Saturday, August 8, 2015



            Mutinies occur in all armies, and the Indian Army during the British Raj was no exception. However, it has been noticed that during war, cases of mutiny actually reduce, while those of desertion by individual soldiers increase.  There were several mutinies during the two World Wars, but none so serious as to affect the conduct or performance of the Army as a whole. During World War I the Ghadr Party planned to create large scale disturbances in India, inciting Indian troops to revolt against British rule. Between 7000 and 8000 Ghadrites were sent to India for this purpose. However, the Ghadrites paid scant heed to secrecy and surprise, resulting in most of them being caught by British intelligence. The only two mutinies that occurred during World War I were a minor revolt in the 130th Baluch Regiment at Rangoon, and a more serious one in the 5th Light Infantry at Singapore, which has been described in Chapter 5.

            The mutinies during World War II are covered in this chapter. The unique feature about these mutinies is the fact that all of them involved Sikh troops. During World War I also, the Sikhs formed the largest complement of the Ghadrites. However, the Sikhs in the Army remained loyal, and it was the Muslims who revolted, due to their reluctance to fight the Turks. During World War II, the Muslims remained loyal, while it was the Sikhs who revolted, mostly due to political influences and from fear of being sidelined by the Muslims, who were bent upon getting a separate homeland in the Punjab. The mutinies covered in this chapter are the RIASC (Royal Indian Service Corps) Mutiny of 1940; the CIH (Central India Horse) Mutiny of 1940; the Hong Kong Mutiny of 1941 and the Christmas Island Mutiny of 1942. Though the Hong Kong mutiny occurred in a Royal Artillery unit, it has been mentioned briefly because it involved Sikh troops.

Soon after the commencement of World War II the 4th Indian Division was moved to Egypt. The divisional headquarters was located at Mena near the Pyramids, with administrative elements including the divisional RIASC at El Rebiqi, a short distance away. The Commander RIASC was Lieutenant Colonel J.J. O’ Brien, with the Ammunition, Supply and MT Companies being commanded by Majors T.N. Shelton, F. Oliffe and E.C.T Mitchley respectively.

Towards the end of January 1940 it was discovered that a large number of RIASC personnel were disaffected and were resorting to ‘go slow’ tactics while performing their duties. Out of over 300 such men who were classified as ‘passive resisters’, 92 were tried summarily by Major Mitchley on 1 February 1940 and awarded rigorous imprisonment ranging from 14 to 28 days. The same day 64 Sikhs refused to go on parade, which included almost all the Sikhs in the Ammunition Company (37 out of 39). The men refused to load stores, saying that they were not ‘coolies’. The matter was reported to the Commander RIASC who conveyed to the company commanders information received from the CID that certain subversive influences had been reported in the unit. He ordered that no action was to be taken immediately but the men should be watched carefully. At a parade held next morning the number of Sikhs who refused to fall in fell from 64 to 51.

Colonel O’ Brien reported the matter to the divisional headquarters, recommending that the men who had refused to load stores should be tried by court martial, with rest being dealt with summarily in the unit. On 3 February some additional information regarding subversive influences was received from the CID. During the next two days the remaining ‘passive resisters’ were summarily tried and a few of those who were politically motivated sent away to other locations. A Summary General Court Martial held from 16 to 22 February tried 36 men for refusing to load stores. All of them were found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation. Subsequently, the sentences of two were commuted to five years rigorous imprisonment.

