Saturday, September 05, 2009

The making of the colonial army

Current read is Nicholas Dirks' Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India which is excellent and highly recommended - among other things to demonstrate just how much influence colonial anthropology and ethnology still have in India. Wanted to post an excerpt here that I found particularly interesting – the melding of ethnography and making of an army.

"The mutiny of 1857, even if it had not led to general rebellion, would have been a major crisis for the Indian army. In July 1858, the British government appointed a commission under Major-General Peel (the secretary of state for war) to examine the organization of the Indian army and recommend changes in the hope that it might avoid any repetition of the events of the previous year. Many witnesses (all forty-seven of them British) suggested that the higher castes be excluded from the army; other witnesses were split on whether to rely more heavily on Sikhs and Muslims. In the end, the commission recommended a higher ratio of British troops to Indian, but no specific caste or ethnic prescription for recruitment. The commission did suggest however, that “the Native Army should be composed of different nationalities and castes, mixed promiscuously through each regiment.” Nevertheless, Lord Elphinstone, urged that soldiers of diverse backgrounds not be mingled in the same regiment, on the principle of “divide et impera.”

As a consequence, regiments were for the most part to be made up of diverse but internally homogenous class companies, made up entirely of single caste or ethnic groups. George MacMunn, a high ranking army officer in the early years of the twentieth century and an avid historian of the Indian army, wrote that “The object aimed at in the new construction was, to some extent, to put the races into water tight compartments, while at the same time developing their martial characteristics to the full...” MacMunn believed that the army had actually played a role in strengthening the Sikh faith and community; by not admitting “unbaptized” Sikhs, for example, “it is the British officers who have kept Sikhism up to its old standard.” In fact, British recruiting had insisted on taking only those Sikhs who looked (to the British) like Sikhs, selecting only unshorn Khalsa Sikhs for army service. And as Bernard Cohn has demonstrated, the almost canonic status of the Sikh turban owes its current importance to the development of special Sikh codes of regimental dress; the marker of an ethnic regiment became the sign of a modern religious community across the world.

The policy of “divide et impera” was reaffirmed in 1879 by the high-level Eden Comission. The subsequent organization of the army into four main regional commands, recruited in different regions and serving in different regiments, put colonial sociology to work directly in the service of imperial authority. It also allowed the British to believe that any subsequent unrest could be quelled by other military units who would share neither national sentiment, nor specific grievance. ... Besides, the British began systematically reduce the troublesome elements in the army and to provide pride of place to Sikhs and Punjabis generally, Muslim, and other “races” deemed loyal in part because they had supported the British in that great test of racial and national loyalty, the rebellion.

Concerns about military recruitment in the years after the mutiny led to a consolidation of various colonial theories about the martial races of India. ... First, the martial races were seen as devoted to military discipline and inherently predisposed to be loyal subjects of the Crown. In the wake of the rebellion, troops from the Punjab, many of them Sikh, were recruited heavily to the Indian army, in part because of their martial claims to fame in the recent past, and in part because of their historical loyalty ever since they were first defeated in 1848, and especially during the Great Rebellion. By 1875, Punjabis made up about 44 percent of the combined Bengal army and Punjab frontier force. After 1880, the balance shifted even more heavily toward Punjabis, as well as toward Nepalis (in particular Gurkhas), in part because of ever increased recruitment in the north due to the perceived threat from Russia, in part because of the steady diminution in numbers making up the Madras army. Lord Roberts, commander-in-chief of the Indian army from 1885 to 1893 and a leading exponent of the idea of martial races, held that the peoples of southern India were inherently unwarlike. As a result of deliberate ethnographic policy, in 1882 eight of the forty Madras infantry battalions were disbanded; by the turn of the century only twenty-five battalions remained, less than half the number that had been in uniform at the time of rebellion."


Tabula Rasa said...

very interesting! i found that part about the turbans to be a bit of a stretch (ha!), but that added to the tale. thanks :-)

km said...

i found that part about the turbans to be a bit of a stretch

That is a long and winding...ah never mind.

the peoples of southern India were inherently unwarlike

Those goddamn hippie Southies and their filter coffee fixation.

(Could you please tag your book recommendations so one could easily find them for future reference?)

lucas said...

The turban argument is circuitous...but I like it.

Sz., by some odd coincidence, this passage dovetails rather perfectly with two passages I read yesterday. One was the first chapter of Guha's "India After Gandhi," in which he discusses 19th c. ideas about India's diversity (which Strachey, for example, insisted far exceeded Europe's). Second reading was Gopnik's great little piece on Ignatieff in the current New Yorker, in which Ignatieff talks about his philosophical turn from the language of individual rights to that of local majorities (esp. with ref. to Quebec).

