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Arab Mercenaries in India

Hadhramaut

Kings, nobles and warlords have always imported mercenaries. Distrusting their own subjects, they placed faith on forces answering only to their benefactor. Through the ages, skilled and well-knit mercenary units have held inordinate power. Sometimes such units become so powerful that they turn on their employers on perceiving any threat. Sometimes, they even captured power. In India also, well-knit bands of Afghan, Turk, and African mercenaries have made great fortunes and captured power. On the other hand, Arab mercenaries entered quite late in the game, when British supremacy already emerged. Before the Arabs could expand their power in India – like so many foreign groups before them – their own benefactors and the British cut them to size. However, their power and influence completely ended only in 1948.

 

 

The Marathas

The Marathas

The Sultans of Gujarat and the Deccan began employing Arab mercenaries in the 16th century. However, it was the Maratha campaigns of the 18th century that led to a huge influx. Arab mercenaries mostly hailed from the Yemen’s Hadhramaut region, a land known for bold and enterprising people. In the service of the Marathas the Arabs gained reputation as extremely skilled and reliable fighters. Thousands of Arabs served Maratha chieftains such as Scindia, Bhonsle and Gaekwad. Arab agents opened recruitment agencies in Indian ports, and some of these agents became very wealthy. Indian financiers also established ties with the Arabs to expand influence in Indian kingdoms. Tribe and Clan conflicts from the homeland existed in the mercenary units but this did not dent their efficacy or their luster. An Arab trooper was paid thrice as much as a Deccani/Maratha trooper, and even more than a European mercenary. However, their service depended entirely upon the regularity and size of the pay. When arrears mounted, the Arabs turned on their employers till they received their dues. In one instance, the Arab mercenaries even intervened in a political crisis in Baroda state. They imprisoned Maharaja Anandrao Gaekwad and his faction had to invite the East India Company’s army to retake control. The British were aware of the threat posed by the Arab forces – and the Anglo-Maratha wars soon demonstrated how deadly Arab units could be. There were only about 10,000 Arab mercenaries, but this could grow into a much greater threat very soon. When Britain finally won Anglo-Maratha wars in 1818, she ensured that the Arab mercenaries were disbanded. The British even paid the arrears so that the Arabs could leave immediately. However, India-born Arabs and Arab descendants had no place to go to. These Arabs found a new benefactor, the Nizam of Hyderabad.

 

 

By the 19th century, the Nizam had become a loyal British ally. In return for true sovereignty, the Nizam could keep his crown. In 1818 the Nizam requested the British to let him employ the remaining Arabs.  The request was granted, and the Arabs moved into Hyderabad. The Arabs began service as guards but soon ascended into frontline infantry. They soon dominated the security industry and became financiers, bureaucrats, policemen and tax collectors. Arab commanders became very powerful and one such commander, Umar Al -Qu’aiti utilized his riches to establish power in Yemen. The meteoric rise of the Arabs now troubled the Hyderabadis. The British were also very uneasy; they clamped down on Arab migration into Hyderabad.

Salar Jung I

Salar Jung I

At this point the very able Sir Salar Jung was appointed Diwan, in 1853. The Diwan’s reforms modernized Hyderabad. With a mix of immense payoffs and stern action, Arab power was slowly dismantled. Arab commanders’ attempts to interfere with administration or cause trouble were quickly suppressed. The Arab commanders who submitted were offered rich prizes. Such commanders were also given access to British ports: the Empire also granted support for their schemes in Yemen. The 1857 Rebellion brought immense pressure on the Nizam and his forces. Many preachers and nobles compelled the Arabs to fight the British. The Arab commanders firmly stated that they were here just to make money – probably they realized that the British were too strong to dislodge. In fact, they crushed the attack on the British residency in Hyderabad and screened Hyderabad’s borders from rebel incursions. The grateful British awarded the Arabs immense resources, enabling the Qu’aitis to conquer Yemen and establish a Sultanate.

 

 

 

Arab descendants and fresh recruits from Arabia continued to serve Hyderabad into the modern age. Operation Polo became the end of it all. In September 1948 the Indian Army crushed the Nizam’s forces and liberated Hyderabad. Hyderabad’s army was led by Hadhramauti-descent Syed El Edroos; many Hyderabadi soldiers were pure Arabs or of Arab descent. Over 7000 Arabs were quickly deported to Aden. Many officers and courtiers of Arab descent emigrated to Pakistan. Thousands of Arab descendants live in Hyderabad today, the remnant of the Arabs who once held great power and prestige in India.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on August 5, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Other Army: Indian Laborers in Iraq in WW1

Indian Convict Laborers in Iraq

In the First World War Indian blood was shed most copiously in Iraq. Iraq was a key war-front as it was the most bountiful possessions of Ottoman Turkey. Moreover, it was also quite near India. In 1914-1918 about 700,000 Indian troops were fielded there. By mid-1915, the British expedition was tottering: the tenacious Turks were determined to eject Britain from the region. The capricious and seemingly indolent natives couldn’t be trusted: many Iraqi Arabs supported Turkey. The nomadic tribes were quite predatory. Flood, silt, flies, heavy downpours, storms and deadly diseases significantly hampered operations. Above all, the logistical difficulties in maintaining the huge invasion force were staggering. The Empire recruit more from the “martial races” for fighting, but they needed bodies for the dirty work – i.e. manual labor, and sanitation duties. India, with her teeming millions of wretched and oppressed, could meet this demand.

 

Kuki prisoners

Kuki prisoners

Massive infrastructure works had to be commissioned in Iraq: the British Army demanded thousands of laborers. Porters and mule-drivers were also required in large numbers. The news about the British difficulties had become widespread and few were eager to enlist. The British now pressed the administrative machinery in India and the princely states to “organize” huge labor detachments (with many from tribes and the lower-castes), usually headed by retired soldiers. Resistance to such enlistment, and ethnic and caste conflicts in such detachments contributed to much strife. A notable example is the Kuki Rebellion in Manipur.

Though most were sucked into Iraq, some laborers were sent to European and African fronts also. The British could still not find men for the monumental manual scavenging tasks – the caste element made this very difficult. They considered Impressment, i.e. forcefully commandeering subjects without notice. Some British leaders proposed to hold the “Criminal Tribes” hostage for impressment. The British finally decided to form detachments composed of Indian convicts: they would “persuade” particularly the low-caste prisoners to become latrine cleaners and night-soil carriers, in return for reduction of their sentences. The British propaganda machine had been presenting the Indian war effort as a fully voluntary endeavor. A rather predatory enlistment of low-caste convicts was therefore covered by fig leaves of “reform” and “regaining honor”. Thousands of such “volunteers” were sent into crushing work regimes at half the wages paid to non-convict laborers. In total, about 100,000 Indian laborers were sent to the Iraq front after much bureaucratic and legal acrobatics – the pretexts had to be maintained.

 

The moniker “Jail Labor Corps” was used for convict detachments, even though the convicts soon began to hate it. As planned, they were assigned to manual scavenging. Sometimes they were used to break-up local Arab protests. Despite stringent rules on prominently displaying their identity as convicts, the convict-laborers soon adopted military trappings and insignia. Perhaps they truly believed the British propaganda on regaining honor with their service.  Notions of honor soon became double-edged – the convicts began to refuse to perform “demeaning” latrine duties. Equal compensation and leave was also demanded. The British crushed protests and any attempts by convict laborers to assert themselves. Though some demands were met, servitude was maintained by threat of force. The “free” laborers on the other hand did not cause much problems and were valued for their cost-effectiveness. British leadership considered retaining Indian laborers in Iraq for a longer period, for further imperial projects. However, after the Turks retreated in early 1918, pressure from sections of the government and the Arab leadership forced the British to slowly send back Indian laborers. Some convict laborers and free laborers managed stay behind by deserting or finding employment in other sectors. The labor demand in post-war West Asia provided ample opportunities to those who had acquired new skills. Such Indians perhaps created the precedent and the foundations for the later waves of emigration of Indian laborers into West Asia.

 

Over ten thousand Indian laborers perished in Iraq due to exertion, malnutrition and disease – more suffered resultant infirmities for the rest of their lives. West Asian perceptions of Indian were arguably warped in this period – thousands of Indians slaving away for their masters were a far cry from the prosperous medieval Indian kingdoms which once attracted many Arabs. Adverse impact on tribes and low-caste groups due to enlistment drives was ignored. Contemporary media and the Indian political mainstream also ignored low-caste convicts being scooped up for manual scavenging duties abroad. It was only in 1920 that the Congress passed a resolution requesting Indians to not serve there – but even that was in the wake of an Iraqi rebellion. The ignorance continues to this day. Many are aware and are proud of Indians’ warfighting contributions in colonial wars and the World Wars; the story of thousands of laborers who served in foreign shores during the World War is however largely forgotten.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on July 22, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Sultan and the Dervish

Siddi Maula seated

A recurring theme in history is the confrontation between the head of state and a popular, and usually unorthodox, religious leader. Such challengers assert that the king does not possess the “divine mandate” anymore – and that his overthrow is a moral responsibility. Sometimes the godman need not frontally attack the establishment; his mere existence and the ideas propagated by word and deed could suffice. Congregations and movements centered on this personality would become conduits for hitherto unexpressed discontent against the king. Sovereigns – especially weak ones or those facing other crises – have feared and persecuted such popular religious leaders. Episodes such as the founding of the Veerasaiva movement, and the Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq-Hazrat Nizamuddin confrontation (“Hunuz Dilli Dur Ast”) are well known to us. The alleged plot of the Sufi dervish Sidi Maula, in the wake of the turbulent rise of the Khiljis, is a less known but telling episode in this regard.

