Home History ‘Punjabisation’ in the British Indian Army 1857-1947 and the advent of Military Rule in Pakistan –IV

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

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

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

Social and Psychological Influences on Indigenous Soldiers

An army recruited, trained and disciplined in military ethos was a strong support for the British military campaigns – at home as well as abroad. Influenced and impressed by the British traditions, norms and values, the recruits looked up to their foreign military leaders. Their mental caliber and approach to life was also influence by foreign expeditions. Punjabis fought in nearly all arenas of the [first] Great War:

France and Belgium, Gallipoli and Salonika, Aden and the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, Egypt, East Africa, North China. They were exposed to a new and different world beyond their cloistered village. They saw lands and technological advances that they had never envisioned. Their perspective was enlarged. This opened them to a new world, one greater than and different from the peasantry class under the Zamindar (landholder) of their villages. They saw Western civilization more closely during their service in Europe. The colonial master also showed himself more splendidly in London. Peasant-soldiers were impressed by the magnificent civic life of London and Paris. Their interaction with the educated class, especially women, led them to reflect on the comparisons between the life of a woman in Europe and in their respective villages in the Punjab. High levels of cleanliness and sanitation; wax statues at Madame Tussaud’s museum and their amazement at the London underground106 train network all left an impression on the Indian soldiers, as collections of their letters reveal. They were immersed in new thoughts and concepts when they returned to their bullock-cart, plough, and indebtedness after the War was over. They had many stories to tell. The soldiers on leave home or after retirement provided useful propaganda for the ‘Gora Sahib’ [Mr. Whiteman], giving a good impression to the civil society for the British. One Punjabi Muslim wrote from Boulogne in his mail: ‘When one considers this country and these people in comparison with our own country and our own people one cannot but be distressed.

Our country is poor and feeble and its lot is very depressed… In fact they [the British] have a real moral superiority’. Their exposure to the outside world also brought with it prosperity and a positive change in soldiers’ lives. In a time-and-land-locked social capsule, this much traveled “cosmopolitan” rose to a new social status and acquired a new influence in society. Folk songs of the time reflected their growing social status and importance: “Vasna fauji de naal, paanway boot sanay lat maaray” (I will live with a soldier even if he kicks me with his boot on). Therefore, given that two-thirds of the Indian Army was recruited from within [Punjab’s] borders the Punjabi soldier was the chief recipient of societal awe. Salary, living conditions, facilities for the soldiers’-families, post-retirement benefits and rewards were offered with distinction (Jagirs-grants of land- were sanctioned annually) so that the military service would remain attractive to forthcoming generations. The British Empire in return, gained the security and control of the ‘Golden Sparrow’ – India. By now the primary focus of the Raj was to keep firm control over India, so that very little attention was given to the social and developmental civilian sector. As stated earlier, colonial control of India was via the Army. Hence, more and more funds and resources were available for the single largest item in India’s annual budget- Defence Expenditure.

British Indian Army-4The British controlled and defended the entire subcontinent by focusing and working on only one section of the society – the Army. The Army provided a security umbrella against any kind of threat to internal peace or external aggression. Hence, heavy spending on the Army was an investment for long-term goals. The significant sums expended for the defence budget became a tradition that continued even after partition of 1947 by the successor states. India and Pakistan’s defence budgets continued to grow.

‘Indianisation’ of the British Army

No Indian was allowed to become a direct commissioned officer until the end of the First World War. They could become Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs) or junior commissioned officers. The highest rank an Indian could achieve was that of Subedar-Major.

The VCO was a promoted cadre from the lower ranks and served as a middle rank between the ordinary soldiers and the Commissioned officers, called King’s Commissioned Officers (KCOs), at the Company level, but the holder of a ‘Viceroy’s Commission’, whatever his experience and length of service, was lower in rank and command than the most newly joined of British subalterns. Below the KCOs and VCOs, the Indian Army had a series of non-commissioned officer positions like: Rifleman (private), Lance-naik (Corporal), Havildar (Sergeant), Havildar Major and quarter master Havildars of various levels. As the British were keen to keep an Indian aristocratic class on their side, Lord Curzon introduced the ICC (Imperial Cadet Corps) or ISC (Imperial Service Corps) in 1901, in which the sons of Princes and the wealthy classes more generally could assume officer ranks. It was designated ‘His Majesty’s Native Indian Land Forces’. Their training was wholly conducted in India. However, they were not at par with the KCOs, which were still the domain of the British. By 1911, 78 Indians had joined the ICC. The role of the ICC was essentially ceremonial. These officers did not have any power of command over

British personnel: In the Indian Army, they could not rise above the level of squadron or company officer. It was not surprising that the total number was dropped gradually to 11 by 1914. But it was, as Bryon Farewell says, the first small step towards the ‘Indianisation’ of the Indian Army officer corps. There was no concept of an indigenous army in British India until the late nineteenth century. The First World War proved the worth of the Indian soldier. The Indianite ranks in the British Army were also a demand by political parties of India. The blunt demand in this respect was found in the ‘Report of the Committee appointed by the All-Parties Conference, 1928, to determine the principles of the constitution for India,’ which was commonly called the ‘Nehru Report’. Though no passage is found in the Report itself, or in the sketch of recommendations in Chapter 7 of the document, the Army matter was touched upon in the introduction. It states that the authors recommend the transfer of control over the Indian Army to Ministers. The author of the report quoted Professor Keith’s pungent observation, ‘Self-Government without an effective Indian Army is [an] impossibility, and no amount of protests or demonstrations or denunciations of the Imperial Government can avail to alter that fact’. Criticizing the statement, they added: ‘This is true but we do not accept the constitutional position that without an Indian or Dominion army, India cannot obtain Dominion status. In the first place the Indian Army has not to be created; it exists there already. In the next place historically the position taken by our critics is not correct’.

