When India Fights for England

By Basanta Koomar Roy

[The Independent; April 19, 1915]

The mixing of the races which makes this war the most perplexingly cosmopolitan of all history is not the least significant phase of the Great War. The bringing to European soil of many troops from British India, bitterly resented by the Teutonic allies, has a double significance, for while they are doing good service in France they are still playing their part in England's troublesome Indian problem. Mr. Roy, a graduate of Calcutta University and a magazine writer of long standing, is in a position to treat-both aspects of the Indian expedition. —THE EDITOR.]

After many centuries troops have come from Asia to fight in Europe; this time not to conquer, but to defend the homes and the hearths of the French, Belgians and British. About 100,000 of India's best soldiers are already in Europe fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Allies against the Germans and Austrians.

The Indian troops entered Europe thru Marseilles. There were stalwart Sikhs and ferocious Gurkhas, bold Pathans and handsome Rajputs—but mostly Sikhs and Gurkhas. The native Indian force at home has been considerably weakened; but it is significant that not a single British soldier has been taken out of India. The Indian princes have pledged men and money for the defense of the British Empire.

The Sikh is the flower of the British-Indian army and he is a follower of Guru Nanak. When Martin Luther was preaching the gospel of reformation in Germany, Guru Nanak was preaching another gospel of reformation in the Punjab, the land of the five rivers in northern India. Nanak's crusade was against the existing bigotry of caste, idolatry and other superstitions of Brahmanism. His message was one of harmony among all religions, especially between Hinduism and Mohammedanism. The Sikh was a peace-loving farmer or artizan, but the tyranny of the Moghuls under Aurangzeb, who executed Tegh Singh, a Sikh Guru, converted this peaceful people into a military confederacy under Guru Govind Singh. And it gained so much in power that the British had to fight many battles before they could ultimately subdue the Sikhs, and that primarily by the treachery of a Sikh general.

he Punjab was annexed to the British Empire in 1849. Since that time the British-have lavishly recruited from the Sikhs for India's army. Stout, stalwart and thick-boned, hardy, courageous and obedient, the Sikh makes the best soldier in the British army. He is steady in victory and in defeat. He would rather die at his post than yield an inch of ground. He is fond of colonizing; and it is mostly the Sikhs that have colonized in Canada—a colonization that has been a source of so much trouble and imperial complications. Wherever he goes, a good Sikh never gives up his long hair, turban and iron bracelet. He would rather part with his head than with his hair, such is his faith in his Guru whose Sikh (the word means disciple) he is.

The Sikh soldier-has proven to be a tried friend of the British in more wars than one, both at home and abroad. But indubitably the best service he rendered, to the British was at the time of the Sepoy revolution of 1857-58. At a time when the British Empire and British prestige in the East was tottering to its very foundation, it was the Sikh soldier who saved the day and reconquered his own country for the British. Revolutionary India curst the Sikh, but the Sikh felt satisfied in the thought that he had done his duty. But a change has come in the feeling of the Sikhs in general, owing to the short-sighted and suicidal policy of the British colonists, especially those of the Dominion of Canada. The retired Sikh soldier who has come home after being insulted in Canada has lost all faith in the British sense of justice; he now looks upon all the promises of citizenship in the empire as empty platitudes. So he has spread discontent in the British army thru his friends and relatives—so much so that the British thought it wise to take most of them out of India to be blown into eternity by the huge German cannons. At least this is the version which the Indian nationalist wants us to believe.

The Gurkha soldier is of Mongolian type. He looks more like a Japanese than like a Hindustanee. His tenacity of purpose is like that of a bulldog. Short, chubby and sinewy, the Gurkha is strong and fearless. His racial weapon is kurki, a heavy curved knife. While in his mountainous home in Nepaul, he often encounters tigers in the jungles. But he would never run away from a tiger, no matter how large or how ferocious. He takes his stand with his kurki in hand, and when the tiger is about to pounce upon him he steps a few feet aside, and holds his weapon in such a way as to cut the tiger's throat in two. With such a spirit within him he makes a perfect soldier, but he is rather slow-witted.

The word Gurkha means protector of cows. The people that use. the name claim descent from the Rajputs of Chitore, Rajputana. They were driven out of their native province by the Mohammedan conquerors, and settled in the mountainous districts around Kumaon. They soon assumed an aggressive attitude, and sought expansion of territory on all sides. They, too, clashed with the British and fought what is known in history as the Gurkha War of 1814. The Treaty of Segauli checked their territorial expansion. Nepaul, the kingdom of the Gurkhas, is still independent of the British Raj. But, by a treaty, the British government in India is allowed to recruit about 20,000 soldiers from among the Gurkhas.

The Gurkha soldier is still faithful to the British in spirit. Wherever there is an act of high-handedness that is to be done to suppress the spirit of new nationalism in India, the Gurkha is employed, and he acts like a veritable fanatic in his attacks on men, women and children.

