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The Pundits on the roof of the world

Tibet

The “Great Game” was an Anglo-Russian conflict over the control of Tibet, East Turkestan, and Central Asia.  In the 19th century, this vast region was a patchwork of backward states and tribal confederacies. The Russians feared British inroads into this region from India. On the other hand, Britain feared Russia’s steady conquest of Central Asia. A cold war, peppered by minor confrontations, raged between the two empires from the 1830s to 1895. The Great Trigonometric Survey of India, a project to measure the entire Indian subcontinent with scientific precision, was also a part of the Great Game. Great feats of diplomacy, deceit, espionage and violence were accomplished in the Game – and Indian subjects also played an important part. Today we look at the “Pundits” who explored mysterious Tibet for the British Empire.

Tibet, the “roof of the world”, banned all foreigners in 1850 when the Great Game heated up. But Tibet was too important; it was the source of Asia’s great rivers. It also lay between the Raj, the weakening Chinese Empire and the Russian Empire. By 1862, multiple attempts by Englishmen to enter Tibet failed due to border brigands and vigilant Tibetan soldiers. The British now decided to utilize Indians from the border regions – after all they had been crossing the Tibet border for centuries! Buddhist pilgrims even traveled to towns and monasteries deep inside Tibet. British officers began to scout for talented (and loyal) Indian subjects from the borderlands. ‘Pundit’, which normally implies a high-caste man of learning, became the term for these recruited agents. The agents’ names were withheld from all government records till they retired; they were instead marked as “Pundit Number One”, “Pundit Number Two”, etc.

The Pundits learned to survey geographic features, estimate distances, determine altitude (by measuring the temperature of boiling water), and celestial navigation. They were trained to use code language and concealable parchments. The Pundits also received basic medical training. They were trained to walk two thousand paces to a mile to estimate distances. To keep count they used a modified Buddhist rosary, but instead of the usual 108 beads it had 100 beads – with every tenth bead being slightly larger. For every 100 steps, the 100th larger bead was removed. The Buddhist prayer wheel hid the parchments on which the records were made in code. Other ingenious instruments were also utilized for the Pundits’ covert activities. The first Pundit, a Punjabi named Abdul Hamid, was sent to survey the route to Yarkand in East Turkestan. The most famous Pundit, called “Chief Pundit” was Rai Bahadur Nain Singh Rawat, who hailed from present-day Uttarakhand. An astute student of tradecraft and scientific surveying, Nain Singh soon became the Empire’s greatest assets in Tibet. Nain Singh soon recruited his brother Kalian Singh and his cousin Mani Singh. More Pundits were recruited from other border regions of the British Raj.

Pundits disguised as pilgrims and holy men began to slip into Tibet successfully. They took detailed records of their journeys, often at night time to avoid detection. In their long missions, they measured terrain, and recorded resources and notable geographic features. The Pundits also analyzed Tibet’s people, economy and military strength. Nain Singh conducted multiple missions into Tibet, the last one being an epic journey from Leh to Guwahati via Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. His brother Kalian, cousin Mani and another cousin Kishen Singh recorded vital information of other regions. A Pundit named Kinthup from Sikkim discovered that the Tsangpo River in Tibet was actually a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Until then it was not known if the Tsang-Po flowed into China or into South East Asia. Mt. Kailas and the early courses of the Indus and the Sutlej rivers were also surveyed by the Pundits.

The Tibetan endeavor continued for decades. Some Pundits were caught and imprisoned or executed. However, the Pundits’ dogged efforts enabled them to map the approaches and key regions of Tibet with precision. This became very valuable when the British launched the infamous Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903. The Pundits were rewarded with titles and posts on retiring from covert work. However, imperialism, racism and reasons of security kept their names out the limelight for years. Nain Singh himself was publicly feted years after his retirement.

While it is true that their missions were undertaken to further British aims, the Pundits deserve to be commended for their accomplishments. In fact, in 2004 the Government honored Nain Singh for his survey of the Himalayan region by issuing a stamp featuring him. For years Tibet was represented as a blank zone in all maps, the Pundits changed that. In a time without satellites or aircraft, these intrepid men provided collected vital information, against heavy odds.  This enabled the opening up of Tibet and peeled off layers of mystery surrounding that land.

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

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Tatya Tope in the Indian Rebellion

Tatya Tope

The Great Indian Rebellion, lasting from May 1857 to July 1859, was not uniform in scope or strength. A dozen rebellions erupted at different regions at points of time, with varying levels of vigor and efficacy. The rebellion in Central India, commencing after the rebellion subsided in the north, is mostly remembered for Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, who fell fighting in Gwalior, on June 17, 1858.  However, the Central Indian rebellion did not end there. It continued under the brilliant Tatya Tope, a rebel leader whom the British soon recognized as a supreme threat. This court official, who possessed no military experience before the rebellion, outfoxed the British many times before falling to treachery.

Tatya Tope was born Ramchandra Panduranga Yewlekar, into a Deshastha Brahmin family, in a village in the Maratha dominion, in 1814. “Tatya” was a childhood nickname and “Tope” was a moniker he earned as a young official in Nana Saheb’s estate. This “court in exile” was in Bithoor near Kanpur, where Nana Saheb’s adoptive father, Peshwa Bajirao II, was exiled following Maratha defeat in the Anglo-Maratha Wars. Tatya Tope was at the forefront with Nana Saheb when the rebellion erupted in Awadh in June 1857. Despite initial victories, the rebels were ultimately no match for the British Army in the northern plains. By end of 1857 the British brutally subdued Delhi and Awadh. Nana Saheb fled to Nepal where he soon disappeared. Tatya and Nana Saheb’s heir, Rao Saheb, retreated to Kalpi, southwest of Kanpur. In the battles in Awadh, Tatya Tope displayed natural skill in military affairs. With comparatively lean resources he inflicted significant damage. He displayed skill in understanding enemy maneuvers and launching counter-moves. However, his skills could not overcome British viciousness, resources and organization. The rebellion in the north failed, but it was only beginning in Central India. Tatya Tope would be in the thick of these events also.

In January 1858, the Rani of Jhansi launched her rebellion and sought help from Tatya Tope. After all, she had spent her childhood in the Bithoor court. Tatya mustered a large force and sped towards besieged Jhansi fort. However, British tactics and superior artillery prevailed, and the Rani and Tatya Tope fled Jhansi. The relentless British gave chase and defeated the rebels in Konch and Kalpi – it was Tatya’s leadership that saved the rebel army from annihilation. Rani Lakshmibai and Tatya Tope now approached Gwalior, which was on the British side. Tatya persuaded Gwalior’s soldiers to defect and her ruler fled. The rebels regrouped in this strong fort. This rebel confederacy was presided by Rao Saheb, but he was an ineffectual leader. Nevertheless, out of loyalty Tatya served Rao Saheb.

