Opinion: Agnipath and what history tells us about discontented soldiers (The News Minute)

Indian Soldiers

The Agnipath Tour of Duty program marks a fundamental shift in India’s military recruitment policy. Those who oppose this include senior veterans and defence specialists who have suggested major changes, if not shelving the program completely. The controversy has seemingly simmered down following the government’s promises in response to the nationwide protests. Nevertheless, certain criticisms and possible implications of Agnipath still require some examination.

A few detractors had posited that given the social truths evident from our recruitment patterns, the annual elimination of three-quarters of recruited young Agniveers would be a mistake. In an already unsettled Indian society, a coalescence of discontent young people who are trained in warfare – but lack the benefits of long service – could be problematic. The social stigma and unfulfilled aspirations could push the dissatisfied young ex-serviceman into unsavoury activities. Enlisted personnel have been retiring regularly, so what will change with Agnipath? Can large, concentrated numbers of discontent young ex-servicemen turn into a threat? Let us take a closer look at these questions while considering a couple of cases from modern history.

Before Agnipath

Every year, around 60,000 soldiers retire after 17-24 years in service, based on age and the parent service’s term of engagement. Let us make an important distinction – we are now talking about Indian citizens from the Sepoy and Non-Commissioned Officer ranks, who retire well before Junior Commissioned Officers and Commissioned Officers. Most of them are in their late 30s-40s: young and needy enough to embark on another career. However, they are now mature individuals, moulded by a professional military. They have picked up employable skills and possess valuable military experience gained from a variety of postings and by braving immense challenges.

The professional culture and the traditions of the forces infuse a secular, pan-Indian spirit. The long service in the close-knit organisational culture instils the core ethos of ‘Naam, Namak aur Nishan’ or honour, loyalty, and identity, bound to the soldier’s ‘Paltan’ (Regiment or Unit) and to the nation. These tenets underpin the oft-quoted ‘Paltan ki Izzat,’ or ‘(for the) honour of the Regiment,’ the Indian soldier’s all-encompassing credo, which civilians can perhaps not truly fathom.

Traditionally, an Indian soldier’s ‘Tour’ implies at least minimum term of engagement, and a lifelong attachment to the unit. Besides service undertakings, a key aspect is that the soldiers retire on their own terms, with their honour and self-respect intact. This is something as valuable as pension and benefits. They have not been subjected to any “rank-and-yank” elimination process which permanently mark some as lesser soldiers. The ex-serviceman’s honour and identity keep his demons and emotions well in check.

Two examples of veterans’ rage

Poonch, Kashmir – 1947

The Poonch rebellion of 1947 had a major impact on the Kashmir conflict. In June-September 1947, over 60,000 World War-II veterans from the tribes of Poonch and Mirpur regions rebelled against the Maharaja’s regime. The tribes were ethnically and culturally distinct from their co-religionists of the Kashmir Valley. The regime also considered the tribes as loyalists. As recruitment for World War-II commenced, the tribals were encouraged to join the British Army, where they soon gained military experience.

By April 1947, there was tension between government and returned veterans due to unemployment, heavy taxes, parochial policies, and unpaid arrears. When the Maharaja toured Poonch, almost every ex-serviceman assembled to meet him in Rawalakot. However, this turnout was perceived as a hostile show of strength. Actual intentions aside, the veterans did outnumber the state troops, possessed combat experience, and were aggrieved. Further, powers which sought Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan had been stirring rebellion everywhere. The ensuing program of suppression and disarmament and the unravelling political situation enraged the veterans who rose up in revolt.

The entry of the veterans into the rebellion spreading across the state made the situation in Kashmir extremely serious. Some rebels, veterans included, crossed into Pakistan. Pakistani leadership used them to fire up and muster thousands of armed raiders from the northern tribes for the annexation of Kashmir – plans for which had been on the works for many months. The invasion of October 1947 and the first Indo-Pak war might have gone very differently without the involvement of the veterans in the rebellion and the military campaigns.

Weimar Germany, 1918-1933

The Weimar Republic had overthrown the Imperial regime and ended World War I before Germany itself was consumed. However, the Republic’s mistakes in healing and resettling their disbanded young soldiers would cost the world dearly. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to mass conscription of young Germans. The citizens of this new state unified not 50 years ago, enthusiastically joined the war. Visions of quick victory soon changed to shock, as a whole generation became traumatised in the horrific slaughterhouses of that war. At the brink of nationwide collapse, the new leadership (which overthrew Imperial rule in an uprising) sought armistice – even though the army itself was not yet totally defeated in the field. German soldiers were shocked, enraged, or in denial as they trudged back home. Most were discharged unceremoniously as a condition of the armistice.

These agitated and disillusioned young ex-servicemen became easy prey for the propaganda of fascists trying to overthrow the fledgling Republic. Moreover, the powerful military leadership wanted scapegoats for their inability to win. The targets of both parties were the democrats, the growing communist movement, and the Jewish minority. The propaganda was that these enemies “stabbed Germany in the back” and were the cause of all the suffering of true Germans. Soon “free corps” (Freikorps) of freebooting militias mushroomed, recruiting primarily young ex-servicemen. The Republic myopically joined hands with the militias to crush their mutual enemy, the communists.

Germany soon turned into a hellish kaleidoscope of militias and gangs of all political hues. They expanded through political funding and grift, renting out military services, looting, and criminal enterprises. The Republic tried to uproot the militias, but they never really went away. The radicalised militias simply changed names and concealed themselves in Germany’s poisoned political landscape. Many crises and much bloodshed later, a veteran named Hitler grabbed power. This feat owed much to his party’s massive militia (composed mostly of the Freikorps’ men) and their extra-judicial methods.

There are other examples in history, but the above perhaps suffice to consider the criticisms of the Agnipath program. Of course, the princely state of Kashmir or inter-war Germany is not exactly the same as today’s India. Nevertheless, one could make the case that large numbers of disbanded young soldiers bearing resentment and stigma, ongoing economic or political crises, coupled with nefarious interests trying to exploit the situation could be a very dangerous situation.

Grave Possibilities

In Agnipath, only one in four Agniveers gets to continue being a soldier for 15 more years. Every year, we will see about 30,000 young personnel discharged with no pension or benefits, albeit with severance and some avenues of resettlement. In a decade, this number would be closer to 2 lakhs. Arguably, those swathes of India that contribute the bulk of our soldiery, will also have most of the eliminated returnees.

Even a small percentage of disillusioned or desperate ex-servicemen among this populace would be a significant number. A few veterans and defence specialists have argued that such Agniveers could be picked up by unsavoury organisations, as muscle. Areas with larger concentrations of the discharged could be more susceptible to propaganda and enticements to that end. This could further shift the ‘normal’ in Indian politics. Another possibility that was raised is that Private Military Contractors (PMC) would find ways to recruit Agniveers. India’s frontline ground units train and deploy soldiers for many years to ingrain army ethos and battle experience. Such warriors are expected to and are ready to make the supreme sacrifice. The old system was time and battle tested; modalities and implications of the rising number of Agniveers in frontline ground units in combat zones are yet to be seen. Nevertheless, even the four years of training and experience in India’s armed forces would be attractive enough for the rapidly growing corporate warlords of the world, looking to put boots on the ground for the highest bidder.

Our ex-servicemen, moulded by long years in the service and maintaining their lifelong Naam-Namak-Nishan link have so far not shown any inclination for the above possibilities. This has more to do with the ethos than any contractual undertaking that one will never serve in other military roles. Ex-servicemen have not coalesced into a politicised or radicalised power bloc ready to use violence (which they are quite capable of) even in the darkest chapters of India’s history. This is despite chronic problems faced by ex-servicemen in the civilian sector.

However, with the new program in place, will the dire predictions of the detractors come true – assuming some or all aggravating conditions are met? Will we wake up to news of Indians in the casualty lists of Wagner Group and Blackwater (now Constellis) type entities operating in various conflict zones of the world? Will we see steely-eyed former soldiers in new quasi-military militias of political parties, caste groups, and religious sects?

One hopes Agnipath is refined as required, receiving inputs and blessings of all stakeholders. The last thing we need is seeing a political strongman or some PMC contingent served by men who once guarded Bana Post and Nathu La.

PS: This is my article in The News Minute published on August 10, 2022. Here’s the link to the original article.


  • Jones, Nigel (2004). ‘Hitler’s Heralds: The Story of The Freikorps, 1918-1923’. John Murray
  • Snedden, Christopher (2013). ‘Kashmir: The Unwritten History’. HarperCollins India.

Nepal and the Great Indian Rebellion

Nepal Terai Region

The Great Indian Rebellion began to unravel after the British captured Delhi in September 1857. Subsequently, the British picked off rebel forces in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and Central India, the two major theatres of the Rebellion. The reconquest would not have been so successful if the British did not enjoy Indian assistance. Old wounds and new power dynamics caused Pathans, Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs, Marathas, etc. to earnestly participate in the suppression of the Rebellion. Not many speak about the role of British Army’s Gurkha units and the Kingdom of Nepal in the British reconquest though. Popular accounts of the Rebellion cover only a few key events and personalities. This unfortunately skips over many important aspects of the Indian Rebellion, including its doleful end in Nepal’s Terai region in December 1859.