Szerelem said...

tr: I have this urge to just keep posting extracts from the book, because it really is that good...even if sometimes a stretch!

km: there's this brilliant bit just after about how the Madras commissioner W.R. Cornish thought the Brahmins in the south were not pure, because, as well all know, the Aryans were a white skinned people. Ha! I've just reached the bit about the decennial census and it promises to be epic. Also I tag all book related posts under - well - books.

Lucas: Sigh, I should go read Guha again - everyone seems to be reading it now and I am two years out of date! (The parts that stayed with me most in that book were the unification of India and the linguistic states bit - awesome stuff.) And I can't read the Gopnik article because its for subscribers only :( I have to admit I haven't even looked at the latest NYer - I read the Pamuk story and my mind went all numb thereafter.

Szerelem said...

Btw - as an side what I find so fascinating about Dirks' book is how lucidly it connects knowledge and power, and just how well it illustrates how much the British went out of their way to gain the knowledge they though imperative to control the country.

India was built to a large extent based very much on their interpretation of the country - they were the first to observe local customs, trace histories (though as they always said India was a country without a history), conduct ethnographic surveys etc. And Indian reformers, scholars and so on also started off from the base point of British knowledge so even to this day how we view ourself is still hugely influenced by how the British viewed and classified us.

As an example - it isn't so much that the British invented the caste system - obviously not - but they put in place the classifications that we still follow today and that weren't necessarily a reflection of reality. Similarly in the search of a canonical Hindu text - though Hinduism doesn't have any such text - the status of the Manu Shastras and Bhagvad Gita were raised.

km said...


Obviously I can't read five-letter words very well. Please do post about that decennial census.

I find your last comment on how the Brits gained control through knowledge terribly interesting.

I've often thought about this - how much awareness did "Indians" have of "India" (I put those words in quotes for obvious reasons) before the Brits arrived?

Good stuff, keep posting from this book. (And I gotta get me this book.)

Space Bar said...

This whole bit about the un-warriorly South Indian is one of the many, many interesting things in the Amitav Ghosh-Dipesh Chakrabarty correspondence post-D.C's book, Provincializing Europe. (If you register, the whole thing *might* be available here, though I haven't checked. I have it offline. Maybe I can re-read and quote...)

Szerelem said...

km: It's quite interesting actually - one reason caste got so much importance under the British was because they felt that the entire society of India was so fractured by these divisions that there could never be any nationalist sentiment in the country - and of course, they wanted knowledge to exploit this further. Even if there was knowledge of past periods of Indian history, places and people it wasn't recorded or codified in the way that it was under the British.

Dirks' mentions how most of the initial knowledge came by way of missionaries and then people commissioned by the East India Company and the government in India - there was also this need to provide a rationale for the colonial presence in India and this was cloaked in the so called "humanizing" mission and certain practices etc. became cloaked in such language because they provided a means of intervention to control what the British found barbarous or didn't understand. Also, a lot of the knowledge came from very specific sources - for examples, on religion and caste, the Brahmans became the preeminent authority, and thus they in turn exaggerated their status, role and importance. In fact, during the census when varna categories were used problems were faced because of the hierarchy - brahman, kshatriya, vaisya, shudra - adopted, as in large areas the highest and most important classes weren't the brahmans. A lot of the castes didn't fit in anywhere and were therefore just dumped under the shudra category. And kshatriyas were hardly an existent class in large areas of the subcontinent. Quite interestingly, Dirks' also at some point early on mentions the British - Christian - antipathy towards Muslims and I can see how that played into the narrative as well. Then there's also the designation of criminal tribes! It's all rather mind boggling and amazing.

sb: the link isn't working :( - could you please relink? Or post? I haven't read the either so am quite interested now. Also, I truly adore Ghosh and how he brings in these interesting little facts and stories into his work. I think In an Antique Land is just one of my all time favourite books. (It gives me motivation for actually doing something interesting as a graduate student at Oxford!)

Space Bar said...

ok. maybe i'll type out the relevant portion of that correspondence. (It's actually supposed to be on ghosh's site but it's disappeared).

Qalandar said...

Glad you like the book so much, I too find it permanently useful...

Lucas: Thanks for the Gopnic recommendation, will check it out. Also enthusiastically recommend (if you haven't read it already) John English' 2-volume biography of Trudeau, "Citizen of the World" (I've read Volume 1, and it is superb; Vol. 2 is due in November)...

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