Sunday, August 30, 2015



In February 1946, there was a mutiny at the STC, Jubbulpore. It was by no means the first such incident in the Indian Army. Starting with the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, Indian troops had often rebelled against British authority. Even during World War II, there were several revolts and mutinies, the most well-known being the Suez Canal Army Revolt (1943); the Ambala Cantt. Army Revolt (1943); the Jhansi Regiment Case (1940) and the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny (1946), the last one having occurred less than two weeks prior to the Jubbulpore mutiny. Then there were the troops who joined the Indian National Army (INA) after being captured by the Japanese or deserting their units. These were classified as Japanese Inspired Forces (JIF) by the British authorities.

At that time, there were two major establishments of the ISC at Jubbulpore. The first was the Signal Training Centre (STC) comprising No. 1 Signal Training Battalion (Military) and 2 & 3 Signal Battalions (Technical). The second was the Indian Signal Depot & Records, which comprised the Indian Signals Depot; the Indian Signals Demobilisation Centre; and the Indian Signals Records. The Commandant of the STC was Colonel L.C. Boyd, while Colonel R.T.H. Gelston, commanded the Depot & Records. Both these establishments came under the Jubbulpore Area, commanded by Brigadier Hutchins, which in turn came under the GOC Nagpur District, Major General Skinner, with his headquarters at Nagpur. HQ Central Command was then located at Agra.

            The mutiny started at 0920 hours on 27 February 1946. (The personnel involved referred to their action as a strike). About 200 men, mainly workshop trainees from G Company of 2 Signal Training Battalion formed up in the lines of the unit, just before the second works parade was due to fall in. Shouting slogans, they marched through the unit to the lines of 3 Signal Training Battalion, brushing past the Company Commander and Subedar Major who tried to stop them near the Quarter Guard. Marching through the Depot, they proceeded towards the city shouting ‘Jai Hind’(glory to India) and ‘Inquilab Zindabad’(long live freedom), and waving flags of the Congress party and the Muslim League. The CO of the Depot Battalion, Lieutetant Colonel  Anderson and a party of 15 armed NCOs tried to stop them near the Nerbudda Club and even threatened to shoot, but this did not deter them from continuing their march. Having reached Tilak Bhumi, Tillaya in the city, they stopped and held a meeting, where speeches were made by some of the men, accompanied by slogans and waving of flags.

            The news of the incident spread quickly. There was considerable tension in the city and shopkeepers closed their shops. However, the meeting was peaceful and there was no violence or unruly behaviour by the men. At about 1615 hours they started back for the unit. By this time the military authorities had mobilised two companies of 27/9 Jats to assist the STC in containing the uprising. Having reached the unit, the protesters sat down in the Battalion Arena. The Commandant, Colonel L.C. Boyd arrived, and the names of all the men were taken down. Soon afterwards, the Area Commander arrived and addressed the men. He told them that they were all under arrest, but assured them that he would forward their grievances to higher authorities. They fell in and were marched to the STC Cage where the Commandant noted down their grievances. These were discrimination in pay between Indian and British other ranks; poor quality of rations; slow speed of demobilisation; protest against the firing in Bombay, Karachi and Calcutta; protest against the expenditure on Victory celebrations in view of the food crisis; and the release of all INA prisoners including Captains Burhanuddin and Abdul Rashid.  They indicated that they were ready to go back to work if their demands were met. After taking down their grievances the Commandant spoke to the men and left. The men remained in the Cage during the night, and were given food and bedding.

            By early next morning, a British battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry had arrived in Jubbulpore. A party of about 80 men from 2 Signal Training Battalion assembled in the unit at 0700 hours and began moving along the same route that had been taken by their colleagues on the previous day. They were intercepted by a platoon of the British battalion and brought back to the unit. About 200 clerks of the Records also collected at one place. They were joined by about a hundred men from 3 Signal Training Battalion, who sat down and refused to go to work, demanding the release of their colleagues who were still inside the Cage. The District Commander, Major General  Skinner arrived on the scene, and it was decided to arrest the ring leaders only. The Second-in-Command of the 27/9 Jats and Lieutenant Colonel  Poonose entered the Cage and tried to induce the ring leaders to give themselves up. However, the rest of the men did not allow this and became restless. Finally it was decided to carry out the arrests by force.

            About 80 soldiers of the Somerset Light Infantry entered the Cage, with bayonets fixed on their rifles. A few of the men were physically removed, amidst a lot of shouting. Faced with the bayonets of the British troops, the crowd retreated to one corner of the cage, which gave way under the weight of sheer numbers. A large number managed to escape through the gap, while the remainder were involved a scuffle with the British troops. Many were injured by bayonets and some were trampled in the stampede. Most of those who escaped were caught and brought back, to be kept in custody in the Jat lines.

            The news of the bayonet charge spread like wild fire in the STC and at many places the men came out and demonstrated against this, resulting in some more arrests. In the early hours of 1 March, about 150 ORs from 3 Signal Training Battalion left their lines and marched through Sadar Bazar, shouting slogans and waving flags, but returned to the unit within an hour. The previous day’s incidents had been reported in several newspapers and there was considerable resentment at the bayonet charge on the Indian soldiers. According to the newspapers, three men had been killed, while 70 were injured in the bayonet charge. The District Magistrate declared Jubbulpore Cantonment a restricted area, and the entry of civilians was banned. During the next two days, the situation improved, but was still far from normal. The men in the Cage refused to come out until their leaders were released. On 3 March, troops of 17 Indian Infantry Brigade placed a cordon around the STC lines. The Area Commander and Commandant spoke to the men and asked them to return to work. Most of them agreed, and normal parades were held in the units. During the next two days several men returned and joined duty. By 7 March 1946 the situation had become normal and there were no untoward incidents.

Seth Govind Das of the Congress Party raised the matter in the Central Assembly in Delhi. In his reply on 15 March 1946, the War Secretary, Mr. P. Mason gave the official version of the case. According to him, 1,716 persons were involved in the mutiny. He accepted that thirty-five persons had been wounded of whom eight had bayonet wounds. However, he denied that there was any firing or bayonet charge. According to him, some persons had sustained bayonet wounds when they attempted to overpower the troops that had been called in to arrest the ringleaders. Only two persons were seriously injured and there were no deaths. Mr. Ahmad Jaffar of the Muslim League suggested that a couple of members of the Defence Consultative Committee should be associated with the Inquiry, but this was rejected by the War Secretary, who contended that this was a service matter and it would be quite illegal to associate non-officials.
The mutiny shocked the military establishment, especially the British officers who had always believed that the Indian soldiers would never rebel. The reasons for the disaffection were quickly analysed and remedial measures taken. The District Commander issued instructions to all concerned to improve the standard of food and accommodation. Lieutenant Colonel Santos Cassani of the Welfare General Branch at GHQ visited the Centre. His report brought to light the pathetic conditions under which the Indian troops lived. Officers, VCOs and NCOs who had been posted at the STC for more than two years were immediately posted out, after it was found that some of them had been there for 8-10 years. The SO-in-C, Major General C.H.M. Vulliamy directed that more Indian officers should be posted to the Centre, so that they could understand the problems of Indian troops. In  April 1946 Lieutenant Colonel  T.K. Mukerjee and Major Bhat were posted in as CO and Second-in-Command of 2 Signal Training Battalion. Soon afterwards, Captain K.K. Tewari was posted to the STC as the Adjutant and Major Tery Barreto as OC ‘G’ Company, which had led the mutiny.

Disciplinary action taken against those who participated in the mutiny was severe and swift. 41 persons were tried Summary General Court Martial, of which 18 were sentenced to dismissal and imprisonment ranging from one to three years, and 20 were dismissed. The three who were acquitted were later discharged. In addition 41 men were discharged without any enquiry or investigation, on the grounds ‘services no longer required’. Many more were sent home merely on suspicion and the statements of JCOs and NCOs who were considered loyal by British officers. Most of these men had put in long years of service and fought in World War II. They did not get any pension or gratuity and many lived and died in penury and their pleas for redress fell on deaf years. The letters in old files bring out the pathetic state of these unfortunate soldiers, who remained true to their salt and helped the British win the Second World War. Having implicit faith in the British sense of fair play and justice, they were surprised and disappointed at the treatment they received at the hands of the Government of the day.

The Naval mutiny at Bombay had resulted in bad publicity for the Government, since it had to be suppressed by the use of force. The STC mutiny at Jubbulpore started a few days later, and once again force had to be used to quell it. The Indian Navy then was a miniscule force, and the Army could easily handle disaffection in its ranks. But what if the Army itself was alienated? The prospect was too fearsome to even imagine and caused consternation and panic in Delhi and London. The STC mutiny played a part not only in the British decision to grant Independence but also the pronouncement advancing the date from June 1948 to August 1947, a fact that has been documented and commented by several authors and historians.