A massive British attack on Gwalior in June 1858 quickly overwhelmed the rebels: Rani Lakshmibai was killed countering an incursion. Tatya’s cohorts were also crushed by waves of British troops. Tatya Tope and Rao Saheb split up and went in opposite directions – Tatya was now free to fight in his own terms. His small but highly mobile force drew the British into a cat-and-mouse game all across Central India. He adopted guerilla tactics and avoided open battle. He mobilized popular support in many regions and convinced some minor chieftains to support the rebellion. In some cases, he overran hostile territories and charged fines on the defeated. Tatya Tope soon possessed a 15,000 strong force, which he used to good effect. The British sent expeditions to capture Tatya who always outmaneuvered them, but not without losses. However, the cost to the British escalated. Contemporary authors and even press reports in London noted the astonishing efficacy and the speed of Tatya Tope. It is believed that Tatya Tope planned to spread the rebellion deep into hitherto quiet Deccan, which the Marathas once dominated.

British Illustration of Tatya Tope’s forces on the march

The end came when a close comrade betrayed Tatya Tope, in return for amnesty and restoration of his lands and titles. Ambushed and captured on April 7, 1859, Tatya Tope was taken to a drumhead military court. No defense was offered but Tatya produced a matter-of-fact report of his actions. He denied any role in British civilian massacres. He also challenged the sedition charges, declaring that had never accepted British authority and that he was following his true lord, Nana Saheb. The military court pronounced the death sentence regardless; on April 18 Tatya Tope was publicly hanged in Shivpuri.

Rani Lakshmibai might have captured the public imagination, but Tatya Tope was the more potent force in Central India – a fact the British understood very well. If not for his deceitful capture, the British could have faced a protracted insurgency in India’s heartland. Tatya Tope might not have brought down the British Raj – or even revived the rebellion – but the trajectory of Colonial India would have been rather different if his rebellion had continued for long.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on January 27, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Mysore Navy: A Lost Opportunity

Haider and Tipu

Britain’s conquest of India (1740s-1840s) was made possible through her unchallenged naval power. Without any Indian fleet to intercept them in the high seas, the British could do much mischief in her wars of conquest. The Mughal Navy was once respected, till the Empire unraveled after Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. Between 1691 and 1756, the Maratha fleet, despite having no ocean-going large warships, held sway over large parts of India’s Western coast. With their numerous small littoral vessels, the Marathas successfully countered foreign and Indian powers. However, naval warfare evolved and by the mid-18th century the British became the master of India’s seas. In 1756, the East India Company’s (EIC) fewer but bigger and more modern “Blue-Water” (ocean-going) warships sank most of Tulaji Angre’s ships, off Vijaydurg in Maharashtra. Tulaji Angre was the successor to the great Maratha Admiral Kanhoji Angre and this defeat marked the end of Maratha naval power. Tulaji had recently started making bigger warships, but the few such ships he had built could not match British warships. Mysore, under Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan, set out to create a Blue-Water navy that could challenge the British Navy in the high seas. However, events beyond the Kings’ control and lack of resources wrecked this ambitious enterprise.

In 1763, Haidar Ali started building a sizeable navy. He realized that British dominance over Indian waters must end. This would open communication lines with the French (who had agreed to support Mysore’s wars against the British) and increase Mysore’s maritime trade. Otherwise, it was just a matter of time before British naval power ensures Mysore’s end. Haider Ali soon built littoral warships, transport ships and recruited mercenary European sailors. Ali Raja, the Moplah king of Arakkal in Kerala, became Haidar’s admiral. However, he was soon dismissed for invading the Maldives and blinding her Sultan without permission. Haider’s next admiral was an English mercenary. When the First Anglo-Maratha war began in 1767, the British attacked Haider’s ships and ports. Unfortunately, Haidar Ali distrusted his European officers and appointed a cavalry officer as the Admiral. This alienated the Europeans commanders and they promptly deserted to the EIC along with their ships and crew. This gutted the Mysore navy, but the war ended before Mysore faced the full might of the EIC Navy.

The Franco-American Alliance following the American Revolution led to another Anglo-French war. Mysore, an ally of France, was also drawn into this global conflict and the Second Anglo-Maratha War erupted in 1780. Haider Ali set to rebuild his fleet. For this he tasked a Dutchman named Joze Azelars, formerly of the Dutch East India Company. In a few months the Dutchman designed and built multiple warships. He also improved Haider Ali’s ports and maritime defenses. However, Azelars was obstructed at every step of the way by jealous courtiers and officers. He also faced a lack of building material, skilled shipwrights and engineers. In 1782, a powerful French fleet with 15 large warships and other vessels sailed towards India from French colonies in the Indian Ocean. This was a game changer: this war-fleet could destroy the British fleets operating in the region. There were also 2500 French marines on board, who could join Haidar Ali’s campaigns. This could put British existence in South India in jeopardy! However, the French Commodore failed to destroy British fleet.  The union with Haider’s budding navy and army – where knowledge and resources could have been shared – did not happen. This chance was lost forever when the Treaty of Paris of September 1783 led to cessation of hostilities: the French fleet returned to Europe. No comparable French fleet would ever challenge the British in Indian waters again.

Meanwhile, Haider Ali had died in December 1782 and was succeeded by Tipu Sultan.  Tipu knew that another war could break out any time: in 1786-1792, he built 40 warships and many more transport ships. In this period Tipu Sultan was defeated in the Third Anglo-Mysore War. Despite great losses Tipu persisted in his attempts to end British power in India. Tipu created a board of admiralty and ordered the construction of a world-class oceanic navy of 20 battleships and 20 large frigates. Littoral warships could handle the EIC’s ships in the shallow coasts. However, large and modern warships were required for challenging the British high seas warships. Latest advances such as copper sheathing, utilized by both British and French navies, were also adopted. The projected cost of building and maintaining these 40 large warships and other warships was high. The weakened Mysore kingdom could not afford such an expensive program, following the recent wars. However, Tipu was committed to naval expansion and he also reopened communications with the French. This ambitious naval program ended when the British finally killed Tipu Sultan and conquered Mysore in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on January 13, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Strategic Operations Executive in British India

The Burma Campaign

The Strategic Operations Executive (SOE) was a British organization conducting espionage, sabotage, guerilla war and other violent acts against the Axis powers during World War II. Real and fictionalized accounts of the SOE have been told countless times in films and literature such as “bridge on the river Kwai”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “Guns of Navarone” and “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Unlike the British Secret intelligence Service, an intelligence gathering agency, the SOE was tasked with subversive and violent activities. It was distasteful work, but the British were frantic following early Axis victories and decided to play rough. The SOE had a huge presence in the Empire’s most prized possession, India.