 

Jalaluddin Khilji captured power in the so-called “Khilji Revolution”, where non-Turkic emigrant Muslims and Indian converts overthrew their Turk overlords (who were obsessed with race and lineage). Many young men, commoners and nobles alike, saw this change as a new beginning: they could now aspire to forge careers in a subcontinent full of opportunities. However, they were soon disappointed – Jalaluddin Khilji was not keen on massive military campaigns. Perhaps war-weariness or his advanced age had got to him. Also, he was a comparatively equanimous and forgiving man. These traits were however seen as weakness by many from his own camp. Discontent deepened when he forgave enemies who were vanquished with great losses from the Khilji side. Moreover, his attacks on neighboring Hindu kingdoms had failed. The Revolution had already earned the Turks’ enmity – now the Sultan’s traits and failures created enemies in his own camp.

It was at this juncture that many discontented parties gravitated towards the institution of the highly popular Sufi dervish Sidi Maula. He was a Persian saint who had established a Khanqah (Sufi Hospice) in Delhi many years ago. Highly unorthodox and liberal, he attracted countless devotees from all castes and creeds, including prominent personalities of the Sultanate. Till his untimely death, Sultan Jalaluddin’s heir was also an ardent devotee. The Dervish had vast charities and fed and supported thousands. The orthodox Ulema however considered him a heretic. As a non-partisan institution, the Khanqah ostensibly served both the (newly dispossessed) Turks and the Khilji camp. Soon, reports reached Crown Prince Arkali Khan that the Sultan’s enemies were plotting under the aegis of Sidi Maula. Some alleged conspirators were from the Khilji camp – a few held key posts in the Sultanate. Some were associates of his late elder brother (whom he once competed with). Some conspirators were fallen Turk nobles.

 

Reports and rumors about a great conspiracy piled up: an unholy alliance of traitors had convinced Sidi Maula to use his vast influence to overthrow and kill Sultan Jalaluddin, marry the princess and proclaim himself the Caliph. The office of the “Caliph of All Muslims” had for all purposes been extinguished when the Mongols trampled to death the last Caliph, when they razed Baghdad not so long ago.  There were self-appointed successors in Cairo, but they were toothless figureheads. A reigning Caliph in India – the ascendant frontier of Islam – could be a powerful rallying call.  The Sultan returned to Delhi from a campaign and the imperial machinery swung into action. Sidi Maula, his associates, and other alleged plotters were arrested quickly. They were brought to an open court under heavy guard. The Ulema had also smelled blood and arrived in force. Sidi Maula asserted that he has no interest in politics and intrigue; the other accused also claimed innocence. However, the Sultan dismissed these claims. Perhaps Arkali Khan’s evidence was too compelling – perhaps the Sultan simply feared the dervish’s influence. Jalaluddin ordered varying punishments for the rest of the accused but saved Sidi Maula for last. The dervish asserted his innocence again, but this only infuriated the Sultan. He ordered the Ulema to kill Sidi Maula. The clerics enthusiastically obliged and struck Sidi Maula with razors and rocks. Arkali Khan then ordered his elephant to trample the wounded dervish underfoot.

 

The gruesome murder did not save Jalaluddin Khilji’s regime: the reasons behind the discontent remained. Also, the potent enemies of Jalaluddin Khilji did not even feature in this alleged plot. A great conspiracy was actually underway within the Sultan’s own family, led by his nephew and son-in-law Ali Gurshasp. The ambitious Ali Gurshasp laid careful groundwork, deflected all suspicion and played on his uncle’s affection. He soon killed the Sultan when the latter visited to congratulate his nephew’s victories in the Deccan. Ali Gurshasp soon crowned himself and adopted the regnal name Alauddin Khilji. In subsequent wars, Jalaluddin Khilji’s loyalist faction was annihilated.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on July 8, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Sulaiman Shikoh, The Refugee Prince

Dara and Sulaiman

The succession struggles for the Mughal crown were marked by episodes of intrigue, murder, and war, usually culminating in fratricide. The most infamous of these is the tussle between Shah Jahan’s sons. The key facts are well known, of how Aurangzeb defeated his brothers, including the erudite and open-minded Crown Prince Dara Shikoh, and imprisoned his father. Most would even recall the fates of the unfortunate brothers: Dara’s head presented to Shah Jahan on a platter, Prince Shuja and his family perishing in the Arakan, and Prince Murad betrayed and executed by Aurangzeb. The fate of Shah Jahan and the influential Princess Jahanara is also well known. However, another major victim, Dara’s heir-apparent Prince Sulaiman Shikoh, has been largely forgotten. A promising and handsome youth by most accounts, Sulaiman suffered perhaps the most poignant end of all.

 

Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657 unleashed rumours of the Emperor’s death. Aurangzeb in the Deccan, Shuja in Bengal and Murad in Gujarat each declared himself Emperor and marched to the capital. Dara was governing Awadh and Bihar and he sent Prince Sulaiman (and Raja Jai Singh I of Amber) to stop Shuja. Shuja was decisively defeated in February 1658, but Dara rashly ordered his son to chase and capture Shuja. By this time, Aurangzeb had tricked Murad into an alliance and was at Dara’s doorstep. Against the advice of Jahanara, Dara engaged Aurangzeb without waiting for Sulaiman to return. In the following months, Dara lost multiple battles and fled westwards.

 

Emperor Auranqzeb

Emperor Auranqzeb

Aurangzeb soon betrayed and imprisoned Murad, gained the support of powerful lords, and crowned himself. Sulaiman was still stuck in the East; he planned to smash through hostile lands and reunite with his father. However, his Rajput allies were now cut-off from their lands in Rajasthan. Also, other notable Rajput lords had pledged to Aurangzeb. Understanding the danger to their lands and families, Sulaiman’s Rajputs switched sides. Aurangzeb also persuaded local authorities to join his side. Left with a small band of followers, the prince turned to the only place he could — the hill kingdom of Garhwal.

 

The previous Mughal attempt to conquer Garhwal was disastrous; Queen Karnavati had sent back the Mughal survivors, minus their noses. Garhwal was now ruled by Raja Prithvi Pat Shah, who was on good terms with the Mughals. This was due to Jahanara and Dara forging a friendly relationship with Prithvi Shah. This gave the Garhwal much succour, given its incessant wars with neighboring kingdoms of Kumaon and Sirmaur. Prithvi Shah allowed the prince to cross into Garhwal when the latter appealed. Sulaiman planned to race westwards and rendezvous with his father. However, Mughal detachments suddenly appeared at the border and barred the way. Apparently, they were tipped off by the King of Kumaon, Raja Prithvi Shah’s mortal enemy. As more followers abandoned Sulaiman, Prithvi Shah welcomed the friendless prince to his capital and vowed to protect him. In June 1659, Dara Shikoh was betrayed and captured in Sindh. He was branded an apostate, humiliated and brutally murdered.

 

Raja Jai Singh I

Raja Jai Singh I

Dara Shikoh was dead, but Prince Sulaiman Shikoh still lived. Aurangzeb had spared the daughters and minor sons of his brothers, but Dara’s heir was a threat. Aurangzeb tasked Sulaiman’s former ally Raja Jai Singh to capture the prince. Jai Singh pressured Garhwal, in alliance with Kumaon and Sirmaur, but to no avail. Accounts vary, but apparently, Jai Singh convinced a senior minister to poison Sulaiman. However, the plot was discovered and Raja Prithvi Shah executed minister. Now, Prince Medini Shah of Garhwal began plotting against Sulaiman; perhaps Jai Singh got to him or he desired to end Garhwal’s tribulations. In late 1660, Jai Singh sent his son Ram Singh to Garhwal, bearing the Emperor’s dire threats. These new developments, and the emerging alliance of Ram Singh and Medini Shah, forced Sulaiman to attempt escaping to Ladakh. However, he was captured by Medini Shah’s men and handed over to the Mughals. The enraged king now recouped power and Medini Shah was banished — he soon died a refugee in Mughal lands.

Accounts say that Sulaiman’s entry into the court, in chains, made quite an impression. Many were moved to tears at the sight of the fallen prince. Apparently, even Aurangzeb softened and offered to spare Sulaiman. The prince stoically replied that if Sulaiman Shikoh is a lingering threat, he should be killed immediately; he also requested that he would not be left to rot in some prison. Perhaps miffed by the rebuff, Aurangzeb did not grant the wish. Sulaiman Shikoh was thrown into a dungeon in Gwalior Fort. An opium-based poison was administered everyday so that the prince would descend into madness and infirmity. Many months passed, but Sulaiman Shikoh somehow did not deteriorate. In May 1662, Aurangzeb resolved to end the threat forever and ordered his men to strangle the prince. Thus ended the life of the intrepid, but unfortunate son of Dara Shikoh.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on June 10, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

 

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Raja Tej Singh: Mughal Rajput Soldier And Tamil Folk Hero

Gingee Fort

The Mughal Empire depended heavily on the fidelity, valor and skills of Rajput princes, nobles, and countless Rajput soldiers. Mughal alliances with key Rajput clans were established and maintained through marriages, modes of formal patronage – and sometimes by force. Even as the Empire unraveled, many Rajput clans continued to serve the Mughal Emperor. A scion of one such clan, the very young Raja Tej Singh Bundela, lord of Gingee in Tamil Nadu, entered Tamil folklore as the brave and virtuous “Desing Raja” – the Tamil moniker being a corruption of his real name.