Major General Shahid Hamid, who was then private secretary to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, the C-in-C in India made an entry in his diary dated on 30 March 1946. He wrote:-

Today the Hindustan Times commented editorially on the Auk’s appeal to the Indian Army. “There is no doubt whatever that if the transfer of power is not quickly brought about, the foreign rulers of India cannot count upon the loyalty of the Indian Army…”6
There were similarities between the RIN Mutiny and the STC Mutiny. The grounds for both were similar - bad food, unhygienic living conditions, discrimination between British and Indian troops, ill treatment by British officers, delay in demobilisation and resentment against the INA trials.  Both mutinies were started by signallers, the one at Jubbulpore by personnel of the Signal Corps and the one at Bombay by personnel of H.M.I.S. ‘Talwar’, a shore establishment that trained wireless operators. Though they started on different dates, both mutinies finished on the same date i.e. 3 March 1946. However, where the two mutinies differed was in scale and the use of violence. The Jubbulpore mutiny was localized in a few units of the STC, and did not spread to other Army units located nearby. In Bombay, the mutiny embraced almost the entire naval fleet and spread to Karachi, Calcutta and several other naval stations. The mutineers in Bombay used the ships’ wireless system to spread the word to 70 ships and 20 seashore establishments. They also secured the telephone exchange, the cable network and the transmitter at Kirkee, which was used for communication between India and UK. The Jubbulpore mutiny was characterized by non-violence. It was a passive demonstration by soldiers who only wanted their grievances to be heard. The ratings at Bombay resorted to widespread looting and damaged government property, the first target being the duty free canteen, which was ransacked of all imported goods, especially vast quantities of scotch whisky. They also removed weapons from the armoury and opened fire, which had to be silenced by use of howitzers and mortars, resulting in several deaths. Several cars in the city were set on fire, and police officers were burnt alive. 7  

Saturday, August 8, 2015




             India was pitched into World War II on 3 September 1939 by a proclamation by the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who consulted neither the Central Legislature nor the major political parties. Mahatma Gandhi openly expressed his sympathy for Britain, but the Congress made its support conditional to a promise that India would be granted dominion status, if not complete independence, after the war ended. Finding such an assurance not forthcoming, the Congress decided to resign from the ministries in all provinces. The Muslims were divided on the issue; while the Muslim League warned the British Government that they would support them only if they were given justice and fair play, the Muslim Premiers of Bengal, Punjab and Sind pledged the unconditional support of their provinces. Soon afterwards, Jinnah made the demand for a separate state for the Muslims – Pakistan. This was opposed not only by the Congress but by several prominent Muslims, such as Fazl-ul-Huq and Sir Sikander Hyat Khan. Unfortunately, the Viceroy did not give Jinnah’s demand serious thought, choosing to ignore the demand and leave it for some one else to deal with, after the war. In a letter to Lord Zetland, the Secretary of State for India, he wrote, ‘I am not too keen to start talking about a period after which British rule will have ceased in India. I suspect that the day is very remote and I feel the least we say about it in all probability the better’. Later, the well known historian S. Gopal commented on this passage: ‘There could be no more revealing gloss on all the statements made by British authorities over the years on their determination to leave India.’ 1



            Linlithgow was not the only British statesman who regarded grant of independence to India as premature; if anything, Churchill was an even greater imperialist. After the fall of France in 1940 and of Singapore and Burma in 1941, British fortunes were at a low ebb. With the Japanese invasion of India becoming a real possibility, it became important for Britain to garner support from the Indian public. In January 1942 Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, a prominent liberal leader, telegraphed the British Prime Minister, advising him to treat India on par with other units of the Commonwealth.. General Chiang Kai-Shek, worried that China would be cut off from western aid if India fell, visited India in February to rally Indian opinion against the Japanese, at the end of which he reported to Roosevelt and Churchill that unless the Indian political problem was immediately solved, Japanese attack on India would be ‘virtually unopposed.’ A few weeks before the ‘Lend Lease’ Bill was signed, Roosevelt sent Averell Harriman to London with the message: ‘Get out of India, or you may not get what you need now’. Shortly afterwards, Roosevelt wrote to Churchill that American public opinion just could not understand why India could not be granted independence immediately. 2


            Churchill decided to send Sir Stafford Cripps to India with a draft declaration of policy that was designed to convince the Indian people of Britain’s sincere resolve to grant them independence as soon as the war was over. During the war, the present set up would continue, with Britain retaining control for the direction of the war. The declaration was more than what had been offered earlier, and both the Congress and the Muslim league were inclined to accept it. However, Mahatma Gandhi opposed it, since it provided for the provinces and the rulers of princely states, as distinct from the people of these states, the authority to refuse accession, which could result in vivisection of the country. During discussions, it emerged that the proposed Executive Council that was to consist entirely of Indians, except for the Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief, would have very little say in defence matters. As a result, the declaration was rejected by both the Congress and the Muslim League. Commenting on the episode, Penderel Moon writes:

The mission had failed, as Linlithgow, Churchill and Amery had expected and may well have hoped. Churchill indeed did not attempt to conceal his pleasure at the outcome. In a consoling telegram to Cripps he said that the effect throughout Britain and the United States had been ‘wholly beneficial’. As a public relations exercise designed to appease American and left-wing British opinion, it was certainly a success. A serious attempt to meet Indian political aspirations had been made, and this was really no less important than that it should succeed – indeed its success should be fraught with positive disadvantages. Congress leaders as members of the executive Council were likely to be more of an embarrassment than a help in the prosecution of the war, and endless wranglings between them and the League members were more probable than a gradual drawing together in the execution of a common task.3  

            After the failure of the Cripps Mission, the British made no serious attempt to end the deadlock until the war ended. The intervening years saw many political changes, one of the notable ones being the ‘Quit India’ resolution of 1942, after which almost all Congress leaders were imprisoned and Jinnah gradually emerged as the undisputed leader of the Muslims. There was no apparent change in the British attitude to Indian independence, Linlithgow continuing to hold the view that British rule in India would continue for a long time. ‘For many years to come’, he told L.C.M.S. Amery, the Secretary of State for India, ‘our position in India will be the dominating position’. In the same vein he told William Phillips, an emissary of President Roosevelt, ‘there could be no question of our handing over here for very many years’. 4

            In October 1943 Linlithgow was replaced as Viceroy by Field Marshal Wavell, the post of Commander-in-Chief in India being taken by General Sir Claude Auchinleck, who returned to his old job from the Middle East. Unlike his predecessor, Wavell did not wish to wait for the war to end before finding a solution to the Indian problem. Even before he took up his new appointment, he submitted to London a memorandum recommending the formation of a coalition government in India drawn from all political parties. His proposal was shot down by the archtype imperialist, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After attending a meeting in which his proposal was discussed, Wavell was convinced that the Cabinet was ‘not honest in its expressed desire to make progress in India’. Not surprisingly, Wavell waited for a year before making any fresh political move in India. During this period, his proposals for appointment of Indians in important positions or upgrading their status were vetoed by London. In September 1944 he sent to The Secretary of State a proposal for a transitional government working within the existing constitution but representative of all political parties. Wavell offered to come to London personally to explain his proposals.

            After procrastinating for six months, the Government asked Wavell to come to London, only after a veiled threat to resign if there was any further delay.  The next two months were spent in futile discussions with various members of the Cabinet. Churchill’s obduracy prevented any worthwhile result until the end of the war in Europe, after which the Coalition was dissolved and a caretaker Conservative Government took office. Churchill suddenly dropped his objections; he subsequently revealed that he had been assured that the move was bound to fail. After he returned to India Wavell invited Gandhi, Jinnah and 20 other political leaders for a conference at Simla, where he placed his proposals before them. Churchill had been right; the conference failed, thanks to Jinnah’s intransigence. However, Gandhi, Azad and several others were impressed by Wavell’s sincerity. They felt that he had opened new possibilities of Indo British friendship. 5

            The Second World War came to an end with the capitulation of Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  This coincided with the victory of the Labour party in the general elections in Britain. With Churchill’s removal from the scene, the Indian problem began to receive serious attention. Wavell’s suggestions to hold elections for the central and provincial assemblies, lift the ban on Congress organisations and release political prisoners were approved and he was asked to come to London for consultations. Sir Penderel Moon gives an interesting hypothesis as to the reasons for the change in Britain’s outlook after the war, which explains the central role of the Indian army in bringing about the end of British rule in India. He writes:

Even before the war British rule over India had become an anachronism, and two of the reasons that had then deterred the British from relaxing their grip had now, as result of the war, lost all validity. One of these was the fear that an independent Indian Government  might repudiate all  India’s  foreign debt, most of which was held in England; but by the end of the war this  had all been liquidated and Great Britain had become the debtor, owing India over 1,000 million pounds. The second and less selfish reason was that in the pre-war years there were not nearly enough trained Indian military officers to take over the Indian army and provide for India’s defence; but now there were over 15,000 trained Indian officers, and though only two or three had reached the rank of brigadier there was a sufficient number of them capable of filling the higher posts except in the technical arms, and plenty of regimental officers. 6  

            Towards the end of 1945 Wavell was confronted with a new problem - the trials of three officers of the Indian National Army in the Red Fort at Delhi. During the war people in India and the political parties had virtually ignored the Indian National Army, which had been raised from captured Indian prisoners of war with the help of Japanese. After the surrender fall of Rangoon, Subhas Chandra Bose fled to Bangkok – he died in an air crash shortly afterwards – leaving behind the bulk of the officers and men of the Indian National Army who became prisoners. It was decided to segregate them into three groups – white, grey and black – depending on the extent of their involvement. The majority, who fell in the first two categories, were either reinstated or discharged, but those who were accused of serious atrocities were to be tried by court martial. The initial trials were held in Simla and did not attract much notice. About 20 such men were found guilty and executed at Attock before it was decided to shift the trials to Delhi. 7  

            The decision to carry out the trials in the Red Fort at Delhi was unwise, as Auchinleck was to lament on several occasions. It gave the Congress a heaven-sent opportunity to arouse popular feeling against the British. The Muslim League also expressed their support for the prisoners, and the Viceroy and Commander-in-Chief were in a dilemma. The three officers were found guilty of waging war against the King, and sentenced to be cashiered and transported for life. The sentences caused great resentment and Auchinleck was forced commute the sentences of transportation.  This had a serious impact, since it divided the Indian Army, where there were many who agreed with the decision while others felt that it amounted to condoning treason, considered the most heinous of military crimes.   For the first time in its long history, there were fissures in the Indian Army, which were to have serious consequences in the coming months.

            The year 1946 opened with serious cases of disaffection in all three armed services, which have been described in earlier chapters. In the last week of March the Cabinet Mission, comprising Sir Stafford Cripps, the President of the Board of Trade; Mr. A.V. Alexander, First Lord of the Admiralty; and Lord Pethick Lawrence, the Secretary of State, arrived in Delhi, with the task of reaching an agreement with the principal political parties on two issues: one, the method of framing a constitution for a self-governing, independent India and two, the setting up of a new Executive Council of Interim Government that would hold office while the constitution was being drafted. The Viceroy was fully involved in the deliberation of the Cabinet Mission, but the problem of the disaffection in the armed services caused him not a little anxiety. In a dispatch addressed to King George VI on 22 March 1946, he wrote:

The last three months have been anxious and depressing. They have been marked by continuous and unbridled abuse of the Government, of the British, of officials and police, in political speeches, in practically the whole of the Press, and in the Assembly; by serious rioting in Bombay; by a mutiny in the RIN, much indiscipline in the RIAF; some unrest in the Army; by an unprecedented drought and famine conditions over many parts of India; by threatened strikes on the Railways, and in the Posts and Telegraphs; by a general sense of insecurity and lawlessness. …….

            The most disturbing feature of all is that unrest is beginning to appear in some units of the Indian Army; so far almost entirely in the technical arms. Auchinleck thinks that the great mass of the Indian Army is still sound, and I believe that this is so. It may not take long, however, to shake their steadiness if the Congress and Muslim League determine to use the whole power of propaganda at their command to do so. 8

            On 27 March 1946 Sir J.A. Thorne, the Home Member of the Viceroy’s Council, was asked to prepare a brief  appreciation of what would happen if the Cabinet Mission does not achieve a settlement. One of the important points covered was the staunchness of the Indian Services if called upon to quell civil disturbances. According to Thorne’s appreciation, which he submitted on 5 April, the loyalty of the Services could no longer be taken for granted. In the 1942 disturbances the Services were nearly 100 percent staunch, but this would not be so on a future occasion. If faced with the prospect of firing on mobs, not all units could be relied upon. As regards the behaviour that could be expected of troops generally under these circumstances, there would be a lot of disaffection, and downright mutiny, especially in the RIAF, RIN and Signals units.  Thorne suggested that an appreciation on these aspects be prepared by the War Department. 9

            The Commander-in-Chief directed the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier B.P.T. O’Brien, to assess the present state morale and degree of reliability of the three Indian fighting services, with special reference to the Indian Commissioned Officers, from the point of view of their capacity to under three conditions – in aid of civil power in widespread communal or ant-present-Government disturbances; in operations on the Frontier; and as garrisons over seas.  The Director of Military Intelligence submitted the Note to the Commander-in-Chief on 25 April, who expressed his general agreement with its contents. Extracts from the Note are given below: 10

........We consider that the Indian Services could not remain in being in the face of communal trouble started by, or turned into, a Jehad; neither can we suggest any action which might increase the likelihood of them starting firm under these circumstances. 

     We consider that the very great bulk of Indian Armoured Corps, Gunners, Sappers and Infantry, could be relied on to act in communal trouble not amounting to a Jehad but would advise against bringing other services in the Army, the R.I.N. or the R.I.A.F. into direct contact with rioters. 

….Our views on the reliability of the Indian Services in widespread Congress inspired trouble are

(a)  The Indian Armoured Corps, Gunners, Sappers and Infantry can in the main be depended on provided that their I.C.Os, particularly the senior ones, remain loyal and any waverers among them are dealt with firmly and immediately…
            (b)    The Indian Signal Corps cannot at present be considered reliable….
            (c)    The Ancillary Services of the Army as a whole should not be   relied on to act against rioters…
            (d)       The Royal Indian Navy cannot at present be regarded as reliable….
            (e)        The Royal Indian Air Force must be regarded as doubtful…

….the key to the reliability of the Services, particularly the Army, is the attitude of the I.C.O. …the morale of the I.C.O. can be greatly improved by the example and attitude of British officers…

            Auchinleck forwarded Brigadier O’Brien’s Note to the Viceroy and the Cabinet Mission, giving copies to Army Commanders as well as the Chiefs of the Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Indian Air Force.  As can be imagined, it caused considerable dismay and alarm in all quarters. Meanwhile, the Cabinet Mission requested the Viceroy for an appreciation of the situation that was likely to arise if their proposals fail and for a general policy on India in that event. In a Top Secret Memorandum dated 30 May 1946, Wavell made some interesting observations. The Congress, he felt, was determined to grasp all the power they can as quickly as possible. ‘It is as if a starving prisoner was suddenly offered unlimited quantities of food…his instinct is to seize it all at once … also to eat as much and as  quickly as possible, an action which is bound to have ill effects on his health’. As for Mahatma Gandhi, he was ‘a pure political opportunist, and an extremely skilful one, whose guiding principle is to get rid of the hated British influence out of India as soon as possible’. Wavell warned that if the Congress and Muslim League failed to come to terms, serious communal riots may break out, with very little warning, especially in the Punjab and the ‘Mutiny Provinces’ of UP and Bihar. Prompt action would be required to deal with the trouble, with very little time for consultations with London.  He suggested that their actions should be based on certain definite principles, the first being to give India self-government as quickly as possible without disorder and chaos breaking out. It was important that Britain should avoid a situation in which she had to withdraw from India under circumstance of ignominy after wide spread riots and attacks on Europeans, or adopt a course that could be treated as a policy of ‘scuttle’ or gave the appearance of weakness.  While deciding the short term policy, the long-term strategic interests of Britain should be safeguarded.  In the event of serious trouble, there was a military plan, which provided for holding on to the principal ports – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Karachi – and to Delhi. Subsequently, British troops would be transferred from Southern India to the North. Stressing the need to avoid at all cost being embroiled with both Hindus and Muslims, he suggested a ‘worst case’ solution – to hand over the Hindu Provinces to the Congress and withdraw to the Muslim Provinces the North-West and North-East. 11
            Three days later, the Cabinet Mission and the Viceroy sent a ‘Most Immediate’ telegram to the Prime Minister, stressing the urgent need for the British Government to announce a clear policy in the event of the negotiations between the Cabinet Mission and the political parties breaking down. They expected the crisis to be reached any time between 5 and 15 June, and the necessity for urgent decision on the line of action that the Viceroy was to adopt. The first point to be decided was whether they should attempt to repress a mass movement sponsored by the Congress and maintain the existing form of government. This was possible only if the Indian Army remained loyal, which was doubtful. It would also cause much bloodshed and achieve nothing, unless it was intended to stay on in India for another 10 to 20 years. At the other extreme was the decision to withdraw from the whole of India as soon as the Congress gave a call for a mass uprising. This would have an adverse impact on British prestige throughout Commonwealth. After considering several options, the Cabinet Mission opined that if negotiations did in fact break down and they were faced with serious internal disorders, the situation would have to be met by adopting one of five courses. These were (1) complete withdrawal from India as soon as possible; (2) withdrawal by a certain date; (3) an appeal to the United Nations Organisation;  (4) maintaining overall control throughout India; and (5) giving independence to Southern and Central India, and maintaining the existing position in North-West and North-East India. 12

            The appreciations of the Viceroy and the Cabinet Mission reached London while the latter were still carrying out their negotiations in Delhi and Simla. They were considered by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which asked the Chiefs of Staff to examine the military implications of the five courses of action listed by the Cabinet Mission, keeping in mind the short-term policy and the long-term strategic interests listed by the Viceroy. The Report of the Chiefs of Staff, which was prepared without consulting General Headquarters India due to the short time available, figure in the Defence Committee Paper D.O. (46) 68 dated 12 June 1946, entitled ‘India – Military Implications of Proposed Courses of Action’.  It is a remarkable document, which reveals the difference in the mind sets of ‘imperialists’ in London and the ‘liberals’ in Delhi. It also casts doubts on the intentions of the British Government, regarding granting independence to India.