From 1940-1942 the fascist Japan and Germany seemed unstoppable and were inching towards India from either side. Axis warships and submarines soon arrived in Asia’s seas to harass British shipping and attack Indian ports. In early 1942, the Japanese dealt a significant blow by capturing Singapore and Malaya. It also sank many British warships off the coast of Sri Lanka, though timely intelligence enabled a few British crucial vessels to flee to a hidden base in the Maldives. In this dire phase, SOE-India was established in Meerut in May 1941, under the innocuous name GS I(k). This organization was disguised as a record keeping unit of the army. The SOE soon grew into a huge enterprise where over 30,000 fighters were trained and sent to far flung theaters. An old mountain fort near Poona, an aerodrome in Midnapore, a dock or two in Sri Lanka, etc. were some of SOE’s numerous bases in the subcontinent. SOE-India was headed by a brilliant, one-legged Scottish veteran named Colin Mackenzie. he was once the star pupil of John Maynard Keynes himself and was a successful businessman before the war. Aiding him were men specializing in quite unlovely trades such as insurgency, guerilla war, smuggling, espionage, and psychological warfare. SOE-India was tasked to cover Persia, Afghanistan, British India, China and South East Asia. A veritable United Nations of fighters were recruited and trained for dangerous operations in these lands. Trainees ranged from Britishers and Indians to Australians to Burmese Indians to even Chinese Canadians. Professional soldiers, loyal citizens of the British Empire, Communists embittered by the invasion of Russia, or those who suffered at the hands of Germans and Japanese invaders were recruited and trained in bases all across the subcontinent.

Colin Mackenzie
Colin Mackenzie

SOE-India’s operations commenced with tracking Axis operations in Indian waters. In 1942, they discovered the cause of the German navy’s surprising successes there. German and Italian vessels which had sought asylum in neutral Portuguese Goa when the war broke possessed at least one powerful radio. The radio(s) had been transmitting information to the German Navy. The SOE also confirmed that a German couple residing in Goa, Robert and Grete Koch, were running a spy ring. Robert Koch, a German officer code-named “Trumpet”, was long suspected to be a spymaster: the SOE now decided to eliminate this threat. “Operation Hotspur” saw SOE agents shadow and kidnap the couple from Goa in December 1942. The Kochs vanish from records shortly after – there are conflicting reports on what happened to them ultimately. Some accounts say they were summarily shot in an forest a few miles within British India. Regardless, the Kochs vanished off the face of the Earth in December 1942.

The subsequent “Operation Creek” of March 1943 was most audacious. In this illegal operation conducted in neutral Portuguese territory, the SOE utilized middle-aged British civilian reservists in Calcutta. These men were “over the hill” bankers, planters, clerks and accountants, attached to the reserve units “Calcutta Scottish” and the “Calcutta Light Horse”, but were definitely not lacking of courage and conviction. Without any military or diplomatic cover, this group was to board and command the ships out of Portuguese waters so that the British Navy could capture the vessels. After basic training, the motley band took circuitous routes to Goa. At midnight of March 9, they stealthily boarded the ships. In the ensuing firefight the British got the upper hand and the captain of one of the vessels and many crew members were killed. The crew now set off explosive charges and sank their own ships – they had long expected such an attack and had decided to scuttle the ships if all was lost. However, the British clambered out with no casualties! The mission was successful as Axis successes in Indian waters plummeted. A Hollywood movie named “The Sea Wolves” (starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven no less), loosely based on these events was made, right after the story was declassified in 1978.

The Sea Wolves

About this time the Japanese had conquered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In “Operation Bunkum”, the SOE landed multiple Indian-British teams to reconnoiter Japanese positions in the islands. The SOE utilized long range transport aircraft and Dutch submarines which had escaped Hitler’s grasp when the Netherlands was annexed in 1940. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensued, but the mission was ultimately successful. The frustrated Japanese vented their anger on the British and Indians military personnel and civilians, who had surrendered when the Japanese captured the islands. Unspeakable atrocities were done during the combing operations launched to capture the commandos. The British launched effective and regular air and naval attacks on the islands from December 1943. The garrison was forced to hunker down till Japan surrendered in August 1945. In 1944, the GS I(k) rechristened itself Force 136 and mostly relocated to Sri Lanka, where it expanded operations.

SOE-India achieved far more than the illustrative cases outlined above. It was a crucial element in British successes in the Indian, Burma and Malaya campaigns. In fact, in certain campaigns small SOE units inflicted more casualties than the Army formations did. Other theatres such as China, Thailand and Indo-China also saw heavy SOE activities.  The SOE also organized numerous stay-behind units and insurgencies which crippled the Japanese.

Chinese Canadians of Force 136
Chinese Canadians of Force 136

SOE-India was also a weapon of the Empire against Indians: had the Japanese successfully entered Assam and Bengal the SOE was among the groups tasked with executing the planned Scorched Earth campaign in India. For example, “Operation Dogleg” was the planned destruction of Indian power stations by SOE units. The Political Intelligence and Psychological Warfare divisions were utilized to influence public opinion during and after the Quit India Movement. The SOE also helped blunt the INA’s espionage activities and attempts to engineer mass defections in the British Indian Army.

Following the surrender of Japan, SOE-India was disbanded in November 1945. Most of the records were destroyed – perhaps due to the secrets and horrors they held. Apparently huge bonfires were made in SOE-India’s offices across the subcontinent in which documents, tapes and photographs were set alight. Most surviving documents, including the story of Operation Creek, were declassified decades later. More records await declassification even today.

PS: This is an expanded version of my article in DNA, published on December 30, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Desert Raids of the Bangladesh Liberation War

The Para 10 (SF) Raids

Today is the 47th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh. The surrender of the entire Pakistani garrison in East Bengal and the gains in the Western Sector made India the clear victor of the war of 1971. It was one of our finest hours: Indians came together, overcoming multiple crises, fears,boundaries, and institutional inertia to achieve a great feat. There are many stories surrounding this victory, one of the more interesting stories is that of a small band of soldiers of the 10 Para (Commando) battalion in the Rajasthan sector.

The Hurs
The Hurs

The Pakistanis had surprised us in the Rajasthan sector in the 1965 War. Given the comparative lack of mechanization of both Indian and Pakistani armies, it was hitherto believed that both would refrain from major campaigns in the sandy Thar Desert. The vast desert border was manned by thinly spread Indian Army and State Armed Police units in isolated posts. On the other side, the Pakistani army and the Pakistan Rangers precariously manned their positions.However, the Pakistan Army approached the Hurs, a Sufi sect with thousands of adherents in Sindh. The Hurs had once unleashed a bloody insurgency against the British, which resulted in heavy reprisals – including the hanging of the Hurs’ leader, the “Pir Pagara”. The Hurs had extensive knowledge of the desert and were known to be fanatical fighters. The generals successfully appealed to the reigning Pir Pagara to field this militia. The Hurs were initially used to plug gaps in defense, but the local commanders soon realized that the Hurs would be better suited for cross-border raiding. Soon, a “Desert Force” of Hurs (commanded by a handful of professional soldiers) began to raid deep into Indian territory.