 

The Carnatic province – comprising of parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – was the Mughals’ southernmost possession. Gingee was critical to its control and was wrested from the Marathas in 1698 with great difficulty. Shortly after the conquest, the Rajput lord Raja Swarup Singh Bundela, was appointed as Commander of Gingee. Nine additional forts and substantial lands were also bestowed. Swarup Singh’s clan was a key Mughal ally for generations. He apparently had a good relationship with the Nawab of Arcot, the provincial Mughal governor. Swarup Singh was also respected by the Nawab’s superior, the Mughal Viceroy of the Deccan, Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah (who later became the first Nizam of Hyderabad). Swarup Singh’s son, Raja Tej Singh, was a famed young warrior who also served the Empire. Swarup Singh died in late 1713 and the question of succession arose. On the ensuing events, there are four versions, with key commonalities but different content, tone and style.

 

 

Firstly, European records mention that in 1714 C.E., the Arcot Nawab suppressed the rebellion of Gingee’s new lord, the son of the previous Rajput lord. He had claimed Gingee as a hereditary right granted by the Emperor. This was not accepted by the provincial governor, who also raised the issue of tax arrears. The new lord was killed in an ensuing battle. Even these ostensibly unbiased records vary on the origin of the conflict. Perhaps the Nawab feared Tej Singh and used a pretense to destroy him, perhaps Tej Singh was guilty after all. Nevertheless, these sources describe Tej Singh’s stubbornness, daring exploits, and his heroic death.

The second narrative is provided by imperial chroniclers sympathetic to Arcot and Hyderabad. They blame Tej Singh’s rashness and pretenses of sovereignty for the war. The Emperor had never bestowed Gingee to Tej Singh: the latter had broken faith with his ultimate liege lord. These sources also mention the fidelity and courage of Tej Singh – and that of his friend and feudatory, Mahabat Khan. The Nawab is portrayed as chivalrous and compassionate. He pardons Tej Singh’s followers and even organizes the Sati of Tej Singh’s wife after futile attempts to convince her to live.

Asaf Jah I

Asaf Jah I

The third narrative from certain Marathi chronicles diverge significantly. Tej Singh – also termed Jai Singh – is portrayed as a flawless hero and Asaf Jah is the main villain. This narrative incorporates dubious claims of pedigree and many fantasy elements, and Muslim rulers are shown negatively. This is unsurprising as Mughals and Hyderabad (ruled by Asaf Jah’s successors) were the Marathas’ mortal enemies. The Emperor is also portrayed as rather malevolent.

Finally, we have the ornate and fantastic Tamil folklore. This incorporates themes of Vaishnavism, and even more fantastic and dubious episodes. The Mughals as portrayed as wholly steeped into Hindu traditions. Desing Raja’s bride, the Sati-mata, is the daughter of the Mughal Emperor himself and Mahabat Khan invokes Narayana along with Allah. At the end of an epic battle caused by miscommunication and pride (and tax arrears), Tej Singh dies by his own hand – heartbroken by Mahabat Khan’s death – after annihilating his enemies. The popularity of the Desing Raja emanates from this folk narrative, which wove together many popular themes. Artists and poets undoubtedly helped popularize this version regionally to inspire and entertain.

 

 

Jaswant Singh's shrine

Jaswant Singh’s shrine

Ghazi Miyan's Dargah

Ghazi Miyan’s Dargah

In India young warriors who attain Veergati have been canonized – or even deified. Folklore, artistic interpretations and colored chronicles play a great part in this. Even in modern times we have the shrine of Jaswant Singh Rawat in Tawang. In some cases, communities once preyed by such personalities in life have later turned out to worship their old enemy. The “Ghazi Miyan” of Bahraich, and the “Nikal Seyn” Sect are case in point.  Tej Singh’s reputation, his qualities and accomplishments, and his heroic death at a very young age made such an impression that legends blossomed.

 

Raja Tej Singh, however did not become a saint like Jaswant Singh, Ghazi Salar Masud and John Nicholson. Regardless of the origin and course of his war – and the question of the rightness of his cause – the Rajput Raja Tej Singh has been immortalized in the regional memory as the valiant “Desing Raja” through numerous literary works, art forms and even movies.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on May 27, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Second Anglo-French Contest For India

Napoleon planned to topple the British rule in India

By 1763 C.E., the British had defeated the French in a series of long, drawn-out colonial conflicts in India such as the Carnatic Wars. In Europe and North America also the British ended French supremacy, in the course of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The ensuing Treaty of Paris returned French territories conquered by the British, but it included stringent provisions which forestalled French imperial ambitions in India. For the next three decades the French chafed in their tiny coastal enclaves watching British tighten their grip on India. However, events during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rule made a second round for India quite possible – a threat the British took very seriously.

Anglo-French Carnatic Wars

Anglo-French Carnatic Wars

Britain drained great wealth from India and became a superpower. The French resented their ancient enemy’s rise but their nation was enfeebled by the weak and degenerate French monarchy. In this period enterprising French soldiers served Indian rulers and made great fortunes. Their example attracted thousands of French adventurers into the large European detachments fielded by Indians. Unlike the officers commanding the British imperial machine, most of these Frenchmen did not hail from the nobility or gentry. Poverty, the ossified society and extreme inequality in France had forced these middle and lower-class Frenchmen to become mercenaries.

The French Revolution erupted in May 1789 primarily due to social antagonisms. The Revolution’s initial liberal, constitutional phase ended in 1792, and a phase of authoritarian terror began. This three-year phase saw the radical Jacobin movement capture power. The Jacobin leaders were hardline, left-wing revolutionaries mostly hailing from the middle-class. However, the radicalized, long-suffering lower classes were their main constituency. This bloody phase of authoritarianism, known as the “Reign of Terror”, set off the French Revolutionary Wars – global conflicts in which many European nations fought France. France mobilized and slowly overcame its enemies: a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte now emerged as the national hero. Jacobin rule collapsed in late 1794, but their radical ideas spread overseas. Many Frenchmen in India apparently embraced Jacobinism. After all, they hailed from the classes that supported Jacobinism back home.

Cap of Liberty

Cap of Liberty

Michel Raymond, the French commander of the Nizam’s enormous European Corps, became a Jacobin: his officers and troops followed. Scindia’s French general Perron was also a Jacobin and corresponded with Raymond and his officers. French troops across India began to adopt the new French tricolor and revolutionary symbols such as the Cap of Liberty. A “Jacobin Society of Mysore” was formed by a self-professed Republican envoy and Tipu Sultan’s French officers. This led to diplomatic activities and the arrival of French volunteers from Mauritius (then a French colony) in 1798 to aid Tipu.

The British became paranoid about Jacobinism radicalizing French troops in India. They were even more fearful for their infant Indian empire: French expeditionary forces could land in India and ally with hostile Indian powers, who already possess radicalized French forces. Moreover, since 1795 French ships based in Mauritius had been conducting destructive naval raids on British shipping. Napoleon, now very influential in France, invaded Egypt in 1798. He planned to subsequently conquer Palestine, sail to India, ally with Indian rulers, and topple the British. The British now acted quickly. French forces in Palestine were defeated by a British-Ottoman alliance. Further reverses forced Napoleon to abandon Palestine and his plans for India in 1799. The British conspired with the Nizam’s courtiers against Raymond – the Nizam also soon feel in line. Raymond died suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Shortly after, the British and Nizam’s troops surrounded and disarmed the French soldiers. The captives were shipped to Europe. Next, the British killed Tipu Sultan and annexed Mysore in 1799.

Tsar Paul I

Tsar Paul I

Napoleon was however not done. Russia’s Tsar Paul I allied with Napoleon (after abandoning the existing Anglo-Russian alliance) in 1800 and planned a joint invasion of India. Paul I sent a huge vanguard into Central Asia to secure the invasion route. However, the Tsar was brutally assassinated and the plan was shelved. Some allege that the British had a hand in the assassination – a Russo-French alliance would have been very formidable. The British also managed to bribe, undercut or eliminate the Frenchmen serving the Marathas. By the end of the 2nd Anglo-Maratha War (1805), French mercenary presence in India had practically ended. In 1810, the British conquered Mauritius after suffering years of naval raids, thus eliminating the last vestiges of the French threat.

Many historians feel that the British overreacted to a minor and ultimately meaningless revolutionary wave among French mercenaries. Some even argue that the Jacobin bogey was completely fabricated by the British as a pretext to conquer more Indian kingdoms and remove French soldiers from India. Nevertheless, the Napoleonic threat was real and the risk to the British Empire in India was not negligible. A healthy mix of paranoia and strategic thinking – and the willingness to use any means necessary – had made the British victorious once again.

 

PS: This is the slightly edited version of my article in DNA, published on May 13, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Mughal-Safavid Tussle For Kandahar

Today the term Kandahar evokes mostly memories of the IC-814 hijack. It appears infrequently in the news, in context of our projects in Afghanistan, or terrorist attacks. However, for a long time in history the affairs of Kandahar commanded considerable attention in India. Afghanistan was the favored overland route to India – for both trade and war. This in turn hinged on control of Kandahar, just as much as Kabul which dominated the Khyber Pass route. Over the centuries many powers threw their armies against the walls of Kandahar to control this fulcrum. The city also became the center-piece of endless intrigue and diplomacy. However, the bloodiest conflict of all was between the Mughals and the Safavids of Iran. For the Safavids, the obsession with Kandahar would eventually lead to their downfall.

