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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 35, August 15, 2009 (Independence Day Special)

Soldiers in the Nationalist Struggle

Wednesday 19 August 2009, by Pritish Acharya


The national movement in India was one of the longest and most widespread mass movements in the history of the modern world. Though it was initiated by a handful of newly educated persons, gradually more and more people got associated with it and made the process of nation-making very eventful in the country. It is in this context that an attempt has been made here to understand and analyse the role of soldiers in the movement. It purports to discuss how the soldiers as a social class had reacted to the British colonial rule and got intimately integrated with the ideology of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British started to conquer India in a piecemeal manner. The process of their consolidation of power continued throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this period, many Indians preferred to join the Company’s Army, for it was a better pay master than its Indian counterparts, that is, the native princes, chieftains and nawabs. Bereft of any nationalistic feeling, they did not find it unjustifiable to serve the ‘foreign’ Company. The nationalistic feeling was so much absent in them that during the Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757, a major part of the Bengal Nawab’s Army did not take part in the fighting and allowed the British to easily defeat them. Even the Nawab’s two main generals, Mir Jafar and Rai Durlabh, were susceptible to bribes offered by the Company. In the successive battles over a period of nearly hundred years the Company defeated the Indian rulers one by one, with the help of the Indian soldiers, who formed the main constituent of the Company’s Army.

More than the absence of the nationalist feeling, the native societal belief had greatly impacted such behaviour of the Indian soldiers. Namak Harami (being unworthy to the salt) was inconceivable to them. As Sepoys or native soldiers they served the Company with utmost devotion and great sincerely. In a similar vein, their counterparts in the native Army of Indian rulers, despite being poorly paid, ill-equipped and less professional, resisted the Company’s conquest and in turn suffered heavy losses. Like the Company’s Sepoys, they were also loyal to their masters for the same reason.. Thus, the process of British conquest turned out to be a fratricidal war between the two groups of Indian soldiers—one serving the British and the other serving the native princes—and that ultimately helped the British to reap the gain.

However, this situation did not persist for too long. Gradually disaffection among the Indian Sepoys towards the British grew because of the contradictions inherent in colonialism. The Sepoys recruited from various parts of the country got to know one another in the battlefield as well as in the barracks. A strong sense of common feeling, which is described as nationalism, permeated through them. Their experiences with the British were also common. They indiscriminately suffered the racial ill-treatment from their European superiors. Further, they realised that incredulity, deception, concealment and betrayal, which were considered to be ‘unsoldierly like qualities’ to the Indian warrior class, had been the chief basis of the British conquest of India. Strongly rooted in the social customs and beliefs the Sepoys felt deeply hurt when their employer, the Company, deceived and betrayed the Indian rulers and annexed their kingdom to the British Empire. For example, when Awadh was annexed in 1856 by Lord Dalhousie, despite agreeing to all conditions including the insulting Subsidiary Alliances, the Sepoys, many of whom were from Awadh (75,000), strongly disapproved it. Led by a sense of local pride they were greatly hurt by such betrayal and strongly resented it.

The blatant racialism practised in the Company’s Army further frustrated the Indian Sepoys. Ignoring the social beliefs, in 1856 an Act was passed which compelled the Army recruits to serve even overseas. Sepoys were forbidden from wearing caste and sectarian marks—beards and turbans. Promotions to higher ranks were denied to them because they were Indians. Greased cartridge was introduced which made them suspicious of the British designs. Because of this, the Sepoys, for whom disloyalty to the paying masters had been a sin earlier, fetched laurels and applause from their collegues and countrymen for being disloyal and rebellious to the British. The result was the Revolt of 1857. Everywhere the Sepoys formed the spine of this revolt. In Gwalior, when the Scindia refused to join the revolt, his soldiers deserted him and joined the forces of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi to fight the British. In Delhi they handed over the power, wrested from the British, to the Mughals. In the past if they had helped the British to defeat the Indian rulers, now they had come forward to defeat the British and for reinstating the Indian rule. This also set a historical tradition in which the Indian soldiers were instrumental in the transfer of power, but would not exercise it for any sectarian or selfish end. The tradition is well maintained since then.

Though the Revolt of 1857 was suppressed, the British realised that the Army was to be carefully used so as to prevent the recurrence of any such revolt in future. For its sustenance the British Indian Empire had to greatly depend on the support of the Army and police, the bulk of which were from among the Indians. On the other hand, with the growth of nationalism the native personnel in the Army as well as in the police got infused with nationalist sentiments and developed a strong sense of disaffection for the foreign rulers. For them fighting the fellow Indians in alien interest became increasingly difficult. This was a contradiction which ultimately wrecked the colonial system in India from within. With the passage of time the contradiction grew further leading to the erosion of trust between the British and their Indian Army personnel.

During the Civil Disobedience Movement in the early 1930s, such permeation of nationalism in the armed forces became quite apparent in Peshawar. Two platoons of Garhwali soldiers refused to open fire on the demonstrators even though it meant facing court martial and long terms of imprisonment. In the 1940s such incidents became more common, and these alarmed the British about their future in India.