Ghotaru Fort captured

Several Indian posts fell: even significant posts such as Ghotaru Fort were captured by the Desert Force. Indian responses were rather slow and unsuccessful. This was due to the terrain, poor lines of communications, lack of adequate force and the speed of the enemy raids. The Pakistanis retained control of several points along the Rajasthan border when the war ended. Pakistan utilized this fact to her advantage in her negotiations at the ensuing Tashkent Summit. India apparently learned the lesson: within months, the capable Border Security Force was created. The 10 Para (Commando)battalion, tasked with desert operations, was raised in Gwalior in 1967. The conventional forces in Rajasthan were also strengthened.

The reckoning came when the Indo-Pak War erupted on December 3, 1971. A division of the Indian Army was directed towards Umarkot, a city en route to the metropolis of Hyderabad, Sindh. A band of commandos from the 10 Para (Commando) was designated the advance element and tasked with raiding deep inside Pakistani territory to eliminate key enemy positions. These commandos had trained intensively for such operations since July. The commando unit was led by Lt. Col. Sawai Bhawani Singh, a special forces veteran and the Prince of Jaipur. The unit also had Khoja Rajputs who knew the region well. The force would enter enemy territory without any air or armor support, in specially fitted Jeeps and Jongas, armed with only light weapons. This model of long-distance raids was created by Sir David Stirling, founder of the British Special Air Service (SAS), during the North African campaign of the Second World War. Indians had also fought in this campaign and were aware of the utility of such a force – even though the sandy Thar Desert was far worse than the North African desert.

The Para 10 (Commando)

The raids commenced on December 4; the jeeps raced 80 km into Pakistan and destroyed the Ranger base in the town of Chachro. Indian army units soon occupied Chachro in the wake of this raid. Next, the commandos launched daylight raids to capture Virawah and Nagarparkar. Later, Islamkot and Lunio also fell. During these operations, the speed and ferocity of the attacks forced enemies to panic and flee despite having superiority in numbers and position. The militia groups tasked with defending this region also did not fare any better. Logistical difficulties and terrain – and the short duration of the war – saw the Sindh campaign halt just short of Umarkot. However,by the end of the war about 13,000 sq. km of Sindh was in Indian hands.

The Sindh campaign was made much smoother by the10 Para’s raids. This was an incredible feat, highlighted by the fact that the commandos suffered no fatalities in these risky missions. The raiders had done all that was asked of them, and more. The unit was bestowed a Battle Honor – “Chachro1971” and received 10 gallantry awards: Sawai Bhawani Singh received the Mahavir Chakra. He went on to have a distinguished career in the armed forces, and as a diplomat. The 10 Para continues to be one of the premier special forces of the world.


PS: This is my article in DNA, published on December 16, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Long Rebellion of the Faqir of Ipi

The Faqir of Ipi

The North West Frontier

The North West Frontier

Undivided India’s North West Frontier had always been a zone of insurgency. Ruling or occupying forces, such as the Pakistanis, Americans, the British and the Mughals have faced the wrath of the fiercely independent, and warlike Pathan tribes of the region. Centuries of wars, and mythologies and clan genealogies set clan against clan and tribe against tribe – this made trade and cooperation very difficult. The harsh lands were unsuitable for producing enough food. However, it periodically produced charismatic religious figures who railed against “predatory infidels and apostates corrupting their lands and destroying their people”. Thus, wars, rebellions and predatory raids were regular affairs. Imperial powers tried to control with these tribes by force or bribes or using pliant local leaders. However, guided by tribal laws of honor and vendetta (a code collectively called Pakthunwali), the tribes answered only to their chiefs and holy men who rose through strength, piety and charisma. Some of these leaders rebelled against the imperial powers, sometimes uniting hitherto warring tribes. Peace could be wrung out, but only after much blood and gold had been spent. Over the years the “peace” would collapse in favor of the Pathans, leaving one to wonder if the tribes were ever truly defeated! The rebellions of Khushal Khan Khattak, Pir Roshan, The Akhund of Swat, Mullah Powindah, Hadda Mullah, etc. are still celebrated in the songs and stories of the region. Though the rebellion was less bloody than say, Khattak’s rebellion or the Roshanniya war, the long rebellion of the Faqir of Ipi is notable for its curious links to the Axis Powers and the Indian National Movement.

 

Mirzali Khan was born in 1897, into a clan of the Utmanzai tribe of North Waziristan. After religious studies he became a student of the Chaharbagh Nazqib, the greatest religious leader in Afghanistan at the time. After Hajj, he settled in Ipi, a village near the city of Bannu. Soon he became well known for his piety and acquired a reputation as a saint with divine powers. In 1936 the controversial ‘Islam Bibi’ case marked the end of his hitherto peaceful career. An alleged forcible conversion to Islam of a minor Hindu girl was judged illegal, and the girl was returned to her family by the British courts. The Faqir called for Jihad against the British in November 1936 and thousands flocked to his banner. The Faqir attracted so much support due to recent events: Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Khudai-Khidmatgar movement shocked the British. Massive agitations were launched in the region when Gandhiji’s Civil Disobedience Movement began in 1930. The British retaliated strongly and many died in police firings and Air Force attacks in places such as Peshawar, Takkar and Hathikhel. Anger seethed as the British clampdown continued for years – the Islam Bibi judgement had only provided the spark.

 

RAF over Waziristan

RAF over Waziristan

The rebels struck at visible symbols of British authority, supporters of the British but rarely attacked Hindus. When the rebellion strengthened the British Army sent two columns (including armor) and chased the Faqir into the mountains. The subsequent planned withdrawal after mopping-up operations was ascribed to the Faqir’s divine powers! Now many more came to join him. He succeeded unifying some tribes and launched bolder attacks. Soon a huge force of over 40,000 soldiers were deployed to combat the Faqir. The British campaign was soon fragmented and bogged down. Their armor and vehicles were not of much use in the mountains and the Faqir’s guerilla tactics inflicted heavy damage on them. Many miraculous powers commonly attributed to the Faqir, which agitated colonial authorities. The story went that the Faqir could turn a felled tree into rifles and his hands could heal injuries. Chief among the very worried authorities was Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the North West, veteran of the Great Game and many plots, and a seasoned administrator of British India. However, despite the Faqir’s best efforts (including a personal letter to Jawaharlal Nehru), he was unable to gather wider support outside the North West Frontier Province. Even powerful tribes such as the Afridis and the Mohmands refused to support him, perhaps fearing his stature. The Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, was now wedded to Satyagraha and refused to support the bloody rebellion. The British now employed scorched earth tactics and used the Air Force heavily. Royal Air Force aircraft bombed many villages and mountains where the Faqir held sway. The British had swarmed over Waziristan and the faqir decided to move into a safe region which outsiders knew very little about. The vast cave complexes of Spin Ghar mountains, in a region called Gorwekt near the Afghan border, became the Faqir’s base. The British methodically killed his sons and hundreds of followers, but the Faqir continued to elude and harass them.

