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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 45 New Delhi October 29, 2016

A Centennial Remembrance: Recruiting ‘Terrorism’ during World War I - A Case Study of Punjab

Sunday 30 October 2016

by K.C. Yadav

Much is found in print on the First World War, 1914-1918. Recruitment in Punjab during the global conflict, our present concern, is also not a barren field; there are several studies relating to it as well. A solicitous perusal of the literature shows, however, that it is by and large one-sided, based mostly on the official versions of things. The ‘other side’, the one as seen from the receiving end of the stick, is either ignored or touched casually. The present study is a case in point.

On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. By midnight, almost all the European powers, standing in two opposing camps, formed on mutual ‘jealousies, fears and hatreds’, galloped forth their chargers, and got engaged in a life-and-death struggle they had never experienced before. Being a colony of Britain, India was also hooked to the global conflict. The Viceroy placed her 250,000 strong Army at the disposal of the King-Emperor. The War demon was, however, too appetitive to be satisfied with such a small offer. There were calls for more, and even more, men. Punjab, popularly called—in official circles—the ‘shield’, the ‘spear-head’ and the ‘sword-hand’ of India, shared the maximum burden.

The task was not difficult. Punjab about that time had approximately 4,013,920 male population of recruitable age.1 But only a small portion of them was available because, keeping in view their need in the peaceful post-Revolt period—about 10,000 recruits a year—they had constructed a small recruiting pool by keeping away from it all the classes/castes except ‘the Dogra of the lower Himalayas, the Punjabi Mohammadan of the north-west, the Sikh of the central districts and the Jat of the south-east’.2 They called them by an empty epithet, ‘martial races’, which was neither biologically true-and-trusted nor militarily and politically prudent. For the first 29 months of the War (August 1914-December 1916), when the demand for men from warfields was not very high, they somehow managed the things.3 But not after that. In 1917, the Army recruiters failed to get recruits from Punjab. Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, who hadn’t ‘no’ and ‘failure’ in his lexicon, accepted the challenge and took up the responsibility of supplying the required number of recruits. He put his entire government, and its loyal collaborators, on the job, squeezed the over-sueezed lemon still harder and managed to get by hook or by crook, as seen below, 91,499 drops (recruits) in 1917 4 and 105,876 in 1918.5 An incredible feat indeed!

This begs a question: How did the Punjab supremo accomplish this hard task? Appre-ciably, the Punjab Government itself has answered the question for us. Addressing the Hunter Committee, which was constituted by the British Government to inquire into the ‘Punjab wrongs’, 1919, the government said : ‘Considerable pressure was employed to secure the result achieved. It would be idle to deny the abuses occurring from time to time.’ (emphasis added)6 But how serious those ‘abuses’ were, they did not spell out. This Mahatma Gandhi who, along with some other eminent nationalist leaders, had made a meticulous inquiry into the matter,7 did. Writing to Lieutenant-Governor French, the successor of O’Dwyer, on the ‘Punjab wrongs’ in his inimitable style, the Mahatma said:

I think that hard recruiting was necessary during the late War and that some kind of moral pressure was inevitable. But the statements made before me go to show that villagers were brought up on a wholesale scale and were called upon on pain of suffering inhuman tortures and indignities to send their sons as recruits if they were at all of age. It is stated that for this purpose men were made naked, they were whipped on their buttocks and were made to bend themselves on thorns whilst they were whipped. Women were made to drag men whose modesty was outraged. Women themselves were made naked and subjected to disgraceful treatment because their husbands and boys were hiding themselves.8

Such atrocities were committed almost through-out the province in those critical days, which created unprecedented fear in the minds of the people to such an extent that ‘the news that a Government officer was coming’, admitted the Punjab official war chronicler, ‘sufficed to empty villages within a five-mile radius! In these there was undeniable estrangement’.9 The ‘helpless’ officials impressed upon their government to pass some legislation authorising them to compel the villagers to come to listen to them. The Chief Secretary, Punjab, advanced a strange logic in support of the funny argument: ‘In order to assist the people to fulfill their obligations on a voluntary basis,’ he said, ‘we regard it as essential that we should have the power to compel the attendance of all men of and above military age... The elders of villages and other responsible citizens must attend.’10 But even such efforts did not yield fruits. The more pressure they put, the more violent reaction they got. See these instances:

The people of the villages around Ghullapur in district Shahpur were pressurised by one Tehsildar, Nadir Hussain of Bhalwal. When the people found him crossing all limits, he was attacked by them near Bahk Lurkan village and ‘cut down with hatchets’. So intensely were the people fuelled with anger that they literally ‘hewed him limb from limb’. The worse was going to happen to him even after his death if a sizeable force had not prevented ‘his corpse from being made away with’.11

As was expected, the government reacted with equal fury. They arrested a large number of persons and put them on trial under the Defence of India Act. A Tribunal gave four of them the death penalty (by hanging); 12 were transported for life; and many others got lesser but not lenient punishments.12 Punitive Police was imposed on Bahk Lurkan and nearby villages and the people were, as reported by Mahatma Gandhi, harassed in a number of ways.13 Despite damning evidence of the Tehsildar’s own men14 and others, however, the Tribunal made only the following obser-vation on his doings : ‘Nadir Hussain Shah was overzealous and wanting in tact to influence a wild people unused to join the army.’ (emphasis added)15

The Tehsildar’s such activities were not limited to Ghullapur only. Ahmad Hussain Khan, Revenue Assistant in the office of the deceased Tehsildar, deposed before the Tribunal (trying the Tehsildar murder case) that people told him that ‘some women were ill-treated at Kaura Kot’. From a Pathan village, ‘perhaps Gurna,’ he added, ... ‘some women had been taken to Midh Ranjha and thence to Bhulwal in order to induce their relations either to return or enlist.... The companions of the Tehsildar had grazed the crops of the absconders and looted their houses.’16 There were many other cases of his misdeeds.17

A Naib-Tehsildar forced people more or less the same way as Nadir Hussain used to do to join the Army. He specially oppressed the people of a village called Leihia in district Muzaffargarh. The infuriated villagers besieged his residence, and ‘assaulted’ his servants and rural policemen when they tried to stall their move to reach the official. Meantime, the Naib-Tehsildar fled and escaped Nadir Hussain’s fate. The district administration again reacted sharply: 52 persons were arrested and tried under Section 147 IPC for this. They were given heavy punishments —almost summarily.

In Jangli villages of the Bar, in the neighbour-hood of Lakk, when people refused to enlist, the Police rounded them up and clamped the Defence of India Act on them. A collective of about 1000, led by a prominent Sayed, who, according to official sources, conferred ‘invulnerability’ on the people, came to their rescue. The Police fired at them, killing and wounding many persons; several others were put behind bars and brutely tortured. The Officiating Superintendent of Police, Saadat Ali Khan Zaidi, who was responsible for all this, was given a Police Medal for this ‘service’.18 The Sessions Judge, who tried those persons later, could not help observing—‘The method of recruiting in that taluka (tahsil) had been very oppressive.’ (emphasis added)19

Almost the same thing happened at Mardwal village in the Salt Range. The village, says the official district history, ‘bound itself by a solemn oath to abjure the Army on their own account, and to do all that they could dissuade neigh-bouring villages from enlisting’. The authorities took serious note of the developments and enforced the Defence of India Act against the leading men of several villages. However, when the Police officer went to arrest them, ‘the people set upon him and extorted from him, under the threat of instant cremation, a general amnesty’. They were later punished for the ‘offence’.20 In Northern Thal, the people of Adhi Sargal, Adhikot, Cham, Dravi and many other villages refused to enlist and showed fight.21 In Multan, the Khiji tribe in tehsil Kabirwala also behaved in a similar vein. An Estate Manager misbehaved with the villagers. The infuriated villagers paid him in the same coin. As a result, a scuffle ensued in which several people died.22

The defence witnesses in the O’Dwyer v. Shankaran Nair case referred to many villages where the administration crossed all lines of civilised behaviour. The people, who refused to enlist in Shahpur, were treated most savagely: ‘They were subjected to thorn, bush and bramble tortures, their hands were tied and shoes placed on their heads, and they were stripped naked before their women-folk.’ (emphasis added)23 Another witness, Wali Khan, gave a still grimmer story which people had shared with him. To force the villagers who had left their villages to avoid recruiting to come, he says,

their women were told that brambles and bushes had been brought—and that their skirts would be removed and that they would be made to sit on those thorny bushes....(when men did not come) women were kept in custody for a night....They were ordered to take their garments off and have brambles put between their legs.24