After their Pyrrhic victory in the Anglo-Nepal War (1814 -1816), the very impressed British began to recruit thousands of Nepalis in newly raised regiments. Gurung and Magar tribesmen were the mainstay, but there were also sizeable numbers of Chhetris, Thakuris and Limbus in these new units. Such ‘Gurkha’ units were peppered among the vast native forces maintained by the East India Company. The homogeneous martial nature and loyalty of Nepali recruits was a result of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s strategies in Nepal’s unification wars (1743-1770). Prithvi Narayan Shah began his illustrious career as a young king who inherited a tiny Gorkha principality. He combined the fighting skills of the mountain tribes with the customs of high-caste groups of the plains. A principle of allegiance termed ‘Dhungo’ (stone), symbolizing a unitary Nepal State, was devised. A militarized pan-Gorkhali or Gurkha identity was created through social engineering and evocative rituals. Loyalty, unit cohesion and discipline were also drilled into the forces, composed of hitherto squabbling groups. Non-combatants were used for corvee labor or in military support functions.
This state nearly defeated the British in the Anglo-Nepal War, earning the latter’s respect and offer of large-scale military recruitment. The British appreciation of Nepali valour and the rather honorable treaty of 1816 made a positive impression in Nepal. Nepal took its commitments with the British quite seriously. When the Rebellion erupted in May 1857 the Gurkha units remained loyal, despite the rebels’ efforts to woo these warriors.

The Gurkhas were competent riflemen and excelled in close combat with their fearsome Kukri knives. The presence of loyal and fierce Gurkha sepoy was a morale booster for the hard-pressed British. The Gurkhas proved their worth in numerous engagements. The Nepal kingdom also sprung to the Company’s aid. When the Rebellion erupted, Rana Jang Bahadur, the de-facto ruler of Nepal, dispatched 3,200 soldiers to aid the British. A few months later, Jang Bahadur arrived with more reinforcements. In the Awadh theatre, Nepal’s army turned out to be very useful to the British.  
By January 1858, Delhi had been long pacified. However, the Rebellion still raged in Awadh and Central India. In March, a joint British-Nepali force captured Lucknow, a nerve centre of the Rebellion. In June, the Rebellion lost two of its tallest leaders: Maulvi Ahmadullah near Shahjahanpur and Rani Lakshmibai near Gwalior. The Central Indian theatre soon fell under British control. Leading Awadhi rebels also began to surrender. However, rebel leaders such as Nana Sahib, Awadh’s Begum Hazrat Mahal, Rana Beni Madho, and Khan Bahadur Khan still refused to yield. This remnant slipped into Nepal, hoping to run a guerilla war from the Terai, a region comprising of lowlands, forests and Himalayan foothills.

The rebels appealed to the Nepali leaders to join their fight against the rapacious British, who had no respect for customs of Hindus and Muslims. However, these appeals were dismissed. Nepal’s leadership did not immediately act against the Indian rebels because many natives of the Terai sympathized with the rebels. Instead, Jang Bahadur got the British to send troops into Nepal. The British obliged – all that remained of the accursed Rebellion now hid in the Terai. When the rebels proved too elusive for the British, Jang Bahadur led his army into the Terai in November 1859. Within a month all rebels were killed or captured: The Great Indian Rebellion was thus unceremoniously snuffed out in Nepal’s Terai. Nana Sahib and a few others had died of illness just before this sad end. The remaining leaders were carted back to India in chains and were summarily hanged. However, Begum Hazrat Mahal, her son, and the rebels’ womenfolk received asylum in Nepal.

Jang Bahadur was bestowed many British honors and decorations, cementing his power. Nepal regained some of the land she lost in 1816 and remained a reliable British ally till the end of the Raj. The Gurkhas, still counted among the best fighters in the world, continue to be recruited by the British Army.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on September 29, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


  • Gupta, Gautam (2008). 1857: The Uprising. Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.
  • Gurung, Tejimala (2014). ‘The making of Gurkhas as a “Martial Race” in Colonial India: Theory and Practice’. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Volume 75, pp. 520
  • Mukherjee, Rudrangshu (2002). Awadh in Revolt, 1857-1858. Permanent Black.
  • Tyagi, Susila. (1974). Indo-Nepalese Relations (1858 – 1914). D.K. Publishing House.


The Brief Defiance of Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal

Kashmir had been coveted by countless powers throughout history. The strategic location, the breathtaking beauty of the land, and its resources had immense allure. As a result, the region has seen much socio-political churn through claims and counterclaims, and war and bloodshed. Arguably, Kashmir’s bloodiest phase was the Afghan occupation. This is the story of Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal, who arrived as an invader, adopted Kashmir as his land and became its de facto ruler. For eight years, he protected Kashmir from the Afghans by closely allying and empathizing with Kashmiri leadership. If not for sheer misfortune and chance, and Afghan wiliness, which led to his downfall, the history of Kashmir could have been very different. This period has been covered by historians and authors such as P.N.K Bamzai and Lft. Gen. K.K. Nanda.

In 1751 C.E., the disintegrating Mughal empire witnessed Afghan Emperor Ahmad Shah Durrani, a.k.a Abdali, thundering towards Delhi. The Mughal emperor quickly bought peace by ceding Punjab and Multan. Meanwhile, the Sikhs were defiantly carving out zones of influence just north of Delhi. Kashmir was also in turmoil. The Mughal governor, a vicious man, had earned the enmity of all Kashmir. In 1753, some Kashmiri leaders met Abdali in Lahore and requested his aid. The ambitious Abdali gladly sent his army into Kashmir. At Shopian the Kashmiri troops defected; the Afghan standard soon fluttered on Akbar’s Fort near Srinagar. The Kashmiris’ joy at the end of Delhi’s rule quickly turned to horror. Abdali unleashed his troops to loot Kashmir; their pillaging and cruelty turned Kashmir into a hellhole. Kashmir was given to an Afghan Governor, who was aided by a senior officer named Sukh Jiwan Mal.

Sukh Jiwan Mal was a Punjabi Khatri soldier in Abdali’s service. This talented officer had quickly risen in Abdali’s military hierarchy. As Afghan tyranny intensified, he was approached by a Kashmiri leader named Abul Hassan Bandey. He urged Sukh Jiwan to deliver Kashmir from Afghan tyranny. It is unclear if it was ambition or genuine concern which turned Sukh Jiwan. He captured power in a coup, claiming the support of all Kashmir. Abdali, fighting insurrection elsewhere, realized that the usurper had the populace behind him. Biding for time he “appointed” Sukh Jiwan Mal as his Viceroy. Later, unable to dislodge Sukh Jiwan Mal through conspiracies, Abdali invaded Kashmir. The heavily outnumbered Kashmiris managed to rout the Afghan invaders. Sukh Jiwan Mal now took the title “Raja” after nominally declaring fealty to the Mughals. Abdali was beset with other problems and decided to wait.

The Raja made Bandey his Prime Minister. The duo revamped state administration, raised finances, and built a strong army. Sukh Jiwan Mal’s qualities (save his rather gullible nature), state administration, and diplomacy with various factions healed Kashmir. His secular outlook and empathy for Kashmiris made him quite popular. However, misfortune struck when a terrible famine hit. Additionally, the main arsenal was destroyed in a major conflagration, severely diminishing Kashmir’s strength. As Kashmir weakened, the wily Abdali recruited an influential Kashmiri noble. This agent wormed his way into the inner councils and made the Raja suspicious of Bandey. Sukh Jiwan Mal believed trumped up charges against Bandey and had the latter stripped of power. Many were shocked by this and state administration weakened. However, the Raja realized his mistake and Bandey was reinstated. But Bandey apparently never forgave the Raja.

The Raja made another mistake: in 1758 he tried to conquer Sialkot in Punjab. This campaign ended in defeat, further eroding his power. Revolts flared up and the hill tribes began to raid the kingdom. Now Bandey broke his bonds of fealty and left. Later, trapped by the Raja’s men in Poonch, Abul Hassan Bandey killed himself. Bandey’s suicide alienated many and the administration unraveled. A Kashmiri official named Mahananda Dhar used this opportunity to ascend the ranks. Under his influence, Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal apparently began a policy of persecution. He also invited Hindus from outside to settle in Kashmir to increase his power. However, many such “immigrants” turned out to be brigands; they pillaged Kashmir and decamped. The Raja’s rule limped on, but his position became quite precarious.

