Faithful Fighters
Identity and Power in the British Indian Army
Kate Imy



IN 2014, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton invited Sikh Britons to dress in First World War uniforms to commemorate the Pavilion’s history as a wartime hospital for Indian soldiers (Figure 1). Wild and enthusiastic crowds—including many British women—chased and fawned over the uniformed men.1 Celebrating the contributions of South Asians in the First World War has done much to correct the erasure of colonial troops in popular memories of the conflict. After all, there were more South Asian combatants and non-combatants in the First World War than Australian, New Zealander, South African, and Canadian combatants combined. Yet missing from this commemoration was an accurate reflection of the diverse South Asian soldiers who served in the Indian Army. Individuals who traced their heritage to Dogras from the Himalayan foothills, or Rajputs from western India, or Nepali men recruited as “Gurkhas” were noticeably absent. So, too, were any of the diverse Muslim communities whose presence in the colonial army was nearly double that of Sikhs. The desire to remember Indian loyalty and imperial service as unique to Sikhs reflects patterns of religious and military hierarchy that began long before the First World War. Faithful Fighters explores the Indian Army’s attempts to racialize and militarize South Asian identities to secure the loyalty of its multi-racial, multi-linguistic, and multi-faith Indian Empire. Soldiers, in turn, shaped, rejected, or spread colonial ideas to find a place for themselves in a world divided by nations and empires.

FIGURE 1   First World War Sikh re-enactors at the Royal Pavilion War Stories Open Day, September 2014. The Royal Pavilion was built as a palace for King George IV but Queen Victoria sold it to the city of Brighton. It became a hospital for soldiers during the First World War. Source: Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Reprinted with permission.

Faithful Fighters examines the cultural legacies of the British Indian Army from 1900 to 1940, as it fought to expand Britain’s empire and combat anti-colonial rebellion in the twentieth century.2 The first four decades of the century witnessed wars, international migration, and anti-colonial rebellions of unprecedented scale. These destabilized national and imperial borders as well as gender, national, and religious identities. As a result, the army was at the center of debates about rights to bear arms or cross borders, to access food and education, and to claim a religious or political identity. It would help to harden the gendered view of citizenship that emphasized military service and masculinity for self-governance. These became shared ideals across cultures, as many British Christians, Hindustani Muslims, Punjabi Sikhs, Hindu Rajputs, Pathans, and Nepalis fought together in this colonial institution.3 This “Indian Army” ranged from 150,000 to 250,000 in peace and swelled to 1.4 million combatants and non-combatants during the First World War. The war compelled soldiers to serve in battlefields as distant as the ports of Singapore, the trenches of France, the swamps of Mesopotamia, and the deserts of Arabia. Their efforts helped Britain to become the largest empire in world history. However, colonial rule blurred the lines between war and peace. Soldiers served as enforcers of colonial expansion in Britain’s League of Nations mandates of Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. They helped to militarize colonial borders near Afghanistan through brutal, expensive, and recurring campaigns. Soldiers also used violence to put down domestic rebellion in India. Each act of violence renegotiated and threatened to destabilize soldiers’ devotion to colonial rule. Despite the army’s military successes, soldiers wrestled with the mounting internal and external pressures of their service.

A major source of controversy within and outside the army was the recruitment theory of “martial races,” which defined some religious, ethnic, and regional identities as inherently “martial.”4 Indian nationalists criticized the policy for fomenting racial and religious tensions and depicting some Indian men as effeminate and un-martial. It also enabled some soldiers to find commonalities with civilians in other occupied places. For example, many of the soldiers who were recruited to fight in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Mesopotamia were Muslim, as colonial perceptions held that such men were naturally militaristic.5 Some soldiers developed sympathy for the Muslim anti-colonial activists they encountered. As far afield as Southeast Asia and the United States, Hindu and Sikh soldiers and veterans similarly met Indian exiles and revolutionaries who traveled around the globe to spread anti-colonial revolution. As anti-colonial activism intensified in the twentieth century, military officials believed that fusing soldiers’ religious traditions with military duty would keep them disciplined and loyal. Imperial investment in soldiers’ identities was meant to ensure long-term peace and unity. They hoped that soldiers’ devotions to family, community, region, religion, or nation would not contradict or overpower their commitment to their professions.

