The [British] Indian Army


British Indian Army pioneers in 1911.


More than 1.5 million Indian army personnel were involved in the war[WWI] effort and 62,000 were killed, more than 65,000 wounded and 54,000 unaccounted for.

The continuance of British power ultimately depended upon the Indian army, and there was general agreement among the British authorities that the mutinies in the army in 1857 reflected basic weaknesses, making reform essential. Under the East India Company, each of the three presidencies—Bengal, Madras, and Bombay—had separate armies under the general control of a commander-in-chief, and this cumbersome system was revised by unifying all the armies under the civilian governor-general, but with a commander-in-chief of the army as the second most important person in the government. This recognition of civilian, not military control of the government was a basic element of British power in India and remained a fundamental characteristic of the government of independent India. The most significant clash between the rights of the civilian and military chiefs took place during the administration of Lord Curzon (1899–1905).

Another issue of special concern, after the uprisings of 1857–1858, was the proportion of Indians to British soldiers in the Indian army. In 1856 there had been a total of about 238,000 Indians in the three armies and about 45,000 British. By 1863 this ratio had been changed to 205,000 Indians and 65,000 British. This remained fairly constant until the beginning of World War II, when it shifted to 177,000 Indian soldiers to 43,000 British. Another important issue was the regional and caste composition of the Indian soldiers. Since it was high caste soldiers from the Bengal army who had taken part in the mutinies, enlistment from Bengal was drastically curtailed. In this context, British officers insisted that certain Indian regional and religious groups belonged to “martial races,” identified as Rajputs, Muslims (especially from the Northwest), Sikhs, and Gurkhas from Nepal, and that Indian soldiers should therefore come only from these groups. While there is no historic evidence for the theory of martial races, it was widely accepted by Englishmen and is still influential in India. All the officers of the Indian army were British, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the British officers and the Indian soldiers seemed to have developed mutual respect for each other.

After 1858 the army was mainly used to guard the frontiers, both on the northwest and northeast, against militant groups, and only occasionally did it have to be used within India proper. It was also used, however, to support British foreign policy in China, East Africa, and the Middle East, where there was little direct Indian concern. During World War I, over a million Indian soldiers served overseas, mainly in France and the Middle East. In World War II, the Indian army was used in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia. Both wars saw an increase in the number of Indian officers in the army, but its traumatic moment came with the defeat of the British at Singapore in 1942, when the Japanese persuaded a number of Indian officers and men to join the Indian National Army to fight with them against the British under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who had been a leading figure in India’s nationalist movement.

The army was an important element in the transfer of power from the British to Indians in 1947, despite mass outbreaks of violence among the civilian population. It continues to be a vital element in the preservation of the new nation against insurrections and movements for self-determination in its borderlands, notably in Kashmir, Nagaland, and in Punjab, as well as in wars with Pakistan and China.



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