Category Archives: India

23 APRIL, 1918: NEVER MIND THE BALOCHS…

Back in the days when anyone with an eye on world power wanted to take down the British Empire – roughly speaking the days between Napoleon and Hitler – the idea that India was the key to Britain’s prosperity was something of a truism.  Napoleon had made a slightly bonkers attempt to attack the subcontinent via the Middle East at the start of the nineteenth century, but by 1914 Britain’s enemies possessed sufficient geographical awareness to rule out conquest as a viable approach. They also possessed sufficient political awareness to realise that, while external forces had little or no chance of loosening Britain’s physical and economic grip on India, internal opposition to imperial control was a growing problem for the British administration, and was being sharpened by the spread of modern European political ideas among literate Indians.

It’s not really accurate to talk about Indians as a national type during the First World War. The subcontinent may have formed a basic administrative unit for the British, but was in fact a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct regions, each with its own strong sense of identity, and each a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct districts or villages. To put a simple (maybe even simplistic) spin on a complex story, the national identity implied by British control was being learned by those strata of Indian society engaged in active cooperation with the Raj, and the lesson was nurturing aspirations for national and regional independence that might (and one day would) destabilise British rule.

At this point I could happily wander off into tales of the Indian Congress Party and Gandhi, but there’s a war on so I’ll stick to what passes for the point. Germany’s wartime attempts to sabotage the jewel in the British crown focused on sending agents into India to bribe and cajole disaffected elements into rebellion. On the whole, despite the local violence endemic to the subcontinent, they achieved very little, but in early 1918 they scored something of a result in the most volatile, violent and historically troublesome corner of the Raj – the wild, largely Moslem northwest.

Covering an area almost three times the size of England, the northwestern province of Balochistan bordered Afghanistan, Persia and the Straits of Hormuz, which gave access to the Persian Gulf, so it was what you might call a strategic hotspot in an age of empires with global ambitions. The sparsely populated province was governed, along with the storied North-West Frontier Province directly to the north, by the Indian Political Service, the quasi-military department of the Raj charged with control of potential trouble spots. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its martial nature, the regime was not popular with locals, and the province was targetted – along with the North-West Frontier – by German agents based in southeastern Persia, technically a neutral country but in practice a minor battleground for British, Russian and German elements.

Here it is – or rather was.

The Marri tribe of eastern Balochistan was regarded as particularly hostile by the British administration, but why it opted for armed uprising in 1918 is uncertain. German agents may have convinced tribal chiefs that the British were too stretched by the demands of war to fight back, or Marri representatives may have conspired with the leaders of other Baloch tribes during a 1917 visit of the British viceroy to the provincial capital, Quetta. The ceremonies surrounding Lord Chelmsford’s visit culminated in a demand for a levy of army recruits, which may have reinforced Marri confidence in British weakness, or may simply have angered a traditionally warlike tribe. Either way, the levy was accepted by every tribal leader except the Marri chieftain, who made it clear his people would not fight for their enemies and agreed to pay for exemption.

Something about that arrangement clearly didn’t wok, because at 11pm on 19 February 1918 several hundred tribesmen attacked the British military outpost at Fort Gumbaz. The British had been expecting trouble, and reinforcements had just raised the fort’s garrison to eighty men, more than enough firepower to repulse three assaults by attackers armed with little more than faith and swords.

Despite losing at least two hundred casualties at Gumbaz, the Marri were anything but daunted. They secured support from other Baloch tribes – principally the Khetran, but also the smaller Buzdar, Kaisrani and Bugti groups – and then embarked on a regional rampage. Attackers destroyed buildings around the British fort at Barkhan on 7 March, and around 3,000 men attacked the British garrison at Fort Munro on 15 March, occupying nearby buildings and high ground. That was the uprising’s high point, because despite the claims of tribal leaders the British were able to mount a military response, and it was about to catch up with the rebels.