The army’s bureaucratic interventions into soldiers’ lives increased in the twentieth century, but British officials had incorporated South Asian soldiers and their identities into military forces for centuries. Competition and warfare between English and French colonial ambitions brought South Asian soldiers into European forces by the eighteenth century.6 The English East India Company’s (EIC’s) three distinct armies based in Bengal, Madras, and Bombay helped to protect, expand, and forcibly acquire areas vital to England’s economic interests in India. These armies borrowed from existing martial cultures, recruiting patterns, and warrior communities in South Asia. For example, the EIC’s Bengal army recruited Muslim and high-caste Hindu soldiers favored by Mughal (1526–1857) leaders. They made Urdu the official language of the Company ranks as it had been in the armies of these Muslim rulers. They also incorporated Nepali soldiers, who had served the Sikh Khalsa Empire (1799–1849), in Panjab.7 One of the main differences between precolonial and Company service was that soldiers were under the exclusive command of European officers. This hierarchy carried over into the Indian Army and lasted until the First World War. At times, European officers attempted to break soldiers from their precolonial traditions by circulating Christian doctrine in the ranks.8 Military attacks on Indian beliefs became common in periods of British evangelical fervor.9 During the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42), soldiers traveled long distances without proper provisions, making them susceptible to disease, unsanitary food, and social scorn for breaking caste rules.10 Indian soldiers had to wear leather chin straps and boots and forgo caste rules on service.11 By the mid-nineteenth century, the Company imposed even greater restrictions on soldiers’ service. The General Service Enlistment Act of 1856 mandated that Indian soldiers serve overseas, which in some communities meant a loss of caste identity.12 Oversights or deliberate disregard for soldiers’ needs led to frequent tension and hostility between soldiers and Company officials at a time when the EIC’s hold over Indian territory and resources was growing stronger.

After another resurgence of British evangelical enthusiasm in northern India, a major rebellion broke out in 1857 that would spell disaster for the EIC. An entire regiment mutinied after Company officers arrested soldiers who refused to handle cartridges allegedly greased with pig and cow fat.13 The Bengal cavalry followed suit soon after, inspiring the remaining infantry and artillerymen to rebel or disband. A large-scale revolt, known in nineteenth-century Britain as the Great Mutiny, spread across northern India from 1857 to 1858.14 The uprising gained popular support in cities such as Agra and Lucknow, where there had been high-profile public debates between South Asian scholars and Christian missionaries.15 British officials overlooked soldiers’ varied complaints about land seizures, reductions in pay, missionary intervention, and mandates for overseas travel. Instead, they condemned the rebellion as an irrational response to the alleged greasing of cartridges, which invalidated the faith of Muslims and high-caste Hindus. After brutally suppressing the rebels, British officials legitimized their rule in India by claiming that India was composed of unfathomable religious diversity and violence that required a firm imperial hand to manage it. When the power of governing India transferred from the EIC to the British crown in 1858, Queen Victoria declared a policy of religious non-interference. The army, in turn, made some efforts to respect certain beliefs and practices, for example by replacing leather chin straps with pagris or turbans.16 Promises of religious non-interference did not stop colonial officials from trying to control soldiers’ identities to suit military needs.

The post-mutiny armies maintained some, but not all, of the EIC’s organizing logic. The 1858 Peel Commission recommended diminishing the presence of high-caste Hindus and diversifying the recruitment of soldiers.17 They did not aspire for true diversity. Military officials believed that the most loyal men during the “mutiny” of 1857 had been Punjabi Sikhs, Nepali “Gurkhas,” and Scottish Highlanders, so they represented these men as the most “manly” and martial to encourage their recruitment.18 By June 1858, seventy-five thousand of the eighty thousand South Asian troops in the Bengal army were Punjabis.19 This tendency became institutionalized in the recruiting theory of “martial races.”20 Some believed that by identifying groups most prone to rebellion, they could either win them over or target them for violence to crush anti-colonial resistance. These recruiting strategies affected wider social and cultural debates within and beyond South Asia about racial differences between the “martial” and the “non-martial.”21 Military service became family tradition in some communities. Soldiers often served in the same regiments as their fathers, reinforcing the “inherited” nature of martial prowess.22

Imperial categories often struggled to encompass the complexity and fluidity of South Asian identities. Despite the similar regional origins of Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims, for example, British officials believed that their different spiritual convictions made them different “races.” While many Nepalese and north Indian soldiers were Hindu, their physical, geographic, and linguistic differences marked their “racial” distinctions. Meanwhile, many communities and military officers emphasized linkages to warfare and martial cultures that predated colonialism, making these identities seem perennial and unchanging. By the late nineteenth century, British officials hoped that widely recruited communities would remain loyal and devoted to imperial rule. The Eden Commission reported in 1879 that the Punjab province was the “home of the most martial races of India” and “the nursery” of the best soldiers.23 However, assumptions about militancy changed over time according to the needs of army recruiters and the economic conditions of prospective recruits.