            Right at the beginning, the Chiefs of Staff – Alanbrooke, Cunningham and Tedder – spelt out the strategic requirements of Britain in India in any future war. It was emphasised that Britain should have recourse to India’s industrial and manpower potential, and should be able to use her territory for operational and administrative bases, and air staging posts. It was therefore important that India should be secure from external aggression and internal disorder. For defence purposes, it was essential that she should remain a single unit. These were surprising assertions, considering that even at that moment, the Cabinet Mission was in Delhi, discussing with Indian leaders the form of self governance that was to be introduced. It was also inconsistent with the Viceroy’s stated views about giving India self-government as quickly as possible. 

            Before proceeding to examine the military implications of the courses proposed by the Cabinet Mission, the Chiefs of Staff eliminated the first three.  The first and second courses that envisaged a complete withdrawal, with or without a time limit, were ruled out since they did not safeguard Britain’s strategic interests. The third course of appealing to the United Nations had the disadvantage of freezing military action while the case was being debated, and was therefore unacceptable. That left only two courses viz. maintaining control throughout India and a withdrawal in phases, which they proceeded to examine.  The most important factor in retaining hold over the whole country was the ability to maintain law and order, which depended largely on the loyalty of the Indian armed forces. The conclusions on this crucial aspect were in line with those of General Headquarters India. ‘ ….we consider that the reliability of the Indian Army as a whole, including those in garrisons outside India is open to serious doubt. This applies even to Gurkha units….The Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Indian Air Force cannot be regarded as reliable’.

            An important part of the Report deals with the reinforcements required to deal with internal disorders, based on estimates given by the Commander-in-Chief, India. In case the Indian Armed Forces remained loyal, it was estimated that in addition to the existing British forces then in India, reinforcements of three brigade groups and five air transport squadrons would be required. In the event of Indian troops becoming disaffected, the existing British forces and reinforcements mentioned earlier would be employed to hold key areas. To restore the situation in case of widespread disorder, additional reinforcements `required would be between four and five British divisions, for which considerable administrative backing would also be needed. The Indian formations serving overseas would also have to be replaced by British formations. The requirement of reinforcements outside India was visualized as six brigades in Burma and Malaya; two brigades in Hong Kong and Japan; two battalions in the Dodecanese and three battalions in Iraq. The total British reinforcements thus came to five divisions for India; six brigades for Burma and Malaya and three battalions for Iraq.

            The Report examined the availability of reinforcements and implications of providing them. There was at that time one British division in the Middle East; two in Greece; one in Italy and one division and seven brigades in Germany. Apart from the fact that pulling them out from these theatres would have serious security implications, it would need at least four months to move all the troops, equipment and vehicles to India, and that too at the expense of merchant shipping and vessels then engaged in carrying personnel home under demobilisation and repatriation programmes. The implications of maintaining the existing units in India up to their present strength would make it necessary to stop release in the formations concerned. In the interest of equality of treatment, it may become necessary to suspend release throughout the army and the other services. These would have a serious effect on morale as well as political repercussions. .

            The last course proposed by the Cabinet Mission was granting independence to Hindustan and withdrawing to Pakistan, comprising North-Western and North-Eastern India.  This had several political and military implications, the most important being the division of India, which would preclude the establishment of a central authority to deal with defence, and in turn prejudice the future security of India against external attack. The armed forces would have to be reorganized and while India would have a strong army immediately, it would take many years for Pakistan to form an effective army of her own, making her susceptible to raids from the tribes on the North West Frontier.  There would be communal riots in the Punjab due to the large Hindu population in the area under British control in Pakistan. In Hindustan, the Muslims may be ill-treated. In the worst case, there may even be civil war, leading to British troops being involved in fighting with Hindustan and controlling communal strife in parts of Pakistan which have Hindu minorities. The Report concluded that withdrawal into Pakistan would not safeguard British strategic interests, could lead to civil wars and in the event that Congress opposed it, even lead to war. Hence, this option was completely unacceptable on military grounds.

            The Report ended with the conclusions, which stated:

 ….A policy of remaining in India and firmly accepting responsibility for law and order would result, if the Indian Army remained loyal,  in an acceptable military commitment and would safeguard our long term strategic interests….If however, the Indian Armed Forces did not remain loyal… we would be faced with the  necessity of providing  five British divisions for India, with the consequent abandonment of commitments in other areas hitherto regarded as inescapable, serious effects on our import and export programmes and world-wide repercussions on the release scheme. The only alternative to this would be ignominious withdrawal from the hole of India. 13
            The Report by the Chiefs of Staff is an important document that brings to light several important points connected with India’s independence. It clearly brings out the fact that the British Government was seriously considering the option of creating Pakistan in June 1946, not because of the lack of agreement with the political parties – this was still being negotiated by the Cabinet Mission – but due to the threat of disaffection in the Indian armed forces. This option was ruled out only because it did not serve British strategic interests. The disparity in the outlook of British officials in London and Delhi is also clearly visible; for the former, Britain’s long term strategic interest dictated continuation of British rule, while those closer to the scene of action, such as Wavell and Auchinleck, realized that it was time to go. Had the Indian armed forces remained loyal or there had been enough British divisions to keep them in check, the British would never had left India.

            Early in September 1946 the Viceroy forwarded to London a plan for phased withdrawal from India, which was a revised version of the Breakdown Plan of the Cabinet Mission. This had and rejected by the British Government as it did not help British strategic interests. Wavell could see that the situation was steadily deteriorating, and unless a clear policy was announced, India could slide into anarchy. After consulting the Governors and the Commander-in-Chief, he estimated that the British could hold on for not more than 18 months. The Secretary of State, Lord Pethick-Lawrence, did not agree with Wavell’s appreciation. He felt that it was still possible to hold on to India, and proposed further European recruitment to augment British troops in India. By this time, serious communal riots had broken out in East Bengal and in the Punjab, resulting in sizeable casualties among Hindus as well as Muslims. A new Interim Government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru had been installed at Delhi, with Sardar Baldev Singh as the defence member. In a letter dated 12 September to Auchineleck, who had recently been appointed a Field Marshal, Nehru discussed the withdrawal of British forces from India; pulling out Indian troops from the Netherlands East Indies and Iraq;  and the future of the Indian Army. In a broadcast to the Armed Forces on 9 October Baldev Singh announced the setting up of a committee to accelerate the pace of nationalization.  In view of these developments, Pethick-Lawrence’s proposal to raise additional European troops for India appeared surreal.  