In order to weed out the Sikhs who were still disaffected, tests were carried out over the next few days, by ordering the men to load, in batches. In addition to the 36 who had been court martialled earlier, 19 men who continued to refuse were tried and sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment. Another 29 who had earlier refused to go on parade were released from service, along with 15 who were considered undesirable. Based on the recommendation of the Commander RIASC, divisional headquarters issued orders that the term ‘loader’ would not be used henceforth, the men in question being called spare drivers.1

The Central India Horse had moved from Jhansi to Bolarum, near Secunderabad in November 1939, shortly after World War II started. Before moving, the regiment had been ‘mechanised’, handing over its horses to the relieving unit, Hodson’s Horse. After its arrival at Bolarum the regiment got busy with its new role, and spent most of its time getting used to its new mounts; the ‘A’ vehicles were 15-cwt. (cwt. is the abbreviation for hundredweight, which equals 112 pounds) Ford trucks and ‘B’ vehicles comprised 30-cwt. Chevrolet lorries. In June the Second-in-Command, Major J.G. Pocock was promoted and assumed command of the regiment, after the departure of Lieutenant Colonel D. St. V. Gordon, who was sick. Major R. George now became the Second-in-Command.  The three squadrons of the regiment - A, B and C - comprised Muslims, Sikhs and Jats respectively.

In early July 1940 the regiment received mobilization orders. Entraining on 14 July, the unit reached Alexandra Docks in Bombay on the morning of 16 July. The ship on which they were to sail had still not arrived, and was expected only in the afternoon. The regiment was asked to stay in the train until embarkation which was scheduled for 18 July. It rained continuously throughout the day and the men had to stay in their carriages. On the morning of 17 July Risaldar Kartar Singh of ‘B’ Squadron reported to the Squadron Leader that four men in the squadron were spreading propaganda amongst the other Sikhs. The Squadron Leader decided to isolate the men unobtrusively and detailed them for a guard on board the ship. However, the men refused to fall in for the guard. Soon afterwards, the majority of the men in ‘B’Squadron came out of the train and announced that they would not embark. The mutiny in the Sikh squadron of the Central India Horse had begun.

The matter was immediately reported to the Commanding Officer, who subsequently informed the higher authorities. For several hours, the Indian and British officers of the regiment tried to persuade the men to change their minds. Subsequently the Area Commander and the District Commander also addressed the men, but they remained adamant. Finally each man was ordered individually by name to embark. Altogether 108 Sikhs, or nearly two thirds of all the Sikhs in the regiment, refused to obey the order and were placed under arrest. By the evening of 17 July the arrested men had been removed and the rest of the regiment, including over 60 Sikhs, mostly from the Headquarters Squadron which was not affected, prepared to embark the next day. But on the morning of 18 July orders were received that none of the Sikhs would embark. The Sikh squadron was replaced by a Dogra squadron and it was therefore decided to replace the Sikhs in the Headquarters squadron also by Dogras. The regiment sailed on 18 July, without any Sikhs on board. The 108 Sikh mutineers were court martialled. Four were executed, 100 transported and four were imprisoned.

The mutiny in the Central India Horse was sudden and took everyone by surprise. The men who refused to embark stated that they had no grievance against their officers, conditions of service or the government – their objection was only to serve abroad. The Sikh officers of the unit were sure that the mutiny was unpremeditated and would not have occurred if the men had not had to spend over 24 hours sitting in the train. It was during this period that the ringleaders were able to convince them that if they embarked they would never see their wives and children again. It was subsequently ascertained that during the previous summer the chief ringleader had joined a revolutionary society in Meerut whose aim was to cause maximum inconvenience to the British. This man later perverted three others to join him as ringleaders. 2

Khushwant Singh, in his seminal work, History of the Sikhs, has discussed the reasons for the disaffection among Sikhs in the Army. He writes:

Communists, who had acquired influence in the central districts (of the Punjab) adhered to the party line regarding the war in Europe as Imperialist: their agents busied themselves disseminating anti-war propaganda among Sikh soldiers. The Alkalis, who mattered more than all the other parties put together, were the most confused. Their leaders, most of whom had served long terms of imprisonment during the gurdwara agitation had little love for the British. They were equally hostile to the Muslim Leaguers and to the pro-British Unionists. But they wished to preserve the numerical strength of the Sikhs in the armed services so that when the day of reckoning came, the Khalsa would have an army of its own. The Akali Party agreed to help the government and pressed for more Sikh recruitment; at the same time…the unenthusiastic support of the Alkalis and the antagonism of the Communists during the ‘imperialist’ phase of the war was reflected in the reluctance of the Sikh peasants to enlist and disaffection in some regiments.’3