By mid-1762 Abdali had triumphed over all foes – including the Marathas (in Panipat) and the Sikhs (in the horrific “Wadda Ghalughara”). He now sent his army into Kashmir. The Raja attacked this invasion force near Badgam. However, nearly the entire army suddenly switched sides. The Raja was surrounded and captured. The Afghans blinded him and brought him to Lahore. There, in Abdali’s presence, Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal was trampled to death by an elephant – the punishment for high treason.  The end of Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal’s reign ushered six decades of Afghan dominance, an era of terrible oppression and bloodshed. This ended in 1819 at the hands of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on September 1, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


  • Bamzai, P.N.K. (1994). Culture and Political History of Kashmir, Volume 2. M.D. Publications.
  • Lft. General Nanda, K. K. (2013). War With No Gains. Ocean Books

Tipu Sultan in Travancore – II: The Tiger at the Wall

Cornwallis and Tipu's sons

(Second of a two-part series on Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Travancore)

It was 1788 C.E. and the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was ready for another war. Four years ago, a weary Tipu and the equally battered British agreed to end the 2nd Anglo-Mysore War. But now he set his sights on Travancore, the kingdom that defied his father. Control over Travancore meant control of the spice trade, and incredible wealth and resources. Mysore had conquered northern Kerala already, but thousands of wealthy and prominent natives, along with vast treasures, had fled to Travancore. The recurring rebellions in Malabar clearly enjoyed Travancore’s backing. Moreover, Travancore was a long-time ally of the British. Travancore had to be subjugated first to end British power.

Tipu Sultan tried to force Travancore’s submission through threats and diplomacy. His pretext for war was the existence of the Travancore Lines fortifications in Cochin, Travancore’s northern ally. Tipu claimed that Cochin was his vassal as it once paid tribute to Mysore (during his father’s reign). Therefore, Travancore’s “illegal” Wall must be demolished. Travancore’s king roundly dismissed these claims and the furious Sultan immediately launched his invasion.

In December 1789 Tipu marched from Coimbatore with 40,000 troops. Mysore’s army was feared by all: Travancore’s forces were no match. Fortunately for Travancore, her commander was the remarkable Dewan, Raja Kesavadas. Born in 1745 into an inconsequential family, Raman Kesava Pillai proved his genius from childhood. His skills, and plain chance (there is a story straight out of a fairytale here!), soon brought him into the king’s service: his subsequent rise was meteoric. He became proficient in many languages and distinguished himself as an administrator. He also gained much military experience under De Lannoy and other prominent generals. In September 1789 he was appointed Dewan. Expecting Mysore’s invasion, he shored up defenses and sought assistance, but the British Governor of Madras reacted dismissively, sending only a tiny reserve force.

On December 30, 1789, Tipu attacked the Wall, which was personally commanded by the Dewan. Tipu personally participated in the assault, galvanizing his army. By nightfall Mysore troops surged in and almost captured a prominent citadel of the Wall. However, 20 warriors hidden in a corner of the citadel suddenly emerged and poured heavy fire at the flank of the massed assault force. In the carnage and darkness, the invaders believed that they were ambushed by a huge force. Confusion and panic swept across the ranks. The defenders on the ramparts now regrouped and fired heavily at the massed enemy. Losses were high in the ensuing rout. Tipu gravely injured his leg, which apparently never healed completely. He was forcibly carried away by aides as he refused to flee. Tipu’s palanquin, sword, signet ring and jewelry were captured during Mysore’s headlong rout.

Tipu Sultan now swore to destroy “the contemptible wall”. He renewed his assault two months later after bringing reinforcements and bigger siege guns. Travancore appealed again but the British refused.  This time, Tipu focused his siege artillery on a section of the Wall, which soon collapsed under withering bombardment. Kesavadas pulled back his troops from the breached sector as enemies poured in. After a month-long contest, the entire Wall was captured. Tipu chased the fleeing Travancore troops and pillaged widely. Around May, he reached the Periyar River. As Tipu’s forces began to cross a ford, Raja Kesavadas sprung a surprise. His soldiers demolished a major barrage upstream; the ensuing flash flood swept away many troops and drenched Tipu’s gunpowder stores. As Tipu reeled from this setback, a heavy monsoon descended. Diseases broke out and supplies were contaminated. At this juncture, Governor-General Lord Cornwallis replaced the callous Governor of Madras with a more pro-active officer. Allying with the Marathas and the Nizam, the British attached Mysore. The 3rd Anglo-Mysore War had begun.

Tipu raced back to save his heartlands. But first, he ordered the Wall’s destruction, and symbolically struck the first blow. In six days, the entire Wall was demolished. Raja Kesavadas now sent detachments to harass Tipu’s retreat and assist the British. Tipu fought well but soon Lord Cornwallis himself took command. A string of crushing defeats forced Tipu to capitulate on February 1792. Tipu had to pay heavy reparations, cede half his lands and send his sons as hostages. With the British acquiring Malabar, Salem, and Dindigul, Tipu ceased to be a threat to Travancore.

The Sultan and the Dewan soon suffered grim fates. Tipu died fighting the British at the walls of Srirangapatna in May 4, 1799, apparently betrayed by his closest officers. Raja Kesavadas preceded him in death by a fortnight – beggared, imprisoned and certainly poisoned by treacherous courtiers of a new child-king. Though very little remains of the Travancore Lines today, the names of many towns and villages in the region indicate the indelible mark that the Wall and Tipu’s invasion left on public memory.  

PS: This is my article in DNA published on August 11, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Tipu Sultan in Travancore – I: The Travancore Lines

Tipu Sultan

(First of a two-part series on Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Travancore)

Once upon a time there was a wall that spanned the narrow breadth of Kerala from the Arabian Sea to the Western Ghats. It was not as tall or long as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall, those great defensive lines of yore, but it was no different in function. The Kingdom of Travancore in southern Kerala built this wall to defend themselves from formidable northern foes. China’s wall defended her from Eurasian hordes and Hadrian’s Wall in northern England kept away the fearsome Picts from Roman Britain. The wall across Kerala, called the Travancore Lines or “Nedumkotta”, faced the invasion of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. In the first part of this two-part series we look at the creation of the Wall and the events leading to Tipu’s invasion of 1789. The second part will narrate how Tipu’s ambitions floundered at what he called “The Contemptible Wall”.

Decades before Mysore invaded, there were plans to build fortifications to protect Travancore from the powerful kingdom of Calicut. Around 1759, the great King of Travancore, Rama Varma “Dharma Raja”, perceived another threat on the horizon. He understood that Mysore could conquer entire Malabar (northern Kerala) and subsequently invade Travancore. After all, under a certain general named Hyder Ali Khan, Wodeyar-ruled Mysore was becoming increasingly powerful. Mysore’s highly mobile armies were feared by all: a strong and strategically located wall could break this juggernaut. Dharma Raja decided to build this Wall in the territories of his lesser northern neighbor (and ally), the state of Cochin. Geography, resources and supply lines decided the course of the Wall, which European sources termed “Travancore Lines”. On completion in 1764, the Wall stretched about 30 miles, from the western seaboard (from a fort north of present-day Kochi city) to the Western Ghats. Consider the physical map of Kerala – this span is a narrow gap between the sea and the hostile mountains. The enemy had little room for maneuver and would be funneled towards the Wall. Some believe that ancient fortifications long existed along this gap, and that Travancore simply built over these.

In 1761, Hyder Ali deposed the Wodeyar dynasty and became Sultan of Mysore. He had previously conquered parts of Malabar for his former patron. He now decided to annex entire Kerala to control the spice trade and to claim Kerala’s wealth. Between 1761 and 1778, multiple invasions and suppression campaigns brought Malabar under Hyder Ali. Some military campaigns were led by Hyder’s heir, Prince Fateh Ali Tipu. In 1766, Calicut was defeated and her ruler, the exalted 117th Zamorin, immolated himself as Mysore’s forces closed in. Tens of thousands were killed or displaced in this period. Refugees of all religions, classes and castes poured into Travancore. Mysore had indeed become the great northern threat for Travancore – the Wall would be tested soon.

Let’s take a closer look at the Wall. It was designed and built by Eustachius De Lannoy, the Dutch commander who lost the decisive Battle of Colachel (1741) against Dharma Raja’s predecessor. De Lannoy had bent the knee; over the years he rose to become the commander of Travancore’s armed forces! He was a brilliant strategist and builder and had created bristling defenses for his adoptive homeland. His Wall was 40 feet tall and 30 feet thick. It was built with clay, mud and laterite and reinforced with stones and granite. Unlike the towering walls of old, such squat walls were better defenses against modern siege guns and mines. The Wall was protected by a trench 20-foot deep and 16-foot wide. Additionally, a thick hedge of thorny shrubs was placed beyond the trench. The Wall was well-stocked and garrisoned. It had citadels, underground tunnel networks, barracks, arsenals and supply depots. It was a great barrier to any invader coming from the north.

