On April 13, 1919, the day of the Baisakhi festival, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer of the British Indian Army arrived with 50 men at the Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar. Dyer, the administrator of the city, was not pleased with what he saw. He had banned public assemblies in the Amritsar, responding to hectic anti-colonial activity in the Punjab. But in the park, he found around 20,000 men, woman and children gathered. They were all unarmed – but that they had broken the law by simply assembling was enough to enrage Dyer.
In response, he ordered his men to first block the exits and then instructed them to fire, without warning, straight into the crowd. The troops of the British Indian Army – the 9th Gurkhas, 54th Sikhs and 59th Scinde Rifles – under his command that day obeyed without hesitation, firing till they ran out of ammunition, mowing down nearly 400 of their fellow colonial subjects.
The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, while the most well known, was just one of several atrocities committed by the British Indian Army in their endeavour to maintain colonial rule in the subcontinent. In spite of this rather sordid history, a curious move has been afoot in India to honour and commemorate the colonial armies that served the British Raj.
The latest demand comes from New Delhi, where attempts were made to rename Teen Murti Marg to Teen Murti Haifa Marg, after the Israeli city. This was to commemorate the Battle of Haifa in 1918, where the British Indian Army’s soldiers displayed exemplary bravery while fighting the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In fact, for some time now, there have been calls for the modern Indian state to remember the soldiers who gave up their lives while defending the British Empire.
There is a problematic part to this equation: colonialism. The British Indian Army was the world’s foremost colonial military in the world. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the predecessors of the British Indian Army defeated one Indian state after the other to estabslish colonial rule over the subcontinent. They also put down numerous revolts – the Santhal Rebellion, the Chittagong uprising and the Revolt of 1857, to name a few – as Indians struggled desperately to overthrow the foreign yoke.
With India secure, the Raj’s native forces even helped Britain extend its influence to Burma, Afghanistan and China, loyally fighting to further British imperial aims.
In the two world wars, the British Indian Army fought faithfully for the English king, getting killed in large numbers to maintain the Empire their predecessors had established.
The politics of remembering
Once we consider the British Indian Army’s role as the sword arm of colonialism, it is almost surreal for modern Indians to want to celebrate it. Given the tragedy colonialism was, there should be, at best condemnation or, at worst, an uncomfortable silence. In fact, the Teen Murti Memorial, after which the road is named, was itself renamed by the Nehru government to play down its colonial origins. Built in 1924, it was originally called the “Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade Memorial” and commemorated the cavalry troops of the princely states who died fighting for the British Empire during the First World War.
The non-commemoration of colonialism, it must be emphasised, is not an argument to wipe out history. Indeed, the history of colonialism can hardly be airbrushed away given that modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh owe so much to the Raj – including their present-day armies.
Yet, to demand that the Indian state celebrate the deeds of the British Indian Army is not a question of the study of history but one of modern-day politics. To take a parallel case, in the United States, the city of New Orleans is currently in the process of removing four prominent Confederate monuments. The Confederate States of America were a group of secessionist states who fought to preserve the institution of slavery during the American Civil War.
The removal of these monuments does not mean the US wants to airbrush away the history of the Civil War. And, of course, the soldiers who fought for the Confederate Army were also Americans, like the British Indian Army consisted primarily of Indians. Yet, so repugnant were their political war aims – a restoration of slavery – that the modern United States will not tolerate a celebration of their memory on public land.
In this, America is not unique. Modern Germany and Italy do not celebrate the role of their armed forces in the Second World War. This is not because these armies did not fight heroically – political remembrance is not a bravery contest – but because the aims they fought for are repugnant to these modern states.
Analogously, the British Indian Army was certainly a part of India’s past. Yet, like the Confederate Army fought for an odious goal – racism – the British Indian Army fought for something just as repulsive: colonialism.
For India to want to celebrate this and the other armies that served the British Empire is not only a travesty, it is almost comical. After all India itself was colonised by these very same armies.
Ironically, there is now a furious debate in Britain about how remorseful it should be for its Empire. In fact, during his last visit to India in 2013, the UK’s former Prime Minister David Cameron characterised the action of the British Indian Army at Jallianwallah Bagh as “deeply shameful”.
It is then a curious act of historical masochism that Indians, as the victims of this very army of colonial occupation, now want to celebrate its exploits in service of the British Empire.