Changes in the Army

Background of the British Indian Army

The tradition of recruiting peasant armies had been developing in North India since the sixteenth century. The French had first initiated the tradition of recruiting an Indian Army in 1721-29. Britishers had also done the same. The sepoy army was trained and disciplined according to European military standards and commanded by European officers in battle-field. Seema Alavi argues, indeed, the recruitment of the East India Company's army was central to the development of the company's political sovereignty , which rested on a monopoly of power. The Army therefore took a large share of the company's expenditure in India and also it was crucial to effective collection of revenue.

It is to be noted that the bulk of the British East India Company's army consisted of Indian soldiers. In 1857, the Indians constituted about 86% of the total strength of the Company's army. The main reason for this large proportion of Indians in the army lay in the expenses involved in maintaining an exclusive British army. Also, given the Company's expansionary policy, it needed to maintain a large army in Indian subcontinent. But, it then raises the question, that how the Company relied on an army which was largely Indian. To answer this, it must be noted that the officers of the army, as in other branches of the administration, were exclusively British who commanded the army with strictness and discipline. Also, the people joined the army because the pay, allowances, pensions and resettlement provisions offered by the Company was much better than those offered by the regional states and what was most important, salaries were paid regularly. However, the highest an Indian could reach was to the post of Subedar. The army played a crucial role in the expansion of British dominions over the Indian rulers. However, after the conquest over Indian was over and the rivalry with foreign powers eliminated, the main task of the army was keeping India under subjection. A secondary task of the army was to fight with the Russian or the French or with India's neighbouring countries.

Dichotomy in the British Indian Army

The deliberate policy of respecting caste, dietary, travel and other religious practices of the sepoys fostered a high caste identity of the Company's army. The Company came to possess a high caste army and which was prone to revolt when their social privileges and pecuniary benefits were cut from the 1820s.

To this, the company initiated a reform in the army in the 1830s which aimed at levelling the differences and promoting a universal military culture created discontent among the sepoys. This unhappy feeling particularly showed in the Bengal army, as the reforms infringed upon the sepoy's high caste status and disturbed the power relations with in which they were located. In the 1840s, therefore, the disaffection of the Indian troops found articulate expression from time to time and their incidents prepared the back drop for the hunting in the Bengal army in 1857.

Grievances of the sepoys of the British Indian Army

The sepoys in the Bengal army were largely drawn from Awadh and the north-west provinces where there was already a looming discontent from moneylenders and landlords. Moreover, the native sepoys were mainly Brahmins and Rajputs who were high caste men and could not tolerate any suggestion or practice which endangered their freedom to display caste symbols. They were connected to the peasant population of rural areas and therefore were unhappy with the annexation of Awadh. The sepoy in fact, was a 'peasant in uniform', whose consciousness was not divorced from that of the rural population. Further, the changes introduced in 1820s prohibited the sepoys from observing their customary practices like wearing a saffron mark on the forehead, wearing a turban or growing beard. The presence of Christian missionaries and Chaplains also led to rumours of proselytising activities by them. All this was seen as interference in religious affairs of the Hindus and Muslims alike.

Another grievance was serving in the British forces abroad. The sepoys refused to serve in foreign lands as to the religious Hindu, crossing the sea meant loss of caste. This led to the passing of General Services Entitlement Act in 1856 by the then Governor General, Lord Canning, which forced the sepoys to give an undertaking that they would serve anywhere their services are required by the government.

A major grievance of the sepoys was the gross discrimination among the sepoys and English soldiers in the Army. There was a sense of deprivation compared to his British counterparts. The sepoy was made to feel a subordinate at every step and was discriminated against racially and in matters of promotion and privileges.

All these led to disaffection among the sepoys which manifested itself on a number of occasions in the form of mutinies before 1857.

But the introduction of a new cartridge for the Enfield rifle provoked much of the trouble. The cartridge was supposed to be made from fat of cows and pigs and had to be bitten off before loading into the rifle. This exasperated the sepoys and the issue became the trigger for the starting of the Revolt of 1857.

The Revolt of 1857

The Revolt of 1857 or the First War of Indian Independence or the Sepoy Mutiny begun in Meerut by the Indian sepoys (of the Third Cavalry).

In late March 1857, Mangal Pandey, an Indian sepoy attacked British officers at the military garrison in Barrakpore. He was arrested and then executed by the British in early April. Later in April, sepoy troopers at Meerut refused the Enfield cartridges, and, as punishment, they were given long prison terms, fettered, and put in jail. This punishment incensed their comrades, who rose on May 10, shot their British officers, and marched to Delhi, where there were no European troops. There the local sepoy garrison joined the Meerut men, and by nightfall the aged pensionary Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II was nominally restored to power.

disturbances beginning with the. Hindoos, have actually, ended in placing on the throne of Delhi a Mohammedan Emperor;

-Karl Marx

Within a few months of capture of Delhi, the revolt spread to different parts of the country- Kanpur, Allahabad, Bareilly, Benaras, Lucknow, Jagdishpur, Jhansi and other places.

The revolt continued in some places till 1858, but the British were ultimately able to establish control. As sepoys were captured, they were often killed on the spot. And many were executed in dramatic fashion.

After the end of the revolt, the British government dissolved the British East India Company and took direct control of India.

Changes in the Army after Revolt of 1857

The Peel commission which was appointed to look into the military affairs of India recommended that " The native army should be composed of different nationalities and castes and as a general rule mixed promiscuously through each regiment."

Therefore, during the next few years regiments which had mutinied were disbanded, castes were more evenly mixed across the regiments, recruitments focused on Punjab which remained loyal during the mutiny.

The recruitment strategies were further streamlined in the 1880s when the colonial knowledge of Indian ethnicity and racial stereotypes were deployed to evolve the theory of "martial races". The Sikhs, Gurkhas, and Pathans, who had assisted in the suppression of the Revolt, were declared to be martial and were recruited in large numbers.

Training and appointment of Indian officers started hesitantly and selectively in 1931 after the first Round Table Conference. The issue was given full consideration only in the 1940s as a delayed concession to the nationalists under the pressure of the military needs of the Second World War.

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