Why did Indian armies consistently lose to the Europeans?
Hai Hind bihisht ki nishâni
Har chashma âb-i zindagâni
Hind is the sign of Paradise,
And each stream there is the Elixir of Life.
[Ahmad Sarawi [a poet of the early 18th century]
(Reference: Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Explorations in Connected History, From the Tagus to the Ganges, Oxford University Press 2005, New Delhi)
Subrahmanyam pithily asserts that if there is some justification for his holding a Chair in Indian History, it can only be that at least some of those who read him agree with what a historian from Kolkata (whom he looked up to greatly), namely the late Ashin Das Gupta had once said: “Without going out of India, one cannot explain India”.
April or May is certainly a good time to visit Europe, as the challenging temperatures of winter recede and the pleasant weather sets in. Procedural issues, including the visa protocols however gleefully gnawed on our time and forced us to disembark in Paris as late as early July 2022. What surprised us right at the outset was the late sunset in the city – not before 10 pm. And that implied long afternoons and evenings – which could be clinically utilized to explore the city to its medieval moorings and look beyond the finesse that its meticulously maintained architecture provided at a glance.
We were forewarned to be extra cautious near the Eiffel Tower, pickpockets are supposed to be rampant, and they possess the potential to lay you bare – we were told by travelers who had experienced similar tribulation on their visits in the city which once housed the Bastille fort – now no more to be seen – razed to the ground by the rebels of 1789, with a short tower of memory erected in its place. The action of the rebels could be contested though. Demolishing structures reminiscent of past autocracy and exploitation is an act of freeing oneself from the fetters of ‘unfreedom’ no doubt, yet it also could be deplored as a rash act of uncaged violence – an act of irrationality which wipes out the past symbols and representations, rendering the posterity to a rudderless historical analysis. Our very own Subhash Chandra Bose – the intellectual rebel, inspired by Garibaldi, Mazzini, the Irish Sinn Fein et al. – attempted somewhat similar in colonial Calcutta in 1940 – by amassing a group of youth to raze the Holwell monument in the central part of the city, to the ground. The monument was reflective of British exploitation at the least, if not the deeper historical concoction of Indian savagery, especially the criminal act of 1757’s Mughal governor of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, Siraj ud daula, which has hardly been upheld, nay corroborated by any contemporary Indian historian. Bose’s act of defiance and violence enthused us so very much as Indian youth contemplative of our forefathers fighting it out for freedom with the last drop of their blood – an act which mesmerized us and made us idolize leaders of Bose’s genre. Hardly however, had the youthful mind been aware of any historiographical ramifications lain underneath the acts of violence and rampage inherently associated to any movement of liberty for that matter.
Subrahmanyam further tells us that the term India is derived from the medieval Arabic term ‘al-Hind’, which is itself a deformation of the far older ‘Sind’. However, the limits of ‘al-Hind’ included the Indo-Gangetic plain from Punjab to Bengal. The status of the southern reaches of the Indian peninsula is less clear of course. Subrahmanyam writes that as late as the 15th and 16th centuries, ‘Hind’ and ‘Hindustan’ sometimes did not include the Deccan and areas south of the river Narmada. However, there were also other writers who in medieval times implied that south-east Asia, Thailand, Cambodia, and even parts of southern Arabia like Yemen belonged to Hind; writes Subrahmanyam.
Interestingly, Subrahmanyam refers to the twelfth-century text, Akhbâr as-Sin wa’l Hind, which in turn notes: “The people of Hind and China (ahl al-Hind wa’l-Sin) agree that the kingdoms of the world are four in number. And the first of those is that of the Arabs (mulk al-‘arab). The kingdom of China (mulk al-Sin) comes next. Thereafter is the kingdom of Rum, and finally that of the Ballaha-Ra’i, the kingdom of those who pierce their ears. The text then goes on to explain that Ballaha-Ra’i is the greatest ruler of Hind (ashraf al-Hind) – a declaration that is followed by a description of Hind itself”.