 

Kandahar map

Kandahar map

Why was Kandahar so important? In south central Afghanistan, a large swathe of alluvial land lies at the confluence of two rivers. The fertile soil, the climate, and irrigation enabled dense settlement. The origin of the name is still debated but old Kandahar was founded here in ancient times. Today’s Kandahar is however recent, founded about 300 years ago. Khorasan (present-day northeastern Iran, north-central Afghanistan and Turkmenistan) was a hotly contested region for millennia, and Kandahar was key to its control. Moreover, Kandahar was a major traffic junction. The ancient southeast road passing through Kandahar connected Khorasan to India. The northeast road connecting eastern Iran to Kabul (and onward into India) also ran through Kandahar. Kandahar therefore developed into a bustling, well-fortified emporium and many competing powers vied for its control down the centuries. However, it was the simultaneous rise of the Mughal and the Safavids that brought the tussle to unseen levels.

 

The Safavids (1501-1736) had forged a separate identity for Iran by vigorously promoting Shia Islam. They also inherited the ancient Iranian fear of Central Asian marauders. Control of Khorasan, through Kandahar, was deemed indispensable. Moreover, controlling this emporium would bring great riches. Kandahar could also be a springboard for invading India: after all there were Shiite kingdoms there actively seeking Safavid intervention. On the other hand, the Mughals owed their ascent to possession of Kabul and Kandahar; they also understood Kandahar’s strategic value and the threat from the west very well.

In the 16th-17th century, Kandahar changed hands multiple times, but trade and commerce resumed every time. In 1522 C.E., Babur captured Kandahar, defeating the local dynasty and the Safavids. His son Humayun was forced to hand it over to the Safavids in 1543, in return for their support during his exile. In two years Humayun rebuilt his power and captured Kandahar. Safavids perceived this as a betrayal but Humayun managed to contain the damage.  Humayun suddenly died in 1556 and in the ensuing confusion the Safavids captured Kandahar. Akbar managed to retake Kandahar through subterfuge in 1595; his death in 1605 prompted a futile Safavid invasion. The Safavids wrested Kandahar from Jahangir in 1622. In 1638, a defecting Safavid commander handed over Kandahar to Shah Jahan. Ten years later the Safavids recaptured Kandahar in a determined campaign. Mughal attempts to retake Kandahar failed colossally: by 1653 Shah Jahan ceased all attempts. Aurangzeb also desired re-conquest but geopolitics, rebellions and the Deccan wars stood in the way.

 

A Siege of Kandahar

A Siege of Kandahar

The Safavid success was rather short-lived; their obsession with Kandahar led to oppression of the local tribes. The rapacious Georgian governor and Safavids’ religious zeal made things worse: Kandahar soon became the spearhead of Safavids’ ruin. The region was populated by the Ghilji and Abdali tribes who bore the brunt of Safavid imperialism. Under the Ghilji chief Mirwaiz Hotak and his successors, the Kandahar Afghans overthrew the foreign yoke in 1709. By 1722 the Hotaks swept into Iran and established Afghan rule, practically eradicating the Safavid line. The Hotaks reigned till the Iranians rebounded in 1729 under Nadir Shah. The Afghans were pushed back to Kandahar by 1738. After conquering Kandahar, Nadir Shah ordered the complete destruction of the city. Kandahar would however get a second life when Ahmed Shah Abdali established his empire in 1747; a new Kandahar was built next to the ruins of the old. Meanwhile, the Mughals weakened and many contenders scrambled for power. As feared, control of Kandahar now enabled massive invasions of fractured India. Nadir Shah’s terrible invasion of 1739 practically ended the Mughals. Abdali’s seven invasions between 1748 and 1767 also claimed many lives and crippled the Marathas, thus paving the way for British ascent.

Subsequently, many powers tried to control Kandahar – for varying reasons – but ultimately everyone reaped disappointing results. Events in modern history have eroded the strategic value of Kandahar, but it still is a prized objective for many. Today, despite endless crises and bloodshed, Kandahar endures – in a fashion.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on April 29, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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After Talikota: Tanjavur and Madurai

Madurai Nayak Palace

The Vijayanagar Empire was decisively defeated by the Deccan Sultanates in the Battle of Talikota, in 1565 C.E. The empire soon unraveled when many provincial governors, called Nayakas, declared independence one by one.  Even before the last emperor died the Nayakas were at each other’s throats, making opportunistic alliances, and seeking the support of Europeans and even the Sultanates. Tanjavur and Madurai, once key constituents of the empire, engaged in a protracted and destructive conflict which eventually doomed both ruling dynasties.

Vijayanagar provinces

The reasons behind the rivalry were many. Tanjavur Nayakas hailed from a noble house which strongly supported Vijayanagar even during the empire’s terminal decline. The Madurai Nayakas were of humbler origins and had changed colors right after Talikota. In 1614 C.E., Madurai sided with a usurper who murdered the Vijayanagar emperor and his family. By 1659 Madurai’s expansionist activities led to the Sultanates annexing any remaining Vijayanagar crownlands: this reduced the last emperor to a refugee. Such actions also led to the Tanjavur kingdom losing lands to the Sultanates. Madurai’s alliance with the Sultans enabled roving Deccani Muslim warlords to quickly gain power in Tamil lands. Legends also say that a Madurai Nayaka murdered his bride, a Tanjavur princess (who was offered as a token of peace), in a moment of rage. The feud grew over the years – interspersed with very brief alliances of convenience – and reached a climax in 1673 C.E.

Tanjavur was then ruled by the ageing Vijaya Raghava Nayaka. He was a patron of the arts and had written numerous poems and dramatic works. However, he believed in hoary notions of tradition, valor and honor – he even refused to modernize his army with firearms. The ruler of Madurai was the young Chokkanatha Nayaka. He had actually attempted to check the growing power of the Sultanates and the warlords but failed. In 1673 Chokkanatha requested the Tanjavur princess’s hand in marriage. The Tanjavur king contemptuously refused; the enraged Chokkanatha ordered his generals to capture the princess. Madurai’s army consisting of Deccani cavalry, musketeers, cannons and European mercenaries simply outclassed Tanjavur’s army. Tanjavur fort was breached after heavy fighting; despite multiple offers of lenient terms Vijaya Raghava resolved to “die with honor”. The royal palace was rigged with gunpowder and incendiaries and the royal womenfolk were herded into it.  As the defenders sallied out and fought to the death they blew up the palace, killing everyone inside. Chokkanatha installed his brother Alagiri as a viceroy. However, Chengamaladas, a minor son of the fallen Tanjavur King, had escaped the carnage.

 

Venkoji

Venkoji

Chengamaladas later surfaced in Bijapur and requested the Sultan’s aid. In 1675 C.E., the Sultan sent his general Venkoji, half-brother of Chhatrapati Shivaji, to reclaim Tanjavur for Chengamaladas (Ironically, Venkoji and his Maratha troops served Bijapur while Shivaji was invading it in the north). It was an opportune moment as Alagiri and Chokkanatha were now at war with each other. Tanjavur was conquered by the Marathas in a short campaign. However, heeding to a prophetic dream (and perhaps sensing the Bijapur Sultanate’s impending end) Venkoji crowned himself King of Tanjavur in 1676. With Chengamaladas fleeing into obscurity the rule of the Tanjavur Nayakas ended.

Meanwhile in Madurai, rebellions and Chokkanatha’s plummeting popularity weakened the kingdom. The expansionist Tanjavur Marathas now began to prey on Madurai. Chokkanatha was deposed by the Madurai nobles and another brother was enthroned. In 1680, a powerful Deccani warlord named Rustam Khan captured power, chasing away the new Nayaka and installing Chokkanatha as a puppet ruler. Rustam Khan’s power grew alarmingly and he apparently began to forcibly claim women from the royal families. The enraged Madurai nobles ambushed and killed Rustam Khan and his followers in one swoop. In 1682 Chokkanatha Nayaka’s heart finally gave out when Madurai was repeatedly invaded by her neighbors, and subsequently betrayed by her feudatories. The Madurai kingdom was totally devastated at this point. Chokkanatha’s teenaged son Rangakrishna managed to reclaim some glory but he died of smallpox just seven years into his reign. Queen Mother Mangammal became the Regent for the next fifteen years as Rangakrishna’s heir was an infant. Mangammal’s brilliant leadership bought Madurai back from the brink. Using diplomacy, stratagems and military might, she eliminated major threats and rebuilt Madurai’s power. However, after her death in 1705 the kingdom went into decline again. Madurai was slowly worn down by civil strife, and the campaigns of Tanjavur, Mysore and the Nawab of Arcot. In 1736, Arcot forces under the famed Chanda Sahib occupied Madurai, ending centuries of Nayaka rule.

Madurai was subsequently tossed between various belligerents till the British became her overlord in 1764. The Marathas of Tanjavur fared slightly better. Despite Mughal attacks, incessant wars with its neighbors, and increasing subservience to the British, it plodded on in relatively good order. In 1855, Tanjavur lapsed into British rule when the last Maratha king died without a natural heir.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on April 8, 2018. Here’s the link to the the article.

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The End of the Comintern’s Indian Project

A Comintern Poster

Continued from part-1 (Link to the article) and part-2 (Link to the article) of a trilogy on Lenin and his plans for an Indian invasion/revolution.

 

In 1921 the plans to overthrow the British Raj were unceremoniously shelved – the Indian Revolution was stillborn. Previously we had seen how the Comintern program had innate challenges such as factionalism, Pan-Islamism, the weakened Red Army, the Afghanistan factor, etc. We have also seen how Lenin finally allowed Enver Pasha to enter Central Asia. True to Murphy’s adage – “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” – everything did go wrong. The growing national movement deflated prospects for a violent revolution in India. Besides, the British were past masters of the Great Game. The unkindest cut of all was however struck by the Russians themselves.

