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.
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.
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.