Courtesy Subrahmanyam, we come to know about the late tenth century Persian text Hudüd al- alam (The Limits of the World) penned by an anonymous author. The book has a section (immediately following its description of ‘Chinistan’) delineating Hindustan – as a land that lies to the west of China and Tibet and to the north of the Great Sea. The book says that Hindustan possesses many amenities, a numerous population, and many kings. The author of Hudud tells that ‘all through Hindustan, wine is held to be unlawful and adultery to be licit’, besides noting that ‘all the inhabitants are idolaters’. Hudud further adds: “The numerous idols of gold and silver are taken care of by hermits and Brahmins (zâhidân wa brahmanân); and in at least one of the towns whenever one of the chiefs die, all the inferiors living under his shadow kill themselves”.
It was perhaps very pertinent for India’s Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to set a question in the General Studies paper of Civil Services Mains examination in 2022:
“Why did the armies of the British East India Company – mostly comprising of Indian soldiers – win consistently against the more numerous and better equipped armies of the Indian rulers?”
Well, the 10 to 15,000 odd civil service aspirants appearing for this paper had around seven minutes to write an answer to this question – considering the weightage assigned to it and the fact that they had to answer 20 questions in a stipulated time of 3 hours. Justice surely was not meted out – neither to the aspirants (due to the paucity of time in answering) nor to the question of course (for lack of analysis in the answers in such a short period). However, the very fact that UPSC set this question on the 75th anniversary of India’s independence points to the significance of the issue to be discussed threadbare. And of course, the larger context of the question would be to ponder why the Indian armies consistently lose to the smaller European armies of the day, especially when we look at the battles of Adyar (1746), Plassey (1757), Buxar (1764).
India’s medieval military might?
On the eve of the Mughal conquest of Surat, the fortress there was under the command of a former Ottoman called Chengiz Khan, and that the garrison included black slaves and freed men from East Africa, as well as Malays and Javanese who had come there – probably through military labour recruitment in the Portuguese Estado da India, informs Subrahmanyam. Furthermore, he mentions about Sayyid Alaol – a 17th century Bengali poet who lived in the northern Burmese court of Arakan, who was in turn brought there after having been kidnapped and sold by Portuguese slave-traders. Interestingly, Alaol lived to see the Mughal invasion of the region in the 1660s.
Subrahmanyam refers to the gradual disappearance of Indian religious motifs from the churches of Peru and Brazil. And of course, it is so true even today, as he concurs – ‘the obsessive concern to measure India and all things Indian, up against a European yardstick’; that a Vietnamese visitor to 19th century Calcutta, Ly Van Phuc even came to believe that England lay quite close by, perhaps just beyond the mountains to the north. According to Phuc, England had become to India, what China was to Vietnam. In this context, it is noteworthy that Subrahmanyam quotes Telugu poet Gunujada Appa Rao about Halley’s Comet:
“Poets make up things Good, bad and indifferent.
Scholars do not trust any of their crazy myths.
The English people know. They see what the eye can’t see.
Taught by them I’ve learned the truth of things as they are.”
The Portuguese were nonetheless attacked, and expelled from their settlement at Hughli in western Bengal, by Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s forces. Portuguese sources portray this event and refer to subsequent imprisonment at Agra of some of the Portuguese survivors of the siege. Mughal sources on the other hand, are more detailed than those of the Portuguese, writes Subrahmanyam. António Bocarro’s ‘Livro do Estado da India Oriental’ refers to the mid-1620s rebellion of Shahjahan, during which he went to Bengal, and sought the help of Hughli’s captain Miguel Rodrigues, who in turn turned him down. But it is not clear if this was the main reason for the attack on Hughli. At the other end, the major Mughal official chronicle of Shahjahan’s time is the Pâdshâh Nama of ‘Abd al-Hamid Lahori – who writes:
“Under the rule of the Bengalis (before Mughal conquest), a party of Firangi merchants, who are inhabitants of Sarandip, came trading to Satgaon. One kos above that place, they occupied some ground on the bank of the estuary. Under the pretence that a building was necessary for their transactions in buying and selling, they erected several houses in the Bengali style. In the course of time, through the ignorance and negligence of the rulers of Bengal, these Europeans increased in number, and erected large substantial buildings, which they fortified with cannons, muskets and other implements of war. In due course, a considerable place grew up, which was known by the name of the Port of Hughli. On one side of it was the river, and on the other three sides a ditch filled from the river. European ships used to go up to the port, and trade was established there.”
