Punjab, in its extended form, is located at the confluence of the fertile plains of the Vedic Sapta-Sindhu – land of seven rivers – and the mountainous ranges of Afghanistan. During the 19th century, it comprised the present Pakistani and Indian provinces of Punjab as well as the Islamabad Capital Territory and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of present Pakistan, and Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, and some parts of Himachal Pradesh in present India. It was a huge state, with an area of about 360,000 square kilometres.

In the initial decades of the 19th Century, there were two most formidable military powers in the Subcontinent: Punjab under Maharaja Ranjeet Singh (1780-1839), and the British East India Company’s Armies. There was a period when both these powers fought wars but, subsequent to the annexation of Punjab in 1849, Punjab emerged as the strongest arm of the British Indian Army.

A little background to these powers is in order here.

The forces face-off

The credit for raising Punjab’s Army as a formidable force goes to Ranjeet Singh. Though his Army was known as a Sikh or Khalsa Army, it also had Hindus and Muslims in its ranks. He adopted a combination of old as well as the most modern principles of warfare and trained his soldiers under European officers and instructors. With the help of this Army, Ranjeet managed to subdue rival factions and clans in Punjab, and expelled Afghan warlords from its bounds, using guerrilla warfare tactics. He laid the foundation for the Punjab kingdom.

The East India Company was established in London in 1600 with the primary objective of carrying out trade with Indian states in items such as spices, textiles and such other items. To do that, the company purchased pieces of land and hired guards to protect their establishments from hostile locals and commercial competitors. Their establishments in Bengal, Madras and Bombay were termed as “Presidencies”, with each having their own “Armies”.

With the passage of time, these Armies grew in size, mainly due to the East India Company’s rivalries with other European nations, particularly France. Among the three East India Company Armies, the Bengal Army was the largest, and its commander-in-chief also served as the ceremonial commander of the other two Armies. Most of the soldiers of the Armies came from the natives, while the officer corps was invariably European.

One peculiarity of the Bengal Army was that most of its native soldiers were high-caste Hindus, with a sizeable portion drawn from the defunct Muslim Armies of yore. The borders of the East India Company had continued to expand due to the aggressive policies adopted by the East India Company as well as the internal strife prevailing in the native Indian states. In the 1830s, the East India Company’s borders touched those of the Punjab, bringing the two powers face to face with each other.

19th Punjab Regiment of British Indian Army, highlighting ethnic diversity of its soldiers: (L to R) Afridi, Sikh, Bangash, Swati, Yusufzai, Punjabi Muslim. Watercolour by Major AC Lovett, 1910. Credit: Muhammad Ali Shaikh

The Anglo-Punjab Wars

The Armies of Punjab and East India Company fought the “First Anglo-Sikh War” in 1845-’46, resulting in the East India Company taking control of some parts of Punjab. A few years later, the second war took place in 1848-’49, which ended on February 21, 1849, with the East India Company taking over the entire Punjab.

According to the website of the National Army Museum of the United Kingdom, though the Punjab Army had lost the war, the British acknowledged that the “Sikh Army was probably the most formidable opponent the British faced on the Indian Subcontinent.”

After annexation, the East India Company formally declared the incorporation of Punjab within British India on April 2, 1849 and made it a province under the Bengal Presidency. The British disbanded Punjab’s Army, directing its soldiers to go back to their villages and towns to take up agricultural or other career pursuits, in place of soldiering.

A segment of British colonists did favour the idea of utilising highly trained Punjabi soldiers in the Bengal Army, but this move was resented by the Bengal Army’s high-caste Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

The East India Company knew that Afghanistan had always been a source of trouble and turmoil for India, as most of the invaders, originating from Europe to Central Asia to Persia, had entered India through the Afghanistan route. In his times, Ranjeet had effectively guarded the Subcontinent’s frontiers with Afghanistan. However, with the British annexation of Punjab, the responsibility to defend the borders fell on the shoulders of the East India Company.

The increasing cordiality between Afghanistan and Russia added to British concerns about the border. From the British perspective, Russia was the greatest threat to their Indian empire. It was with this background that the Punjab Irregular Force was launched in 1851. It was called “irregular” as it was outside the command of the three armies of the East India Company and was under direct control of Punjab authorities.

The turning point

The First War of Independence – or the “Great Mutiny” – of 1857 proved to be a turning point in the British attitude towards Punjab and Punjabi soldiers. The rebellion began in the contingents of the Bengal Army on May 10, 1857 when a section of native soldiers or sepoys revolted against their British commanders. Soon, the rebellion spread to other parts of India, where masses too came out in support of the rebels.

At this point, the Punjabi Sikh soldiers came into the open to support the British forces in quelling the rebellion. Being a religious minority, they had no qualms in fighting against high-caste Hindus or Muslims. The British felt betrayed by Bengalis, who they felt had stabbed them in the back, and were thankful to Punjabi Sikh soldiers for helping them when they needed it the most.

The following years saw the British encouraging the induction of Punjabi Sikh soldiers in the Army, over and above any other region in India. In order to attract people towards military service, they devised an attractive reward system.