At another village, Takht Hazara, women suffered almost the same fate. The old men there, who could not flee the village, also met inhuman fate: they were made to sit ‘bare buttocks’ on thorns in order to force their sons to enlist.25

In district Hisar, the Deshwali Jat villages, notably Prabra, Bhadaur, Bas, Petwar and Thal, says the author of the official war history of the district, ‘gained notoriety by flatly refusing to give any recruits whatsoever. The men of Rakhi Khas went one better and on one occasion sallied forth en masse, bludgeon the Khatri Tahsildar and the Jat Naib Tehsildar who had gone to the village with a Jat recruiting committee.’26 How were they dealt with can only be guessed, because the official chronicler is silent on the point. In Yara, a village in district Karnal, there was serious trouble when force was used. Many persons were brought up under the Defence of India Act. Five of them were convicted. There was an appeal against the order. The appellate court said: ‘The various orders passed by the District Magistrate from time to time clearly show that these appellants ... would have been let off provided 20 recruits were made up from the village as was originally demanded from’.27

In Gujranwala district, the Deputy Commi-ssioner was a reasonable man. The recruitment in the district was normal, but in the official estimation it was ‘below the actual prescribed target.’ Yet, he did not pressurise people. He was replaced by Col. O’Brien, who followed the unwritten law of getting recruits ‘at any cost’. The result, in the words of the Lieutenant-Governor, was as follows: ‘A year ago Gujranwala had 3,338 men in the Army or only 1 man in every 150... At the end of the last months, it had 11,756 men with colours, which gives a ratio of 1 in every 14.’(emphasis added)28 How was the result obtained can be known from what the people from Mananwala, Chuharkhana, Hafizad, Ratali, etc., openly spoke before the Congress Inquiry Committee. An excerpt from the pathetic story narrated by the people of the last named village —Ratali:

The Tehsildar (Fateh Khan) came to our village...As it was harvest time, and also as the people were afraid of being forcibly taken as recruits, only a small number of people attended in the morning. The Tehsildar, therefore, fined some 60 or 70 persons... The people were again ordered to present themselves at Gujranwala, which is 8 miles off. When the people went there on the fixed date, they were made to stand in a row and 7 young men were picked out. The other people were abused and beaten.29

Almost similar play was enacted in district Multan. At the end of December 1917, the district’s contribution stood at 759 men—one in 586. The next year, by the end of November 1918, it ‘rose to 4,636 or one in 93’. A great do!30 In district Lyallpur, says the official report, ‘lambardars had to furnish recruits on the penalty of forfeiting the lambardari rights. Several were actually dismissed.’ In the district, the value of a recruit went up to Rs 500. Police sent up people to be bound down for keeping peace. Magistrates refused bail and sent them to the lock-up, till they agreed to furnish recruits. Criminal prosecution was withdrawn on the accused to offer himself as a recruit.31

How bad the situation had become can be guessed from the developments in Rawalpindi, one of the best divisions about this time. The Divisional Commissioner admitted before the Hunter Committee that ‘regretable incidents took place at several places’.32 However, he does not give details of the ‘regrettable incidents’. Some details given by the Punjab Government, in tongue-in-cheek style, show that those were really serious.33

The violent incidents and disturbances occurring all over the province over recruiting forced the Punjab Government to ask the military authorities to go for ‘suspension of active recruiting operations’ in the province for at least two-and-a-half months with effect from April 1, 1918. The military authorities agreed. But not the circumstances. The cessation of recruitment had to be given up soon—in mid-April itself—in consequence of the altered military situation arising from the terrible German offensives in those days.34 And with that, the old narrative of forced enlistment began to be scripted again with the same old enthusiasm and insensitivity, if not more.35