The shift toward heavy recruiting in Punjab and the northwest related in part to fears of invasion, as well as British beliefs that the men found there were the most manly and martial. The so-called Great Game of colonial competition with Russia brought recurring campaigns into India’s northwestern borderlands. After two Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839–42, 1878–80), the Government of India invested billions of rupees in the construction of railways, roads, and cantonment towns throughout the Punjab province.24 This inspired the centralization of the military forces in India. By 1895, the old EIC designations of the Bengal, Madras, and Bombay armies were removed and replaced by a single Indian Army headed by a commander-in-chief in charge of four regional commands. The term Indian Army appeared officially by 1903.25 This name remained in place until the independence and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Post-colonial India would retain the title, and much of the organizing framework, of the Indian Army.

In the years before, during, and after the First World War, the Indian Army simultaneously cultivated and challenged the possibility of Indian national unity in the midst of rising nationalist and anti-colonial activity. Faithful Fighters therefore focuses on the British Indian Army as it existed in the first four decades of the twentieth century. After 1940, the colonial army was all but unrecognizable. That year, the army allowed Indian officers to command British soldiers—a severe blow to the inflexible racial hierarchy that had existed since the eighteenth century. During the Second World War, India’s military forces swelled to 2.4 million people. Some of these soldiers abandoned the ranks and joined the anti-colonial Indian National Army. The period before the Second World War, therefore, is especially deserving of consideration because it reveals the army’s vulnerabilities, as well as its influence in wider discussions about militancy and political change in South Asia. Soldiers’ and civilians’ experiences with and exposure to militarization were gradual and changed over time. Military cultures did not emerge fully formed at the outbreak of war in 1914 or 1939, or at the moment of independence and partition in 1947. Rather, in the period marked by the dissolution of the old regional armies in 1895 and the creation of the anti-colonial Indian National Army in 1942, the Indian Army was the primary site of debate and contention about what it meant to be a martial Indian man. In times of both war and “peace,” the army contributed to mass militarization, influencing strategies of violent and non-violent resistance to, as well as collaboration with, colonial rule.

Faithful Fighters stands out from recent scholarly work on the Indian Army by considering not only how the army influenced Britain’s and South Asia’s ability to wage war but also how the army shaped colonial society in times of “peace.” Cultures of the body and militant masculinity, for example, were formative in both the army and Indian nationalist movements. “Muscular Christianity” was an arm of British nationalism that emphasized the physical strength and endurance of British missionaries and soldiers who traversed the globe in the service of imperial Christianity. It was matched by “muscular Hinduism” in India, which supported cricket, football, and de-sexualized forms of yoga to develop Indian bodies to fight for the national project.26 These trends demonstrate that intense cultural fluidity could exist between “colonizer” and “colonized.” Yet proponents of muscular Hinduism also used these cultures to criticize imperial rule. Many English-educated Bengali politicians and intellectuals blamed colonization for creating physical decline and effeminacy, making Bengalis ineligible for military recruitment. They encouraged men to develop strong bodies to combat “degeneration” and undermine the accusation that they were too “effeminate” to rule India.27 While both Indian nationalists and the army glorified strong martial bodies, they disagreed about what Indian men should fight to achieve.28