The military organization that binds the Sikhs and the Gurkhas, the English, Highlanders, and the Irish, the Mohammedans and the Mahrattas in one Indian army is noteworthy. It was over the reorganization of this army that Lord Curzon and Lord Kitchener fought. In the fight Curzon had to resign, and the military in India was freed from all control of the civil.

The entire military force in India is divided into a northern and a southern army. There are 76,000 British and 164,000 Indian soldiers and officers. Besides the regular army there are volunteers of European or Eurasian extraction. An educated man of India is not allowed to enlist as a volunteer or a soldier. He is not trusted. A Bengali can never enter the army as a soldier.

The relative status of the Indian and British troops in India, is discussed by the Indian statesmen in season and out of season. A constant agitation is going on in India to raise the position' of the Indian troops. Ever since the days of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857-58, the lot of the Sepoy has been worse than before the revolution. He is looked upon with suspicion. His loyalty is doubted. He is made to feel that he is inferior to his British comrade. The proportionate numerical strength of the Sepoys has been diminished. More British soldiers have been imported into India to add to the burden of taxation of the overtaxed and poverty-stricken country.

Most of the "lines" in which the Sepoy is made to live are not fit for human habitation, and there is little or no provision for his entertainment; whereas the British soldier is quartered in comfortable "barracks" and ample provision is made for his playgrounds, gymnasiums and billiard rooms. The Sepoy is not entrusted with the rifles of latest model with which the British soldiers are armed. For the same service, and in many instances for better service, the Sepoy is paid much less than the British soldier. The Briton receives about $25 to the Sepoy's $4.

But the most objectionable feature of the military system in India lies in the fact that the Sepoy, no matter how long he has served in the army, no matter how marked may be his military capacity, no matter how many battles he has fought for England, both at home and abroad, no matter how many scars of wounds he bears, can never be a commissioned officer in the army. All his life he has to wear the badge of inferiority to much younger and inferior military men from England. In India today, out of 1500 commissioned officers, 1500 are British. Writing in the London India of November 20, 1914, Mr. Ashraf Ali, a Mohammedan, called this Anglo-Saxon anomaly "a festering sore that rankles in all Indian hearts."

The wonderful machinery of the British-Indian army that not only protects India from foreign invasions but is kept and freely uses to defend the entire British Empire, is necessarily a costly thing, India's land, which is mostly owned by the Government, furnishes the bulk of India's revenue. The land revenue is about $105,483,500, and the military expenditure is about $98,230,000. Our leaders of thought have, for many years, been agitating against this exorbitant military charge. They demand money for the opening of free schools, as they also demanded it for more irrigation works for the prevention of recurring famines in India. And, again, they claim that when the Indian army is kept and used for the defense of the Empire thruout the word, it is meet that the British "home" Government should pay a part of its expenses. In its dispatch of March 25, 1890, the British-Indian Government itself thus confest: "Millions of money have been spent on increasing the army in India, on armaments, and on fortifications to provide for the security of India, not against domestic enemies, or to prevent the invasions of the warlike peoples of adjoining countries, but to maintain the supremacy of British power in the East." To give a few specific instances, it was India—poor, starving India—that paid the expenses of England's first Afghan war of 1834-42, of the China war of 1839-40, of the Persian war of 1856, of the Abyssinian war of 1867-68, of the Perak expedition of 1875, of the second Afghan war of 1878-80, of the Egyptian war of 1882, and of the Soudan war of 1896. And it is certainly true that many millions are being and would be spent from India's exchequer to pay England's bills for the present European war.

In spite of all their grievances the Indian troops in Europe are fighting well, and the British Government and people are grateful to India for what she is now doing for England. But it is only fair that the British public should be allowed to know of the valor of the Indian troops that are fighting in the battlefields of Europe—troops that are giving their lives for England in this day of her dire national peril. It is indeed pathetic that the British censor does not allow the British press to publish anything about the Indian troops in Europe. "People at home" explains Mr. Robert Blatchford, an English war correspondent in France, in the Weekly Dispatch of London, "are hungry for news of the Indian troops, but I was not so much as allowed to mention them."

There is a method in this madness of the British statesmen. Mr. A. J. Wilson, editor of the London Investors' Review, thus touches the problem to the very core when he writes in his paper: "The Indians are fighting with us loyally, with the bravery characteristic of their warlike races, and they look to get the credit for that loyalty as they will by and by look for the reward which is their due. India is fighting for home rule quite as much as for us; do not let us ignore the fact, or by our conduct make it harder to satisfy the legitimate demands of the Indian people when peace has been restored." It is true that the British governmental policy not to allow even a passing mention of Indian troops in the British papers is directed ultimately against the "legitimate demands of the Indian people."

But we feel confident that, when peace follows this barbarous international hecatomb, when broader principles of international brotherhood supplant the suicidal policy of nationalism and spread-eagle imperialism—in that day of ultimate triumph and everlasting victory Mother India shall get Swaraj—her much-coveted home rule.

New York City

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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