Chevenix-Trench, an Indian Cavalry officer though of a different regiment, felt that ‘the Sikhs had been “got at’ by persons warning them of a nefarious British plot to have them exterminated so that the Punjab would be ruled by Moslems.’ 4

The British authorities had been aware of the activities of Sikh religious movements since long. In his book Handbooks for the Indian Army – Sikhs published in 1928, Major (later Brigadier) A.E. Barstow had cautioned:

… the “Kirti” movement recently organized by Sikh agitators in the Doaba tract should be carefully watched and Jat Sikhs who supply recruits to for the Army should be warned in time to beware of the pitfalls. The “Kirti” movement is a part of a conspiracy against the State which has been conducted since 1923 when the Akali agitation and Jatha activities were most intense by a number of disaffected Sikhs in India sent in certain foreign countries. Their proposals included the formation of secret societies for revolutionary work under cover of religious or communal organisations…… A sum of Rs. 10,000 was received from the Kabul party with the object of setting up a press and in February the first issue of the publication appeared. In its contents it was explicit in the expression of its revolutionary aims, and has persistently advocated the cause and ideals of the Indian Ghadrites of 1914 and 1915 and has persistently glorified the Babbar Akalis as martyrs and heroes. The activities of the members have been potentially dangerous rather than actually dangerous and they have openly preached communistic doctrines. The Punjab “Kirti” party has become formally affiliated to the Communist party, but their capacity for danger is at present restricted by the limitation of the leaders of the moment. The organisation is however. undoubtedly a real danger. Given a genuine agrarian grievance, it could do great harm.5

Unfortunately, the warning contained in Barstow’s book was not taken seriously by the British authorities. This appears strange, since Barstow’s assessment was part of an official publication, which was used as a reference book by officers posted to units having Sikh troops. Barstow had served with Sikhs for many years, and his views must certainly have been seen and approved by senior officers before being cleared for publication.

The 12th Heavy Regiment of Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery was stationed in Hong Kong. Though it was a British unit, it had a large number of Sikhs, who had been enrolled in the garrison artillery since the previous century. The political influences that had caused the mutinies in the RIASC in Egypt and the Central India Horse at Bombay had also affected the Sikhs at Hong Kong. However, the trigger for the mutiny that occurred in January 1941 was an order making it compulsory for all troops to wear helmets. The Sikhs objected to the order that went against their religious beliefs, which mandated the wearing of a turban. However, the authorities did not listen, on the plea that the order was applicable for the entire garrison. A similar order had been issued in France during World War I, but had been rescinded after the extent of resentment among Sikh troops became clear. Finding their pleas being ignored, the Sikhs mutinied. After the mutiny had been subdued, 84 Sikhs were court martialled and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. 6

            The Christmas Island is located about 400 kilometers south of the western extremity of Java in the Indian Ocean. In March 1942, a detachment of Sikhs of the 7th Coast Guard Regiment, Hong Kong and Singapore Royal Artillery was stationed on the island. The strength of the detachment was one Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer, four British Non Commissioned Officers and 27 Indian Other Ranks. The detachment commander was Captain Williams, Royal Artillery. The settlement was administered by the District Officer, Mr. Cromwell, who had a small complement of Sikh policemen to assist him. Due to the wartime conditions, Captain Williams was in overall control.

            At about 6 a.m. on 7 March 1942, the island was shelled by a Japanese Naval Force. The crew of the 6-inch gun left their posts and went into the jungle. Realising that resistance was useless, Williams ordered the white flag to be hoisted. He also ordered the gun to be dismantled and the weapons of the detachment to be withdrawn, except his own pistol and that of his Subedar. However, the Japanese did not land. After waiting for three days, Williams ordered the Union Jack to be re-hoisted, hoping to attract an Allied ship that could rescue them. The gun was reassembled but the men’s arms remained locked up. This caused some resentment among the Sikh gunners and the policemen.