In 1777 De Lannoy died and his immediate successor was far less capable: Hyder Ali now tried to cow down Travancore into submission with threats and diplomacy. Dharma Raja refused and pointed out his alliances with the East India Company, Mysore’s great foe, and the Dutch (long tamed since Colachel). The enraged Sultan launched an invasion. However, he retreated just before reaching the Wall due to a sudden rebellion in Malabar and more pressing matters in the Carnatic region. Hyder Ali invaded the Carnatic in 1780, setting off the Second Anglo-Mysore War. He planned to return to Travancore once he dealt with the British. However, Hyder Ali died suddenly (of a carbuncle on his back) in 1782 and Prince Tipu ascended the throne. In 1784, Tipu Sultan and the fatigued British agreed to end the war. Tipu quietly rebuilt his strength now; he was determined to conquer Travancore and crush the British in the next war. He would get his pretext for war soon …..

PS: This is my article in DNA published on August 4, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Burhanpur: Mughal Splendor and Drama

The Ahukhana

In India, one can scarcely travel a hundred miles without encountering a clump of ancient or medieval ruins. Except historians or the odd local enthusiast, few cares about these monuments. Most of the monuments maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India enjoys the splendor of only rickety notice boards, peddlers and guides spouting suspiciously ornate trivia. Around Burhanpur, a small city in Madhya Pradesh, there are a hundred such ill-maintained but still impressive monuments. However, Burhanpur is not part of India’s well-known tourist trails. Few are aware that Burhanpur served as a frontier capital and briefly hosted the imperial court of the Mughal Empire. The short-lived imperial splendor also brought much riches, drama and tragedy to Burhanpur.

A sizeable settlement existed in this location since ancient times. There are local myths connected to Sage Bhrigu and Ashwatthama. Burhanpur city was founded as the capital of the Sultanate of Khandesh in 1399. Khandesh straddled the Tapti Valley and had the Satpura ranges to its north. Burhanpur was thus the “Gateway to the South”. Moreover, it was a nexus of India’s medieval trade-routes. This was also the best staging zone for any southern campaign; an invasion force would have to rely heavily on bountiful Khandesh and Burhanpur. This brought Burhanpur under the Mughal crosshairs. In 1601, Emperor Akbar conquered Khandesh. Soon, huge Mughal armies began pouring into the Deccan from this frontier capital.  As an oasis of security in war-torn Deccan, Burhanpur rose in prominence.

Burhanpur became the seat of Prince Daniyal, Akbar’s youngest son. When his elder brother Prince Salim rebelled, Daniyal rose in favor. However, Daniyal was an alcoholic. A hunting lodge named “Ahukhana” (Deer Park) was built just outside Burhanpur so that he could wantonly indulge in alcohol. In 1605 Daniyal drank himself to death. Soon, Akbar also died, and Salim was crowned Emperor Jehangir. Daniyal would not be the last prince to die in Burhanpur. Prince Khurram was the third son of Jehangir. In 1617 he was appointed Governor in Burhanpur, where he murdered his eldest brother, the fallen Crown Prince Khusrau. When Khurram himself rebelled, Burhanpur was given to his elder brother Prince Parvez, However, Parvez was an alcoholic and drank himself to an early grave. Thus, Khurram could ascend the throne as Shah Jahan in 1627 – after more kinslaying.

In 1630, a senior nobleman’s rebellion caused a ripple of instability and Shah Jahan moved the imperial court from Agra to Burhanpur. The Emperor himself was now a resident of Burhanpur. The Mughal court and forces, numbering lakhs, came with him. However, this could not have happened at a worse time – a great famine hit the Deccan. This famine, caused by successive crop failures in the region, lasted two years. Millions perished. Burhanpur being the de-facto imperial capital, and housing a huge host, made things worse as scarce food was hoarded and diverted to Burhanpur.

Shah Jahan tried to help, but the famine was too widespread and devastating. Regardless, Shah Jahan’s glittering court continued in splendor in the 7-storeyed Shahi Qila in Burhanpur. Mumtaz Mahal took over Daniyal’s Ahukhana and the Shahi Hammam, where she daily dipped in three perfumed ponds after bath. The Emperor constructed numerous imperial buildings in the city. The rebellion was also suppressed. Burhanpur saw even more Mughal drama when Shah Jahan apparently fell for a courtesan named Gulara Begum (Unsubstantiated accounts say that she was drowned by Shah Jahan’s father-in-law as she awaited her paramour in a river-boat). Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth in Burhanpur in 1631, shattering Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan would decamp in 1632, but the city retained its stature. More drama would unfold in 1636 when Shah Jahan’s dour young son Aurangzeb visited Burhanpur. There he apparently fell deeply in love with a courtesan named Hirabai. The prince wantonly indulged in music and frivolity with this courtesan. However, Hirabai died suddenly, and the grieving Aurangzeb relapsed to his former self.

Burhanpur’s importance dipped as the Mughal center of gravity in the Deccan progressed southwards. However, it was the Mughal collapse following Aurangzeb’s death that caused Burhanpur to fall. Between 1707 and 1818, Burhanpur was tossed between the Marathas, Mughals, Hyderabad, the British and local strongmen, and the great frontier capital was relegated to the sidelines.

Burhanpur is near-forgotten now, but things would have been very different if Shah Jahan’s original wish was executed. He wanted his beloved to be interned in Burhanpur in a marvelous tomb. However, investigations showed that the soil of the Tapti riverbank would not support the planned edifice’s weight. The narrow river would not capture the tomb’s full reflection. Moreover, it would be impossible to transport the marble from Rajasthan to Burhanpur. The emperor embalmed Mumtaz Mahal in the Ahukhana for six months. When initial preparations were done at a designated site in Agra, Mumtaz Mahal’s remains were transported there in a golden casket. The rest is history.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on July 21, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


The Nakano School and the I.N.A

Mohan Singh and Fujiwara

About a century ago, Captain T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, turned a middling revolt deep in the Arabian desert into a whirlwind that swept away Ottoman power in the First World War. Lawrence was a multi-talented junior military intelligence officer in the British Army. The British leadership was unsure of the Arab Revolt’s chances. However, Lawrence’s liaising skills, his acumen, his brilliant strategies, and his close relationship with the Arab leaders achieved astounding victories. Lawrence’s feat became a benchmark for all operations aimed at bringing down hostile regimes by aiding groups opposing these regimes. During World War II there were similar program in the Asia-Pacific Theatre – including India. Parallel to Britain actions in Arabia, Imperial Japan sent her brilliant officers to utilize Indian rebels and malcontents against their mutual British enemy. Neither power was guided by true concern for their rebel allies; British and Japanese aims were purely imperialistic. The saga of the Indian rebels, particularly that of the Indian National Army under Subhash Chandra Bose, is familiar to us. However, the Japanese angle and the story before Bose’s arrival is less well known.

Japan’s Military Intelligence academy, located in Nakano region of Tokyo, was unassumingly named Army School – Nakano. This school provided training in various disciplines of war and espionage. From 1938 to 1945, over 2,500 agents and operators were trained. This institute would provide the men who would spearhead Japan’s grand strategy for the domination of Asia. The Japanese understood that the native populations of Asian nations chafed under European colonialism. The restive millions could be swayed by promises of liberation. Their more militant rebels could be befriended, funded and trained to aid Japanese campaigns. The fact was that Japan was an ultranationalist and expansionist regime. “Asian liberation” was a mask to hide its imperialist aims. Nevertheless, even a small army of natives fighting alongside them would give Japan legitimacy. Moreover, leaders from such forces could form friendly governments. This strategy was executed by relatively junior products of the Nakano School.

A brilliant and young officer, Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, focused on British India. Unlike most Japanese officers, Major Iwaichi was a polyglot, a scholar and an empathetic person who understood Indian aspirations. With a small group of like-minded Nakano alumni, he established strong links with the Indian and Malay freedom fighters in East Asia. Fujiwara’s organization was christened Fujiwara Kikan (Fujiwara Agency), or F-Kikan. Consequently, when the Japanese invaded British-held Malay Peninsula and Singapore in December 1941, there were uprisings and desertions which collapsed British resistance. Many thousand Indians were taken Prisoners of War: Iwaichi successfully recruited some Indian officers. One of them, Captain Mohan Singh possessed excellent oratory and leadership skills. In a great assembly of Indian prisoners in Singapore, in February 1942, Mohan Singh made powerful pleas which convinced nearly 15,000 Indian soldiers to fight for India. Thus, the first Indian National Army was raised.

The shocked British retreated to India. To engineer more mischief, Iwaichi proposed expansion of operations. However, the Army leadership promoted and transferred Iwaichi in October 1942. Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, co-founder of the Nakano School, took charge. The unit was renamed Iwakuro Kikan or I-Kikan and operations were expanded. However, a weakness in the Japanese strategy became evident. Japanese strategy succeeded when their leading officer was capable and sincere. Iwakuro was a tough veteran, but he was an ultranationalist and openly contemptuous of Indians. Fujiwara’s hand-picked team was also replaced with Iwakuro’s men. Iwakuro regularly clashed with Indian leaders. Indian agents and troops were wasted on ill-considered missions and the momentum was lost. This resulted in plummeting morale and desertions. Factional conflicts among Indians also muddled the situation. In December 1942, the Japanese crushed the dissent by disarming the INA and imprisoning Mohan Singh.