            Refusing to take no for an answer, Wavell sent a strongly worded note to the Secretary of State on 23 October, in which he reiterated his demand for a firm declaration of the policy of the British Government. His plan, he wrote, was based on two main assumptions: (1) the object was to transfer power to India without undue delay and with the minimum of disorder and bloodshed; to secure the interests of the Minorities and to provide for the safety of the 90,000 Europeans in India; (2) the power of the British Government in India was weakening daily, and could not be sustained beyond 18 months.  Using exceptionally strong language, Wavell made it clear that as the man on the spot, it was his responsibility to advise the Government of the action to be taken to achieve these objects. ‘If the H.M.G. consider that my advice shows lack of balance and judgment, or that I have lost my nerve, it is of course their duty to inform me of this and to replace me’, he wrote. ‘But they take a very grave responsibility upon themselves if they simply neglect my advice’. Wavell ended by emphasizing that they ‘must have an emergency plan in readiness; and if it is agreed that we cannot hope to control events for longer than 18 months from now, we shall have to make up our minds and make a definite pronouncement at least in the first  half of 1947. While I agree that we should not leave India till we have exhausted every possible means of securing a constitutional settlement, we can make no contribution to a settlement once we have lost all power of control’. 14

            In December 1946 the British Government invited Nehru, Baldev Singh, Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan to London for discussions, along with the Viceroy. During his visit, Wavell again pressed for adoption of the Breakdown Plan, urging the Government to announce that they would withdraw all control from India by March 1948. Some Cabinet Ministers such as Bevin and Alexander, who were imperialists at heart, balked at the prospect of a stark announcement of the ending of the British Raj. Prime Minister Attlee also felt strongly that the British should not relinquish control until at least a constitutional settlement had been reached. Since the chances of reaching an amicable settlement appeared dismal, Attlee’s views seemed illusory. After a series of meetings the India and Burma Committee decided to recommend that 31 March 1948 should be announced as the date by which the British would hand over power in India. Wavell pressed for a firm announcement in this regard by the British Government. Attlee replied to Wavell on 21 December 1946, giving the impression that his proposal had been by and large accepted. Three days earlier, Attlee had offered Mountbatten the post of Viceroy in replacement of Wavell. 15

            Moutnbatten reached India on 22 March 1947. Before he left London, he had been told that India would be granted independence by June 1948, i.e.  after 15 months; this was exactly what Wavell had been demanding for the last two years. On 23 May 1947 the British Cabinet approved, in principle, a draft Partition Plan, which was to be implemented in case of a failure to secure a final compromise. After consulting Indian political leaders, Mountbatten announced on 3 June 1947 that India would become independent on 15 August 1947. A few days later Mountbatten received the draft Indian Independence Bill, and was surprised to find that the British Government intended to retain the Andaman Islands, which were not be regarded as a part of British India. It transpired that Britain was planning to make the Andamans a British Settlement. The recommendation to retain the islands had come from the British Chiefs of Staff, due to their strategic location in the Bay of Bengal, covering the sea routes to the East. Mountbatten strongly opposed the plan, informing London that any attempt ‘to claim the Andaman Islands as colonies, to be treated in the same way as Aden, will cause an absolute flare-up throughout the length and breadth of India.’ In view of Mountbatten’s strong opposition, the British Government decided to drop the proposal. 16

            The crucial role of the Indian Armed Forces, especially the Indian Army, in the British decision to quit India has been commented on by several writers and historians. Captain Shahid Hamid, who was the Private Secretary to General Auchinleck, made the following entry in his diary on 30 March 1946: ‘Today the Hindustan Times commented editorially on the Auk’s appeal to the Indian Army. “There is no doubt whatever that if the transfer of power is not quickly brought about, the foreign rulers of India cannot count upon the loyalty of the Indian Army…”17

            The well known historian, Dr. Tara Chand, has written: ‘The most controversial measure of the Viceroy was the decision to advance the date of transfer of power from June 1948 to August 15, 1947. On this issue Mountbatten recorded his reasons in his conclusions appended to the Report on the Last Viceroyalty submitted to His Majesty’s Government in September 1948. His defence for expediting the transference of power to the Indians was on these lines… “Secondly, the ultimate sanction of law and order, namely, the Army, presented difficulties for use as an instrument of government for maintenance of peace…’18

            Mangat Rai, a colleague of Penderel Moon in the Indian Civil Service  before Independence, wrote an appreciation of the latter’s book The British Conquest and Dominion of India. Commenting on the role of the Indian Army he writes:

How far were the competence and size of the Indian army factors in persuading the British to contemplate withdrawal from India, and in the final decision? In general Moon has consistent praise both for the sepoy regiments of the Company and for the Indian army’s contribution in two world wars. He notes that at the end of the Second World War the army comprised two and a half million, in place of the 190,000 at the start. The army’s record was brilliant marred only by the defection of comparatively small numbers to the Japanese –promoted INA. With an army of Indians of this calibre and size, would it have been practical to continue to govern India under British control? 19

            Charles Raikes, a British Civil servant of the Mutiny days, had bluntly asserted that the British ‘should legislate and govern India as the superior race’, adding with some prescience, ‘whenever that superiority ceases, our right to remain in India terminates also’. This was in line with the view held by most Britons, who felt that British rule was a blessing for India. By the time World War II ended, the USA had assumed the mantle of the leader of the developed World, and her democratic principles of equality began to be embraced by other nations in the West. From the mutiny onwards, Indians had steadily acquired knowledge and skills that they had previously lacked, closing the gap between them and the British. According to Sir Penderel Moon, ‘One noteworthy, but not often mentioned, example of change was the ending of the superiority of British to Indian troops, which had been a factor in the Company’s original conquest of India. By 1943 Indian Divisions, in the opinion of Field Marshal Sir William Slim, were among the best in the world and divisional commanders on the Burma front called for Indian rather than British battalions. Thus Charles Raikes, if he had still been alive, would probably have felt obliged to admit that on his own premises the time had come for British withdrawal’. 20

            It is interesting to reflect on the course of history if the Indian soldier had not been affected by nationalistic feelings and continued to serve loyally as he had during and before World War II. Though the freedom movement had developed considerable momentum by the time the war ended, the assumption that it would have achieved independence on its own would be erroneous. With the vast resources at their disposal, it would not have been difficult for the British authorities in India to muzzle the movement, as they had done in 1930 and 1942. The only reason for them not being able to resort to such measures after 1945 was the uncertain dependability of the Army. Had the Indian soldier remained staunch, or adequate British forces been available, it is most unlikely that freedom would have come in 1947. If nothing else, it would have been delayed by 10-15 years. If this had happened, perhaps India would not have been partitioned, the Kashmir problem would not have existed, and the Indo-Pak wars of 1948, 1965 and 1972 would not have been fought. Who knows, with its large size, population and a long spell of peace unfettered by the threat of war, India would have been a World power, equalling or even surpassing China by the turn of the century.

This chapter is largely based on Sir Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth, 1989); and Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon’s The Transfer of Power 1942-47 (London, 1982). Specific references are given below:-

1.         Sir Penderel Moon, The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth,    1989). P. 1092, quoting S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru (1975-79), vol. 1, p. 263

2.         Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p. 345,
3.         Moon, p. 1109
4.         Moon, p. 1122
5.         Moon, p. 1136-8
6.         Moon, p. 1140
7.         Maj Gen D.K. Palit, Major General A.A Rudra – His Service in Three         Armies and      Two World wars, (New Delhi, 1997), p. 277


8.         Nicholas Mansergh and Penderel Moon, (ed.) The Transfer of Power 1942-47(12 vols,      London) vi, pp. 1233-37.

9.         Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, p.150. 

10.       Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 406-7. 

11        Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 731-7. 

12        Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 787-95. 

13.       Mansergh and Moon , The Transfer of Power, vii, pp. 889-900. 

14.       Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, viii, pp.794-9

15.       Moon, pp. 1164-5

16.       Mansergh and Moon, The Transfer of Power, xi, 306

17.       Major General Shahid Hamid, Disastrous Twilight, (London, 1986), p.47

18.       Dr Tara Chand, History of the Freedom Movement in India,  

19.       Moon, pp. 1195

20.       Moon, pp. 1187




            The British arrived in India as traders in the middle of the Seventeenth Century and it was only a hundred years later that they began to recruit Indians as soldiers, leading to the birth of the Indian Army. In fact, the French had begun recruiting Indians to supplement their forces in southern India even earlier. Due to prolonged hostilities between Britain and France, neither nation could spare adequate troops from the homeland and had perforce to depend on local levies to protect their possessions in India from predatory attacks from each other. With time, Indian soldiers began to be used in conflicts with Indian rulers, and the consequent expansion of the territory under the control of the East India Company. In 1757 Robert Clive defeated Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey with the help of Indian soldiers who had been trained and equipped in the European fashion. Shortly afterwards, the Mughal Emperor conferred on the East India Company the diwani (authority to collect revenue) of Bengal Bihar and Orissa. With this, the Company’s main occupation changed from trading to governance. This also conferred on the Company’s rule over the provinces a measure of legality.1

            For almost 200 years after Plassey, Indian soldiers helped the British in establishing their dominion over India and fighting their wars across the borders and high seas. The majority of the men who volunteered to serve under British officers did so for pay, perquisites and status. Most of these men came from families with a tradition of soldiering, whose forefathers had served in the armies of their native chieftains even before the arrival of the British. Almost the whole of the Bengal Army before 1857 comprised of Brahmins and Rajputs from Oudh, known colloquially as Purbias (men from the East). Many Purbias also served in the Scindia’s army that fought British forces under Arthur Wellesley in 1803 at Assaye and at Laswari, after the battle of Delhi. In these engagements, the Purbias fought with distinction from both sides, just as they would have under the flags of local chieftans. At that time and even later, Indian soldiers readily joined any army where the pay was good and their religion and caste were respected. Soldiers from foreign lands also found military service in India attractive, and often proved more trustworthy than natives. The Afghan bodyguard of Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi remained with her till the end in 1858, displaying commendable courage and gallantry.