Two brigades of Indian Army troops had begun arriving at bases in the towns of Duki and Dera Ghazi Khan in early March, and forward units of the 55th rifles (Frontier Force) reached Fort Munro from Dera Ghazi Khan before the end of the day, dispersing the attack with the loss of only four casualties.  More troops arrived next day, when Frontier Force moved on to the town of Rakhni and began a programme of systematic reprisals, destroying villages and crops, seizing livestock and imprisoning large numbers of suspected insurgents.

Meanwhile the brigade based at Duki advanced to Gumbaz on 18 March and entered the Marri heartlands at Nurhan the following day. Ill-supplied and equipped by contemporary European standards, it nevertheless travelled with a battery of light artillery and was altogether too powerful for anything or anyone in its path. It could also call on air support from the nine RAF BE2c biplanes based in the region, some of which bombed the Marri capital of Kahan on 24 March, killing 14 men and spreading the kind of terror dreamed of by strategic bombing theorists in Europe.

Conducting punitive operations against local villages as it went, the ‘Duki column’ advanced through pouring rain until 4 April, when it met and overran a force of some 1,500 tribesmen blocking the road at Hadb, inflicting about 700 casualties before marching to Kahan, which was occupied without opposition on 18 April.  The rebellion was effectively over.  The Khetran tribe’s unconditional surrender was made public a hundred years ago today, and the Marri followed suit on 2 May, after which the tribe maintained a surly but non-violent approach to British rule for the rest of the War.

The British press in 1918 could make an exciting, imperially uplifting pictorial out of any victory, however cheap.

So a small, unfocused rebellion in an obscure corner of the British Empire came to a predictable and completely unsuccessful conclusion, an event reported in the British press as a victory for the Indian administration and a defeat for German attempts to destabilise the subcontinent.  That said, at a time of high drama on the main European fronts, operations in Balochistan were hardly headline news in Britain, begging the question of why I’m bothering to tell anyone about it.

Apart from my undisciplined delight in reporting events ignored by the heritage gurus but big enough to make headlines in any more peaceful era, the fate of the Marri is a reminder that – despite almost four years of state propaganda condemning its enemies for behaving like barbarians – Britain was still quite comfortable with treating at least some of its imperial subjects like animals. Troops of Asian origin may have carried out the vengeful destruction of Marri food supplies, livelihoods and domiciles, but the officers in charge and the policy they implemented were British.

The brief campaign of early 1918 also offers useful context for the idea that the Raj was an example of benevolent imperialism, a power arrangement that was good for both conquerer and conquered. Currently fashionable in middlebrow Britain, and often expressed as a reason for southern Asia to be grateful for European intervention, this rosy mirage has some substance when applied to some of the subcontinent’s population, some of the time, but bears no resemblance to the reality experienced by most.  With British mass media currently engaged in a noisy bout of Commonwealth tub-thumping to a Brexit backbeat, it seems worth remembering that wartime oppression gave one large and culturally distinct part of modern Pakistan no reason at all to be grateful for the British Empire.

15 FEBRUARY, 1915: Negative Thinking

Britain didn’t have much to gain by fighting a general war, and was involved because it had a great deal to lose by any major change in the geopolitical status quo. Its negative aims included preventing the rise of any single dominant power on mainland Europe, preventing the emergence of any credible threat to its global dominance of maritime trade and, of course, preventing any direct threat to the security of homeland or empire. When it came to the Empire, and for that matter to the maintenance of trade supremacy, British political, military, economic and popular opinion all agreed (and had done for decades) that one negative aim towered above all others in importance: nothing must be allowed to interfere with British business in India.

There was no Pakistan in 1915, and no Bangladesh, just British India, but the subcontinent was in no sense one nation. British administration functioned as a bureaucratic superstructure overlaying hundreds of ethnically, religiously and linguistically divided states, kingdoms and principalities of every size. The Hindu majority of India’s 320 million people were further divided on strict caste lines, and the British basically stepped in as top caste, working with existing administrative classes to maintain order, and providing developmental benefits in return for large-scale economic exploitation.