Focusing on military culture reveals how spiritual and political concerns were inseparably entwined, especially as anti-colonial politics and global war collided in the twentieth century. In 1905, British officials divided the Bengal province to streamline government bureaucracy. This gave greater political opportunities to the Muslim minority population who held numerous positions in the army.29 Anti-colonial and nationalist actors interpreted this as an effort to undermine high-caste Hindus, who dominated the Indian National Congress (established 1885). This inspired division between extremists and moderates in the Congress and a sharp rise in militant anti-colonial activism. Following a famine in 1907, some anti-colonial campaigners journeyed to the agriculturally rich Punjab province, which served as the primary recruiting ground for Sikhs and Muslims, to inspire soldiers to mutiny. These political alliances frequently brought together Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who shared criticisms of British governance in India. The Government of India responded by moving India’s capital to Delhi in 1912 to place greater political control in areas of military significance.30 The First World War intensified these political and military tensions by sending South Asian soldiers to fight in every major field of battle—from Singapore to France, Mesopotamia to northwestern India, and from Arabia to East Africa. Racial hierarchies led British officials to worry about permitting Indian troops to fight in Europe and kill Europeans. Some Muslim soldiers were anxious about fighting against Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire or in Muslim holy lands. Many Punjabi Sikh veterans supported the international Ghadar (mutiny) movement to stir revolution in the army. During the war anti-colonial activists were optimistic that soldiers would join whole-heartedly in the anti-colonial struggle, in part by using the appeal of religious revolt.

By 1919, perceptions of the army’s potential for anti-colonial collaboration changed dramatically when General Reginald Dyer commanded Indian troops to open fire against a demonstration in Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs in Punjab.31 Widely regarded as the event that brought new vitality to Indian anti-colonial activism led by Mohandas Gandhi, the Amritsar massacre was also a brutal declaration that soldiers would remain loyal to the empire no matter their grievances. General Dyer’s use of South Asian troops was intended to underline the divide between civilian anti-colonial rebellion and the loyal imperial army. The 1919 Anglo-Afghan War and rebellion in Waziristan (1919–20), meanwhile, undermined international anti-colonial activism with brutal campaigns along the Afghan border.32 Amid these challenges, the Indian Army gradually desegregated its officer corps in a process known as “Indianization” in the 1920s and 1930s. This created further divisions by placing greater demands for loyalty on recruited men without reconciling the long-held religious hierarchies of the “martial races.” As anti-colonial leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and the Ali brothers used religious imagery to challenge imperialism, the army’s emphasis on “martial races” proved unstable. Military service inadvertently encouraged soldiers to see similarities with pan-Islamic, Hindu nationalist, and reformist Sikh activists who criticized and challenged imperial rule. As anti-colonial activism intensified, the army became more defensive in claiming the right to control soldiers’ beliefs.

Faithful Fighters is the first study to interrogate how soldiers actually experienced and responded to British efforts to categorize and control their identities.33 Several excellent scholarly works have highlighted the importance of the Indian Army in the global wars of the twentieth century.34 Some have used post-colonial theory to interrogate soldiers’ experiences of both world wars and the inadequacy of imperial record-keeping to capture soldiers’ perspectives.35 Others have questioned the racial and class hierarchies of military histories of the twentieth century by highlighting South Asian women, laborers, and low-caste sweepers who shaped the war effort.36 Scholars have also transcribed soldiers’ letters, explored the hybridity of British and South Asian military institutions, examined literary representations of soldiers’ service, and tracked Hindu ethics of warfare over centuries.37 Faithful Fighters foregrounds soldiers’ and civilians’ experiences with militancy across categories of religious difference to understand how colonial rule and military service affected their identities in both war and peace. Some Sikh soldiers, for example, embraced army categories to gain employment and perform precolonial heritage through access to swords, known as kirpans. Certain Hindu men rejected British categories but also emulated the “martial races” to demonstrate their own military prowess. Focusing on the period before, during, and after the First World War illuminates these connections between military culture and colonial society. Soldiers participated in and shaped anti-colonial debates about bearing arms, accessing education, and crossing geopolitical borders. Anti-colonial rhetoric about food security, precolonial heritage, and religious purity, meanwhile, infiltrated military ranks. During this period, soldiers’ imperial employment gave them the unique—and contentious—position of being desirable allies of both colonial and anti-colonial actors. Many of the ideas that underpinned army recruitment—including rigid codes of masculinity and hierarchies of religious difference—collapsed or were re-entrenched in the face of anti-colonial challenges. The fusion of religious identity with military prowess influenced soldiers and civilians from Hindu nationalist yogis to Muslim soldiers contemplating pan-Islamic activism. The idea of “religious warfare” was both encouraged by soldiers “from below” and used by nationalist, imperial, and community leaders to claim how, why, and when soldiers fought. Faithful Fighters tells the story of soldiers’ battles between these contending forces and within themselves.

