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.

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