As Emperor of India, British King George V ruled through an appointed viceroy, who in turn liaised with a cabinet minister for India in London. Based in New Delhi and the purpose-built imperial headquarters at Simla, the viceroy (Lord Hardinge from 1910 to 1916) chose his own cabinet from some 6,500 resident British officials, and the vast majority of minor government posts were filled by high-caste natives. The regime exercised direct control over about two-thirds of the subcontinent, divided into 13 major provinces, with the rest comprising some 700 autonomous princedoms, some of them tiny, all of them swearing direct allegiance to the British King-Emperor.

The Hindu upper castes generally accepted British rule with some enthusiasm and gained a political education in the process, so by the late nineteenth century they were exerting relatively polite pressure for a share in decision-making. They had formed a political organisation, the Indian National Congress, in 1885, and been granted elected institutions with purely advisory powers in 1909, but their stance was not intrinsically anti-British in 1914 and they generally treated the War as an opportunity to prove their fitness for self-government.

The subcontinent’s large Moslem populations were more troublesome to the British. To the northeast, in Bengal, violence between neighbouring Moslem and Hindu communities was a regular occurrence, and the warlike peoples of the northwest (near the frontiers with Afghanistan and what was then Persia) were a constant source of uprisings and tribal disorder. Moslem political leadership meanwhile fluctuated between support for the moderate aims of the Congress and demands for full independence.

Minor uprisings, rebellions and local disorders of one sort or another were endemic to the Raj, and were dealt with by the British-led Indian Army. Although it recruited significant numbers of Sikh troops and Nepalese Gurkhas (and levied ‘Imperial Service’ troops from the autonomous princedoms), most of the Indian Army’s native personnel came from the same martially inclined Moslem communities that caused much of the trouble – and this contributed to an understandable, if misplaced, sense of foreboding among British authorities when war broke out in Europe.

Led by Hardinge, administrators chose to regard the Congress as a potential force for rebellion and assumed that a concerted Moslem uprising would follow any declaration of war against Ottoman Turkey. Fear of internal unrest made them reluctant to commit troops abroad, and they came in for a lot of criticism in Britain when the East African and Mesopotamian campaigns began poorly. On the one hand British complaints were unfair, because the Indian Army’s failings in the field were at least partly the result of pre-War cutbacks imposed from London. On the other hand, fear of large-scale rebellion in the Raj was paranoid fantasy, a reflection of the dread felt by British authorities at any hint of a threat to their control.

If anything, the northwest frontier experienced fewer disturbances than usual during the War years, and sporadic attempts by German agents to fund Moslem uprisings in Bengal came to nothing. Indian loyalty at home and in the field was affirmed time and again throughout the War, but there were enough failed conspiracies to keep British fears alive during its early years, and the most ambitious of these, known as the Ghadar Conspiracy, came to a head – or rather went out with a whimper – in February 1915.

The name derives from the Ghadar Party, a group of ex-patriot Indians formed in the United States to foster armed revolt against the Raj. With the outbreak of war, leading Ghadar members worked to bring German agents together with revolutionaries in India, particularly in the Punjab. During the second half of 1914 they helped rebel groups plan a series of coordinated mutinies and uprisings for late the following February, but the rebellion collapsed after police in the Punjab learned of the plans on 15 February.

The only Indian act of rebellion that actually took place that month began on the same afternoon on the island of Singapore, when about half the troops of the 5th Light Infantry Regiment (which mustered 850 men in total) and about a hundred of the Malay State Guides mutinied. Opinions differ as to whether the mutiny was part of the Ghadar plot or an independent outbreak, but it lasted for almost a week, and fighting caused forty-seven British or civilian deaths before the mutineers were suppressed. Two hundred mutineers were brought to trial and forty-seven were executed, the rest receiving punishments ranging from deportation orders to lengthy prison sentences.