            Though large parts of the sub-continent had been unified under the Mughals, the concept of nationalism as understood today did not exist. The army of Aurnagzeb, the last of the Great Mughals, comprised 300,000 cavalry and 600,000 foot soldiers. However, very of these were imperial troops. Each of the 15 or 16 rajas (chieftains) who fought under his flag brought along 25,000 horsemen or foot soldiers or a combination of the two. These soldiers owed allegiance not to the Mughal Emperor but to their own raja, who paid their salaries. Soldiers from princely states such as Jodhpur or Jaipur, though fighting under the Mughal flag, had no feeling of nationalism or patriotism, such as what they displayed when their own lands or kingdoms were threatened. The stories of the gallantry displayed by Rajput soldiers during the three attacks on Chittor are the stuff of legend. Knowing that they would not survive, the men rode out to die at the hands of the enemy after their women had committed jauhar (collective self immolation). The readiness of these soldiers to die for their land and their king was a manifestation of their loyalty and devotion, akin to what is known today as nationalism. 

After the decline of the Mughal Empire, the next unification occurred almost a hundred years later, when British control extended to almost the whole of India. With the gradual reduction or disappearance of the armies of native princes, it was only under the British that Indians had the opportunity for military service. The soldier in the Company’s Army was not fired by patriotism of the kind felt when fought for his liege lord. Nevertheless, he served loyally because he had to be true to his salt. In return for providing him with a means of livelihood, the Company was entitled to his allegiance. By and large, the Indian soldier did not betray the trust of his British masters. But when his religion or caste was under threat, he had no compunction in turning against his officers. On their part, the British took pains to permit the native soldier the greatest latitude in observing his customs and prejudices. On the rare occasions when they failed to do so, the result was catastrophic, as happened in 1857.
            The status of the Indian soldier during the British Raj has been the subject of debate among historians and political leaders. There are many who feel that Indians who served in the army under British rule were mercenaries. This was the reason cited by many soldiers for joining the Indian National Army after their capture by the Japanese during World War II. As already mentioned, during the period of British rule the Indian soldier readily joined any army where the pay was good and his religions and caste not under threat. This applied to soldiers serving under the British as well as Indian princes. The example of Purbias in the Scindia’s army has already been cited. It is interesting to recall that the primary reason that impelled most British soldiers to serve in India was the attraction of prize money, which was shared among all ranks after a victory. The British system of prize money was an euphemism for institutionalized robbery and plunder of the wealth of the vanquished by the victor. As mentioned in an earlier chapter, after the re-capture of Delhi by British forces in 1858, the booty collected by the prize agents was worth a million and a quarter sterling. If anything, the British soldier serving in India was more of a mercenary that his native colleague.

            After the grant of the diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa  in 1765, the status of the East India Company became that of a vassal of the Mughal Emperor. The right to collect revenue automatically conferred the responsibility for administration, including maintenance of law and order, for which the requirement of an army was indisputable.  Legally, the British were no longer foreign intruders but local chieftains, acting on behalf of the Mughal Court. Viewed from this angle, the Company’s Army was similar to those maintained by other native rulers. Naturally, soldiers who opted to serve in such an army could not be termed as mercenaries. In fact, in 1922 a British historian, F.W. Buckler, presented a paper on the Mutiny of 1857 at the Royal Historical Society, in which he expressed the legal view that it was the Company, as the ‘dewan’ of the Mughal Emperor, that had mutinied against the Emperor Bahadur Shah. 2

            After 1857, the responsibility for governing India was taken over by the British Government. With this, the status of the British in India also changed. India was now a colony, a part of the mighty British Empire and the ‘brightest jewel in the Crown’ of the British monarch. Even in during this period, it is doubtful if Indian soldiers serving under the British can be called mercenaries. By definition, a mercenary soldier fights for money or reward for a country other than his own. Though Indian soldiers served under British officers, it is a debatable point if they were fighting for a country other than their own. While  the Indian mutiny in 1857 was to a considerable extent inspired by the desire to free of British rule, the concept of nationalism among the general public took root only after the birth of the Congress at the turn of the century and flowered only after the Civil Disobedience movement in 1930 and the Quit India movement in 1942.

            Britain depended on the Indian Army to maintain her control over India. As a result, Indian troops were frequently employed to control disturbances inspired by the freedom struggle. This sometimes brought them into conflict with their compatriots, who questioned their lack of patriotism and branded them as mercenaries. However, it is pertinent to record that from the time the British government assumed the responsibility for governing India, the primary role of the Indian Army was the defence of India against invasion from the north-west, with Russia or Afghanistan being the most likely adversaries. After World War I the size of the Indian Army had to be drastically reduced due to financial constraints and a reduction in the external threat. In 1921 the Central Legislative Assembly discussed the role of the Indian Army and determined that it should not be used for imperial campaigns outside India. But it was na├»ve to expect that if the need arose, Britain would hesitate to call upon the resources of the largest and richest colony of the Empire. In 1933 the War Office spelt out the role of the Indian Army in the following words:

 The duties of the army in India include the preservation of internal security in India, the covering of the lines of internal communication, and the protection of India against external attack. Though the scale of forces is not calculated to meet external attack by a great Power, their duties might well comprise the initial resistance to such an attack pending the arrival of imperial reinforcements. 3

The role of the Indian Army was thus enhanced from being purely for the defence of India to include a supplementary role of acting as an Imperial Reserve. The British Government agreed to grant an annual subsidy of 1.5 million pounds to the Government of India for this purpose. By 1938 the threat of war had become clear and the Government of India requested London to reconsider both the military and financial aspects of her defence problems, and conclude a fresh contract between Britain and India in which the latter’s financial limitations were recognized. The Imperial Defence Committee constituted a sub committee under Major General Henry Pownall to report on the defence problems of India. The Pownall committee reported that the changed strategic situation and development of modern armaments, particularly air forces, warranted a more important role for India in defence of vital areas on the Imperial lines of communication in the Middle and Far East. It recommended the unconditional allocation of one Indian division as a strategic reserve for use of the Imperial Government wherever required. Based on this, the Imperial defence Council issued the 1938 Plan (Document No B-43746) which envisaged six tasks for the defence forces of India viz. defence of the Western Frontier against external aggression; defence of land frontiers other than the Western Frontier; maintenance of law and order and the suppression of  disorder and rebellion; safeguarding strategic lines of  communication within India; provision of a general reserve with mobile components; and provision of  forces for possible employment overseas at the request of the Government in  UK.

            It is pertinent to note that the primary responsibility of the Indian Army – defence of India – never changed. The employment of Indian troops overseas was covered by a formal contract between the governments of UK and India. Troops are often sent overseas in accordance with treaties, contracts or agreements between two countries. Sometimes, such help is extended even without the existence of formal treaties. Troops from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India fought for Britain in World War II in accordance with agreements and contracts between these nations. To counter the threat of the Axis powers, nations such as UK, France, Russia, China and USA made temporary alliances and fought as allies. Even after Independence, India has continued to assist other nations who have asked for military assistance in controlling internal problems. Examples are the dispatch of Indian troops to Maldives and Sri Lanka in the eighties. In recent years, troops from several nations have participated in the operations in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. These troops cannot be termed mercenaries, since they fought in foreign lands not of their own volition but at the behest of their respective countries. The Indian soldiers who were sent abroad during the British Raj  did not volunteer for foreign service in an individual capacity; they were sent for assignments abroad by their by their employers viz. the Government of India. 