Lahori continues further: “The markets of Satgaon declined and lost their prosperity. The villages and districts of Hughli were on both sides of the river, and these the Europeans got possession of at low rent. Some of the inhabitants, by force, and more by hope of gain, they infected with their Nazarene teaching, and sent them off in ships to Europe (…). These hateful practices were not confined to the lands they occupied, but they seized and carried off every one they could lay their hands upon along the sides of the river. These proceedings had come under the notice of the Emperor (Shah Jahan) before his accession, and he resolved to put an end to them if ever he ascended the throne”.
Whereas, Khafi Khan, in his Muntakhah al-Lubâb Muhammad Shahî (of the 1730s), writes:
“The Firangis had formed a commercial settlement at Hugli, twenty kos from Rajmahal in Bengal. In course of time, they overstepped the sufferance they had obtained. They vexed the Musalmans of the neighbourhood, and they harassed travellers, and they exerted themselves continually to strengthen their settlement. Of all the odious practices this was the worst: In the ports which they occupied on the sea coast, they offered no injury either to the property or person of either Muhammadans or Hindus who dwelt under their rule; but if one of these inhabitants died, leaving children of tender age, they took both the children and property under their charge, and whether these young children were saiyids or whether they were brahmans, they made them Christian and slaves (mamlük)”
Khafi Khan’s account includes a brief description of the siege of Hughli fort in 1632 by the Mughal forces. Lahori, on the other hand, elaborates on the siege, detailing the generals sent out Qasim Khan, the routes taken by them, and the exact nature of the mining carried out on the walls of the fort, writes Subrahmanyam. Lahori informs us that the entire siege lasted from 20 June to 10 October 1632 and finally when the Mughal forces entered Hughli town, 4,400 Christian prisoners were taken into custody and 10,000 non-Christians prisoners were freed in the process.
1857 and Before
Despite the myth of a nineteenth-century Pax Britannica, British rule in India and across the empire was punctuated by revolts, rebellions, insurrection and instability, writes Priyamvada Gopal in her 2019 work Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance & British Dissent. The British-tailored historiographic nomenclature – the so called Indian Mutiny of 1857 has been described as ‘unique only in their scale’ by Andrea Major and Crispin Bates, in the series of books edited by them, entitled ‘Mutiny at the Margins’. Edward Thompson though, as Gopal writes, ‘repeats the familiar colonial canard that Indians are not historians’, and further adding that ‘they (Indians) rarely show any critical ability’. Thompson also notes that the English interpretation of the events of 1857 has had an unjust sway on history.
And Gopal is correct as she states that vast majority of British accounts of the uprising of 1857 were dipped in ‘sanguinary patriotism’. Public opinion too was, similarly shaped by retaliatory bloodlust, fuelled by relentless references to Indian brutalities – something of a déjà vu was seen post Jallianwala Bagh massacre when the newspaper Morning Post collected a handsome compensation, contributed with emotional outflow by British citizens, hailing the butcher General Dyer as a hero. Thompson, nonetheless reads the uprising of 1857 as ‘another of the world’s great servile revolts, on par with those in Demerara (1823) and Jamaica (1865).’
In a narrative of contestation however, it became clear that the 1857 insurgency was more than a military mutiny, and involved ‘considerable participation by the civilian population’, notes Gopal. It is also clear, as Gopal asserts that a complex chain of causal events ‘extended well beyond the greased cartridges for the Enfield rifle’. In August 1857, the famous Azamgarh proclamation issued in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s name outlined some of the reasons for the uprising: seizures from zamindars; trade monopolies on the merchandise such as indigo, cloth, and other articles, the ill-treatment of Indians employed in the civil and military services, unemployment of the weavers, cotton dressers, carpenters, and the like, and, finally, the Europeans being enemies of both the religions – Hindu and Mohammedan (Gopal, Insurgent Empire, pp 47-48).