IN 1942 the nationalists launched the ‘Quit India’ Movement in which all social groups got intensely involved. The fear of the British also did go away to a great extent. It was at this time that the Indian National Army (INA) was formed in Malaya by Mohan Singh, an Indian Officer of the British Army. Instead of joining the retreating British Army in the South-East Asia, the INA decided to seek Japanese help for fighting the British. The nationalist spirit had pervaded the Indian soldiers so much so that out of 45,000 Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) in Japan over 40,000 readily joined the INA. But, more significant was the fact that these soldiers declared to go into military actions only on the invitation of the Indian National Congress. This only explained the synergy worked out between the civilians and the soldiers for realising the nationalist dream. Besides, it also exhibited that the INA was not ready to play into the hands of the fascist forces, nor did it selfishly nurture any ambition to take over the nationalist leadership in India. It was in no way a parallel movement. It was only responding to the growing nationalist fervours of the time and complimenting to the growing mass movement under the Congress leadership. The INA’s nationalist and anti-fascist position became more evident when its two main leaders, Mohan Singh and Niraryan Singh Gill, were arrested by the Japanese for their differences with the fascists

In July 1943 Subhas Bose emerged on the scene and gave a new lease of life to the INA. Bose was the Netaji, the popular leader, who was clad in military uniform. This made the INA a perfect blending of the civilian and military aspects of the freedom struggle. Besides the soldiers, the civilians, especially the women, joined it. The INA became an open forum for expressing the nationalist sentiments of the Indian residents in South-East Asia. It was at this point that the Rani Jhansi Regiment was formed to incorporate the women in the movement. The INA’s faith in the nationalist leadership was further reposed, when Subhas Bose in a radio broadcast on July 6, 1944 addressed Gandhiji as the ‘Father of our Nation’ and asked for his ‘blessings’ and ‘good wishes’ in ‘India’s last War of Independence’. To him, it was the final struggle because the soldiers had joined hands with the civilian masses.

The INA’s success was, however, shortlived because of the growing contradiction between the Japanese military fascism and Indian nationalism. Whereas the Japanese wanted to use the Indian nationalists for their fascist purposes, the INA strongly resisted such misuse. It became conspicuous during the Imphal campaign, when the INA men were ill-treated by the Japanese units. Ration and arms were denied to them. They were also made to do menial work for the Japanese. This frustrated the INA which greatly affected the prospect of the Japanese campaign in India. Without the INA’s support the Japanese steadily retreated from India thereafter.

After the Second World War, participation of the Indian armed forces in the nationalist struggle became quite common. Some historians even believe that the British were finally compelled to leave India because the soldiers, who formed the backbone of British imperialism, had been fast withdrawing their support to British rule. The two most important developments in this regard were the INA trial and the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt in 1945 and 1946. After the War, the INA prisoners’ trial began in Delhi in 1945. Whereas the British considered the INA men as ’traitors’, the public saw them as ‘heroes’, who had fought the British imperialist forces against all odds. The Congress arranged lawyers for their defence; funds were also collected. Soldiers not only liberally contributed funds but also attended meetings in UP, Kohat, Punjab, Allahabad and Calcutta in defence of the INA leaders. The INA trial re-kindled the nationalist upsurge after the 1942 struggle and gave a final blow to the foreign rule in India.

In early 1946 the RIN revolt began which made the nationalist bonding between the civilians and the soldiers more conspicuous. Besides, it further eroded the imperial ideological hegemony over the people, especially the soldiers. On February 18, 1946 nearly 1100 non-commissioned sailors, called ratings of the RIN, went on strike in Bombay. Their main complaints were against racial discrimination, unpalatable food and racial abuses. However, the strike was not isolated from the nationalist agitation, for a rating, B.C. Dutt, was arrested for scrawling ‘Quit India’ on a ship. The arrest was followed by largescale strikes by other ratings in Bombay. The ratings moved in the city in lorries holding aloft Congress flags and threatening the European officers.

The RIN upsurge led to mass upheavals in Calcutta and Bombay. Public meetings and hartals were held and demonstrations organised in support of the naval protesters. In many places Europeans were targeted. Several police stations, shops, trams and banks were also attacked. Normal life was disrupted. In many other cities such as Delhi, Cochin, Madras and Vishakhapatnam token strikes were witnessed. All these displayed the perfect synergy which had been evolved between the civilians and the soldiers for the nationalist cause. Imperial fear had been replaced by a kind of nationalist grip over the mass of soldiers. It is true that the RIN strike was finally suppressed but it had a liberating effect in the minds of the people. It reminded the people of the Revolt of 1857, in which both the Sepoys and the civilians had joined hands against British rule. To many it was a living tradition which had started in 1857 and was set to culminate in 1946. By intensely participating in the process of nation-making the Indian soldiers had demonstrated that they were there for the sustenance and development of the country in the years to come. Besides, they would never shy away from any national responsibility at the time of need.

To conclude, the soldiers’ involvement in the nationalist movement was noteworthy in India. It did not occur in a single stroke. Like the masses they initially saw the British as a power giving them jobs in the armed forces. A sense of economic security attracted them to the British Indian Army. However, after joining it gradually they realised that they were being used for imperialist purposes and against the interest of their own people. Their self-respect was at stake. In the Army regiment they suffered more racial ill-treatment than others. This made them react against the British in a violent manner. They strongly complimented the nationalist mass upheavals. Never did they try to pose any threat to the nationalist movement or its unarmed civilian leadership. Rather, they have reposed unfailing faith in it.

Nationalism and professionalism have always been complementary traits in them. This is a tradition evolved during the long course of the nationalist struggle and is well set in India even after independence.

Dr Pritish Acharya is a Reader in History, Regional Institute of Education, Bhubaneswar.

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