The INA was revived and enlarged under Subhash Chandra Bose following his arrival in the region in May 1943. Iwakuro was replaced by another Nakano alumnus. The unit was renamed Hikari Kikan (Glory Agency). However, bowing to Bose’s vision for the INA as a frontline force, the Japanese unit was restructured.  Moreover, the influence of its Japanese commanding officer effectively decreased.  Nakano School graduates were still attached with INA units for propaganda and covert operations. However, by late 1944 such efforts were ineffective. Besides other stringent security measures, the British had created propaganda units called “Josh Groups” which strongly countered INA propaganda.

The story of Japanese military defeat, Bose’s death and the INA surrender is well known. After the war, most of the surviving Nakano School officers (including Fujiwara) transitioned into post-war Japanese military. Some held out deep in the Asian jungles as late as 1974, unaware of Japanese surrender! In the end the Indian project had failed, unlike their notable successes in Burma and Indonesia, but the men of Nakano School sure gave the British Raj the fright of their lives.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on July 7, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Flying the Hump: 1942 – 1945

Curtiss C-46 aircraft

The search and rescue operations for the missing Indian Air Force An-32 aircraft lasted eight days but the crash site was found, and our dead have been laid to rest. The tragedy and ensuing operations unfolded amidst discussions on geopolitics, terrain, logistics, politics, and mismanagement. One dimension that has been largely missing in these discussions is the grim history of military aviation in that region. In the Second World War, India’s North East witnessed crucial battles that decided the fate of the world. The Japanese invasion of India and the Burma Campaign are somewhat familiar to the public. However, in the skies over Arunachal Pradesh and eastern Assam another grim battle had raged. This battle was waged more against the elements than the Japanese. It was all about supporting the Chinese resistance against Imperial Japan – if this front collapsed, over a million battle-hardened Japanese troops would be redeployed to India and the Pacific.

“The Hump” was the nickname given by British and American pilots to the airlift operation that crossed the Eastern Himalayas (mostly) into China, during World War II. It was the world’s first strategic airlift – and it is the bloodiest.  This earned more sobriquets such as “Graveyard of Airplanes” and “The Skyway to Hell” and “The Aluminum Trail”. However, the Hump had to be traversed! Imperial Japan had conquered large swathes of eastern China in 1937. After bombing Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan quickly occupied more of China, South East Asia and many Pacific Islands.  Japan seemed unstoppable and could do even more damage (including occupying India and entire Pacific) if not for Chinese nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek and Communist forces under Chairman Mao bogging down over 1.5 million Japanese troops. The Allies were desperate to keep these Japanese troops there: troop redeployment from China meant doubling of Japanese strength in Burma and the Pacific! For this it was necessary to keep supplying the Chinese forces. As the Japanese had captured the ground routes from India to China, supplies had to be flown in.

Not far from the Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground, where the doomed IAF An-32 was heading to, are airfields such as Jorhat, Chabua, Dibrugarh and Doom Dooma. These were the airfields closest to Chinese bases and soon became some of the busiest bases of the War. The India China Division of the Allies’ Air Transport Command soon fielded over 30,000 military personnel and 5,000 pilots. The Hump pilots flew 2000-kilometer round trips, delivering over 650,000 tons of supplies, from early 1942 to 1945. Besides military personnel, there were thousands of Indian laborers who built and maintained these airstrips.

The airplanes were highly vulnerable to the treacherous Himalayan weather. The mountains raised sudden airstreams of 400 kmph speed at extreme altitudes. Turbulence and machine icing could force aircraft to plummet. Sometimes, sudden vertical wind drafts lifted aircraft to over 28,000 feet. Disorientation due to Oxygen loss was common. Even the Commander of the ATC, the famed aviator and pioneering general Henry “Hap” Arnold lost his way and nearly crashed after oxygen loss at high altitude disoriented him. Accident rates were horrendous till the rather capable American C-46 and later C-54 aircraft were deployed. Airlifting was an infant science and most of the pilots were young and inexperienced. This also contributed to the heavy casualties. The allies lost about 600 aircraft and 1,700 men here: the crewmen were killed by the crashes or exposure – or by the odd Japanese fighter aircraft on patrol. Most of the crashes took place in present day Arunachal Pradesh, which had very poor infrastructure then. However, the locals were non-hostile and cooperated with the operations. One of the first modern Search and Rescue organizations was created here by a crew of maverick Allied officers and locals. The successes of this intrepid crew, named Blackie’s Gang, after the leader Captain John “Blackie” Porter, soon turned the motley group into a full-fledged military unit, with ground forces and aircrafts, based in Dibrugarh. By war’s end, 1,171 lives were saved. Search and Rescue training and tactics developed by this unit influence rescue operations even today.

An alternate ground route was opened in early 1945 when Burma was recaptured. However, the terrain constraints made the Hump the principal supply route till the end of the war. In terms of tonnage sent to China, about 80% was flown in over the Hump.

Even today, remains of 7-decade old crashed aircraft are being discovered in remote areas of the state. Many are still missing. After independence, India also lost aircrafts and many souls in this region. However, history has taken a curious turn here. Seven decades ago, Indian airfields in the North East, enabled the Chinese to tie down Imperial Japan. By protecting, basing and sustaining this great endeavor, Indians also contributed to Chinese salvation. However, since 1962, Sino-Indian tensions have further chilled the skies over India’s North East. The Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground was upgraded and reactivated (along with a few more airstrips in Arunachal Pradesh) only quite recently, as a part of bolstering defenses against any Chinese threat to India. It is ironic that the next time the airfields of this region are used for war, it would send very different types of aircraft and cargo into China.

PS: This is a slightly expanded version of my article in DNA published on June 16, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Shah Alam II: The Hour of the Rohila

The Blinded Emperor

This is the final part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II.

It was self-preservation that made Emperor Shah Alam II choose the Maratha general as the regent. Shah Alam’s best and loyal officers were long gone, and he knew first-hand Mahadji Shinde’s capabilities. Moreover, as his plans to rebuild the empire had now stalled, the best Shah Alam could do was to get Maratha protection. Shinde knew that his imperial titles were meaningless – unless he whipped the back empire into a decent state. If he managed this, he could utilize the name of the Mughal Emperor to gather support from every corner of the Indian subcontinent. A few things had to be taken care of. There were some stubborn enemy states nearby, Mughal governors of doubtful loyalty, and rebel generals and roving warlords. Secondly, long pending dues (tributes and fines) from various local powers had to be claimed. To tackle these, Mahadji Shinde campaigned extensively between 1785 and early 1788, in the name of the Emperor and the Peshwa. His son-in-law represented him in Delhi and Maratha detachments were stationed in key cities. Shinde was able to achieve some success, but not without cost. However, an unforeseen threat was fast rising elsewhere.

The Rohila sardar Zabita Khan had died in 1785. He was succeeded by his son Ghulam Qadir, who had been castrated by the Emperor years ago. The talented Ghulam Qadir rapidly rose in power. From his domains in the Upper Doab, he made his move in July 1787, determined to fish in troubled waters. Joining hands with the Sikhs and some Mughal rebels, he captured Delhi. Ghulam Qadir had been apparently damaged irrevocably by his ordeal: he had bouts of extreme rage bordering insanity. He felt he was Rohila retribution personified and called himself Qahar-i-Khuda (Scourge of God). The frightened Emperor “graced” Ghulam Qadir with an audience and bestowed high titles, as the latter glared at him with barely contained rage. A sudden counterattack by the Maratha garrison and allied mercenaries forced Ghulam Qadir to retreat. However, in a few months he returned.

Shinde was in the Chambal Valley when these events unfolded, but he had to wait for reinforcements, which arrived in March 1788. In the next three months he picked off rebel armies and advanced to Delhi. However, by July Ghulam Qadir had retaken the city. The subsequent 10-week interregnum saw unprecedented cruelty and bloodbath. Shah Alam was deposed and Bidar Bakht, son of a formerly deposed emperor, was crowned. Ghulam Qadir used every waking moment to exact his revenge. The royal family was starved and tortured, and every inch of the palaces combed to reveal the riches squirreled away over the years.  They were also robbed of their finery and jewelry. Women faced terrible depredations. The Rohila personally attended to Shah Alam – the emperor was tortured and blinded with needles. Ghulam Qadir later upped this by gouging out the Emperor’s eyeballs while an artist was forced to paint the scene. Twenty one members of the royal family died in the interregnum – some bodies remained unburied.