 

Lenin truly desired a global revolution, but he was also keenly aware that Russia was an impoverished and industrially backward nation. His communist regime desperately required acceptance in the world scene. Anglo-Russian talks had begun in early 1920, but given the plans for Indian revolution these talks were perceived by the Indian revolutionaries as mere sideshow. However, by early 1921 it became clear that the Comintern endeavor was primarily a tool to arm-twist the British to make more concessions in an impending Anglo-Soviet agreement. The Russians knew that in their current weakened state they could not overthrow the British Raj – unless there was violent rebellion. But Gandhiji had successfully redirected India’s seething rage into non-violent resoluteness, by convincing Indians of the unassailable rightness of their cause. This new zeitgeist made violent rebellion unlikely. The British also made their countermoves. Ace agents were dispatched to the region: the ensuing spy games, bribery and clever diplomacy outmaneuvered the Russians.

 

The Eastern University

Eastern University

Following the Anglo-Russian agreement of March 1921, the Indian Military School was closed. Lenin ordered Roy to immediately cease revolutionary activities and return to Moscow. The Russians even formally claimed that military training of Indian exiles was an unauthorized act by overzealous Comintern elements. The British also reconciled with the Afghan King Amanullah Khan: following the Anglo-Afghan treaty of November 1921, Indian revolutionaries in Afghanistan were expelled. The Pan-Islamist revolutionaries journeyed to West Asia seeking religious battlefronts there. Non-communist revolutionaries scattered worldwide to continue the fight against the Raj. The communists fled to Russia. The Russians also took the neo-converts to communism to the new “Communist University of the Toilers of the East” (a.k.a. “Eastern University”). This institute grew into a training centre for communists from around the world, including future leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Ho Chi Minh.

 

About this time Enver Pasha traveled to Central Asia following Lenin’s approval. When he reached his destination in November 1921 he promptly double-crossed the Russians. Enver Pasha united many Basmachi factions and his forces launched daring attacks across Russian Central Asia. Amanullah Khan welcomed the prospect of a friendly Muslim nation to his north and covertly aided the Basmachi rebellion. However, by mid-1922 the Red Army in Central Asia was rebuilt and considerably strengthened. Lenin now ordered his generals to crush the rebellion. The Basmachi were methodically ground down. When the tide turned Amanullah Khan backed out. The expected support of the Muslims of Chinese Turkestan did not materialize either. Enver Pasha died on August 1922, launching a suicide charge on horseback: he had refused to surrender or flee anymore.

 

The fate of those involved in the Comintern endeavor was also grim. Cancellation of the Indian project and infighting between Indian communists weakened Roy’s position. Additionally, Roy’s mentor Lenin was enfeebled by multiple strokes. Lenin died in 1924, shortly after Stalin consolidated power. In 1925, the Comintern, in an ironic act of imperialism, ordered the Communist Party of Great Britain to control India’s communist movement! The Communist Party of India founded in Tashkent was now effectively gutted. Roy lingered, despite his plummeting status. In early 1927, Roy and his old friend Borodin were sent on a sensitive mission to China, where civil war had begun. The mission failed, leading to mass expulsion of Russian officials from China and severely crippling Russian influence there. Though exonerated for this failure, Roy was soon expelled from the Comintern. A disillusioned Roy left Russia and eventually found his way back to India. Roy was briefly imprisoned by the British; afterwards he languished in the political wilderness till his death in 1954.

"Chatto", a purge victim

“Chatto”, a purge victim

Abani Mukherjee, a purge victim

Abani Mukherjee, a purge victim

Most were not as fortunate: the leading Indian revolutionaries in Russia were murdered in Stalin’s Purge. Zinoviev, who presided over the Baku Congress, was also shot. Many Indian revolutionaries in Europe did not survive fascism and World War 2. The Pan-Islamist revolutionaries became disappointed with Turkey’s secular turn and the West-friendly Arab sheikhdoms. Few, such as Ubaidullah Sindhi, eventually managed to return home. The Communist Party was however rebuilt in India through 1922-‘25, by the efforts of the Eastern University graduates and other leftists. Despite ambitious, long-term plans, the communists were eclipsed by the mainstream Indian National Movement. The Comintern itself ended quite ingloriously: during World War 2 Stalin had the organization dissolved to placate his Western allies.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on March 25, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Lenin, The Army of God and Enver Pasha

Continued from part-1 (Link to the article) of a trilogy on Lenin and his plans for an Indian invasion/revolution.

 

The plan to overthrow the British Raj had three components: the first and the most potent component was a newly raised Russian army which would invade from Afghanistan. The full support of King Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan was necessary for this.

Ubeidullah Sindhi

Ubeidullah Sindhi

Ubaidullah Sindhi, a prominent cleric, was residing in Kabul with a large party of Islamic and secular revolutionaries from India and abroad. He had styled himself Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India and formed an “Army of God” with many followers. Following the Baku congress, Sindhi had offered to aid any anti-British operations. He claimed that his army would be a beacon to millions of Indian Muslims, who would pour into Afghanistan to join this force. He would also persuade King Amanullah to support the invasion – this would encourage the fiercely anti-British Pashtun tribesmen to join in. This Army of God was the second component. A Pan-India network of communist cells was the third component of the plan. Indian leftist revolutionaries would be dispatched to create and run these cells.  Working with other groups opposed to the Raj, these cells would act as a fifth column. They would orchestrate uprisings when the invasion begins; the liberators would advance into India in the wake of such uprisings and destroy the Raj. During World War-I (1914-1918), Germany also planned to use Muslim rage to topple British India. But unlike Germany, Russia was right next door. Also, both Afghanistan and India appeared highly agitated after the war – and after the recent doctrinal debates the communists were ready for alliance with any disaffected group. A revolution seemed to be feasible, if the military operations were launched in time.

 

Afghan Basmachis

Afghan Basmachis

There were major difficulties though, and the planners understood this. The Army of God members were mostly intellectuals and clergy; it would take much time to turn them into a real army. Amanullah was an opportunistic despot who had no real cause to support communism. Finally, Russia was short of soldiers and supplies following its recent civil war: the new liberation army would have to wait. Lenin provided some troops and supplies to Roy, but these were for strengthening communist control of Central Asia – there were many threats to be dealt with. Specifically, bands of fanatic Turk tribesmen termed Basmachis seriously threatened communist control of Central Asia. Roy had to divert considerable time and effort to oversee such tasks. Moreover, factionalism developed within Indian revolutionary ranks due to doctrinal differences, pedigree and ego. This sapped the energy of the program. On a positive note, the Military School in Tashkent commenced training recruits from the Army of God in early 1921.

 

About this time, Enver Pasha, the Turkish leader, appeared. Pasha was part of the all-powerful triumvirate which once ruled the Ottoman Empire – with the Emperor reduced to a mere figurehead. After Ottoman Turkey’s defeat in the Great War, he went into exile in January 1919. However, Enver Pasha was still widely respected in the Islamic world and was therefore invited to the Baku congress. Following this congress, Pasha approached Lenin with a mutually beneficial proposal. He promised that with Russian aid, he would be able to co-opt the Basmachi rebels. Next, he would rally the Muslims of Turkestan, the vast western province of China bordering Russian Central Asia and India. The fledgling Chinese Republic barely held on to this chaotic region and they would be no match for Enver Pasha’s call. He would thus carve out an allied nation in Turkestan. Russia would now be able to strike deep into India through its north, bypassing capricious Afghanistan and strongly defended western India. The Afghan path was very risky – perhaps Pasha’s plan was safer. Lenin was however wary of Enver Pasha, who had a dark record of fanaticism and genocide. Lenin feared that Pasha would double-cross him once he reached Central Asia. Roy and Borodin also met Enver Pasha in Moscow and feared that this alternate plan might siphon off Russian support. In October 1921, Lenin agreed to transport Enver Pasha and his band of loyalists to Central Asia.

One could understand why Lenin was ready to support long shots such as M.N. Roy and Enver Pasha. During the Great War, when the February 1917 revolution broke out in Russia, Lenin was living in exile in Switzerland. The German High Command successfully transported Lenin to St. Petersburg (the very epicenter of the revolution) in a sealed train – they hoped that the tiresome revolutionary would cause even more trouble for their Russian enemies.

The Sealed Train

But Lenin, no mere pawn in someone else’s games, managed to accomplish much more. Synchronicity and the great crises in Tsarist Russia had helped catapult Lenin and his band into power. Perhaps Roy and Pasha would be able to repeat this feat in the restive East also. Given the ultimate goal of a World Soviet, this was a low-cost strategy. Moreover, there were other factors at play…

(To be concluded)

 

 

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on March 18, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

 

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Lenin and Roy: A Revolution in British India

This is the first of three articles on Lenin’s plans for a revolution in India

 

In March 1919, leading revolutionaries from around the world, including Russian leaders such as Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, met in Moscow to found the Communist International, a.k.a. the Comintern. The professed aim of this body was to overthrow all existing governments and replace them with communist regimes – a crucial milestone in the march towards the prophesized global communist utopia. Lenin’s zeal drove the Comintern, and as the head of the Russian government he commanded immense resources. Communist Russia was surrounded by enemies and had barely survived many attempts to destroy the nascent regime. For ideological reasons as well as for survival, the revolution had to be exported.