Apart from the Indian soldiers in the regular army, troops from the forces maintained by Indian princely states also formed part of the contingents sent for Imperial service during both World Wars. According to the Imperial Service Troops Scheme of 1888, specific units were earmarked for Imperial purposes and organized to Indian Army establishments. In 1914 the strength of the Imperial Service troops was 22,613. Ultimately, 20 mounted regiments and 13 battalions were offered for service during World War I. During World War II, the assistance provided by Indian princely states was significantly higher. In 1945, there were 41,463 soldiers from Indian State Forces in Indian Government service out of a total of 99,367, which was more than 40 percent of their strength. 4

The assistance provided by India to Britain during World War II was not gratis. The Modernisation Committee under Major General Claude Auchinleck set up in 1938 was followed by the Expert Committee on Defence of India under Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Alfred Chatfield in 1939. When the Second World War started, various measures recommended by these committees had just been taken in hand. To meet the cost of modernisation and increase India’s output of explosives and ammunition, the British Government made a grant of 25 million pounds and a loan of 9 million pounds. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, an agreement was signed between London and New Delhi on the sharing of cost of Indian forces utilized for imperial defence. According to the Defence Expenditure Agreement of November 1939 India was committed to contributing to the total expenditure a sum equivalent to her normal peacetime expenditure on defence plus the cost of operations undertaken in defence of purely Indian interests and a share of the measures undertaken jointly in the interests of Indian and Imperial Defence.  Everything over and above this would be met by Britain. By the time the war ended, Britain’s debt to India was more than 1,000 million pounds. 5

            Indian soldiers played an important role in Britain’s victory over her adversaries in World War I and II, during which they fought valiantly in theatres around the globe, suffering substantial casualties and earning many gallantry awards. At the same time, the struggle for independence from British rule continued unabated, spearheaded by the Indian National Congress. It is interesting to note the attitude of the political leaders to military service under the British.  During World War I, when the Viceroy appealed to Indians to come forward and enlist, his call was supported by the political leaders of the day, including Gandhi and Tilak. Following the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930 and the Quit India movement in 1942, many Indian officers with nationalistic feelings had misgivings about military service under British rule.  Nonetheless, they continued to serve for many reasons. The primary role of the Indian Army was to defend India, and service in the Army could not be termed as anti-national. Secondly, the political leaders who were then heading the freedom struggle had decided to support Britain during the War, after being assured that India would be given dominion status once it was over. Many soldiers were affected by the freedom struggle, and contemplated leaving the service to join it. However, they were invariably dissuaded by the far-sighted political leaders of the day.

            In a speech at Poona in 1916, Bal Gangadhar Tilak said:  ‘If you want Home Rule be prepared to defend your home. Had it not been for my age I would have been the first to volunteer. You cannot reasonably say that the ruling will be done by you and the fighting for you – by Europeans or Japanese, in the matter of Home Defence. Show … that you are willing to take advantage of the opportunity offered to you by the Viceroy to enlist in an Indian Citizen’s Army. When you do that, your claim for having the commissioned ranks opened to you will acquire double weight’. 6

               Second Lieutenant (later Major General) A.A. Rudra passed out from the Temporary School for Indian Cadets, also known as the Daly Cadet College, Indore on 1 December 1919, along with 38 others officers, including K.M. Cariappa, who was to become the first Indian Commander-in-Chief. Before joining the Daly Cadet College in 1918, Rudra had fought at Ypres and Somme in World War I as a member of the Universities and Public Schools Brigade. En route to join his battalion - the 28th Punjabis, then stationed near Jerusalem in Palestine – Rudra spent a month’s leave with his father, Prof. S.K. Rudra, who was then Principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. At that time Mahatma Gandhi was staying as a house guest.  In fact, after returning from South Africa, Gandhi stayed in Prof. Rudra’s house for nine years, from 1915 to 1923, before moving to the Bhangi Colony. During his leave, while bicycling through Chandni Chowk, the young Rudra was horrified when he saw British troops using force to suppress the violent protests after the Jallianwala Bagh incident. He decided to resign his commission and sought Gandhi’s advice.

                That evening Rudra sought out the Mahatma, who shared his father’s study. Unburdening his doubts and dismays, Rudra asked Gandhi for his advice – whether he should or should not hold a commission in the British-Indian Army. Without giving a direct answer, Gandhi told Rudra that he was a grown up, mature man, not a child; he had fought for three years in the Great War and faced dangers and difficulties. It was for him to make up his own mind and act accordingly. Rudra replied that he had been away from India for six years and was unaware of the political changes that had taken place during his absence.  He wanted to know what would happen if there was a fight for independence, and he found himself on the wrong side.  Gandhi said: ‘How can we ever hope to rid ourselves of the British by force of arms? We are a poor, uneducated, unarmed people – we can never fight the British. But do not despair. I know my Englishman. He will deal with us honourably. When the time is ripe and if our cause is a righteous one and if our country is ready for it, he will give us pour freedom on a platter. And then, when we are a free country, we shall have to have an army.’ Indirect as it was, Rudra took it as a green light to remain in the Army. 7

               In September 1926, after passing out from Sandhurst, Second Lieutenant (later Lieutenant General) S.P.P. Thorat and a few of his colleagues were  returning from UK on the P & O liner ' Kaiser-i-Hind'.   On the same ship were two well known Indians - Lala Lajpat Rai and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. As Thorat recalls in his memoirs, both of them took a paternal interest in the newly commissioned Indian officers.  Lajpat Rai asked Thorat to correct the proofs of his latest book ' Unhappy India'.  One day Thorat asked him, ‘Sir, do you think that we have done wrong in joining the Indian Army on the strength of which the British are ruling us?’  Lalaji thought for a while and then replied, ‘No, I don't think so at all.  How long will the British continue to rule us?  One day, India shall become a free country, and them we will need trained men like you. So work hard and qualify yourself for that moment.’ 8

               In 1928, Captain (later General) K.S Thimayya's battalion, 4/19 Hyderabad, moved from Baghdad to Allahabad. Thimayya spent a few days in Bombay, enroute, where he met Sarojini Naidu, who introduced him to Jinnah. This was Thimayya's first contact with nationalist leaders, and he found the experience confusing. As an Indian, he sympathised with their cause. But as a soldier, he had sworn an oath of allegiance to the British sovereign. He was not sure if he could reconcile his position, with respect to his country, and his profession. At Allahabad, he came into close contact with the Nehrus, and was a frequent guest at Anand Bhawan, where he came to know Nehru's sisters, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and Krishna (Betty) Hutheesingh. He also met Dr. Kailash Nath Katju and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. After the Civil Disobedience movement in 1930, there was a general upsurge of nationalist feeling among the people. Thimayya was deeply impressed by the winds of nationalism then blowing through the country, and the sacrifices being made by the people. On one occasion, he almost got into trouble, for throwing his peak cap in a bonfire of British goods, at the behest of Krishna Hutheesingh. One day, he and some other Indian officers, met Moti Lal Nehru and told him that they wanted to resign their commissions. The elder Nehru told them not to do so. ‘There are enough of us in the Congress, and we need more people in the Army’, he said, advising them to stick it out. He felt that the Indianisation of the Army had been achieved after lot of effort and should not be stopped. He added: ‘We’re going to win independence. Perhaps not this year or the next, but sooner or later the British will be driven out. When that happens, India will stand alone. We will have no one to protect us but ourselves. It is then that our survival will depend on men like you.’ 9

               During the Quit India movement in 1942, Mahatma Gandhi was interned at the Aga Khan Palace at Poona, under the direct care of Colonel M.G. Bhandari, of the Army Medical Corps, the father-in-law of Captain (later Lieutenant General) P.S. Bhagat, who had recently won the Victoria Cross. Accompanied by his colleague Arjan Singh, Prem Bhagat went to meet the great man, and asked him how they could help in the freedom movement. Gandhiji gave them almost the same answer that he had given Second Lieutenant Rudra more than 20 years earlier. He advised Bhagat and his friends to continue in their chosen profession. He said that once the country became free, it would require the services of dedicated professional soldiers. 10
            Along with Mahatma Gandhi, almost all prominent Congress leaders were imprisoned during the Quit India movement in 1942. This caused resentment in the great majority of Indian soldiers and officers, many of them being imbued with nationalistic feelings for the first time. One such officer was Second Lieutenant Dadachanji, who was posted in the training battalion of the 15th Punjabis, located in Ambala. He was a Parsee, who had been studying in England when war broke out, and volunteered for enlistment. After the political disturbances in the wake of the Cripps Mission, the battalion was put on alert and ordered to have one company on permanent standby for internal security duties.  When Dadachanji was detailed to command a flying column, he refused. He was promptly put under arrest by his company commander for treason, and subsequently marched up before the commanding officer, Major A.A. Rudra. When asked the reasons for his refusal to do duty, Dadachanji stated firmly and indignantly that he had joined the Army voluntarily to fight Germans, not to shoot down his own countrymen; he was not going to take part in any internal security duty that might involve shooting Indians. Rudra was impressed by his moral courage; he ruled out the charge of treason and released Dadchanji from arrest. The case was forwarded to the brigade commander, who also took a liberal view of the case. By the time the matter reached District Headquarters at Lahore, large scale violence had erupted in the wake of the Quit India movement. The authorities decided to hush up the matter and advised him to resign. Dadachanji agreed, albeit reluctantly. 11
            Among the political leaders of that period, the only one who advocated violence as a means of achieving freedom was Subhas Chandra Bose. However, according to Commodore B.K. Dang, his views were similar to those of others as far as military service under the British was concerned. Dang had done his training as a marine engineer on the training ship Dufferin before the outbreak of World War II.  When the war started he volunteered and was accepted in the Royal Indian Navy. He was sent to Calcutta for an engineering course and was staying with a friend who was a socialist. When they came to know that Subhas Bose was living nearby under house arrest, Dang and his colleagues expressed a desire to meet him. Bose came to the house just behind the one where they were staying to meet Dang and his friends. One of them was C.G.K. Reddy, who later joined the Deccan Herald, becoming a close associate of George Fernandes and subsequently a member of the Rajya Sabha.  When Dang and his friends told Bose that they wanted to join the freedom movement, he advised them to stick on in the Navy and get trained so that when the British left they could take over from the British.