By October, the Maratha noose tightened, and Ghulam Qadir fled Delhi. The royal family was rescued and Shah Alam reinstated, despite being blind. The Marathas chased Ghulam Qadir and finally captured him in December. He was brought to Mathura and treated well for two months to convince him to produce the Mughal loot. The Emperor now wrote to Shinde, admonishing him for letting Ghulam Qadir live. He swore that if the Rohila was not punished immediately, he would abdicate and leave for Mecca. Shinde could have disobeyed the Emperor and co-opted Ghulam Qadir for his goals, but he was an honorable man and also technically the emperor’s servant. Ghulam Qadir’s eyes, nose and ears were cut off and sent to Delhi. Only after he felt this grisly gift in his hands did the emperor express closure. Ghulam Qadir was tortured to death and hanged in a spot reserved for robbers.

The prestige and power of the Mughals was lost irretrievably. Reduced to near penury, the emperors survived by borrowing and relying on pensions and charity. Mahadji Shinde would continue his impressive career till his death in 1794. Shah Alam held his meaningless title till his death in 1806, his pettiness and appetite for opium and debauchery undented. Following British triumph over the Marathas (1803), he immediately groveled to the new masters. A British officer described the scene: “The descendant of the great Akbar and Aurangzeb was found blind and aged, stripped of authority and reduced to poverty, seated under a small tattered canopy, the fragment of regal state and the mockery of human pride”. The sorry charade of Mughal authority ended in fire and sword in September 1857, and its withered husk in the form of the corpse of Bahadur Shah Zafar II was given a quiet burial in Rangoon five years later.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 26, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Shah Alam II: The Mughal Empire in Flux

Shah Alam II and Clive

This is the second part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II.

It was 1760 and Prince Ali Gauhar was now Emperor Shah Alam II, but he was not entirely out of danger. His Rohila Afghan feudatories of the Upper Doab and Rohilkhand had a fierce and unruly streak. They had also become too powerful and close to the Afghan Emperor Abdali recently. Awadh, where he remained exiled, was ruled by his feudatory Nawab Shuja. However, this Nawab was a Shia. He was also powerful, practical, and was close to many Hindu powers. The East India Company (EIC) now dominated the East after the Battle of Plassey; early attempts of reconquest had failed. Above all, his father’s killer, Imad-ul-Mulk, and the Marathas held Delhi. Also, an enormous Maratha host had coalesced in the North, bent on conquest. Nevertheless, he had plans to reclaim Mughal glory.

The Islamist clergy was worried by the rapid rise of the Marathas. One of the leading clerics, Shah Waliulllah, invited Abdali to ally with Muslim states and “save India from the Kufr”. Abdali duly launched an invasion, sweeping away the Marathas from the North West Frontier and Punjab. The Rohilas and Mughals saw their chance and recaptured Delhi. Chasing away Imad-ul-Mulk and deposing his Puppet-Emperor, they joined Abdali. In the ensuing Third Battle of Panipat (January 1761) the Marathas were crushed – they would not return north for another decade. However, being wary of the ascendant Rohilas, Shah Alam did not return to Delhi. Moreover, he wished to focus on the eastern provinces of Bengal and Bihar, now under British control. The Rohila chief Najib ad-Dawlah held Delhi, while Shah Alam attempted to recapture the East from his base in Awadh. However, he was no match for the British and lost the decisive Battle of Buxar (1764). He was forced to grant unbridled rights to the EIC. This marked the true beginning of British paramountcy in India. The dejected Emperor spent the next five years as the EIC’s “guest” in Allahabad.

Najib ad-Dawlah died in 1770 after shepherding the empire through great regional convulsions and holding the Marathas at bay. The Rohila chief’s death led to the ascent of his son, the scheming and unpopular Zabita Khan. He made secret overtures to the Sikhs to compensate for his lack of support within the empire. About this time, the resurgent Marathas returned to the north. Despite crippling factional politics, the Marathas under the great general Mahadji Shinde ousted the Rohilas from Delhi in 1772. The Emperor now reached out to Shinde – he would bestow imperial favor if he would escort him safely to Delhi. Jagirs and rich tributes would also be awarded to the Maratha leaders. Thus, after 13 years of exile Shah Alam II returned to Delhi, albeit under Maratha aegis. He was not yet the master of his fate, but at least he was back.

Shah Alam immediately turned against Zabita Khan. A Maratha-Mughal expedition into Zabita Khan’s lands in the Upper Doab was launched. Zabita Khan was defeated and lost much territory. Other Rohila chiefs were suppressed with British aid in the First Rohila War (1773-1774). A seething Zabita Khan soon allied with the Sikh Sardars, but a subsequent Mughal expedition destroyed Zabita Khan’s rump kingdom in 1777. Zabita Khan fled with his Sikh allies, but his heir, the very young Ghulam Qadir was captured. The Rohila chief’s womenfolk were dishonored and male relatives massacred. Ghulam Qadir was spared by a high-ranking eunuch official and was made Shah Alam’s page.

Various accounts attest that the Emperor’s character began deteriorating around this time. A lifetime of fear, hardship and losses had taken its toll – his increasing opium addiction and debauchery was also to blame. Shah Alam began to mistreat noble captives and his kin the Salatin Quarters – where he himself suffered during his youth! One day he claimed that the handsome Ghulam Qadir was seducing the noblewomen and plotting his assassination; the teen was castrated and made a harem eunuch. Zabita Khan now beseeched the new regent Najaf Khan to free his family in return for ransom and his total submission. The regent granted this plea and Zabita Khan submitted for good. Ghulam Qadir’s ordeal would however come back to haunt the emperor in 1788, and those catastrophic events would finally end Mughal power and prestige.

For now, the Mughals had recouped some lost strength. Even with the emperor’s deterioration and endless court intrigues it briefly seemed that under Najaf Khan the Mughals would rise again. However, the Sikhs had grown very powerful and checked Mughal expansion. In a sudden invasion following Najaf Khan’s death in 1782, the Sikhs even sacked Delhi. Unable to find good men to serve and protect the empire, the emperor requested his old ally Mahadji Shinde to become the empire’s regent in 1784.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 19, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Shah Alam II: The Prince from the Slum

The Red Fort

This is the first part of a three-part series on the unfortunate Mughal Emperor Shah Alam-II

When Aurangzeb died a weary and broken man in Ahmednagar in 1707, the Mughal Empire had reached its greatest territorial extent. However, the financial ruin due to Aurangzeb’s wars, the grim foes raised by his inflexibility and zealotry, and the poisoned legacy he bequeathed were enough to shatter the once powerful empire. In the next 150 years, thirteen emperors reigned. These were lesser men, tossed around by powerful nobles and factions – and even by enemies old and new. After all, the name of the Mughal Badshah still had some utility and commanded respect across the subcontinent. This trilogy of articles is about Shah Alam II, ultimately the most wretched emperor of them all. If he sounds familiar it’s because he is the subject of that famous saying – “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam”. While the weak emperors before him had definitely caused the empire’s decline, it was during the long reign of Shah Alam II that Mughal power and prestige was irretrievably lost, after a brief glimmer of hope. While other emperors had been deposed, blinded or assassinated, Shah Alam suffered much greater horrors. He also suffered the ignominy of serially supplicating to Indian factions and the British. The imperial cities of Delhi and Agra were raided and looted multiple times. In the first part of the trilogy we look at this emperor’s rise from captivity and hardship. Next, we look at his efforts and machinations to rebuild the empire. The final part covers a horrific interregnum in 1788 and the ensuing total collapse of the Mughals.

Hidden away from the resplendent courts and palaces, the Red Fort housed a grimy slum called the “Salatin Quarters”. Here, hundreds of Mughal princes and princesses languished in pitiful conditions. These quarters had developed in the post-Aurangzeb era, a symbol of all what was wrong with political succession in the Mughal Empire. Any male of royal descent (and there were many of these!) could be propped up by powerful factions, leading to Civil War. To avoid this, all descendants of former Emperors were confined to the Salatin quarters and kept under close watch. As the prosperity of Mughal Empire declined, so did the budget for the already spartan quarters. It soon devolved into a squalid and overpopulated slum with no arrangements for education, nourishment and sanitation. Many princes and princesses went degenerate or mad in this dungeon. Shah Alam II, born Prince Ali Gauhar, son of Prince Azizuddin and grandson of Emperor Jahandar Shah, was born and raised in this bleak place.

Prince Azizuddin was imprisoned in the Salatin Quarters after his father was deposed and killed in 1714. The next forty years saw five emperors on the throne, four of these were deposed by powerful kingmakers. Unlike other princes in the Salatin quarters, Azizuddin did not lose his wits nor become degenerate; he focused on the scriptures. His son, Ali Gauhar, born in 1728, also turned out well. In 1754, Imad-ul-Mulk, the Empire’s Regent and virtual ruler, deposed and blinded the reigning emperor. He foisted the devout and ageing Azizuddin on the throne and crowned him as Alamgir II. Ali Gauhar went from a prince of the gutters to the Crown Prince overnight.