First Comintern

Lenin and Zinoviev at the Comintern

Lenin believed that a weakened Europe, horrified at the imperial games that led to World War-I, would fall right into the Communists’ lap. Just as Russia did. Once Europe fell, the rest of the world would soon follow. For this, a network of agents run by the Comintern had to instigate and guide peoples’ rebellions across Europe. Unlike the scattered and self-deluded anarchists of old, these trained and capable agents would have the Russian state backing them. However, despite the Comintern’ s best efforts Europe did not oblige. The Polish-Russia war also saw the Poles prevail, much to Lenin’s embarrassment. It was clear that other solutions were required. The British Empire was perceived as the greatest hindrance to the communist utopia – but it would fall if it lost India, the jewel in the Crown. Similarly, the loss of Asiatic colonies will weaken other European enemies. Lenin declared that ‘The East will help us to conquer the West’ and “It is in India that we must strike them hardest”.

 

 

However, India was very different from Europe. The required conditions and processes of history (as postulated by communist prophets) might not be applicable there yet. Moreover, none of the Russian leaders had first-hand knowledge of India. Also, they needed a native to lead this revolution. Lenin soon found his champion in Manabendra Nath Roy.

M N Roy as a young man

M N Roy

M.N. Roy, born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya, had been a revolutionary since 1905, originally influenced by mysticism and nationalism. From 1915 he traveled the world, relentlessly seeking arms and allies against the British. In 1917 he entered Mexico, a land wracked by many revolutions, and adopted left-wing thought. He founded the Socialist Workers Party in 1917, which became the Mexican Communist Party in 1919. Roy converted to communism under the influence of Mikhail Borodin, a Comintern agent. On Borodin’s recommendation, Roy was invited to the 2nd World Congress (August 1920) by Lenin himself.

 

Lenin was impressed by Roy. He conveyed his desire to launch a revolution that would eject the Raj and requested required Roy’s assistance for that. During the 2nd Congress the duo formulated strategies. It seemed that orthodox communist approach would have to be abandoned: the Comintern would have to co-operate with non-Marxist movements. Roy argued that such movements are regressive and would just replace white masters with brown ones. Lenin contended that an Indian communist party did not exist. Even if it was created, it would be impossible to reach the masses in time – given India’s unique characteristics. Temporary alliances have to be formed to foment revolution; these alliances would be broken once the Communists captured power. This policy, known as ‘Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions”, settled the debate and became the charter for the revolution.

 

At this juncture, India did appear to be restive. The Great War and its aftermath, British brutality, and a host of other reasons had enraged Indians. Nationalistic fervor was rising. Muslims were furthered angered by the dismemberment of Ottoman Turkey, through Anglo-French machinations. This meant the effective end of the Islamic Caliphate, invested in the Ottoman Emperor for centuries. In 1914 the Germans and the Ottomans had tried to rouse Muslim rage against Britain but failed. However, it still seemed the most feasible method to destroy the Raj. Moreover, the latest Anglo-Afghan war had just ended – maybe the restive Afghans could be co-opted too.

Zinoviev at the Baku Congress

Zinoviev in Baku

Consequently, in September 1920 in Baku, a grand congress chaired by Zinoviev hosted numerous Muslim delegates from around the globe. Thinkers and rebels of every hue were present. Mixing Islamism and Marxism, Zinoviev called on Muslims worldwide to launch a jihad against imperial powers. The “toilers of the East” were exhorted to overthrow their foreign masters. The delegates responded with great enthusiasm. The dangers of this path were however recognized by the communist leadership: millions of Muslims residing in Russian lands could also get caught in this storm. It was soon made very clear that the “liberation” was meant only for Muslims in other lands. A few days later, the Communist Party of India was launched in Tashkent. Roy was also made head of the Central Asiatic Bureau of the Comintern and the Indian Military School. The endeavor had begun.

(To be continued)

******************

PS:  This is my article in DNA, published on March 11, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Pandemic that India Forgot

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 100 million people globally. The pandemic’s convoluted genesis and its frenetic and catastrophic course makes it still a topic of much research. The pandemic struck in three distinct waves between March 1918 and March 1919, the first two waves striking during the endgames of World War I. Unlike most outbreaks, this pandemic felled mostly healthy adults. The pathogen was an unusually aggressive strain of swine flu; it caused devastatingly strong immune reactions which flooded lungs and airways. Weaker immune systems of children and the elderly resulted in fewer deaths among those groups. The war, massive movement of men and material, malnourishment, overcrowded medical facilities and poor hygiene (which led to secondary infections) aggravated the situation. Modern transportation systems made the disease spread faster and farther. India was struck hard: about 17-20 million died.  However, the pandemic did not enter India’s national memory as a terrible but momentous event, unlike other past calamities.

 

Due to the War, the belligerent governments censored or downplayed the pandemic. Only neutral Spain reported its true impact: the perception that the pandemic began in Spain was thus formed. The popular term for the pandemic is still “Spanish Flu”. Many nations have nicknames – laced with spite, black humor or ignorance – for the pandemic. The first confirmed outbreak was in Kansas, U.S., in March 1918. The first wave lasted till June but global death rates were not very high. An American base in France however became a major disease vector. This base saw millions transit every week. It had an overcrowded hospital and was ringed by piggeries and farms. These conditions allowed a highly lethal virus strain to develop. The resultant second wave (August – November) was catastrophic. The Flu raced across the globe, from the Arctic to Polynesia, killing millions of hosts shortly after infection. It scythed down commoners, celebrities, soldiers, generals, leaders and royalty. A third wave struck in February 1919, but rapidly abated. The virus killed its hosts too fast, before more people could be infected. Also, the virus mutated into a non-lethal strain – perhaps mere chance saved humanity.

 

The second wave struck India hard in September 1918, through soldiers returning from the war. Western, Central and Northern India were hard hit – but the East and South were much less affected. Certain regions showed mortality as high as 102.6 per thousand. This pandemic was more destructive than past Indian famines, and killed twice as many as the recent great plague (1896-1907). However, the Flu pandemic did not elicit the level of reactions that previous calamities did. Events such as the Great Bengal Famine, the Skull Famine, the Chalisa Famine, etc. had enduring impact on our national memory. The great plague, which originated in China and spread alarmingly in India, also influenced Indian society and the freedom struggle. Fears of the plague growing uncontrollably in India and causing another Black Death in Europe led to Western threats of sanctions. In response, the British launched harsh anti-plague campaigns, totally disregarding socio-religious sensitivities. Millions fled the cities fearing both plague and plague containment. Myths of Western Medical Conspiracies also strengthened. For example, many believed that Indians were secretly dismembered and processed in hospitals to extract a medicinal fluid called “Momiai”, which was used to protect the British from the plague. Violent agitations, and the assassination of the plague commissioner resulted in severe reprisals.

 

Press censorship was in effect when the 1918 pandemic struck. Institutional memories of the plague were also fresh. The British therefore downplayed the Flu, and made limited but focused efforts to fight it. They had also recently overhauled the public health apparatus to accommodate Indian sensitivities. Some Indian organizations also rose to meet the pandemic’s challenge. Therefore, the efforts to fight the Flu did not evoke widespread anger. Moreover, 1918 was a major juncture in the freedom struggle. Gandhiji was becoming the paramount leader of the recently reunified Congress. The Indian National Movement was forging socio-political alliances, adopting mass agitations, and planning responses to the menacing Rowlatt Mission. These developments captured the imagination of the (mostly) urban, politically conscious populace, and diverted attention from the pandemic – of which there was limited and confusing information. The Flu coincided with the unprecedented slaughter of the War. This factor, and the pandemic’s utter speed made it difficult for society to truly process the calamity. Finally, great mass-deaths due to famines and epidemics had occurred across India in the not-so-distant past: this lessened the pandemic’s true significance for the people – especially rural Indians.

The 1918 pandemic perhaps deserved to be marked as a momentous event in national memory: stark memories of such calamities have transformed many societies and governments for the better. However, this pandemic, which killed more Indians than any other event, is largely forgotten outside the realms of academics and research.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on February 25, 2018. Here’s the link to the original piece.

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A tale of two legends: Padmavat and Dodo-Chanesar

Malik Muhammed Jayasi’s Padmavat (c. 1540) is an epic poem which wove together bits of history, fantasy tropes and Sufi ideology. Acutely Sufi themes such as man’s vanity and desire for the ephemeral were overlaid on a historical episode — the Delhi Sultanate’s invasion of Chittor in 1303 C.E..

Today, elements of this mostly fictional poem have been deified into very emotive and politically charged truths. The popular narrative is that of “honorable Rajput men and women triumphing in death over marauding Muslim invaders”. The “martyr queen” is seen as an icon of chaste Hindu womanhood. The Chittor carnage courtesy Sultan Alauddin Khilji, the subcontinent’s favorite bogeyman, is a well-recorded fact. However, the currently enshrined narrative is quite certainly false.

The distortion of true events into legend, and legends being enshrined as the truth are well-observed phenomena. Down the ages, elements and themes from such legends flow across cultures and regions. In this regard, the Sindhi folk legend of Dodo-Chanesar could be observed alongside the Padmavat. Similar themes of Rajput valour (albeit of the Muslim Rajput variety) against foreign imperialism, royal traitors, “purity and honor of our women”, mass suicide, elements of fantasy and the evil Alauddin Khilji are overlaid on a sliver of history — the Delhi Sultanate’s Sindh expedition of 1298.

 

The Sindhi folk legend

The Padmavat’s storyline is too well known to repeat here. However, the Sindhi tale of Dodo-Chanesar, set during the reign of the Soomra dynasty, is not so well known outside the region.

