after this part of the international border of India was transferred from the Punjab government to the C-in-C.86 A border demarcation agreement was also signed with the Afghan government in November 1893; the Durand Line, to stabilize bilateral relations. Various developments showed the weakness of Russian empire: the Russo-Japanese War 1905, the Bolshevik Revolution and the early withdrawal of Russia from the First World War, which reduced British fears from the North.

However, they continued indigenous recruitment from the region. Later on, one fear was replaced by another, Marxist ideology, and hence they maintained a strong profile on the North Western frontier (two detailed security plans were designed by the British government to contain the ‘Russian military menace’ in 1927 and 1931. The first was called the Blue Plan (1927) asking for an army advance towards Afghanistan from the NWFP and Baluchistan to Kabul. The second plan was called the Pink Plan (1931) giving a limited military action in the bordering areas of Afghanistan).

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Besides fears from Russia and Afghanistan, the British were facing a series of skirmishes with Pakhtoon tribes in tribal areas of NWFP bordering Afghanistan. The purpose of the division of NWFP into tribal and settled areas was to break the backbone of such armed resistance. Lord Curzon created a separate province NWFP in 1901, which was divided into settled – Peshawar, Kohat, Hazara, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan – and tribal areas along the Durand line. Owing to its geo-strategic location, its proximity with an international border (Durand Line) and the fighting nature of tribesmen, the tribal areas were placed under direct control of the government of India with very little administrative interference. Situated between the two countries, keeping tribal areas peaceful was a difficult task. Tribal areas are/were composed of numerous tribes- Afridis, Shenwaris, Mahsuds, Wazirs, Burkis, Mohmands etc each headed by its own chieftain. In Pashto language, a dictum defines the tribal Pakhtoons propensity for fighting. It says: when you see an unhappy Pakhtoon; it means he is not fighting.

According to one interviewee, ‘the British government used different tools to pacify them like official bribery to the tribal chieftains, the golden and experienced principle of Divide (the tribes) and Rule, arresting one in place of another from the family, and blatant use of force’. A local militia or ‘khasadar force was setup, contributed by the tribesmen loyal to the Raj. Each Chieftain had a quota of his tribe to contribute to the militia. The bigger the quota, the more awe of the Chieftain in the society and hence more loyalty to the British.

Soon the Khasadar force became a kind of police of the area. The regular troops were limited to key strategic army fortifications for reinforcing the militia (in local language, the militia was/is called Khasadars). It was reported that there were 72 expeditions against these tribes from 1850 to 1922, an average of one expedition per year. The major army operations included ‘Chitral 1896, Malakand 1897, the Waziri tribe 1901-2, 1919 and 1937, the Mahsuds 1925, and the Mohmands 1933’.

Army expeditions in the tribal areas demonstrate that the military in general and the indigenously recruited military in particular provided not only external security but also internal order to prolong and firm the establishment of the British Raj. Indeed, it was a difficult task for the civilian administration to keep order and stability without employing the British Army against the challengers. Hence, to keep order, the civilian administration had to use militarized civilian powers. An average of one expedition per year showed that it was not a novel practice for the civilian administration to control internal disturbance by the use of British military might. In the past, ‘the Company’s dominance in North India was based on its superior military power’. The force that kept the British in India was the army. (Continues)


Courtesy: Centre for South Asian Studies, School of Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK.

Click here for Part-I, Part-II


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