Land as reward

One of the hallmarks of British policy had been rewarding loyalty and punishing disloyalty. Punjab was basically an agrarian society, where a small number of landowners held the land, while a very large number of peasants worked for them. This peasantry lived in poverty and for them “the best and the biggest reward was the allotment of agricultural land,” remarks Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi in his article in Edinburgh Papers. The British devised the policy to allocate land “in return for loyalty, gallantry and on their retirement”, which attracted the rural Punjabis the most.

In addition to this ultimate reward of land allotment, Army service also offered multiple in-service benefits to the “malnourished, underpaid and maltreated” peasants of Punjab, such as “salary, uniform, and prestige.”

Among the recruits, a large number “came from the Salt Range and the Potwar (Potohar) regions of Northern Punjab (especially the districts of Jhelum, Rawalpindi and Attock) and the adjoining region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” where peasants were in most disadvantageous conditions, Soherwordi continues.

The availability of abundant agricultural land became possible through the British government’s project of transforming several million acres of barren land into irrigable agricultural land through the creation of the so-called “Canal Colonies”. These colonies increased agricultural productivity of the province on the one hand and, on the other, created loyal citizens from amongst the allottees of the land.

An indirect benefit of a large number of Punjab’s people being in the Army was that a huge part of the national defence budget ultimately ended up in the province, in the form of salaries, pensions and other such expenditures. This phenomenon considerably boosted the province’s economy, reducing rural indebtedness.

The loyalty created through such a reward system forestalled any anti-British or nationalist movement emerging in the hinterland of the province for a long time.

Sikhs to Muslims

Initially, Punjabi Sikh soldiers constituted a major part of the British Indian Army. In fact, in the wake of the First War of Independence in 1857, Punjabi Muslim soldiers were not trusted, which is evident from their declining numbers until 1861. However, after 1861, the number of Punjabi Muslims showed steady growth, though the Sikhs maintained their superiority in numbers for the next half a century.

The reasons for the subsequent decline in the number of Sikh soldiers and corresponding increase in that of Muslims were three-fold. Firstly, the Sikh constituted only 10% to 15% of Punjab’s population, which was not enough to cater for the increasing recruitment needs of the British Army.

Secondly, a large number of Sikhs had taken up farming on the lands awarded to them and their ancestors, hence were no more interested in military service. Thirdly, the British had started suspecting their loyalty, in the wake of many anti-colonial activities in Punjab during the early 20th century.

Martial Race Theory

The “Martial Race Theory” was basically advanced by the British to justify their lopsided military recruitment from a limited area in the north and north-west regions of the Subcontinent. The crux of the theory was that certain ethnic groups in India were culturally and genetically superior in their warlike qualities, hence more suitable for Army services than others.

The British thus considered the people of Punjab as a “martial race” – an assertion echoed in the submissions of the Eden Commission, which declared in 1879 that Punjab was “home of the most martial race of India” and that it was a nursery for the best soldiers.

One of the great supporters of this theory was Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer, who served as governor of Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in Amritsar. In his book India As I Know It, published in 1925, he wrote: “If India could only afford a small Army of seventy-five thousand British (now reduced to 60,000) and one hundred and sixty thousand Indian troops for protection of over 300 millions of people, it would be unwise to take any but the best Indian material, and this was to be found mainly in the Punjab.”

Dwyer himself tasted the “martial spirit” of Punjab when he was shot dead by a freedom fighter from Punjab, Udham Singh, while attending a meeting in Westminster in London in 1940. Singh stated that he wanted to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and made no attempt to escape from the scene.

In his testimony, he said: “I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it… He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him… What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?”

Map of the British Indian Punjab after Delhi’s inclusion. Credit: Muhammad Ali Shaikh

British Army’s backbone

The number of Punjabi soldiers in the British Indian Army kept increasing after 1857. The peak was reached in 1929, when recruits from Punjab numbered 86,000 out of a total of 139,200 from entire India (excluding 19,000 technically “foreign” lands of Nepal). In terms of percentage, the Punjabi soldiers constituted about 62% of the British Indian Army’s combatant forces.

Even with Nepalese soldiers included, Punjabi soldiers were well above the half, constituting 54.36% of the Army’s total strength of 158,200.

The 1929 Sketch Map of India, published in the “Reports from Commissioners, Inspectors and Others” shows the approximate number of combatant troops serving in the Indian Army from various parts of India (and Nepal), in comparison to the geographical size of those provinces/administrative units. One can compare the geographical area of Punjab, with its 86,000 soldiers compared to other provinces — many of them more populous than Punjab.

Credit: Muhammad Ali Shaikh

The percentage of Punjabis in the Army dipped a bit in the wake of the Second World War, when the British encouraged recruitment from all parts of India. In those times, every province was encouraged to send its people to join the Army. As a result, many people from the provinces that had been long ignored in recruitment sent their people in large numbers, altering the percentage figures. Still, Punjab was able to remain the largest contributor of soldiers, with a share of 48%.

Despite the division of Punjab Army in the wake of the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, both the parts of the erstwhile greater Punjab’s Army have kept their legacies intact, and continue to serve their nations with pride.

This article first appeared in Eos, Dawn’s Sunday magazine, on March 5. The original can be accessed here.