Taking a social and cultural approach to a colonial army in war and peace suggests that soldiers struggled to balance their multiple loyalties to family, community, nation, and empire. They needed to be “faithful” to many, often conflicting, devotions. Colonial officials, however, tended to read soldiers’ political and social demands as religious complaints or antagonisms. Many scholars have rightly suggested that colonial rule hardened religious categories by legally defining caste, recruiting soldiers as “martial races,” creating comparative studies of religion, and confiscating property based on European understandings of property rights. Casting “Hinduism,” “Sikhism,” and Islam as “religions” applied European, monotheistic frameworks to diverse beliefs and practices to make them legible to imperial bureaucracy.38 These structures continued to influence some scholarly assumptions and popular discussions about the role of caste and “communal antagonism” in India during and after the colonial period. Imperial institutions such as the Indian Army spread the idea that religious difference was an insurmountable division within South Asian society and hardened these identities through bureaucratic categories.39 Yet the colonial state’s capacity to define identities exceeded its ability to actually control them. Soldiers simultaneously internalized and challenged colonial and anti-colonial demands for devotion.

It is important to “think with” and analyze the category of religion when discussing colonial institutions such as the Indian Army because twentieth-century soldiers lived and worked within the parameters set by their imperial service. Soldiers understood that casting their grievances as “religious” would earn them a more sympathetic—or at least responsive—ear from the colonial state. British officials, meanwhile, believed that they accommodated soldiers’ “religious prejudices” by facilitating acts such as the fast of Ramzan (Ramadan) for Muslim soldiers and mandating purification ceremonies for Nepali “Gurkhas.” What they actually did was respond to a wide variety of issues—including food shortages, labor contracts, anti-colonial violence, changing borders, education, and healthy recreation—that blurred the lines between secular and sacred, soldier and civilian. The story of the Indian Army was not about British officials tirelessly scrambling to accommodate religious diversity to prevent another 1857 rebellion. Rather, the army attempted to set the acceptable parameters of religion. This included defining which rites, rituals, beliefs, and practices could be incorporated into the army and which could not. The unintended consequence was facilitating interfaith discourse between British and South Asian men that both reinforced and challenged the religious and racial hierarchies of imperial rule.

Exploring military rituals reveals the complexity of soldiers’ motivations for living, serving, and dying in the service of empire. The army attempted to discipline and train the loyal soldier by blending religious and military practice. Yet forging military identities meant making quick decisions about inclusion and exclusion: What was an irrational prejudice and what was a disciplined orthodoxy? Which beliefs and practices could be useful to build a loyal army and which were most likely to tear it apart? The army’s efforts to control, regulate, and define soldiers’ beliefs consistently wrestled with the rapid political, economic, and cultural transformations of the era. Soldiers used and manipulated national and imperial loyalties to suit their individual, community, and family needs, envisioning their own futures within and beyond colonialism. These affected wider debates about martial masculinity, racial regeneration, and religious unity in South Asia. Military leaders wanted to prevent soldiers from seeking allies among Indian politicians and activists who might better address their spiritual and secular needs. The threat of anti-colonial collaboration, however, gave soldiers powers and privileges not bestowed on Britain’s non-military subjects in India. Imperial officials believed that military culture could overcome religious and racial difference and forge loyalty. Soldiers and civilians, in turn, embraced the army’s religious militarism to create alternative, and sometimes anti-colonial, martial cultures. In many ways, widely recruited men could be the most threatening to military order.

The following six chapters identify and analyze army attempts to create stability in the army by controlling soldiers’ identities before, during, and after the First World War. The first three chapters deal with Sikhs, Muslims, and Nepali “Gurkhas” who held the nominally privileged status of “martial races.” Heavy recruitment gave them access to land, upward mobility, regular pay, as well as the opportunity to honor their beliefs and demonstrate their masculine prowess through military service. It also made them subject to traumatic wars and threats of political and social isolation. The last three chapters consider the simultaneous breakdown of “martial race” recruiting practices and the infiltration of military identities into British and South Asian society. This resulted in the further racialization of religion in conversations about access to food, education, and political representation across categories of religious difference.40 Despite the army’s attempts to isolate soldiers from colonial society, colonial society often emulated and shaped the army.

