A case to include Military History in the School Curriculum

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A couple of years back when an article of mine on our heroes of the Second World War was published in this newspaper, one of the feedbacks lambasted me for ‘singing praises’ of people who were ‘mercenaries’ who enjoyed privileges under the colonial regime for oppressing our own people. This revealed an unfortunate prejudice many carry about the colonial legacy of our armed forces.

To understand the strange phenomenon by which Indian soldiers served loyally under the British and helped them build an empire in India and constituted the army that became its cornerstone, one needs to comprehend the muddled socio-political environment that prevailed in India during the 18th Century when colonialism began taking its roots in the subcontinent. There was no seat of power that could exercise authority over the entire land mass. The Mughal Empire was on the decline in the North; In Central India, post Shivaji the Marathas were no more a united entity, and the Vijayanagara Empire had collapsed in the South. Regional satraps and local rulers held sway and they were dime a dozen, mostly an irresponsible, self-serving lot who were preoccupied with petty quarrels among themselves, unconcerned about governance. Most of them had no regular armies worth the name. Whenever they got into one of their perpetual conflicts with other rulers, they made a call to arms and put together an ad hoc force of freebooters who roamed the land in abundance. This ragtag militia led by the incompetent ruler or his mandarins seldom did any fighting; instead whenever two such forces confronted each other whichever was numerically inferior turned tail. In other words, the outcome of a conflict was dependant not on a battle fought, but on which of the belligerents was able to amass a larger force. The so-called combatants of these ‘battles’ were never imparted any training since the sole purpose of engaging them was to show numbers. They were mere hired hands engaged and paid for the job, after which they went their way seeking another conflict and another contract. Nevertheless, they were an intrepid lot with soldierly inclination who found any other vocation mundane, and eager to fight given half a chance.

This vast potential of indigenous fighting men proved handy for Europeans (the French followed by the British), when they began their forays into Indian political scene on the pretext of providing military muscle to one or other local ruler, because they found it far more cheaper to train them and create a native force than importing European soldiers. Thus began the sepoy levy system wherein the European trading companies began training Indians in modern warfare of the times that had been developed and perfected in Europe and was proving highly effective in conflicts the world over. As for the sepoys, the Indians who readily enlisted for service with these companies, the professional military training they received was an entirely new experience, especially learning the use of firearms. They were also being paid regularly for the first time in their lives, which gave them a sense of belonging. Above all they found themselves actually fighting and winning battles which gave them immense pride in the vocation of their choosing.

After an initial phase of Anglo-French rivalry wherein the French and English East India Companies fought each other for dominance as proxies of rival local rulers, both sides using sepoy forces, the British emerged victorious. While they went on to establish themselves by subjugating one local ruler after another across India using the sepoy armies, the sepoys themselves felt no qualms about their role, because as far as they were concerned the local rulers were an unworthy lot and rule by the East India Company was far more desirable. This in all probability was a feeling shared by a large part of the populace. The people were fed up with the internecine quarrels between their rulers and resulting lawlessness across the land and would have settled down for any proposition which would bring about a semblance of order, even if it was an alien rule. This explains why the British were able to exercise their authority with comparative ease. In any case, the idea of Indian nationhood had not really taken shape as yet; and the sepoys found it wise to stick with the British who were emerging the most powerful of the many contenders for power.

Notwithstanding the unscrupulous manner in which the British established their power over the subcontinent, by a mix of chicanery and force of arms, and robbed the land of its wealth, the whole exercise created a unified India as never before. Ironically many of the institutions they built in India to pursue their ends were eventually to benefit us as a free nation, although they had never intended such an outcome or imagined that the day would come when they would have to leave all those behind and quit. The most controversial among these institutions is probably the Indian Army for its role as the mailed fist in the establishment and expansion of the British Empire. While there is no denying the role that the Indian Army played in the cause of the empire, it also happened to be the first to have lit the fire of freedom. Though suppressed, it was the Sepoy Rising of 1857 – a watershed like no other in India’s British experience – that put an end to the crude hegemony of East India Company, and placed India directly under the British Crown; a step which, whether the British intended it so or not, put India on her inexorable march to freedom.

It would be naive to imagine that during the subsequent years as nationalism took roots in India and freedom movement gained momentum, the soldiers of the army remained absolutely insulated and insensitive to the political developments outside. Modern researches reveal that the vast number of Indian men in arms that constituted the largest volunteer army during the First World War were no more an unconcerned lot like their adventurous predecessors in red coats, but highly sensitive individuals who were aware of what was happening to their country and bore the hardships of the war in a solemn spirit of sacrifice and honour, genuinely believing that their contribution was going to bring India closer to political freedom. We cannot overlook the fact that even Mahatma Gandhi had encouraged the youth to enlist hoping that a grateful British would be obliged to grant independence to the country. While his hopes were dashed at Jallianwala bagh in the aftermath of the war, recruitment during the Second World War took place on even more larger scale for a variety of reasons; not the least among them being the abject poverty the country was reeling under.

Sadly, many enlisted merely to escape from hunger; for the luxury of having two square meals a day. Many more enlisted to protect their families from governmental harassment since the British, desperate for manpower, often resorted to forced recruitment by denying rations and suchlike to families unless their young male members enlisted. The fact that the soldiers of the Indian Army performed with distinction under fire during the war, in spite of such inhuman circumstances that led them into arms, speaks volumes about the courage and sense of honour of an average Indian soldier who would rather die than flinch in a fight. It is also a well-known fact that none of them owed any allegiance to the British Crown. Their loyalty was always towards their regiment, a unique kind of a team spirit with which they fought; all for one and one for all. They genuinely believed that by moulding themselves into first-class soldiers they would be contributing to the national cause in their own way, well informed that the country’s independence was not far. They did indeed prove right, when India found herself fighting a bloody war along the heights of Kashmir almost from day one of her independence. A number of Indian Army men rallying under the colours of the Indian National Army to fight the British during the war – even if it was fait accompli for those who were POWs – and the post-war naval mutiny had pointed to fissures in the military establishment which was the pillar the British had all along counted on to sustain their empire. As has been corroborated by British sources in later years, their confidence shaken by the developments and realizing that the Indian Military had turned into their Frankenstein’s monster, the British chose to beat a hasty retreat and granted India her freedom, speeding up the political process towards that end, which was on the anvil anyway. Therefore, in their own silent manner, the Indian armed forces did contribute to India’s freedom. In a manner of speaking, the Indian Army both created and destroyed the British Empire.

It is imperative that our children grow up learning of such intriguing facts about our armed forces and develop an emotional connect with them, rather than see them as constituted of some kind of automatons. Soldiers are human, much like everyone else, except that they take it upon themselves to do a dangerous job, because someone has to do it, or we will have no country.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran & military history enthusiast who writes about Indian Army’s battles of the past. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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