The above account shows how blatantly ‘abuses’, ‘force’, ‘torture’, ‘corruption’, etc. were ‘used’ in the last days for the war. En passant, a pertinent question emerges from here: Who were responsible for this foul recruitment? Logically, the accusing finger should rise towards the head that wore the crown—Sir Michael O’Dwyer. His Chief Secretary would, however, not accept any such incriminations against his head or his government. He flung the charge (on behalf of them) at lesser mortals, from a different land. In his own words: ‘In an oriental country no sphere of Government activity in which subordinate agency of necessity largely employed, can be wholly free from abuse.’ (emphasis added)36 But what about the non-oriental district officers and others, one might ask, who were all the while pressurising their subordinates from the ‘oriental country’ to fulfil their quotas? They did not exert any ‘illigimate pressure’, he said, on anyone. In fact, ‘the legitimate pressure exercised by district officers on lambardars and others may be presumed to have led not infrequently to exercise of illegitimate pressure by such persons on those whom they desired to enlist’.(emphasis added)37It was none of their business, he seemed to be implicitly conveying, to see how their orders were being implemented!Or to punish any official, zaildar or lambardar for applying ‘illegitimate pressure’ or mercenarisation of recruiting.38How empty his words ‘that such methods were not countenanced by Govern-ment’ were, can be seen in the light of the fact that, unmindful of the sufferings of the victims, the government feted and promoted the foul players as the following excerpt from the Mahatma Gandhi-led Committee’s Report (1920) showed: ‘In every place we have visited we have been informed that the officials, who have known to the people for their oppression have not only been degraded or publicly reprimanded, but they have been in many cases promoted.’39

In view of the above facts, the popular charge against the Punjab Government that they indulged in ‘terrorism in recruiting’,40 at least after February 1917, when the civil authorities took the direct responsibility of recruiting from Army, is not wide of the mark. During those critical days the difference between fair and foul got fader and almost everyone around who mattered in the matter of recruiting in the Land of the Five Rivers seemed to be going by the old maxim, ‘all is fair in war’. In fact, the goals and not means were, as indicated above, important to them in that situation. They were ‘successful’.

History is replete with such instances where success sowed the seed of unsuccess; doing resulted in undoing. The recruitment in Punjab during the war is one of such instances. In order to fulfil their quota and be ‘successful’, the Punjab civil authorities, armed with arrogance, insolence, corruption and cruelty, resorted to, as discussed above, ‘terrorism in recruiting’ which, according to Mahatma Gandhi, who had examined the issue in a most detailed and detached manner, transformed the people of Punjab from loyal to disloyal, peaceful to violent. Had Sir Michael and his men behaved becom-ingly, and not crossed the limits of humanised demeanour, they would not have evinced, he said, such an ‘unexpected exhibition of mob fury’ and burst into ‘violence’ as they did in 1919,41 culminating in that ghastliest tragedy, the Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar), massacre, April 13, 1919,42 that, as Edward Thompson believed, led to ‘the parting of way’ between India and Britain.43

As the booming of the war guns ceased, the guns of Indian national aspirations began to boom. Serious questioning not only of the fulfilment of the war aims, but of the very logic of the British rule over India began to be undertaken in right earnest—at mass level. The spirit perculated into the Army also, especially in several Punjab regiments.44 Soon the new winds began to blow all over India and beyond. As a result, ‘the reaction of Asia against Western domination was now a flowing tide’.45

Some time ago, J.R. Seeley, a distinguished imperial historian, had famously said that the British had ‘conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’.46 Their descendants in Punjab, in almost the same state of mind, sowed the seeds of the undoing of their ‘achievement’ during the war by subjecting the people of the province ‘to dragooning unpara-lleled in the history of recruiting’.47


1. M.S. Leigh, comp., The Punjab and the War, official, Lahore, 1922, pp. 61-62.

2. Michael O’Dwyer, India as I knew it, London, 1924, pp. 213-14.

3. They supplied 110,000 recruits. For details see

ibid., pp. 216-17.