Chapter One considers a primary point of tension for South Asian soldiers—taking up arms and committing acts of violence to support imperial goals while challenging forms of militarism not sanctioned by the colonial state. This was especially true for Sikh soldiers, who carried a disproportionate burden to commit acts of violence due to their heavy recruitment. The colonial trope of the “loyal Sikh” meshed uncomfortably with soldiers’ own desires to wear and carry kirpans. These swords or daggers were both religious objects and potentially threatening weapons. The contradictions of Sikh service were illuminated when the Indian Army used an excessive display of force near the Golden Temple of Amritsar during a Sikh holiday. In its aftermath, soldiers and civilians considered how to reclaim Sikh militarism to agitate for rights, privileges, and liberation from both colonial and nationalist leaders.

The slippage between loyalty and rebellion was also contentious for the diverse Muslim soldiers who fought in wars on behalf of Britain and the empire in Muslim-majority territories. Chapter Two examines how South Asian soldiers took part in the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919), the rebellion in Waziristan (1919–20), and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire 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. Those who lived on or near militarized borders faced even greater challenges of constant violence and political uncertainty. 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.

Soldiers’ connections to foreign powers sometimes could be sources of strength rather than weakness. Chapter Three follows the army’s attempts to recruit soldiers known as “Gurkhas” from the nominally independent nation of Nepal. Nepalese soldiers enjoyed a distinctive reputation for being resistant to the Indian caste system and Indian anti-colonialism. However, their recruitment forced the colonial state to respond to Nepali 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. Their example demonstrates how caste rules could solidify, rather than undermine, soldiers’ worth.

The introduction of a purification ceremony into military practice did not mean that British officials had a positive view of caste in the army. In fact, officers were often hostile to the caste rules observed by some Indian soldiers. Chapter Four explores the complex relationship between food and the military. Memories and tales of the 1857 rebellion convinced many twentieth-century British officials that caste threatened army stability. They made decisions about rations that both adapted to soldiers’ perceived “religious” needs but also encouraged soldiers to give these things up to build strong bodies to serve the empire. Nonetheless, agricultural turmoil and famine were recurring features of South Asian life, affecting soldiers’ view of military service and food. South Asian soldiers often borrowed from Mughal and Rajput ideas to express that they had eaten “the government’s salt” and needed to stay loyal to it. Indian anti-colonial activists, by contrast, made food a centerpiece of rebellion—made famous by Gandhi’s periodic fasting and 1930 salt march. The army often used food to demarcate who was, and was not, entitled to eat the salt of the government.

Between the world wars, military officials emphasized differences between soldiers and civilians to fortify bonds with recruited men. The fifth chapter tracks how Indian military colleges and academies in the 1920s and 1930s solidified military culture by reforming army attitudes about education. Earlier army officials worried that education threatened soldiers’ masculinity and martial prowess. Between the wars, officials hoped that loyalty could be learned. These enclosed spaces promised to facilitate racial as well as religious integration during the “Indianization” of the Indian Army. However, they isolated future Indian officers from the civilian population in a period of intense anti-colonial activism. Military education encouraged soldiers to see themselves as cosmopolitan leaders of an interfaith, commonwealth army and the rightful leaders of India. At times, these institutions went further by rewarding them for embracing British colonial and Christian values. As a result, many struggled to belong in either the empire or the nation.

Military education and indoctrination did not prevent soldiers from seeing validity in anti-colonial critiques. Instead, it idealized violent masculinity and religious militarism. Chapter Six reveals the unanticipated political consequences of military desegregation. Military cantonments in the 1930s 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 the dangers of Indian nationalism. Military men vocally criticized colonial officials for failing to have the same disciplined control of Indian civilians that the Indian Army appeared to have over its soldiers. Some Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh soldiers and civilians shared common beliefs about the importance of martial prowess to forge a political identity. On the eve of the Second World War, some officers and soldiers found fascism more in line with their experiences of imperial military life than the city-based civilian governments dominating British and Indian politics in the 1930s. These men celebrated racial and religious hierarchies and political violence in ways that resonated in India in unexpected and tragic ways.

The army’s adoption, incorporation, and modification of religious identities was never just about meeting soldiers’ needs to prevent rebellion. Most colonial officials believed that stabilizing identities within the military would eradicate the tensions of religious and racial difference, creating a perfectly ordered imperial state. Soldiers, in turn, navigated changing imperial policies and shifting anti-colonial strategies to cope with—and extract privileges from—the conflicting agendas of imperialism and nationalism. At times they envisioned alternative post-colonial futures. The army hoped that creating unity in the army would secure the empire. Few anticipated that a strong army would militarize colonial society and hasten imperial decline.