Fear of losing part or all of India, whether through encroachment by other powers or internal uprising, had dominated British imperial thinking throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with protection of trade routes to the subcontinent running a close second.  The outbreak of this small mutiny in Singapore, one hundred years ago today, was regarded in London and New Delhi as an event of potentially enormous significance, reminding us that, European horrors notwithstanding, British strategists were still nervously obsessed with India in early 1915.

11 JANUARY, 1915: A Small Great War

What with the January blues, the occasional misery that comes with supporting Tottenham and a cold that kept me out of the best Sunday league game this season, Poppycock hasn’t got the units to get overly creative with one of the First World War’s duller weeks. Instead, and as a change from stressing the War’s essential modernity, let’s give a passing mention to the action known as the Battle of Muscat, which reached its climax on 11 January 1915. A sideshow within a sideshow, fought for the security of a tiny Persian Gulf state, it was a very small battle and a reminder that, outside Europe, a whole lot of warfare was taking place in nineteenth-century conditions.

The port of Muscat is now the capital of Oman and the main city of the governate of Muscat, a coastal enclave that behaved like a separate state in the years before the War. Its ruler since 1913, Sultan Taimur, presided over a mediaeval system of government and was the fourth successive Sultan of Muscat to prosper as a client of the British. Control over Muscat was strategically important to the British Empire, first and foremost as a vital source of oil for British machines, but also as the centre of a trade in small arms that linked India with East Africa and had once put rifles in the hands of many a rebel against British rule. So the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on Muscat, a British political agent was positioned close to the Sultan, a small garrison of British Indian Army troops protected the port, and plenty of money was provided to pay the Sultan’s expenses.

Speaks for itself…

Even before the outbreak of war in Europe, Muscat’s wealth had provoked angry resentment in Imam Salin bin Rashid al Kharusi, ruler of poverty-stricken Oman, theoretical overlord of Muscat and, when it suited him, loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire. By late 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers, a jihad against the British issued from Constantinople, and German financial assistance had persuaded the Imam to mount an attack.

The key to defending Muscat from inland attack was the fort at Bait Al Falaj, which lay about a mile from the coast and guarded the river and valley leading to the port. The Sultan’s small tribal army was stationed there, along with a detachment of Indian Army regulars. After this combined force repelled a preliminary attack in October 1914, six companies of infantry and two machine guns were sent from India as reinforcements, most of them Sikh troops, so that British strength in Muscat was up to 1,000 men by the time the Imam made his bid for conquest in January.

During 10 January, in a scene straight out of a Fifties colonial movie, large (if indeterminate) numbers of Omani warriors gathered a mile or so from the fort. Variously armed with swords and rifles, protected by shields made of East African hippopotamus hide and working up a noisy collective fervour for jihad, they attacked at two the following morning, charging the fort’s outposts and seizing a piquet to its northwest side.  British and sultanate forces launched a counterattack at dawn, and by noon they had systematically driven the Omanis back into the hinterland.

British Indian troops would go on fighting their mini-campaign in defence of Muscat throughout the War, but the victory at Bait Al Falaj kept things quiet for a time. The loss of some 300 dead, against a handful of casualties among the defenders, forced the Imam to rethink his tactics and weaponry options on twentieth century lines before contributing further to the ongoing Ottoman campaign, sponsored by Berlin, to disrupt British interests in the Middle East.

What should have been called the Battle of Bait Al Falaj was renamed the Battle of Muscat so the British public – far more informed about the world’s physical geography than modern audiences – would know roughly where it had taken place.  Even in 1915 it was seen as a relatively quaint example of the colonial upheaval triggered all over the world by Europe’s Great War, and as a suitably old-fashioned affair. On the other hand it was also a product of Britain’s, and in particular the Royal Navy’s, determination to secure oil supplies, and the modern world has been living with that particular strategic novelty ever since.