 

The Faqir

The Faqir

Many British now suspected that the Faqir’s warfighting ability had a secret sauce – he was likely funded by the Empire’s Axis enemies, Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Imperial Japan. This was true – the Italian ambassador Pietro Quaroni was neck deep in anti-British operations in Afghanistan. He supported the Faqir with cash, technical assistance, arms and ammunition. In fact, it was this colorful diplomat who provided Subhash Chandra Bose his fake papers as an Italian nobleman and enabled him to evade British agents and enter Russia. In this he was assisted by the “Quintuple Agent” Bhagat Ram Talwar aka Rehmat Khan, code-named “Silver”, who was also apparently linked to the Faqir’s rebellion.  – but that is another story. German intelligence was also active in Kabul, under Ambassador Hans Pilger and resident chief-spy Lieutenant “Pathan” Witzel. The Germans had not-so-bizarre plans named Operation Fire-Eater and Operation Tiger, for an uprising at India’s north-western frontier in September 1941 – when the German invasion of Russia was expected to be completed. Bose was now in Berlin and had raised a small Indian Legion for the aim of liberating India through an invasion from Afghanistan. The Germans also provided aid to the Faqir through direct and indirect means. It was a long shot, but the Axis continued to feed the Faqir’s rebellion. The Axis powers felt that the Faqir’s rebellion could be channeled to unleash Afghan and Muslim rage to topple British India – a dream shared by many of the Empire’s former foes such as Lenin, the Ottoman Caliph and The German Kaiser.

 

The situation got murkier in late 1937 when a charismatic and well-known Syrian holy man called Shaami Pir – of Prophet Muhammed’s lineage and kinsman of an exiled Afghan King – arrived in the region. He quickly stirred up another major rebellion in the opposite direction – against the current Afghan King whom he called a usurper. There was a confusion on who was behind this new rebellion – (the Germans or Italians or Soviets or British or the exiled Afghan King). However, after a few bloody battles along the Afghan border, the wily Olaf Caroe bribed the Shaami Pir to end the rebellion and return to Syria (after bombing the Pir’s army to bits) in 1938. The Faqir of Ipi kept away from this rebellion, wary of Shaami Pir and his followers – who were from tribes that refused to join his own rebellion. Later it turned out that the Shaami Pir was tasked by other groups in the German government to cause trouble in Afghanistan but infighting within German ranks, bureaucratic rivalry and intelligence failures led to the initiative failing. If the Pir and the Faqir were brought together to attack the British, things might have been very very different!. At least it could have made a considerable dent on British hold on the region, but that opportunity had passed. The Germans would try to get both the Shaami Pir and the Faqir to raise hell on their behalf but now the situation turned unfavorable for the Axis by late 1942.

 

Ambassador Quaroni

Ambassador Quaroni

On the other hand, the Faqir had narrow aims and worldviews. He did not care for Fascism or Communism or Lebensraum or the Indian independence movement. All he wanted was to eject the British from the land of the Pathans, Pakhtunistan. He took foreign assistance but also avoided being closely identified with foreigners or their proxies. As 1942 came to a close, Axis failures in Russia and Africa ended all hopes of invading India from Afghanistan. The British also persuaded the Afghan king (who was hedging his bets so far) to expel most of the Axis diplomatic mission but the remnant managed to keep funding the Faqir’s rebellion. This was to tie down British Army in the region to make things easier for the Japanese who were sweeping across South East Asia towards India. The Italians ditched the Axis in 1943 and Ambassador Quaroni promptly defected and spilled the beans to British intelligence. The Japanese advance also halted at India’s North Eastern borders by 1944. Now all hope of toppling the British Raj was lost. The consequent drying up of Axis support did not stop the Faqir – he continued his war against the British. The British for their part continued to retaliate heavily, even though the threat of invasion of India was over, and the British Raj in India was ending.

 

The Faqir, no fan of the Pakistan idea, now aligned with the Khudai Khidmatgars for an independent Pakhtunistan. In fact, he felt that the idea of Pakistan was an abomination created by heretical Qadianis, Ahmadis, predatory Islamic gentry, and apostates. He also realized that his land and people would be under the control of Punjabis and rich Muslims who would emigrate to Pakistan from India. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Faqir led a grand tribal conference in the city of Bannu. This conference passed a resolution calling for independent Pakhtunistan. Despite pleas to the British and the Indian leadership, no help came. The Pakistani authorities launched a major crackdown on the separatists. The Frontier Gandhi and major leaders were jailed, and all agitations were crushed. However, the Faqir escaped once again. Pakistan was now his new enemy as her government continued the British tradition of killing the Faqir’s people. There are tales of support from the Soviet Union, the Afghan King, the Khudai Khidmatgars who escaped to India and even the Indian government – support which kept alive the rebellion. The Pakistan Army and police could not get much headway in the Faqir’s home grounds. The cave complexes of Spin Ghar were vast and uncharted and the Faqir and his troops moved through them like Ghosts, evading capture and striking their new enemy. He created his own cabinet, an advisory body and a representative assembly of 180 members from the tribes loyal to his cause and held court in the caves. The Faqir of Ipi continued his rebellion from his mountain stronghold till he died in his bed in 1960, unbowed and uncaught.

 

The Faqir's Grave

The Faqir’s Grave

Today the Faqir of Ipi is largely forgotten outside his haunts. His grave still stands in Waziristan and his tale is still told in the region. When Osama Bin Laden fled to the caves in the Afghan border, historians and strategists raked up the case of the Faqir of Ipi to show how a popular and motivated movement can survive in those lands despite the efforts of the authorities. After the death of the Faqir, the rebellion faded away and the tribes were appeased through bribes and promises. Most importantly, they were left alone in the semi-autonomous F.A.T.A. (Federally Administered Tribal Area) territory of Pakistan for a long time. Today, things are back to the “normal” in the Faqir’s land: the Pakistani military (and American drones and Special Forces) now prowl the same lands and skies hunting new rebels and terrorists. Perhaps what they say is true – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

PS: This is a much expanded version of my article in DNA, published on December 2, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Measuring India: The Great Trigonometric Survey

Survey Instrument

The Anglo-Mysore Wars ended on May 1799, with Tipu Sultan’s end at Srirangapattana’s walls. This victory meant that British control of South India spread from coast to coast, with all threats eliminated. British leaders now realized that there was now the problem of measuring, charting and cataloguing the conquered land. Constructing lines of communication and infrastructure, mapmaking and assessing revenue depended on this. The fledgling British Raj’s very survival depended on measuring and charting India. British campaigns were well-planned affairs, using comprehensive knowledge of the land and people as force multipliers. With the land well-surveyed and measured to “inch-precision”, imperial control would be greatly enhanced. Such a feat would also turn India from a mystery into a well-understood entity – at least for ruling purposes. Reducing India to numbers, maps and schematics would be the ultimate victory of the scientific-minded and superior British race over India and her backward people: at least it seemed so for Britishers now gravitating towards Utilitarianism – and other theories and theologies of imperialism.