Even Karl Marx mentions about ‘the secret connivance and support of the natives given to the sepoys’, while at the same time, he cautioned the readers against expecting ‘an Indian revolt to assume the features of a European revolution’. Though he agrees that some of the violence committed by the sepoys were ‘hideous’ and ‘appalling (mostly about the Kanpur violence), Marx however believed that such violence was a reaction to British colonial atrocities inflicted on the Indians.
Intellectually, what Jeremy Black is to the West, Kaushik Roy is attempting to be for India – a rigorous military historian. His well-knit chapter on the construction of a hybrid army by the English East India Company (EIC), spanning from 1612 to 1849, brings to the fore hitherto undiscussed issues and a critical subject often relegated to the backyard by mainstream historians. Roy is of the firm opinion that the EIC overwhelmed the forces of the sub-continent due to a combination of factors; technological superiority strangely, was not one of them. He documents that the Marathas, especially the Scindias, the Sikhs (Dal Khalsa) and Mysore (under Hyder Ali and Tipu) possessed armed forces which gave the EIC a run for their money.
Nonetheless, lack of proper leadership at times of requirement, lack of tactical unity among Indian warring groups, treason, lack of discipline in the troops, lack of command-control structure, were some principal reasons for the debacle of the indigenous military groups in the sub-continent. (Chp 9. pp 179-199, The 18th century in South Asia, ed Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty)
Roy opines that the Mughal Army too could not be accorded the status of a buffoon. The Mughal field force was capable of manoeuvring tactically in the battlefield, and waging decisive set piece battles was not a prerogative of Western (European) mode of warfare only. The First and Second Battles of Panipat are examples of decisive set piece battles in which the hostile armies were defeated in a single afternoon, writes Roy. The Mughal Army was able to travel from Delhi to East Bengal and could campaign throughout the year – and the point to be noted is that the distance between Delhi and Kolkata is same as the distance between London and Leningrad.
How Europe Won India
The Mughal Army numbered about one million, including 300,000 cavalry. Only the Manchus (Chinese) had more with 1.2 million armed personnel. While Mughal population was roughly 180 million (about 20 per cent of the global population at that time), Manchu China had about 300 million people. In that ratio, Mughal emphasis on armed manpower was much more than that of the Chinese. In 1715 however, in terms of demographic resources, the population of France numbered to 21.l million and that of in Britain was 7 million. Only Napoleon, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, was able to increase the size of his army than one million. However, an important aspect was that from late seventeenth century in Europe, nobility was educated in conducting professional warfare in specialized military academies set up by the crown. The academies taught mathematics, science of fortification, riding, fencing, among other things relevant to warfare. The academies also conducted examinations. The printing revolution that occurred as part of the European Renaissance made possible the production and dissemination of theoretical knowledge, which aided the spread of theories and techniques of warfare. All these reforms, opines Roy, resulted in the generation of a professional officer corps.
In contrast, the Mughals and its successor regimes rarely maintained permanent military forces. This was due to the operation of a vast military labour market in the subcontinent. While in Europe, men had to be conscripted forcefully into the armed forces. In India, the countryside was overflowing with armed recruits who were willing to serve the highest bidder. The real deficiency of the Indian armies, vis-à-vis the Western European military organization, writes Roy, was in the parameters of command, control, communications and intelligence.
Between 1707 and 1756, while the military power and political legitimacy of the Mughals were declining, the EIC raised its military power substantially – by adapted their West European military system to eastern conditions, avers Roy. The EIC fused certain elements of Indian military philosophy with the European system, especially by introducing a cavalry establishment. In fact, a major reason for EIC’s defeat in the First Anglo-Mysore War in the politically volatile 18th century was that they had no proper response to Haidar Ali’s light cavalry. Even in 1780, in the Second Anglo-Mysore War at Pollilur, Tipu and Haidar’s forces comprehensively defeated the EIC. The big horses used by the British were not that useful in large distances of semi-arid plateau of Deccan or the marshy and swampy lands of Bengal, writes Roy. Moreover, Britain lacked manpower to maintain large number of infantry and troopers in India. In addition, a British soldier was four times more costly than an Indian soldier because of the cost involved in transporting the former across the oceans. Also, a British soldier was vulnerable to heat and disease in the subcontinent. Moreover, the demographic equation in the subcontinent was lopsided against the Europeans. It was undoubtedly a prudent decision by EIC to hire Indians in the subaltern ranks, train them and utilize their services in colonizing the subcontinent. The Indian sepoys (sipahis or soldiers) were given red-coloured uniform and came to be known as native ‘lal paltans’. The EIC recruited Deccani Muslims in the cavalry, and for musketeers, they enlisted the Hindu peasantry of Telengana known as Telingas. While the Indian rulers recruited the sepoys in groups along with their own officers known as jemadars, EIC organized the sepoys in regiments which were commanded by British officers. The sepoys were individually recruited and reported to a command-hierarchy which inculcated strict discipline and contained rigorous training.