The Soomra dynasty, which ruled most of present day Sindh, were Muslim by faith but followed many Hindu Rajput traditions. It is believed they were one of the Rajput groups which converted to Islam sometime after the Arab Caliphate conquered Sindh in the eighth century. The Soomras had been ruling with the support of other Muslim Rajput groups ever since their overthrow of the Ghazni yoke sometime between 1024 and 1040 C.E..

As there are numerous and contradicting versions of the Dodo-Chanesar legend, we sequence together major elements from the more popular versions:

A Soomra king had two wives, a blacksmith’s daughter and a Rajput noblewoman. The former bore a son named Kamaluddin Chanesar and a daughter named Bilqees “Bhaghi”. Sometime later, the Rajput wife delivered a son, on the same day the king died in a battle. This son was named Asad-ul-Millat Dodo. A regency was appointed to rule till the princes came of age. They grew up wary of each other, amid palace intrigue—but the beautiful and spirited Bhaghi was loved by both. Years later, prince Dodo was chosen as the sultan under pressure from the nobles. Prince Chanesar was elder but lowborn and hence unacceptable to the Muslim Rajput lords.

A seething Chanesar left for Delhi and sought the aid of Sultan Alauddin Khilji. In return, Chanesar would acknowledge the Delhi Sultan as his suzerain and also marry his sister to Khilji. The sultan agreed, and a large army led by general Zafar Khan invaded Sindh. Sultan Dodo and the Rajput lords rebuffed the negotiation attempts; the traitorous pretender (who promised their princess to a “caste-less Turk invader” at that) was beneath contempt. Despite heroic defence, the Sindh armies were destroyed and Sultan Dodo fell, taunting Chanesar even as he was impaled high on Turkish spears.

Most of the noblewomen, including Princess Bhaghi, were evacuated from the capital and placed under the protection of Jam Abro Samma, a prominent Jam (lord) from the Samma Rajput clan. Zafar Khan sacked the capital and planned to capture the princess to present her to Khilji. Then, understanding the vile nature of the Turks, Chanesar turned on them and died fighting.

The sultanate’s army then laid siege to Jam Abro’s fortress in Kutch. The outnumbered Rajputs chose death over dishonour. Being Muslims, they did not follow Hindu twin-ritual of Saka-Jauhar; they instead set fire to the fortress—with the assent of the women inside—and rode out to fight to the death. (Fantastic versions of the legend say that Bhaghi also rode out, disguised as a man, to fight and die. As the women cried out in anguish the earth split asunder and swallowed the fortress and the mountains surrounding it!). The victorious Turks entered the fortress and all they found were ruins and charred bones. The aghast Zafar Khan retreated to Delhi, lamenting the futility of it all and deeply mourning the dead. Some versions end with the remaining Turk invaders dying of thirst in the deserts of Sindh

 

The historical record

History, however, tells an entirely different story. Sources mention that the Soomra rulers had accepted suzerainty of the Delhi Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1211-1236). Around 1297-1300, the Soomra dominion, i.e. present day southern Sindh, was ruled by a certain Jam Chanesar. There was apparently no Sultan Dodo in the picture, at that point of time. In fact, Jam Chanesar is the subject of a more famous frontier ballad, the Lilan-Chanesar.

In this period, Zafar Khan, one of the great generals of Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296-1316), did indeed lead an expedition into Sindh. However, the objective was to intercept a Mongol army that had encamped itself in Sindh. The Mongols were defeated and Zafar Khan withdrew from Sindh. It is not known if Chanesar had requested the sultanate’s aid against the feared Mongol scourge—or if Sindh had allied with the Mongols thus warranting imperial intervention. Previously, Zafar Khan had waged war in Multan and Uch in the lower Punjab—and also northern regions of present day Sindh—right after Alauddin Khilji murdered his uncle, Sultan Jalal-al-din Khalji, and captured the throne. Arkhali Khan, son of the slain monarch, was ruling over these provinces. The entire Jalali family and its supporters were destroyed after much fighting in these regions.

Similarly, the historical record of Khilji’s Chittor invasion is very different from the Padmavat. Khilji understood that he had to neutralize his fierce Rajput neighbors. He also had dreams of becoming a great conqueror like Alexander. After the Rajput kingdoms of Gujarat and Ranthambor were successively conquered his eyes fell on Mewar, the most powerful Rajput state of all. Mewar’s capital Chittor fell in a few months. Figures such as Rani Padmini and Raja Devpal do not appear in the contemporary historical sources. Neither does episodes such as the Chetan Raghav’s flight, the daring Gora-Badal mission, the Ratan Singh-Devpal duel to the death—and the much vaunted Jauhar.

In fact, Ratan Singh is variedly recorded to have either fled the battlefield or being pardoned by Alauddin Khilji. Jayasi’s Padmavat ends with the chastened Khilji holding the ashes of the dead and ruminating philosophically, mirroring Zafar Khan’s sentiments in the Dodo-Chanesar legend. However, contemporary sources note that when Chittor fell Khalji simply ordered a complete massacre, and quickly set upon creating a new administration for Mewar.

 

On the creation of legends

Centuries of violence and near-continuous dominance by outlanders probably left a mark on Rajasthani psyche. The Alauddin Khilji juggernaut had ravaged Rajasthan, killed tens of thousands and destroyed many proud Rajput kingdoms. The Rajputs rebounded later, only to fall under Mughal control afterwards. When the Mughal fetters weakened, the Marathas suddenly muscled in. Later, the weary rump kingdoms had to accept the dominance of yet another outlander, the British. Legends of valour and defiance, the hand of fate and crippling betrayals became overlaid on the series of defeats. Besides Padmavat and Dodo-Chanesar there are other epics which contain similar themes—against the backdrop of Alauddin Khilji’s imperialism. For example, the Kanhadadev Parbhand focuses on Jalor’s defiance, and the Hammira Mahakavya narrates Ranthambore’s poignant struggle. In all of these, history was distorted, fictitious people and events were added and extraneous themes were injected. New “truths” became enshrined.

The Padmavat was adapted by numerous authors down the centuries, the first known adaptation was Pema Nama, written in in the Bijapur court in 1592. Widely diverging adaptations were produced all over the subcontinent. The Sufi adaptations were quite allegoric in nature, while other adaptations stressed on fantasy or love and romance. Some of the authors had been patronized by Rajput kings and nobles; these authors naturally highlighted Rajput glory and valor. Also, much artistic license was employed by poets and bards who popularized the story among the people.

The role of Charan poetry and Bat narrative accounts in the propagation of Rajasthani legends is well known: the Padmavat passed through these mills also. Poems such as Gora-Badal Padmini Chaupai (c. 1589), Padmini Carit and Gora-Badal Ki Katha added new elements and vignettes and popularized the story further. The Vamshavalis (genealogies) and Khyats (panegyric histories) commissioned by royals also latched on the popular narratives to gain legitimacy—and to paper over not-so-flattering incidents of the past. The influential works of James Tod, an admirer of past Rajput glory, also helped propagate the mythologized story across India. And during the Indian national movement, the narrative of Rajput defiance and the stoic bravery of Indian women against foreign marauders was propagated all over India.

Similarly, the Dodo-Chanesar story developed into a rousing ballad contrasting Muslim Rajput valour against Turkish villainy. Unlike the Padmavat, the Sindhi legend was not written down. It was not adapted and propagated by medieval and pre-modern authors. Itinerant bards and rural performers played a major role in the propagation of this legend across Sindh. Consequently, many versions of unknown authorship exist. Due to these factors most scholars classify the Dodo-Chanesar story as mere folklore.

Nevertheless, the themes and the trajectory of legend-formation mirrors the Padmavat. The Soomras, Rajput sons-of-the-soil, are icons of Sindh ethno-nationalism due to their victory over the Afghans and their defiance of invaders. The caste and regionalism factors notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear why the Delhi sultans were portrayed as “vile Turks”. The Khilji ascent was in fact a Bhumiputra revolution against the highly racist system run by the Turkish clique. Many non-Turkish groups long settled in India (the Khilji tribe themselves were one of these), and Indian converts to Islam staged this coup against a system fixated on Turkish blood and noble pedigree. The Zafar Khan expedition against the Mongols was not described as being particularly bloody. Also, the previous campaign against the Jalalis also did not affect most of Sindh. Zafar Khan himself was a well-respected general, commanding even many Hindu forces, and he definitively did not die of thirst in Sindh (in 1299 C.E., he fell in battle saving the subcontinent from a great Mongol host that advanced as far as Delhi).  However, Muhammed Tughlaq and Firuz Shah Tughlaq did wage terrible wars in Sindh a few decades after Khilji’s death. Such involvements and campaigns by the Delhi Sultanate during Soomra rule must have made an impact on the Sindhi psyche.

 

On legend-making today

While Dodo-Chanesar is largely unknown outside Sindh, the Padmavat was recently at the heart of pan-Indian controversy. The recent eponymous movie unfortunately follows the mythologized narratives. It highlighted some regressive aspects and resorted to negative stereotyping.

The impetus behind the original legend-formation was not malevolently regressive and anti-Muslim, but it nevertheless enabled subsequent toxic interpretations and adaptations. The politics of caste and religion also played its part. The violence and agitations unleashed by the Rajput Karni Sena and other organizations have subsided, but it has also set a fresh precedent for groups obsessed with real and imagined pasts.