 

William Lambton

William Lambton

The great surveys of the subcontinent began with William Lambton, an officer with a scientific bent. Lambton came from humble origins and had no formal training in earth sciences or mathematics. He taught himself these disciplines after becoming partially blinded while studying an eclipse. Lambton had participated in assaulting Srirangapattana; before the battle he used celestial navigation to help the army surround Tipu Sultan’s forces. Lambton now proposed to survey the land using mathematical and geographical methods. After some deliberation, the authorities approved. While officers such as Col. Mackenzie, Hyne and Buchanan would conduct topographical, socio-political and natural surveys in India, Lambton was tasked with measuring India – an enterprise tolerating very little subjectivity and margin of error. After much preparation, the “Great Trigonometric Survey of India” commenced in 1802. This survey utilized new instruments and the “Triangulation method”, a method to compute the distance between three mutually visible reference points. Starting with a baseline of two measured points, the position of a third point could be quite accurately established. The two newly determined sides then became new baselines for further triangulations. Long chains of triangles soon shaped the maps of India. The first objective was to chart the “Great Indian Arc”, from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas.  Using this arc as a central stem, other surveys could branch out to cover entire India.

 

The Triangulation Grid

The Triangulation Grid

This colossal enterprise needed thousands of people with a wide range of skills. Many institutions began to train young Indians to serve the Survey (and other colonial projects). In 1823, Lambton died on the job near Nagpur, after surveying nearly 425,000 sq. km. of India. His assistant, George Everest, a fellow mathematician and military surveyor, succeeded him. Everest’s modifications made surveying much easier. In 1831 a British professor of Hindu College Calcutta recommended a 19-year old prodigy to Everest. This was Radhanath Sikdar, a brilliant mathematician and a co-founder of Derozio’s radical Young Bengal movement. Sikdar was recruited as a “computer” – one performing complex mathematical calculations manually. Soon Sikdar’s exploits won the respect of the British. Everest completed The Great Indian Arc and retired in 1843. His successor Andrew Waugh, yet another scientist-soldier, took the Survey forward. A few years later, Sikdar brought to Waugh interesting readings of a Himalayan mountain called “Peak XV”. Separate measurements marked this peak, locally called “Sagar-Matha”, as 29000 feet tall – the tallest in the world! Waugh and Sikdar worked for years to corroborate the amazing finding before publicizing this great discovery in 1853. Waugh named the peak “Mount Everest” to honor his predecessor. The Survey continued under Waugh’s successors and soon India was peppered with thousands of survey markers. Sikdar died in 1870, retiring early to teach math and perform social work. In 1875, all surveys were amalgamated into the Survey of India. The enormous cost and difficulty of surveying India however made complete trigonometric survey impossible. Even though the British could not reduce India into bullet points, the Survey had measured and charted the subcontinent well enough to serve the empire. The existing grid of triangulation chains sufficed to realize colonial aims such as strategic buffers, lines of communications, commerce, and infrastructure. Today, such surveys heavily depend on satellites, aircraft, cameras, sensors, etc. relaying results to surveyors far away. However, ,for ultimate verification and analysis the endeavor still requires human surveyors on the ground, braving the unknown like their predecessors did.

 

PS: Perhaps the new frontier for “measuring” and understanding India is not geographic or biological. Perhaps it is in “reducing” and modelling India and her people through data mining, analytics, CCTV footages, and PAN-AADHAR panopticons – for ostensibly better governance and services. May this difficult task turn out to be benevolent, and even more successful than the British surveys. Then again, as the saying goes, “the map is not always the territory”.

 

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

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A British “Raja” in Garhwal

Wilson's Mansion

In pursuit of empire-building, the British cut down millions of acres of forests. Britain ruled the waves and her shipbuilding consumed astronomical quantities of timer. Technological progress, public works, and the industrial revolution made wood even more essential. For instance, in ironmaking Britain relied on wood for fuel, till coal became abundant in the late 18th century. The demand for wood grew to insatiable proportions and the British heavily exploited their forests. However, when adverse impact of deforestation became quite clear, they targeted colonies such as Ireland and North America. Soon it was India’s turn. In this background, we turn to the life of Frederick “Pahari” Wilson, the “Raja” of Harsil.

 

In 1815, after the British saved the kingdom of Garhwal in the Anglo-Nepal wars, they claimed its eastern half of Garhwal as reward. The forests of the eastern half were so far used only for local consumption, but under British rule they were opened to large scale exploitation. In 1842, a 25-year-old Englishman named Frederick Wilson deserted the East India Company’s army and fled to the Bhagirathi valley of the Garhwal kingdom. Denied asylum by the King, Wilson had moved upland to escape British justice. He settled in Harsil (Hari-Sila), a remote region plentiful in Deodar trees. For months he lived off the land, studying the people and the region. Wilson was no ordinary grunt – he was a self-taught ornithologist and botanist and had keen business instincts. He understood his hunting skills could be used to make money. Wilson forged local connections and traded skins, fur and musk with British firms and soon made a great fortune.

 

A few years into his rise, Wilson began illegal logging and sold the timber discreetly. The British had by then built roads into their new domains in Garhwal and the tree-felling had increased substantially. This was also the period in which railways took off in India. When demand for wood outstripped supply, the British turned their eyes on Garhwal kingdom, where Wilson had become well established by now. In 1850, aided by the Company, Wilson gained a logging license for a paltry fee. Wilson now felled whole groves of Deodar as Deodar wood made excellent railway sleepers. Soon, thousands of tree trunks were floated down the Bhagirathi and the Yamuna every year to mills downriver. The amazing profits Wilson earned in this monopoly made the British Raj coerce the king to grant them a logging license too. Wilson became phenomenally rich and cultivated deep contacts in various power centers. Wilson astutely ushered the king into the timber business. When the King’s revenues increased, Wilson became even more powerful and more forests were opened to logging. Wilson also used his contacts to spy for the British Empire.

 

Fedrick Wilson

Fedrick Wilson

Wilson now introduced apples and rajma to the region – today these are the region’s primary cash crops. He also built hotels, mansions and even an impressive suspension bridge across the Jadh Ganga river. In the British Raj he was called “Pahari” (Mountain) Wilson for his exploits in the mountains. However, his hunting craze, avarice, and rumored brutality had an adverse impact on his image. Nevertheless, many locals adored him for bringing industry and called him the “Raja of Harsil”. He even issued coins, which remained in circulation for decades after his death. Pahari Wilson counted among his friends, luminaries such as A.O. Hume and Rudyard Kipling (whose novel “The Man Who Would be King” was partly based on Wilson).