The First World War compelled the British to take drastic steps in regard to the colonies. One such change was in August 1917 when the Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, in his famous statement on ‘increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration’, announced admission to the commissioned cadres for Indians. The Montagu-Chelmsford Report was written during the Great War. In the three paragraphs (328-330) which it devoted to the subject of the Army, the way in which the services of the Indian Army in various theatres of war had been and would be recognized was discussed. The authors mentioned the announcement of His Majesty’s Government that the bar which had hitherto prevented the admission of Indians into the commissioned ranks of His Majesty’s Army should be removed. It further declared that this decision had established the principle that an Indian soldier could earn the King’s Commission by his military conduct. This apparently referred to promotion from the ranks. The Report went on to say that other methods of appointment had not yet been decided upon, and emphasized ‘the necessity of grappling with the problem’. As discussed in the earlier paragraph about the demand of Indian leadership for the commissioned ranks for Indians, the Report stated “it is impossible to deal with this large question in connection with our present proposals.

The war is yet not over… The requirements of the future will very largely depend upon the form of peace which is attained. We, therefore, leave this question for consideration hereafter, but with the note that it must be faced and settled”. The authors of the Montagu-Chelmsford Report admired the services rendered to the common cause by Indian arms. They contented themselves with noting the urgency and importance of the Army question that would emerge after peace had been restored. However, no concrete steps were taken for the general commissioning of Indians. Therefore, the start of the Indianisation of commissioned ranks was rather slow. Under the pressure of the Montagu-Chelmsford proposed reforms, ‘in 1918 a change was made [according to which] the Indians became eligible for the first time to hold the King’s Commission. Ten vacancies were annually reserved for Indian cadets for competition amongst themselves at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst’. Completion of the course here was a must to get the King’s Commission for an Indian. Keeping in view the colonial legacy and loyalty to the Raj, the Indian government selected the candidates preferring favorites of the Raj- sons of loyal and politically influential families. The debut Commissioned Indian batch that passed out from Sandhurst was posted in Infantry and Cavalry in 1920. A cadet college was also opened in Indore in 1918, which granted permanent commission to its 32 graduates in 1919.

Many factors contributed to Indians’ lack of interest in getting their sons admitted to or commissioned from Sandhurst. Very tough modus operandi of selection, huge expenses, travel to England, and a weak academic record as compared to the British students discouraged Indian cadets. It further contributed to their high rate of failure (30%) in the early years as compared to their British counterparts (3%). As there was some criticism in British circles regarding the Indianisation of Commissioned ranks, ‘an Eight Unit Scheme was introduced by the then C-in-C Lord Rawlinson in 1923’. According to the scheme, it was obligatory for every Indian KCO to spend his first year with the British regiment in India before he was posted on a permanent basis in one of eight units selected in 1923 for complete Indianisation. Indian officers holding commissions in the Indian Army were to be transferred and posted to these eight units. In this way they could fill up the appointments for which they were qualified by their rank and by their length of service. The purpose of such a scheme was four fold: to limit Indian KCOs to these Units; in due course such units would be entirely officered by Indians; to keep the British Officers in to command Indian Officers over and above; and to accelerate the pace of Indianisation. As the senior officers retired and junior officers acquired seniority and were promoted, the time could have come when each of these Indian Units would be commanded and completely officered by Indians. However, it was a very lethargic process based on slow progression. The process could not be completed ‘until the year 1946 at the earliest, since in the Indian Army promotion was regulated by a time scale’.

British Indian Army-5
Sikh soldiers of British Indian Army

International relations between the two world wars brought about further changes in the British approach towards its colonies. It had to introduce positive measures to keep the empire from disintegration. Hence, during the inter-war period, not only were reforms introduced but various recommendations were put forth for the increase of Indians in the British Army. General Henry Rawlinson the British C-in-C in 1921 recommended an increase in Indian Officers. In March 1922, a pre-cadet college – the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College – was established in Dehra Dun to prepare young men for Sandhurst. A committee was appointed in June 1925 under Major General Sir Andrew Skeen (at that time, it was popularly known as ‘Indian Sandhurst Committee’ but later on called ‘Skeen Committee’) to establish a military college along the lines of Sandhurst in India and to discuss prospects to increase the number of Indian candidates for the King’s Commission. The committee visited different military institutions which included: England, France, Canada and the US and were given briefings from the officers and trainers alike. At the end of the study tour and following long deliberations, the committee submitted a report in 1926. It recommended an increase in the pace of Indianisation; induction of Indians to the commissioned ranks in the technical branches of the Army as well as the Air Force; abandonment of the Eight Units Scheme, and the establishment of a military college in India. The first two recommendations were accepted by the British government. Instead of the last two recommendations, the government increased the Indian quota at Sandhurst to twenty-five. It also created six vacancies per year at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, to train Indians as pilots, and six places at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, to train Indian officers for the artillery. Regarding the establishment of a military college in India, Indians were not yet filling all the 10 vacancies annually at Sandhurst. The following figure shows the annual number of Indian Cadets admitted to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, since 1918, and their disposal. The result was disappointing. Therefore, the recommendation for the establishment of a military college in India was declined by the British Government. (Continues)


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

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