Alamgir II reigned till 1759, without much power, despite his efforts. His efforts to neutralize the powerful regent Imad-ul-Mulk caused a chain of events leading to the terrible interregnum that would finally ruin the Mughals years later. When the Afghan Emperor Ahmed Shah Durrani (Abdali) invaded India in 1757, Alamgir fled to the Punjab to ally with the invader to defeat Imad-ul-Mulk. The Rohila Afghans of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and Rohilkhand had served Alamgir so far. They however found a better leader in Emperor Abdali, a fellow Afghan, and gravitated towards him. Now, Imad-ul-Mulk invited the Marathas to “save the Emperor from the vile Afghans”. The Maratha forces surged forth and swept away all opposition, even reaching Peshawar. Imad-ul-Mulk established a good relationship with Raghunathrao and Sadashivrao “Bhau”, the Maratha commanders. The Rohilas retreated from Delhi and the Emperor fled to the Jat kingdom of Bharatpur; the Jats then sacked an undefended Delhi as payment. The Maratha army later occupied Delhi and sacked it again.

Alamgir II was forced to return to Delhi, under the baleful eyes of the regent: the emperor’s days were clearly numbered. Fearing for his life, Crown Prince Ali Gauhar made a daring escape to Awadh. The Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daulah, gave him shelter. This angered Imad-ul-Mulk, who murdered Emperor Alamgir II and most of his family in November 1759. Imad-ul-Mulk and Bhau picked another wretched prince from the Salatin Quarters and crowned him as emperor Shah Jahan III. However, a few weeks later in Awadh, Prince Ali Gauhar was anointed Emperor Shah Alam II by his supporters.  

PS: This is my article in DNA published on May 12, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


The “Fishing Fleets” of Colonial India

British Wedding

When the British rose in power in India they faced an increasingly difficult situation – there were too many young British men in their colony. India was a land of opportunity for many Britishers and thousands scrambled to India, keen to make their mark. British men were strongly discouraged from marrying Indians in order to maintain notions of British exceptionalism and supremacy. However, the men’s need for female long-term companionship had to be met. On the other hand, women in Britain faced steep matrimonial challenges in their sexist society. As a result, thousands of single young women sailed to India to find suitable husbands. This was derisively nicknamed the “Fishing Fleet”, a phenomenon alluded to in many cultural depictions of Colonial India, but largely unknown outside academic research.

Before India was completely subdued there existed marriage relationships and significant intermingling between the British and Indians. However, following British ascendancy (from the 1750s), British respect and awe of India began to slowly wane. With racist and imperialistic ideologies strengthening, India’s stature dropped. Indians were now seen as racially inferior heathens to be ruled by the superior British race. The gap between the rulers and the ruled had to be kept sacrosanct. The races could not be allowed to mix anymore – and the few who broke this rule were ostracized. After the Great Rebellion of 1857 and formation of the British Raj, the divide became very severe.

The East India Company (EIC) leadership initially chose an old Portuguese solution. Long ago, the Portuguese shipped orphaned girls to India as brides for Portuguese men serving there. The government provided dowries, in the form of jobs for the husbands when the couple returned. Due to practical difficulties, the Portuguese stopped this and found brides locally. However, the British possessed more resources and newer technologies of healthcare and transportation. The first batches of women they shipped to India were adventuresses (or were of questionable reputation), or orphans from gentle families. The Company supported them for one year, the time allocated to find husbands. The unsuccessful were quickly shipped back. As Britain began to rise to paramountcy, the number of women sailing to India slowly increased, even without the Company’s direct involvement. The bureaucrats and company administrators in London derisively called this the “Fishing fleet”.

Prevailing social conditions in Britain were also responsible for this phenomenon. In those days, British women had few rights and most professions were denied for them. Some education was imparted, but marriage was seen the only true goal. This alone gave women status and security. Moreover, unmarried women past the age of twenty-five were seen as “old maids”. Without marriage a woman’s prospects were bleak: she would have to live on her inheritance or with close relatives – or work as a governess or caretaker or nurse. Women outnumbered marriageable young men in Britain: a girl not blessed with beauty, money or pedigree had little hope of marrying well. But in India, British men heavily outnumbered women. For many women, this huge pool of clearly enterprising young men – who also keenly sought mates – offered a much better chance of getting a good husband.

As British control solidified and the Crown replaced the Company, India’s reputation as a fishing grounds for “good catches” grew. More and more women began to sail for India. By the 1850s most of the women were sent by their families; a few were returning to India after a brief education in Britain. The girls were escorted and guided by older married women. These prospective brides moved in rarefied atmospheres – the clubs, bungalows, hill-stations, cantonments and churches – of British India. They lodged with friends and relatives, or shared accommodation. The rigid hierarchy of the British society in India, the conformity requirements, and India itself was a culture shock. The need to cultivate the right contacts, the confusing rules of engagement, the constant pressure to act “suitable” took a toll on the women. Even married life as a privileged “Memsahib” in India was not all a bed of roses. Yet, this was apparently better than spinsterhood in Britain. The efforts usually paid off – very few returned to Britain without a husband. The ones that were unsuccessful were derisively called “Returned Empties”.

British women in India did not make much of an impact in the affairs of India. The Raj was a Man’s World and the ICS, armed forces, bureaucracy, etc. were never open to British women. Yet, in their restricted roles as wives, mothers and Memsahibs, the women from the Fishing Fleets helped maintain British rule in India. The Fishing Fleets wound down between 1900-1930s: in this period, women’s liberation movements blossomed. The fetters began to break, and more avenues opened up for women within Britain. World War II and the Indian National Movement’s success finally ended the enterprise.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on April 28, 2019. This is also my 50th piece for DNA! Here’s the link to the original article.


Tea, Sugar and Opium

An Opium War Cartoon

It is a bitter fact that tea became a popular beverage on the back of colossal human suffering. This author had previously written about the triangular Atlantic slave trade, in which Indian textiles and gunpowder were very essential components. Today, we look at how another Indian product, opium, was used in yet another reprehensible business – because of the surging demand for tea in Britain and the prevailing economic philosophy there. Tea and opium became part of worldwide triangular trade that greatly benefited Britain but was disastrous for everyone else involved. In this affair, sugar was a sweetener.  This triangle of tea, sugar and opium nearly destroyed Chinese society and polity and was instrumental in the rise of England as a world power.

In those days, European colonial powers adhered to the economic philosophy of Mercantilism. The goal was to be self-reliant in production; and to ensure that precious commodities such as gold and silver were amassed within national borders. Industries were run by monopolies supported through subsidies and military assistance. Methods had to be devised to pay for imports without letting depleting the stocks of precious commodities. In this context the story of tea and sugar becomes linked to that of opium.

Tea came to England in the 1630s, but for many years it was an expensive commodity as it was grown only in China. For most of the 17th-18th centuries, tea was consumed mostly by the elite, as a bitter but flavorful brew. However, tea’s popularity rose quickly. The growth in sugar consumption in Britain 18th century mirrors that of tea. Sugar was also rather expensive initially. Yet, the demand grew. To meet this growing appetite for sugar, vast plantations were established in the Caribbean islands. Here, countless natives toiled in pitiful conditions. There was also great investment in industrial process in England to yield higher production and to reduce costs. Sugar became inexpensive in the beginning of the 19th century. Now someone got the idea of mixing sugar into a cup of tea. Soon, milk was added to the brew. The demand for this new concoction exploded: a bitter brew for upper-class tastes quickly turned into a beverage coveted by the masses. This surging demand for tea – plus demand for Chinese silk and porcelain – led to much outflow of precious metals: the British authorities had to stop this somehow.

The British hoped to use the excess land revenue from India pay for tea. However, abysmal mismanagement and corruption in the East India Company (EIC) made this impossible. Bringing tea production to India was an obvious solution, but there were challenges. The British finally succeeded but that is a whole other story! It was then decided to push Indian opium into China. While India’s cotton was also accepted by the Chinese, a nation hooked on opium would yield more profits. Moreover, Indian opium was better than even Turkish opium.