 

 

 

 

Wilson's Coin

Wilson’s Coin

But all good things come to an end. The story goes that Lord Someshwar, the regional deity became angry with Wilson for hunting animals almost to extinction and deforesting the region. The deity’s priest cursed that Wilson’s bloodline will vanish after one generation and he will be forgotten. “Pahari” Wilson died in 1883 – a death perhaps hastened by his grief regarding a wayward son. Two of his three sons died young. The surviving wayward son – rumored to have killed one of his brothers – died in 1932 after squandering his inheritance. Other progeny died young or disappeared. The last known descendant joined the Indian Air Force after World War II but was soon killed in a plane crash. It seemed that the deity’s curse worked. Frederick “Pahari” Wilson became largely forgotten outside Garhwal. However, he was not forgotten by the locals – or by environmentalists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna, the Chipko Movement leader, who held him responsible for Garhwal’ ecological troubles. Wilson’s story became more well-known after journalist Robert Hutchison published his tale in his book “The Raja of Harsil”.

Wilson’s ghost of is believed to haunt the ruins of his bridge and mansions. Regardless, the living legacy of Pahari Wilson dot the region – the roaring production of apples and rajma. Apparently, the best variety of apple there is called the Wilson Apple!

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Hitler’s Indians: The Indian Legion

The Indian Legion

As Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose features in the news once again let us remember his first army, the ill-fated Indian Legion a.k.a. Azad Hind Legion a.k.a. Legion Fries Indien. Raised in Germany, this force never had its moment in the sun – like the Indian National Army (INA) had in South East Asia. The Indian Legion would sink into meaningless existence right after creation. Leaderless and dejected after Netaji left Europe, the Indian Legion became tainted by association with a notorious military formation. Soon the Legion was cornered by Allied Forces and French Resistance Partisans (anti-Nazi guerillas): there are some chilling accounts of those events. The survivors who made it to India never got the welcome and the recognition the INA did.

 

This story takes off when Netaji arrived in Berlin on April 3, 1941. He outsmarted the British, crossed Afghanistan, and was spirited across Russia (then allied with Nazi Germany) to Germany.  Bose was consumed with the idea of throwing the British out of India – and Hitler seemed to be unstoppable. The Germans wanted to weaken their British foes and welcomed Bose, a leader of pan-India stature. The Nazi regime recognized a provisional “Free India Government” in exile under Bose. They also promised him an army to help liberate India. Even before Bose had arrived in Germany, a few Indian Prisoners-of-War (POW) had been turned against their former overlords. This would be the nucleus of the promised army, now christened the Indian Legion.

Bose and Himmler

Bose and Himmler

The Legion would ultimately act as a pathfinder force for the planned German campaign into India. This seemed feasible back then, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps was sweeping across North Africa towards West Asia. The Germans hoped that when the Indian invasion commences, a liberating army under Bose would trigger public unrest in India. Bose conducted massive recruitment drives in Indian POW camps in Europe. However, only about 5,000 volunteered, despite many months of effort. Mass ceremonies were held in which Indian POWs joined in oaths of allegiance to Hitler and Bose. The Indian Legion was formally attached to the Wehrmacht, Germany’s professional armed forces. The Legion had mixed units comprising of all religions, regions, castes and classes. The commanding officers were German though.

Germany’s Russian invasion in June ‘41 shocked Bose, a left-leaning leader, but he was powerless. Hitler’s armies smashed into Russia and it seemed that the German forces in Russia would roll down the Caucasus and rendezvous with Rommel’s armies in Persia. Next target, India! However, Netaji was thwarted when the tide turned by end of ‘42. Defeated in North Africa and at Stalingrad, Germany retreated. Netaji now became convinced that his Legion would be used only for propaganda purposes – or as 2nd class units. He also understood that staying in Germany was useless.  In February 1943, Bose boarded a submarine bound for Japan, which was making significant gains in the land war in Asia – the rest is history.

 

However, this left the Indian Legion in Germany leaderless and demoralized. The liberation army was now a mere collaborator – just another pawn of Hitler’s regime. The Legion was moved all across Western Europe for some time. After the Normandy landings the Legion was pried away from the Wehrmacht; it was attached to the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi Party. The Waffen-SS was manned by ardent Nazis and they conducted great atrocities during the war. This association alone would taint the Legion. As Hitler’s armies retreated the Indian Legion trudged along. During this time certain units of the Legion reportedly committed atrocities on civilians and the French Resistance. However, other units performed well in battle and in anti-partisan operations. When German surrender seemed imminent, the Legion attempted to flee to neutral Switzerland. However, Allied forces intercepted them. Some French units and partisans with a grudge closed in – there are accounts of groups of Indian soldiers being summarily executed. The remaining were handed over to the British Army, who mistreated the “oath-breakers”. The men were soon shipped back to India and some stood at the INA Trials on charges of treason.

 

Unlike the INA which was popularly perceived to have fought for freedom close to India’s borders, the Indian Legion suffered ignominy. Nevertheless, due to public uproar during the INA Trials the Indian Legion’s trials were not completed. Soon Independence came, and the soldiers of INA and the Indian Legion were released. However, they were not allowed to serve in the post-independence Indian Army, except in rare exceptions. The government fell silent on the saga of the Indian Legion while the INA story was celebrated (at least for a while): Indian troops fighting for Hitler was not something to advertise. Thus, the Indian Legion, Netaji’s firstborn army, was orphaned by war and politics. It remains largely forgotten outside historical research.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on October 28, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Elephant and the Pope

Hanno the elephant

The Age of Discovery (15th – 17th century) had spread accounts of exotic people, places and animals of the East and the New World in Europe. Many European kings and nobles began to keep menageries, i.e. collection of exotic lifeforms, of such specimens. The elite kept such collections as a symbol of their power: it was no mean feat to acquire, transport and maintain such collections far away from natural habitats. Around 1511 C.E., King Manuel I of Portugal decided to befriend the pope, in the light of troubling developments in the spice trade. In those times, having the Holy Father of the Catholic Church on your side gave a definite edge given the frequent papal interventions and arbitration in politics. Orders were dispatched to Portuguese subjects currently establishing a foothold in India: they must procure exotic beasts and birds for the Holy Father – an elephant would be an excellent addition. After all, since Alexander’s time Europeans were mighty impressed with the Indian elephant.