1. A walking tour about the Indian hospitals at the Royal Pavilion on February 28, 2015, detailed this event.

2. Research on the Indian Army has witnessed a recent resurgence that has added much to military histories of the army. I am especially indebted to the following works: Gajendra Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); Yasmin Khan, India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Santanu Das, India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, Songs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Santanu Das, Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999); Daniel Marston, The Indian Army at the End of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Heather Streets, Martial Races: The Military, Race, and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004). For additional excellent studies on non-Indian colonial soldiers, see also Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014); Richard Fogarty, Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

3. Army officials constantly monitored the “religious composition” of the Indian Army. For example, in 1912: Sikhs (32,702—20.5%), Punjabi Muslims (25,299—16%), Pathans (12,202—7.7%), Hindustani Muslims (9,054—5.7%), other Muslims (8,717—5.5%) (Muslims = 34.5% total), Gurkhas (18,100—11.5%), Rajputs (12,051—7.7%), Garhwalis (10,421—6.1%), other Hindus (Ahirs, Gujars, Mers, Mians, Bhils, Parias, Tamils = 10,252—6.5%), Jats (9,670—6%), Marathas (5,685—3%), Brahmins (2,636—1.7%), Christians (1,800—1.2%). Kaushik Roy, Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 217; Proceedings of the Army in India Committee, 1912, vol. I-A, Minority Report (Simla, 1913), 156. These numbers changed during and after the First World War. See Satya M. Rai, Legislative Politics and Freedom Struggle on [sic] the Panjab 1897–1947 (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1984), 179–80. The percentage of recruits from Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province rose from 46% to 58.5% in the twentieth century. The percentage from Nepal, Garhwal, and Kumaun rose from 14.8% to 22% in the same period. Nirad C. Chaudhuri, “The Martial Races of India,” Part II, Modern Review 48, No. 285 (1930): 296.

4. There is a rich and robust scholarly dialogue about the “martial races.” See, for example, Streets, Martial Races; Gavin Rand and Kim Wagner, “Recruiting the ‘Martial Races’: Identities and Military Service in Colonial India,” Patterns of Prejudice 46, Nos. 3–4 (2012); Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers; David Omissi, The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860–1940 (London: Macmillan, 1994). The most famous text about the martial races written during the British Raj was George MacMunn, The Martial Races of India (London: Low, Marston & Co., 1933). Various military recruiting manuals both enforced and demonstrated the flexibility of the concept.

5. This will be explored in greater detail in the second chapter.

6. Seema Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India, 1770–1830 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 35.

7. I use the term “Panjab” when referring to the precolonial region and “Punjab” when speaking to the colonial period and term. For a greater understanding of the connections between precolonial, company, and colonial militaries, see Purnima Dhavan, When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of the Sikh Warrior Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6–7; Dirk A. Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan, 1450–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Kaushik Roy, “The Hybrid Military Establishment of the East India Company in South Asia: 1750–1849,” Journal of Global History 6, No. 2 (2011); Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company; Erica Wald, Vice in the Barracks: Medicine, the Military and the Making of Colonial India, 1780–1868 (New York: Palgrave, 2014); William Pinch, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Kaushik Roy, “The Construction of Regiments in the Indian Army: 1859–1913,” War In History 8, No. 127 (2001).

8. Company officials often disagreed about the desirability or harm of spreading Christianity in the early years of Company rule. Nile Green, Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion in the Service of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 72; Streets, Martial Races, 27.

9. For example, Brigadier Colin Mackenzie earned the nickname “Moollah” from his Afghan captors due to his religious fervor for Christianity. He refused to allow South Asian soldiers to participate in the festivities surrounding the holy month of Muharram. Green, Islam and the Army, 63; Streets, Martial Races, 28.

10. Antoinette Burton, The First Anglo-Afghan Wars: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

11. Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, Lloyd L. Rudolph, and Mohan Singh Kanota, eds., Reversing the Gaze: Amar Singh’s Diary, a Colonial Subject’s Narrative of Imperial India (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002).

12. Streets, Martial Races, 28.

13. Cartridges were frequently greased to facilitate the easier entry of bullets into the barrel of rifles. Thanks to University of North Texas student and veteran Jason Maynard. What type of grease they used remains a source of debate and controversy. See below.