4. See Leigh, op.cit., pp. 59-60.

5. Ibid.

6. National Archives of India (hereafter NAI), Home, Political B, no. 373, February 1920, p. 116.

7. The Indian National Congress constituted a sub-committee in November 1919 to inquire into the Punjab disturbances, 1919. The Congress President was its ex-officio president, and Mahatma Gandhi, C.R. Das, Abbas S. Tayabji and M.R. Jayakar were its members. K. Santanam was its secretary. The sub-committee examined 1700 witnesses, ‘studied the judicial records and other material relative to recruitment abuses and martial law’. Mahatma Gandhi drafted the report after verifying the bona fides of the witnesses and the authencity of the material.

8. Mahatma Gandhi to Mr. French, Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, dated Lahore, February 15, 1920. See Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (hereafter CWG), 

vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 133-34.

9. Leigh, op.cit., p. 29.

10. See NAI, Home Political B, No. 373, February 1920, p. 127.

11. See War Services of the Shahpur District, Lahore, nd., p. 11; CWG, vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 132-35.

12. War Services of the Shahpur District, p. 11.

13. CWG, vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 132-35.

14. See, for instance, the testimonies of his Reader, Mohammad Khan, and a Revenue Assistant, Khan Ahmed Hussain, in Congress Report, vol. 2, pp. 18-19.

15. Ibid., p. 19.

16. From the Revenue Assistant’s deposition before the Tribunal trying the alleged killers of Tehsildar Nadir Hussain, cited in Congress Report, vol. 2, p. 19.

17. Ibid.

18. War Services of the Shahpur District, p. 10.

19. CWG, vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 130.

20. War Services of the Shahpur District, p. 10.

21. CWG, vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 132-35.

22. Congress Report, vol. 2, p. 20.

23. Bombay Chronicle, November 27, 1923, cited in V.N. Datta, Jallianwala Bagh, Ludhiana, 1969, p. 14.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Hisar’s War Work: The Effort of a Punjab District

(1914-1919), Hisar, n.d., p. 4.

27. CWG., vol. 27, February-June, 1920, p. 136.

28. See the officially suppressed vol. 6 of The Punjab Disorder Inquiry (Hunter) Report, Evidence, (hereafter Hunter), Shimla, reprint titled as New Light on Punjab Disturbances, ed., V.N. Datta, vol. 1, pp. 92-93.

29. Ibid., p. 137.

30. Ibid., p. 137

31. Ibid., pp. 137-38.

32. See NAI, Home Department, Political B, no 373, February-June 1920, p. 116.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. For details see ibid., p. 132; Hunter, vol. 6, p. 92;

CWG, vol. 27, February-June 1920, pp. 132-35; Hisar’s War Work, p. 3; Dr. Ramji Lal, Diary (unpublished), November 26, 1919; Leigh, op.cit., p. 43; Datta, op.cit., 

pp. 14-15.

36. Chief Secretary’s Report, NAI, Home, Political B, No. 373, February 1919, p. 117.

37. Ibid.

38. There is no instance of punishment being given to any ‘subordinate’ guilty of exercising ‘illegitimate pressure’ in recruiting.

39. Congress Report, vol. 2, p. 18.

40. In those days, the term was current in several circles in Punjab in particular and India in general. Later it got wider currency. See O’Dwyer, India, p. 358; and proceedings of the case, O’Dwyer vs Shankaran Nair, London, 1924.

41. The Congress Report, vol. 2, p. 15.

42. Some people, however, thought that the anti-Rowlatt Act agitation, 1919, was accountable for this change. No way. The Mahatma has clarified this dubiety too. No amount of misrepresentation, he tells us, about the Rowlatt Act, ‘assuming that there was any, can possibly account for the response of the masses and the participation of a number of people in violence’. Ibid.

43. Edward Thompson, India, London : 1932, p. 99, cited in Datta, op.cit., p. 173.

44. See NAI, Home, Political B, no. 373, February 1920, pp. 24-25

45. See The Cambridge History of the British Empire, eds., D.E.A. Benians, J. Butter, C.E. Carrington, Cambridge, 1967, vol. 3, p. 644.

46. J.R. Seeley, Expansion of England, London, n.d., p. 10.

47. Nirad C. Chaudhury, The Modern Review, vol. 49, no. 1, January 1931, p. 79.

The author is a former Professor of History, Kurukshetra University, Kurukshetra. He can be contacted at e-mail: kcyadav1936@rediffmail.com

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