Republic Day Special Series




Chapter X: Defence Forces Remain Colonial (Part 1)

Inheritance of the White British:
Mahatma Gandhi once said a curious thing, which has become a celebrated quotation. During an interview, an American journalist asked, "It is said that there are some major differences of opinion between you and your disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru. What precisely is the character of these differences?"

Gandhiji replied, "I shall be very precise. I am looking forward to a day when the system of the British (Angreziat) will go; it does not matter if the British remain in India. On the contrary, Jawaharlal is keen that the British leave, no matter if their systems persist." The quotation aptly summarises a very stark reality. 50 years after independence, with the advantage of hindsight, one could suggest only a small modification: In Jawahar’s view the British may leave but their systems must continue unchanged. From the day the Indian National Congress was established, the affluent urban people who had some smattering of English education had maintained one objective and one ambition. Having tested, in Maculae’s words, "the milk of the tigress of English language", they craved to replace the British.

Their position could be summarised as follows. "The British Rule established law and order, installed Police, Post Office, started telegraph and made steam engines pull the trains. This period of peace and stability had come to India after long centuries of turmoil. Nothing should be done that would harm the working of the British system. We should try little by little to take over the reigns of this rule in our hands."

The plan was well drawn. The first step was entry into the Indian Civil Service, then would come popular representation in institutions of local self-government, followed by legislative councils and lastly in Governor General’s Council. All concerned, however, did not have the patience to wait for so long. Some of them wanted a rapid, if not an immediate transfer of power. Their agenda was to make the British quit and to climb on to the seats of power vacated by them. Like the pigs in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ starting to walk on two legs, the radical stream of the freedom movement wished to perpetuate the British system, but under their own control. Speculating the mental process of historical personalities is a very hazardous exercise. It is difficult to be sure of the mental processes of persons even on the current scene; it is impossible to know for sure what went on in the minds of the Indian leaders 150 years back. Our judgement, therefore, will have to be based on the actual outcome of their actions.

The type of industrialisation that was tried after independence, the policy regarding Agriculture, Transport and other sectors, as we have seen, give no reason to believe that the Indian leaders were motivated by the desire to make India as a whole a happy and prosperous country. It is understandable if self-interest prevails in socio-economic matters. Nation’s security cannot be put at risk for reasons of self-interest. That the people who talk, day in and day out, of patriotism and nationalism should have allowed their self-interest to influence even the field of defence is difficult to understand or to forgive. The country remains militarily weak even today and vulnerable and India suffers from a sense of insecurity even about a country like Pakistan which is barely one-ninth of its size and has settled down to the idea that its north-eastern borders are indefensible against any invasion from China.

The professional traditions of the British Army:
The defence forces and the ‘Jawan’ are subjects of national pride all over. The convention is that no one should, by word or deed, adversely affect the morale, confidence and determination of the soldiers in the army. It is considered a vile act to say anything derogatory against the soldier who, in defence of the motherland, risks his life and willingly accepts martyrdom.

The period of 50 years since Independence is not an epoch replete in glory in many fields. However, the nation’s territorial integrity has been preserved by the jawans fighting on the borders and it has been made self-sufficient in food by kisans toiling in the fields. Both, jawans and kisans have to be backed by massive supporting systems and infrastructure. It is the responsibility of the political leadership to maintain those systems well oiled and efficient. Failure in this matter tantamounts to stabbing the soldiers in the back and betraying the farmers. It is hypocritical to pay homage, on the one hand, for their sacrifices and help, on the other hand, through act of commission or omission, cut off their supplies or weaken their position. It is an act of treachery. It is important, in the light of these observations, to examine how the rulers of Independent India provided for the defence of the country.

The British Army, Navy as also the Air Force have been fully professional outfits. Young men join the defence forces regarding it as a way of life and a career. They join the defence forces when young, undergo rigorous training and take care, even in normal times, of the security concerns. In the event of out-break of hostilities, the task is too large for the standing army. At times like this, all young men in a certain age group are required to join the armed forces. They are given a short intensive course of training and dispatched to the front. In times of war, every household and every family has at least one person fighting on the front and risking his life every moment. Invasion by an enemy becomes, consequently, a matter of serious concern for each and every citizen.

British Army in India:
At a point of time, the East India Company decided to secure the political power in the Indian continent and started making preparations to that end. The native armies of the Nawabs, Kings, Princes and Knights were outfits that lack discipline, training, mobility as also firepower. Even to continence such ramshackle forces the Company could not depend exclusively on divisions shipped from the Great Britain. The company raised divisions of native soldiers. The recruits consisted mainly of young men from backward communities which had demonstrated their loyalty to the British. These communities had a legitimate sense of grievance and a lot of bitterness against the society that had denied them even minimal human rights. Thus alienated, they had joined, in earlier epochs, the service of the Muslim conquerors also. The armies of these Muslim emperors had in their commands an array of upper caste dignitaries. Consequently, the forces were never fully unified. The Muslim army moved like a disorganised mob. When the British raised the army platoons the soldiers were taught rigorous discipline and given the latest armaments. The British forces so organised loyally fought and decimated the Muslim power as also the forces of the upper caste kings and princes. A large part of the credit for the establishment of the British Rule in India goes to the British Army manned largely by people of the backward communities. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar repeatedly emphasises this fact in his correspondence with the viceroy. Even after the establishment of the British Rule, the army remained a strictly professional outfit keeping its severe distance from the people at large.

This was understandable. The British knew very well what would be the consequences if the army was open to all native people. Savarkar had openly asked his followers to join the army, take the guns and change the direction of the guns the time come. The British Rulers were not entirely blind to this possibility. Every recruit to the army had his credentials, loyalty and pedigree minutely checked and tested. Young men, only from families that had a long tradition of army service were recruited. Thus the Company forces, as also the British forces, after revolt of 1857, maintained their strict professional character. They had no links with people outside cantonment areas. In fact, there was a sense of alienation and even, estrangement. The Indian platoons of the British army played a major role during the first as also during the Second World War. This was acknowledged, if with some condescension, by the British Rulers while the people at large denigrated them as hired agents of a foreign power.

The situation of the police department was, more or less, parallel. The Colonial government raised a Police Force that kept its distance from the people and ensured a tyrannical rule without any concern for people’s sentiments. Normally, in a district there would be a single white-skinned officer; all others were natives who had a unquestionable loyalty towards the British.


(... continued in Part 2)

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