Many Sikh soldiers took up arms and committed acts of violence on behalf of the British colonial state due to their heavy recruitment. This happened while the British Raj combatted anti-colonial militarism in South Asia. The colonial trope of the "loyal Sikh" clashed with soldiers' use of kirpans. These swords or daggers were both religious objects and potentially threatening weapons used during movements such as the Ghadar "mutiny" conspiracy. When the Indian Army used an excessive display of force near the Golden Temple of Amritsar during a Sikh holiday, it called attention to the contradictions of Sikh service. Soldiers and civilians attempted to reclaim militarism and agitate for rights and privileges from both colonial and nationalist leaders.
During and after the First World War, the Indian Army helped Britain to expand imperial rule into Muslim-majority territories. South Asian soldiers took part in the Anglo-Afghan War (1919), the rebellion in Waziristan (1919–1920), and dismantling the former Ottoman Empire by Britain and its allies during and after the First World War. Some soldiers rebelled by joining the pan-Islamic Khilafat movement. Others journeyed to Muslim-majority lands as part of military-funded pilgrimages to Mecca. There they served as both soldiers and de facto ambassadors and informers. South Asian Muslims faced few avenues for interwar peace and security. Many deepened their contract of loyalty with the imperial state to stake a claim for the future of their faith, at times interpreting pan-Islam as a pro-British identity.
One of the most widely recruited groups of soldiers in the Indian Army was Nepalese men, known as "Gurkhas." Nepalese soldiers enjoyed a distinctive reputation for being resistant to the Indian caste system. However, their recruitment forced the colonial state to respond to Nepalese concerns about soldiers who crossed the kala pani—or black waters of the ocean—for military service. Military officials viewed this as a "religious" objection and implemented a mandatory purification ceremony for Nepali soldiers before and during the First World War. Although there were many Indian Hindus in the army, the ceremony only applied to Nepalese troops. This chapter considers how caste rules could solidify, rather than undermine, soldiers' worth.
After the 1857 rebellion British military officials worried that soldiers' diets could become sources of unrest. In some ways they were right: agricultural turmoil and famine were recurring features of South Asian life under colonial rule. Yet the army prided itself on building strong bodies to serve the empire. During the First World War, South Asian soldiers borrowed from Mughal and Rajput ideas of service, stating that they had eaten "the government's salt" and needed to stay loyal to it. Indian nationalists, by contrast, made food a centerpiece of anti-colonial rebellion—made most famous by Gandhi's periodic fasting and 1930 salt march. The army attempted to use religious mandates about food to demarcate who was, and was not, entitled to eat the salt of the government.
In the 1920s and 1930s Indian military colleges and academies educated Indian boys and men to become soldiers and aspiring officers. They promised to be sites of racial integration that would make it possible for Indian men to become officers. However, these institutions isolated future Indian officers from the civilian population in a period of intense anti-colonial activism. Military education pressured soldiers to see themselves as cosmopolitan leaders of an interfaith, commonwealth army and the rightful leaders of the Indian "nation." Yet military education also encouraged soldiers to embrace British colonial and Christian values. Many struggled to belong in either the empire or the nation.
Interwar military desegregation produced unanticipated political consequences. 1930s military cantonments had a tantalizing illusion of racial, class, and religious inclusivity. They facilitated intimate contact between British, Sikh, and Muslim men who sometimes shared political assumptions about martial masculinity and the dangers of Indian nationalism. Military men vocally criticized British officials for failing to have the same disciplined control of Indian civilians that the Indian Army had over its soldiers. On the eve of the Second World War, some British officers and soldiers found fascism more in line with their experiences of imperial military life than the Labour, coalition, and city-based governments dominating British and Indian politics in the 1930s. They celebrated racial and religious hierarchies and political violence that resonated in India in unexpected and tragic ways.