This is the Information Age—the age of smartphones, of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Factors such as pervasive social media campaigns, viral content, targeted ads, sophisticated video/picture editing software, echo-chambers (where one can find kindred spirits from half-a-world away), and online anonymity are very powerful. Recent events, from Tahrir Square to the US presidential elections and beyond, have shown how quickly ideas, rumours and lies can spread like pandemics—sometimes with detrimental impact. Distortion of the truth and creation of alternate truths would definitely not require the centuries it took for the medieval tales.

 

References

  • Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India (1986) by J.L. Mehta
  • The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen (2007) by Ramya Sreenivasan

 

PS: This is a slightly edited and expanded version of my article in The Mint, published on February 25, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Pirates of the Bay of Bengal

For over a century Bengal was ravaged by pirates who raided vast territories, carried away thousands into slavery, and severely choked commerce. Pirate warships and nimble river boats would suddenly descend upon the coastal towns and villages – and even upstream cities of the Gangetic delta. The marauders were Portuguese, operating in India since 1498 C.E., and the Magh people of the Mrauk-U kingdom. This coastal kingdom covered present-day Rakhine coast of Burma. It had both Buddhist and Muslim citizenry and was quite paranoid and warlike due to its bloody origins and precarious location. The threat was finally contained through a mix of stratagem and military campaigns by a very able Mughal governor.

 

Various factors led to the rise of the slaver raids in Bengal. Despots understood that foreign slaves were preferable to an enslaved indigenous population if the economics was attractive enough. Moreover, semi-skilled/skilled slaves were also required in the newly acquired uncivilized lands. The budding Dutch Empire’s spice plantations and mines demanded countless slaves. The Aceh Sultanate of Sumatra also required many slaves to expand its plantations and toil in its tin mines. Bengal with her millions of civilized citizens could meet such growing demand. Indian slaves were also prized for skills in crafts and textiles and were dispatched even to new African colonies.

 

The port city of Chittagong was the nerve centre for Portuguese operations in the region. It was critical for supporting their new colonies in South East Asia, especially after Shah Jahan expelled them from Hooghly for wanton cruelty. Even in the heyday many bold Portuguese entered piracy and slave trade. However, within a century the Dutch had eclipsed Portuguese power. The Portuguese consequently supplicated to the Rakhine kingdom, despite clashes in the past. Sandwiched between the Mughal Empire and the Burmese kingdom, the Maghs believed offense was the best defense. The Portuguese navy would be a critical component of this strategy. Moreover, the raids and slave trade would also be a good source of income. The raids commenced around the 1610s: many armadas disgorged Portuguese and Magh marauders into Bengal. The savagery was terrible and the term Hamard (from “Armada”) entered the lexicon as a word for loathsome criminal. The Maghs were also skilled seafarers and operated fast war-boats called Jelias which could sail up the Delta. Many towns and villages were deserted in fear, or depopulated by the raids. The initial Mughal responses were largely ineffective: their navy was weaker in comparison, and the Rakhine terrain was conducive to predatory raids.

 

In 1663, the Bengal province was in trouble. The recent succession wars had disrupted the whole Mughal empire. The raids were inflicting great damage. The previous governor, Mir Jumla died following a disastrous war with the Ahoms. The new governor Shaista Khan was Emperor Aurangzeb’s uncle. His commendable record was however recently wrecked by Shivaji and the enraged Emperor had banished his kinsman to tottering Bengal. Shaista Khan nevertheless set out to work immediately: ending the threat from the seas was of paramount importance. There was possibly a matter of revenge too: Prince Shuja and his family had sought asylum with the Rakhines after he was defeated by his brother Aurangzeb in the succession wars. Accounts speak of the Rakhine king treacherously murdering Shuja and his sons and violating Shuja’s daughter, who later committed suicide. Shaista Khan was tasked with settling the blood debt and recovering any surviving members of Shuja’s family.

 

Shaista Khan quickly beefed up the imperial infrastructure: forts and public works were commissioned, and armies and naval squadrons were raised. He also secured the Dutch support. In 1665 the Mughals captured the strategic island of Sandwip from the Rakhines. Annexing Chittagong was key and Shaista Khan now utilized a brewing dispute between the Portuguese and the Rakhines. He convinced the Portuguese to ditch their capricious masters: the Portuguese would be truly appreciated by the more composed and business-like Mughals. Apparently a large bribe also helped. The Portuguese defected and moved en-masse to Dacca. The Rakhine forces quickly consolidated Chittagong but Shaista Khan wasn’t done. He sent an army overland, marching parallel to a combined Mughal-Portuguese navy headed for Chittagong. The combined assault was successful and the Rakhine forces were destroyed.

 

This victory did not eradicate piracy in the Bay of Bengal – even today pirates prey on Rohingya boats and Bangladeshi fishermen. However, the loss of Chittagong and Portuguese support was a mortal blow. The Maghs did not possess the know-how to build and operate large warships, and they had suffered great losses in the war. Moreover, Shaista Khan had built up a very potent navy. The Rakhines could not prey like they did before. The rump kingdom shambled on, wracked by internal strife and dominated by mercenaries, till it was annexed by the Burmese in 1784. Bengal however rebounded under Shaista Khan’s long and able stewardship.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on February 11, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Berads of the Deccan

The Berads of the Deccan are a Denotified Tribe residing in parts of west Maharashtra and north Karnataka. Berads were once renowned fighters, courted by powers such as Shivaji, the Bahmani kingdoms of the Deccan, and Mysore. The hard life in the forests and hills endowed the Berads with resilience and physical prowess, essential traits for warriors. Berads were united under chiefs along clan lines; the consequent coherent fighting structure made them lean but deadly brigades. Adoption of muskets and disciplined volley-fire made them a very valuable asset. The musketry of the Berads could cut down masses of enemies. They could also harass supply lines and vulnerable enemy units with sudden strikes. For nearly two centuries the Deccan Berads gained power by offering military services, till the changing Maratha state and British paramountcy suppressed them.

 

Berads are members of the Beda/Veda forest-dweller communities found all over South India. It is believed that the Berads migrated to their present lands from deeper south, assimilating other tribes and members of other castes along the way. Before settling down as pastoralists and farmers, the Berads were known for raiding trade routes and villages bordering the forests. The Berads’ military ascent apparently began in the late 16th century; sources speak of Berad strongholds emerging after Vijayanagar’s collapse in 1565 C.E. The Berads earned a reputation for valor and efficacy in the struggle for supremacy in post-Vijayanagar Deccan. Berad chiefs titled themselves “Nayakas” and established strongholds all over the Deccan. One of these strongholds, in Shorapur in north Karnataka, grew in power and became a major ally of Bijapur. At the peak of its power this Berad dominion reportedly fielded over 100,000 infantry including thousands of musketeers.

 

Shivaji recruited many Deccani Berads in his infantry and fort garrisons, while other Berads such as the Shorapur state aided Bijapur. Less charitable histories, perhaps colored by caste parochialism and colonial British perceptions, claim that Shivaji recruited and resettled Berads only to prevent them for raiding his own lands. During the Mughal conquests of the Bahmanis, the Berad forces (and Marathas) aided Bijapur and Golconda. Though the Mughals prevailed the Berad forces inflicted great causalities. By 1687 the Mughals conquered Bijapur and Golconda, but the Berads continued to fight. Aurangzeb tried to accommodate them by granting Mansabs (imperial titles) to some chiefs but this did not stop them rebelling whenever they got a chance. The last battle Aurangzeb personally commanded was against a powerful Berad chief in Waginkheda in 1705. The Berads and their Maratha allies mauled the Mughals but had to retreat.

 

Berad power waned as they kept losing territories to the Mughals. Despite this, a “Sanskritization” process had developed as a result of their military legacy and significant presence in the Maratha army. Berad chiefs were awarded lands and titles and some Berads entered the mainstream as cultivators. The “Ramoshi” identity (from Rama-Vamshi) became popular, especially in Maharashtra. However, their status declined from the mid-18th century. The Chhatrapati’s power diminished and the administration became dominated by Peshwas who limited Berad participation in the changing Maratha state. The Berads’ failure to establish lasting socio-political accommodation with any established powers when they had the chance made them vulnerable in the caste politics of the Maratha Confederacy. Berads soon found limited space in the new Maratha state system. The Maratha Confederacy’s army was quite eclectic: Brahmins, Marathas, Arab mercenaries, Pindaris, Naga Sadhus, Gardi Muslims, etc. were fielded. Even here Berads were largely kept out since the 1750s. Status as tribals and the legacy as raiders perhaps worked against them, especially when mainstream and foreign talent were readily available. The Berads were largely relegated to watchman duties in rural settlements. Later military history of Marathas finds diminished mention of Berads – and other formerly prominent warrior communities such as the Kolis and Mavles. However, Berads settled further south found favor with Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. Following Tipu’s death and British consolidation in South India, the military role of the southern Berads declined.

 

The Berads’ decline accelerated when the British became the paramount power in India. The chaos of colonial wars forced many marginalized communities, including Berads, into banditry. British forest policies created conflicts over forest rights and drove Berads further to desperation. From the 1820s Berads rallied under leaders such as Umaji Naik and rebelled against British oppression. The rebellions flared up intermittently till the 1860s, despite being brutally crushed at every instance. Their umpteen rebellions and their refusal to disarm earned British ire: Berads were classified a ‘criminal tribe’ under the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. The debilitating impact of this official demonization endures to this day. The criminal tribe classification was repealed by Denotification measures post-Independence, but the stigma remains. Within the Berad community efforts to raise awareness of the warrior and rebel past continue. Given the current clash of narratives of Bhima-Koregaon perhaps the Berads’ notable past would also receive more public attention.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on January 21, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.