After Buxar (1764), the EIC gained access to India’s opium fields in the Gangetic Valley. The EIC asserted monopoly over these. Much Indian opium was shipped to the China and popularized through various means. Tens of thousands of opium chests were shipped annually. In December 1799 the Chinese authorities banned opium. They had discovered that opium addiction was surging and the toll on the nation was heavy. The EIC now pretended that it had no hand in the opium sale in China. However, it auctioned its opium to private traders (mostly British), who transported opium in ships owned by the Company. The traders smuggled the opium for silver. Most traders deposited the silver in the Company’s factory in China and in return they were given bills payable in Calcutta or London. The Company got a commission on these bills and earned a profit. The Company then used the silver to buy tea. This trade was immensely profitable: Opium became the Company’s largest export item and accounted for 15 percent of its Indian revenue. Britain reaped huge profits and preserved precious metals, which helped industrialization and the growth of her empire. The Company’s opium and tea trade, sweetened by the addition of sugar, also changed consumption patterns.  Rising tea consumption helped sustain the emerging working classes: tea was now cheap, it was easily brewed at work itself, and it was stimulating without being intoxicating. Britain’s revenues from local tea sales were also significant. On the other hand, the opium crisis became unbearable in China and this led to the First Opium War in 1839, in which Britain won. The Treaty of Nanjing forced the Chinese to accept unrestricted sale of opium (which quadrupled soon), pay heavy indemnity, and cede the island of Hong Kong. The Chinese monarchy went into a downward spiral from this point. It would take later Chinese governments many decades and much effort to eradicate opium addiction from China’s society.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on April 14, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


Bijapur’s Hydraulic Engineering Heritage

The Taj Baodi

The sack of Vijayanagar, following the Battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, greatly enriched the victorious Bahmani Sultanates. Out of the five Bahmani kingdoms the one which gained the most was the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur. Besides annexing the rich Raichur Doab, the Bijapur Sultanate plundered enormous riches and captured a huge workforce from fallen Vijayanagar. Bijapur was blessed with some capable Sultans who fostered great cultural and economic growth. They expanded the Sultanate’s borders at the cost of the rump Vijayanagar Empire. Bijapur’s sultans also invited talent from across the world into their service. Soon, tens of thousands began to emigrate to Bijapur. As a result, Bijapur City, today’s Vijayapura, grew rapidly. By 1590, Bijapur became one of the most populous cities of the world. Estimates of the city’s population range from 500,000 to 1.2 million at its zenith. However, this growth posed a major challenge – Bijapur city was hitherto the bleak little capital of a middling Sultanate. It was situated in a semi-arid region. So far, the existing water sources had sufficed but now the city required much more water. Colossal hydraulic engineering projects were executed to enable this growth. It was an enormous task, but there was no lack of resources or determination.

Bijapur’s leaders understood the great opportunity – and challenge – for the capital. With Bijapur’s newly won riches, many grand projects and extensive public works were commissioned. High fortification walls (with 96 defense towers) encompassing the existing city and many adjoining villages were also built. The suburb of Shahpur was built to serve as a commercial hub for the traders and merchants who flocked to Bijapur. Shahpur hosted many businesses, workshops, storage facilities, and housed the huge transit population. The Ramalinga reservoir, a derelict ancient earthen dam was comprehensively upgraded. This reservoir was rejuvenated using jack-wells (intake constructs that tapped both surface and underground water) at the seasonal water-courses of Toravi, west of Bijapur. This enormous reservoir was replete with canals and water filtration plants. However, even this large water source was not enough.

The Sultans had to actively present themselves as the giver of water in the arid land, a spectacle that reinforces their power over the people. Ornate and elaborate fountains and water-courses were installed at the palaces, the gardens and the plazas. To serve these, headworks were built around Bijapur and a network of pipes and channels laid. Further, the geography of the land was utilized to create a network of ingenious underground water-courses, known as Qanats or Karez. Here, gently sloping channels (with a series of vertical access shafts) were used to tap the water table. This created economical and sustainable underground canals, safe from evaporation and surface threats. The Qanat water was discharged at an appropriate point on the surface, into tanks or surface channels.

Another adjoining city called Navraspur, dedicated to the arts and learning, was built in 1599. The kingdom began to clearly stagnate from the 1650s due to wars and regional politics. However, the Bijapur metropolis was still a major commercial and cultural center – and the water requirement kept growing. A 240-acre reservoir named Begum Talab was constructed in 1651. The water was supplied to the city through deep underground pipes. To prevent overpressure, 40-foot pressure release towers were built throughout the network. More reservoirs and tanks were constructed in the next 30 years. Hundreds of Baodis (step wells) were also constructed.

In the late 17th century, the Sultanate declined steeply. A major setback was the Mughal conquest in 1686. The terrible 18-month siege and the subsequent looting caused irreparable damage. However, Bijapur dragged on as a major provincial city for some time. The Mughal collapse in the 1710s-50s brought even more ruin. The city’s decline was not arrested by subsequent Maratha rule. A series of famines and military expeditions by the various Deccan powers further weakened the city. The Pindari raids and Maratha infighting finally led to Bijapur’s total collapse.  When the British took over the region in the 1820s, Bijapur was a veritable ghost town, pock-marked by ruins. Many contemporary sources, foreign and Indian, bemoaned the dilapidation of the city and its great hydraulic engineering works.

Today these ruins still attest to the past glory of Bijapur, the scale of the projects and the determination of Bijapur’s rulers. There have been interesting investigations into Bijapur’s hydraulic past by conservationists, historians, civil servants, engineers and enthusiasts these days. It is believed that the old water networks could be reclaimed to cover Vijayapura’s growing water demand.  Indeed, the Begum Talab and some Baodis were recently repaired: they now serve their city after three centuries of slumber. Perhaps much more would be possible from these great works of the yesteryears. After all, Vijayapura is a growing city in a semi-arid land – much like Bijapur before it.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on March 24, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.


The Sikh Empire’s Expedition to Balakot

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

A few weeks ago, the Indian Air Force’s Balakot airstrike using French-built Mirage-2000s bought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and perhaps changed the regional dynamics forever. Balakot has a history which has been a subject of much interest in the past few days: it was the site of the end of Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s Jihad at the hands of the Sikh Empire. Today we look at this history and another curious fact – this was not the first time that French weaponry has been wielded against Islamist fanatics in this region.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-1849) was aware of the superiority of Europeans in technology and modern methods of war. He sought to close this gap by importing talent and building an indigenous capability. Ranjit Singh welcomed experienced scientists, engineers, mercenaries and officers from European nations to ensure that his kingdom could withstand any threat. Besides, the Afghan kingdom, the Pathan tribes and Jihadis were threatening his western borders. French know-how became a major element in the defense of his realm. After Napoleon lost in Waterloo (June 1815) thousands of French and allied European soldiers were dismissed: the governments of Europe, including the new government of France, distrusted those who served under Napoleon. A few settled into civilian life, but most could not: fighting was all they knew, and they did not wish to waste the skills they honed fighting in three continents. Many offered their services to Asian kings who wished to modernize their backward militaries.

At this juncture Ranjit Singh accepted talented Napoleonic officers such as Jean-Francois Allard, Jean-Baptiste Ventura, Paolo Avitabile, and Claude Auguste Court into his service. Besides such officers, there were chemists, doctors, engineers and soldiers of American, German, Italian, Polish and Irish extraction also. Many foreigners were given plum roles in the Empire. Claude Auguste Court was a product of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and apparently knew the science of artillery. Paolo Avitabile also had considerable experience as an artillery officer. Court and Avitabile, along with the Sikh leader Lehna Singh Majithia (who possessed great skill in engineering), overhauled the Sikh artillery. They established the training program for the gunners. Court re-organized the artillery command structure and established arsenals and magazines on European lines. The existing weapon foundries and workshops (established by Ranjit Singh and Mian Qadir Baksh in 1807) were rebuilt with French know-how to manufacture a variety of high-quality guns and artillery. Ranjit Singh soon possessed a formidable artillery of about 500 pieces, including mobile horse-drawn artillery. Court was bestowed large cash awards and titles when he introduced his new shells, fuses and commenced full-scale production.

The meteoric rise of the Sikhs and the decline of the Muslim kingdoms of India had agitated many Islamic fundamentalists. The most influential of them was the popular preacher Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who hailed from present-day Rae Bareilly. In 1825, thousands of his followers from the Gangetic Plains took up his call for Jihad against infidel powers and followed him to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Barelvi’s Jihad was supported by many Afghan chiefs, who were usually suspicious of all outsiders. Barelvi was able to field nearly 100,000 Mujahideen and launched a five-year guerilla war against the Sikh Empire. However, Barelvi’s orthodox interpretation of scriptures and stern disregard of Afghan tribal traditions soon led to many Afghans leaving his cause. Barelvi suffered a crushing defeat in a battle with the Sikhs near Nowshera in March 1827. Later some Afghan tribes turned on Barelvi and massacred hundreds of his followers in Peshawar in November 1830. Barelvi and his loyalists now decided to move out and try their luck in Kashmir. However, a Sikh army led by Sher Singh surrounded the Mujahideen at a mountain fort in Balakot and annihilated them in May 1831.

Ranjit Singh’s French guns and artillery were widely used in such battles in the turbulent North West frontier. Artillery and firearms which performed reliably enabled the Sikhs prevail against great odds. Perhaps even more critical was the discipline instilled in the new infantry battalions by the European officers. Officers such as Ventura and Court also led campaigns into the North West frontier. However, after Ranjit Singh died, neither their weapons nor their courage could save the Sikhs from civil war and treachery. During this chaos the surviving Europeans returned to their homelands. Soon the British defeated the Sikhs and the Afghans also took back some of their lands.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region is still turbulent, and weapons from many nations are still used here in the name of pacification, anti-terror and innumerable internal conflicts. History is repeating in strange ways and there is irony and dark humor in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. India’s French Mirages are the latest entrants in this theater – let us hope it is not a destabilizing element.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on March 17, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.