14. Debates about the causes of 1857 remain contentious. Many point to a mix of religious and secular causes but the cartridge story remains the most retold cause of the 1857 rebellion. S. L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century (New Delhi: Viking, Penguin Books India, 1993); Vera Nünning, “‘Daß Jeder seine Pflicht thue’: Die Bedeutung der Indian Mutiny für das nationale britische Selbstverständnis,” Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 78 (1996): 373; Marina Carter and Crispin Bates, Mutiny at the Margins: New Perspectives on the Indian Uprising of 1857 (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2013); Streets, Martial Races, 28–29; Kim A. Wagner, The Great Fear of 1857: Rumours, Conspiracies and the Making of the Indian Uprising (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), 27–28; Avril Powell, Muslims and Missionaries in Pre-Mutiny India (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

15. Powell, Muslims and Missionaries, 272.

16. Roy, “The Construction of Regiments,” 143.

17. Powell, Muslims and Missionaries, 283; Streets, Martial Races, 32–33.

18. Streets, Martial Races, 20.

19. They also suggested doubling the number of British soldiers to eighty thousand and aimed to maintain a ratio of one British soldier for every two Indian soldiers. Syed Hussain Shaheed Soherwordi, “‘Punjabisation’ in the British Indian Army 1857–1947 and the Advent of Military Rule in Pakistan,” Edinburgh Papers in South Asian Studies 24 (2010): 12; Streets, Martial Races, 24, 32.

20. See note 3.

21. Kaushik Roy, “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Soldier? Crime and Punishment in the Army of India, 1860–1913,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 84, No. 337 (Spring 2006): 9–33, at 26.

22. Roy, “The Construction of Regiments,” 130, 146.

23. The Eden Commission, India Office Records, British Library (henceforth IOR), IOR/L/MIL/17/5/1687.

24. Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849–1947 (New Delhi and London: Sage, 2005), 20.

25. The four commands were the Punjab Command, the Bengal Command, the Bombay Command, and the Madras Command, each of which had its own lieutenant general. The former Bengal Army was split between the Punjab and Bengal Commands. This period also witnessed a clash between civil and military power through Viceroy Lord Curzon and Commander-in-Chief Kitchener. Soherwordi, “‘Punjabisation’ in the British Indian Army 1857–1947,” 5, 15; Tan, Garrison State, 32–33.

26. Most famously, Swami Vivekananda promoted football and encouraged a program of “Beef, Biceps and Bhagvat Gita.” Quoted in Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 82; Joseph Alter, “Yoga at the Fin de Siècle: Muscular Christianity with a ‘Hindu’ Twist,” International Journal of the History of Sport 23, No. 5 (2006): 759–76; Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

27. Joseph Alter, “Indian Clubs and Colonialism: Hindu Masculinity and Muscular Christianity,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, No. 3 (2004): 497–534, at 517. The 1880s and 1890s were critical moments in theorizing who could be defined as “martial.” Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 3–4, 17, 21–23.

28. Sinha, Colonial Masculinity. Sinha’s discussion of the volunteer movement is especially instructive.

29. The Bengal partition was under Viceroy Lord Curzon (1898–1905), who attempted to streamline India’s large government bureaucracies and undermine growing threats of political activism in and around the imperial capital of Calcutta. Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 156–57.

30. Tan, Garrison State; Mark Condos, The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

31. This incident and the relevant literature will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter. See, for example, Derek Sayer, “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919–1920,” Past and Present 131 (May 1991): 130–64.

32. See Chapter 2 for a further discussion of these dynamics.

33. See note 2 for a more detailed catalog of recent work.

34. Marston, The Indian Army at the End of the Raj; Khan, India at War.

35. Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers.

36. Shrabani Basu, For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914–18 (New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2015); Khan, India at War.

37. Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War; Roy, Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare; Das, India, Empire, and First World War Culture; Roy, “The Hybrid Military Establishment.”

38. This represents just a few of the many ground-breaking scholars partaking in debates about the use of “religion” in South Asia: Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Arvind-Pal S. Mandair, Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Dhavan, When Sparrows Became Hawks; Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and “the Mystic East” (London and New York: Routledge, 1999); Peter Van der Veer, Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Indrani Chatterjee, “Monastic Governmentality, Colonial Misogyny, and Postcolonial Amnesia in South Asia,” History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History 3 (Spring 2013): 55–98.

39. See also Edmund Burke III, The Ethnographic State: France and the Invention of Moroccan Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

40. See also Junaid Rana, Terrifying Muslims: Race and Labor in the South Asian Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).