Although the struggle for freedom had been going on for almost half a century, the Indian armed forces remained virtually untouched until the out break of World War II, when a large number of Indians were granted emergency commissions. Though Indians had been given commissions earlier, their number was small. Moreover, most of them came from feudal or military families, which were largely unaffected by political events.  On the other hand, the majority of Emergency Commissioned Officers came from rural or urban middle class backgrounds, which were the most active constituents of the freedom movement. Due to their upbringing, lack of training and political leanings, the Emergency Commissioned Officers were not treated as equals by British officers. This discriminatory attitude was largely responsible for the growth of disaffection and nationalistic fervour among Indian officers during World War II. Another reason that caused frustration among Indian officers was the perceived delay in the process of Indianisation, which seemed to progressing at a very slow pace, mainly due to opposition by British officers.
It may appear strange, but many people connected with the freedom movement did not hesitate to send their sons to serve in the Army. One such person was Dr Christopher Barretto, a leading dental surgeon of Nagpur, who was frequently summoned to Wardha to treat Mahatma Gandhi. His son, Terence Barretto, joined the Army and was commissioned in the Indian Signal Corps in 1940, retiring as a brigadier in 1965. Terence recalls that Mahatma Gandhi often referred patients to his father, requesting him not to charge them for his services, as  they were are ‘members of his growing family of national beggars’. Among the ‘national beggars’ treated by Dr Barretto were Mahadev Desai, the Mahatma’s secretary, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi. Terence Barretto was himself a die-hard nationalist, who was constantly in trouble for his anti-British views, being once put on ‘adverse report’ by his commanding officer in Burma. He had frequent tiffs with British officers on minor issues such as playing Indian music or eating Indian food in the mess. He recalls that Indian officers keenly followed the activities of leaders of the freedom movement and discussed among themselves the future of the country. He still has in his possession the copy of the Amrita Bazar Patrika of 26 January 1947, which he purchased in Chittagong, containing a full page (in colour) of the Congress flag, with the Indian Independence Pledge in bold print. On the reverse of the page is ‘Sixty Years of Congress’ by Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Barretto and his colleagues hung the flag in their room behind a curtain.
               The most well known nationalist soldier was Lieutenant General Thakur Nathu Singh, a Sandhurst trained King’s Commissioned Indian Officer who had been christened ‘Fauji Gandhi’ by his colleagues. Even as as a young officer, Nathu Singh openly expressed his anti- British feelings, for which he was often in trouble. When he was a major he was asked to suppress an agitation during the Quit India movement in 1942. Nathu Singh objected, saying that it was not fair to ask him to shoot at his own countrymen, who were only asking for their freedom. He requested the Commanding Officer to give the job to some other officer, but this was refused, and he was told that if he disobeyed orders he would be court martialled. Nathu Singh refused to carry out the orders, and the matter was reported to the District Commander, Major General Bruce Scott. When he was marched up to General Scott, Nathu Singh defended his action, as a 'conscientious objector', quoting the example of similar cases in Ireland. To his good luck, Scott turned out to be an Irishman. He appreciated the stand taken by Nathu Singh, and let him off.

            Nathu Singh was of the view that the slow process of Indianisation and the discriminatory treatment of Indian officers were largely responsible for the birth of the Indian National Army (INA). He had grave doubts whether the British were serious about Indianisation, or it was merely 'window dressing,' to impress the public and the outside World. Despite the fact that two and a half million Indians had fought in two wars, they had not been able to produce a single General. Important appointments dealing with operations were denied to them, and just a handful were given command of units. Drawing a parallel with the Soviet Union, which took shape at about the same time as Indianisation began in India, the disparities were obvious. However, his most scathing comments were reserved for the unfair treatment meted out to Indians, which he covered at length in a strongly worded letter to the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck, on 17 December 1945, soon after the commencement of the INA trials in the Red Fort in Delhi. Nathu Singh, who was then a lieutenant colonel, wrote:

The formation of the INA was not alone the work of its leaders like Bose, or of the Jap Opportunist. The creation and growth of the INA was a direct result of the continuous unjust treatment of Indian officers in the Army. It is the natural heritage of years of dissatisfaction, disappointment and disgust of various elements in the Indian Army. The present members of the INA are to be blamed for their conduct, but equally to blame is the Imperialist Anti-Indian British element in the army who by their talk and action daily estranged the otherwise loyal mind of the Indian, and last but not the least to blame are the British reverses in the Far East, which left the Indian soldier to their fate. 12

            The growth of nationalism in the armed forces was inevitable, given the sentiments of the general public. To their credit, senior British officers recognized it as a natural consequence of the mood sweeping the country, which touched all sections of society. Writing to Army Commanders after the first INA trials, General Auchinleck wrote: ‘In this connection, it should be remembered, I think, that every Indian worthy of the name is today a “Nationalist”, though this does not mean that he is necessarily “anti British”. All the same, where India and her independence is concerned there are no pro-British Indians. Every Indian commissioned officer is a Nationalist and rightfully so, provided he hopes to attain independence for India by constitutional means.’ 13 

            The discontent among Indian officers was noticeable not only in the combat arms, but also in the supporting arms and services.  In April 1946, Major General C.H.H. Vulliamy, the Signal Officer-in-Chief addressed a letter to all commanding officers. He wrote: ‘Very few ICOs have applied for regular commission. I believe that the main reason for this poor response is that a large majority of the ICOs in the Corps are discontented because they feel that they have been given a raw deal during the war and that this feeling has been engendered mainly due to two causes: discrimination shown by certain COs against ICOs and unsympathetic attitude towards ICOs.’ In another letter addressed to the Chief Signal Officers of Commands, General Vulliamy wrote: ‘It appears to me that there is a certain amount of hesitation lower down the chain of command in implementing freely and fully the policy of Indianisation. This lack of trust in ICOs must stop. Either an ICO is fit to be an officer or he is not.’14

The military hierarchy was aware of the discontent and alienation of Indian officers. These issues, coupled with the growing aspirations for independence, became a source of concern. They tried to take remedial measures, but it was too late. By the time World War II ended, Indian officers had become true nationalists. This was one of the most important factors in the British decision to grant complete independence to India, and also to advance the date from June 1948 to August 1947.


This chapter is largely based on Sir Penderel Moon’s The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth, 1989); F.W Perry’s The Commonwealth Armies – Manpower and Reorganization in Two World Wars, (Manchester, 1988); and Bisheshwar Prasad’s Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second World War 1939-45 – India and the War, (New Delhi, 1966). Specific references are given below:-

1.         Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p. 10, quoting M. Moir, A General Guide to the India Office Records,(London, 1988), p. 3

2.         Menezes, p. 187

3.         Bisheshwar Prasad, (ed.), Official History of the Indian Armed Forces in the Second           World War 1939-45 – India and the War, (New Delhi, 1966), p.35

4.                  F.W Perry, The Commonwealth Armies – Manpower and Reorganization in Two    World Wars, (Manchester, 1988), p. 87, 117.

5.         Sir Penderel Moon, The British Conquest and Dominion of India, (London, Duckworth,    1989), pp. 1093-4

6.         Stephen C. Cohen, The Indian Army, (Delhi, 1990), p. 92, quoting Bal Gangadhar Tilak   – His Writings and Speeches,  p.365

7.         Maj Gen D.K. Palit, Major General A.A Rudra – His Service in Three Armies and Two      World wars, (New Delhi, 1997), p. 71-2

8.         Lt Gen S.P.P. Thorat, From Reveille to Retreat, (New Delhi, 1986), p. 8.

9.         Humphrey Evans, Thimayya of India, (Dehradun, 1988), p.123.

10.       Lt Gen. Mathew Thomas and Jasjit Mansingh, Lt. Gen. P.S. Bhagat, VC, (New     Delhi, 1994), p.102.

11.       Palit, pp. 252-4

12.       Maj. Gen. V.K.  Singh, Leadership in the Indian Army – Biographies of Twelve      Soldiers, (New Delhi, 2005), p.64.

13.       Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo (ed.), The Indian Army - A Brief History, (New Delhi, 2005)          p. 54

14.       Maj. Gen. V.K. Singh, History of the Corps of Signals, Volume II, (New Delhi,       2006),  p.296