On 10 March about ten men broke open the stores and armed themselves with rifles. The mutineers placed two Lewis guns facing the quarters of the British Other Ranks. Captain Williams and the four British Non Commissioned Officers were killed and their bodies thrown in the sea. Next morning, the District Officer, who had heard the shots, went to the Fort to investigate. He found that the Sikh policemen had joined the mutineers, who were all armed with rifles.  A few days later, the Japanese landed on the island and learned of the murder of the British personnel. Asking the detachment to fall in, the Japanese asked: ‘Who are the brave fellows who have killed the British?’  Nine men stepped forward. 

            After the surrender of Japan, seven Indian gunners were rounded up in the Netherlands East Indies. They were tried by a General Court Martial in Singapore in December 1946. After a trial lasting three months, one was acquitted, one awarded two years rigorous imprisonment and five sentenced to death. After Independence, based on representations from the Governments of India and Pakistan, the King commuted the death sentences to penal servitude for life.7

The British authorities were bewildered by the mutinies among the Sikhs, who had performed so magnificently during World War I. Not willing to take further risks, they imposed a temporary ban on the enrolment of Sikhs.  Acting on a suggestion of the Secretary of the Defence Ministry, Sir Charles O’Gilvy, the government set up an enquiry commission to go into the causes of the disaffection among the Sikhs. It consisted of officers well acquainted with the Sikhs; Brigadier General A.E Barstow (Chairman); Major A.J.M. Kilroy, 36th Sikhs; Major A.E. Farwell, Ludhiana Sikhs; Major ‘Billy’ Short, 47th Sikhs and Captain Niranjan Singh Gill, who later joined the Indian National Army. Members of the commission individually toured Sikh districts and discussed the difficulties of soldiers with retired officers. They also held meetings with political leaders.8

The commission found evidence of ‘Kirti’ and Communist infiltration, and a sense of uneasiness concerning the Unionist Party Ministry’s alignment with the Muslim League, which had begun to talk of a Muslim state in the Punjab. The Sikh grievances were redressed – assurances were given that Sikh interest would not be sacrificed to appease the Muslims, and Sardar Baldev Singh (the future Defence Minister) was appointed a Minister in the Unionist Party Ministry. The ban on enrolment of Sikhs was lifted, and a Khalsa Defence of India League was organized under the chairmanship of the Maharaja of Patiala, to step up the resumed Sikh recruitment. The Sikh community quickly realised what a loss it would be if either the British continued to curtail recruitment, or if Sikh recruits were not forthcoming in response to the British call. `9


This chapter is largely based on Brigadier A. A. Filose’s King Geroge V’s Own Central India Horse – Volume II of the Regimental History, (Edinburgh, William Blackwood & Sons, 1950); Khushwant Singh’s History of the Sikhs (Delhi, OUP, 1991);  Major A.E. Barstow’s Handbooks for the Indian Army – Sikhs, (Calcutta, Government Press, 1928); Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes’, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993); and War Diary, HQ 4th Indian Division RIASC (Ministry of Defence, History Division, New Delhi). Specific references are given below:-

1.         War Diary, HQ 4th Indian Division RIASC, Ministry of Defence, History Division, (MODHD), New Delhi,

2.         Brigadier A. A. Filose, King George V’s Own Central India Horse – Volume II of the Regimental History, (Edinburgh, William Blackwood & Sons, 1950), pp.210-3.

3.         Khushwant Singh, History of the Sikhs (Delhi, OUP, 1991) Vol. 2. p. 240.

4.         Lt. Gen S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour, (New Delhi, 1993), p. 348, quoting C. Chevenix-Trench, The Indian Army and The King’s Enemies - 1900-1947 (London, Hutchinson, 1988), p.137

5.         Major A.E. Barstow, Handbooks for the Indian Army – Sikhs, (Calcutta, Government Press, 1928), p.55.

6.         Menezes, p.349

7.         The Christmas Island Mutiny, MODHD, New Delhi.

8.         Khushwant Singh, p. 241

9.         Menezes, p.349

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