Furthermore, EIC’s regular infantry depended on the upper caste peasants recruited from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. They came to be known as Purbiyas. And for cavalry, the British started recruiting the Rohillas from Western Uttar Pradesh. By 1849, the EIC’s ‘native’ army numbered 200,000 soldiers. By then, the biggest low intensity threat which the EIC faced was from an armed band of sannyasis and fakirs. Ananda Bhattacharya argues that the sannyasis and fakirs frequently fought against each other – an antagonism which had germinated during Akbar’s regime in the 16th century and continued thereafter. The sannyasis were Dasnami Gossains of the Benaras akhara (headquarters of the bands of ascetics), and they trace their origin to Shankaracharyya. The fakirs on the other hand, were led by the pirs of the Sufi orders. The Gossains in fact fought in the battle of Buxar (1764) against the EIC. Some of the armed ascetics had matchlocks and muskets, while the majority fought with spears, swords and javelins. Atis K. Dasgupta claims that at the height of the insurgency by the armed ascetics, the numbers of sannyasis and fakirs rose to about 50,000. The sannyasi raids in Bengal generally lasted from 1763 to 1800. The EIC deployed its army for counterinsurgency measures against the armed ascetics. However, European troops were not used for fighting the insurgents, tells Roy. The EIC management believed that the locals were better acclimatized and possessed greater local intelligence to tackle the insurgents.
In this context, a forty-eight page chapter on Social Banditry in Bengal: 1757-1857 allows us to learn that in 1808 or so, EIC had set up the office of a Superintendent of Police for the combined regions of Calcutta, Dhaka and Murshidabad. Furthermore, official reports of early 19th century Bengal indicates that dacoities were rampant, with connivance of the darogas in the police stations. Ranjit Sen, ex Professor of Calcutta University and the author of the essay, concludes by writing that social banditry in Bengal for a century after the Battle of Palashi (Plassey) of 23rd June 1757, reflected a coalition of zamindars, peasants, dacoits, ruffians, plebeians, sannyasis and fakirs. However, the coalition, according to Sen, did not rise in either revolt or revolution, but engaged in large scale participation across several hues of the society. An enlightening piece of information that came to the fore through a reading of this article by Sen was that several zamindars and rajas and rural elite of districts of then Bengal, viz. Birbhum, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Bakarganj, Dhaka et al provided leadership to this social banditry against the EIC’s pressures and intrusions. (Reference: Ranjit Sen, Chapter 16, A Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal, ed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya).
Series of insurgencies waged by Indians against the British EIC clearly indicate that colonial rule was rejected, resisted and contested. Militarily however, organized resistance lacked the firepower and methodology to cut the colonial trappings. Yet, the outpouring of bravery was good enough to out rightly reject the hapless tone of the octogenarian Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of Delhi:
“Don’t entertain any hopes of help from me. It’s between you and the British….It may be possible for me to broker peace…..I have summoned the Resident Sahib…and God willing, I will sort out your differences.”
– Zahir Dehlvi, Dastan-e-Ghadar, p. 61
Several political factions and lack of unity among Indian rulers resulted in consolidation of British power from trader to ruler. It is not just about the numbers but also the strategy and the leadership. Nevertheless, it took EIC a span of over 150 years (1707 to 1857) to completely subdue Indian resistance.
(The writer is in the rank of Director, Ministry of Defence, Govt of India and presently discharging his duties as Joint General Manager (Administration) at Gun & Shell Factory, Kolkata – A unit of Advanced Weapons & Equipment India Limited (AWEIL).Views expressed are personal.)