 

In 1512, the Portuguese in Cochin bought an albino baby male elephant and trained it to perform tricks. The elephant was sent to Lisbon, accompanied by exotic birds and animals also. In 1513 the new Pope ascended. The 38 year-old Leo X, hailing from the great Medici family, was comparatively liberal, curious and easygoing (if somewhat extravagant and eccentric). Like most noblemen, Pope Leo X was fond of novelties and animals; he would appreciate Manuel’s menagerie. The Portuguese delegates and the menagerie marched to Rome on February 1514. The extravagant procession of the wildlife and wealth of India dazzled everyone; multitudes thronged to glimpse this great caravan. The elephant carried on its back a castle-shaped silver platform. The procession entered the Holy See and Hanno kneeled before the Pope and offered gifts with his trunk. The gesture was brilliant – Manuel had triumphed in the Orient and brought the East’s wealth and wonders as tribute for the pope. King Manuel thus gained the friendship of the immensely pleased Pope.

 

The Portuguese called the elephant Annone, perhaps based ‘Aana’, on the Malayalam term for elephant. This name changed to Hanno soon.  Leo X became instantly attached to Hanno and brought it along for all events. He built a new elephant stable right next to his palace and spared no expense in making Hanno’s life comfortable. In his reign, Leo X faced many troubles: poor health, poor finances, heretics, the French and the Turks. Worst of all was the rebellion brewing in the Church. Many theologists, priests, and lay followers were decrying the rising corruption in the Church. The decadent lifestyles, ugly politics, and rampant sale of “Indulgences” (Papal statements which absolved anyone of sins) created much anger. Amidst all these woes the pope carried on with his elephant. Many contemporary sources were not happy with this – they felt that the Pope spent too much time with Hanno while Christendom suffered. Hanno was however a hit with the commoners, and thousands traveled to Rome to view his antics.

 

In May 1516, Bonaventura, a fanatical preacher, and thousands of his followers entered Rome. Calling himself the Angelic Pope (a prophesized leader crowned by angels to lead Christendom during end-times) he excommunicated Pope Leo and called for the Church’s overthrow. Bonaventure cursed the regime: he announced that the pope, five cardinals and the pope’s elephant would die by September. The pope, a superstitious man, became very fearful. However, he mustered enough resolve to imprison Bonaventura and disperse the mob. However, the hitherto healthy elephant suddenly became very ill. The pope was aghast; he was convinced this was a portent of his own death as per Bonaventura’s curse. Leo X spared no cost for the treatment (which included purgatives heavily laced with gold) and spent all his time with the dying elephant. However, Hanno died, aged seven, on June 1516. The Pope and the commoners were grief stricken. Raphael, the great artist, was commissioned to create a life-sized monument. Other monuments were built for the elephant across Rome. The pope himself penned Hanno’s epitaph. Hanno’s remains, sans his tusks, lie somewhere in the Vatican.

This was not the first, nor the last time, that elephants (or other exotic beasts) were kept by European rulers. Perhaps this is not the saddest episode either. Yet, the episode of Pope Leo X and Hanno had a curious impact. Caustic reports and satires of the episode, including a hilarious “Last Will and Testament of Hanno the Elephant”, caused much uproar in Italy. The Pope’s obsession with Hanno was heavily criticized in the writings of Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther. Such critics used this episode as representative of the decay of the institution of the pope, helping the rebellion snowball. In a way, Hanno the elephant played a small part in the Protestant schism in 1517.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on October 14, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Christian Schwartz: Raj-Guru of Thanjavur

Christian Friedrich Schwartz

Before the British became the undisputed master of India in the early 19th century, the European view of India was not as disdainful or prejudiced as it would come to be. In this “pre-colonial” phase foreign scholars and missionaries had immense curiosity and respect for all things Indian. India was known to be fabulously wealthy and industrious for centuries. Thousands of Europeans fired by religious zeal, or desire for knowledge, or personal ambition traveled to India. Many of them succeeded: some even became powerful lords, generals and advisors. The pre-colonial European missionaries who arrived to “dispel heathen darkness” were respectful of Indian faiths and traditions, barring some notable exceptions. They learned Indian languages and observed and local recorded traditions. Christian Friedrich Schwartz, a Lutheran missionary from Prussia, was perhaps the most fascinating of them all. During his 48 years in India, he founded numerous congregations and schools in present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He was also diplomat, and an advisor and mentor to kings. Christian Schwartz arrived when war raged in India. The British, the French and numerous local powers were fighting for supremacy: the missionary was soon swept into this maelstrom.

 

Schwartz studied Tamil and Telugu, along with multiple European languages, before sailing to India in 1750. In India he became proficient in Sanskrit, Marathi, Urdu, and Persian. His fame spread, and thousands flocked to his schools. Schwartz’s unplanned foray into the turbulence began in 1762. Despite being a Lutheran, he agreed to provide last rites for Anglican British soldiers killed in a gunpowder explosion.  The British were impressed by his services: when they captured Madurai, they approached him again for similar services. The Company even engineered an agreement between the Lutheran and Anglican churches: Schwartz could now officiate services for Anglicans but remain a Lutheran. In 1773, the Arcot Nawab’s forces invaded and conquered Thanjavur. Thanjavur was ruled by the Maratha Tuljaji Bhonsle. Schwartz and his followers entered Thanjavur to serve the affected Christians. He soon expanded aid to non-Christians. He executed relief measures and became very popular with the people. This led to Maharaja Tuljaji (restored to his throne in 1776) inviting him to be an advisor in his court. In return for endowments to spread his faith, Schwartz agreed. However, the Company suddenly requested him to undertake a sensitive mission to Hyder Ali, King of Mysore – Hyder Ali had specifically requested that Schwartz be sent. Apparently, his fame as a polyglot of impeccable honesty had reached Mysore. For his secret messages to the British, Hyder Ali could not trust even his own men. Schwartz agreed, in the cause of peace. In Mysore, Schwartz and Hyder Ali conversed and Schwartz relayed the terms to the Company. The British refused, and Anglo-Mysore rivalry continued. Schwartz now took up his post in Thanjavur. During the 2nd Anglo-Mysore War (1780-1784), Mysore’s armies stormed into Tamil Nadu. Schwartz once again lead the relief work. Hyder Ali continued to display respect of Schwartz by allowing him to work unmolested. Three more times Schwartz acted as the intermediary between Mysore and the British. As the Mysore armies laid waste to Thanjavur, unscrupulous court officials engaged in hoarding and corruption. This led to a major revolt, but Schwartz was able to convince the rebels to disband. After Mysore retreated, Tuljaji requested Schwartz to investigate the corruption. After Schwartz’s successful investigation, Tuljaji dismissed the corrupt officials. Tuljaji and Schwartz became closer, and the German missionary became the de-facto Raj-Guru of Thanjavur.

 

In 1787 Tuljaji became severely ill. On his deathbed he requested Schwartz to protect his adopted heir, the 10-year old Serfoji II. Schwartz agreed, well aware of plots to eliminate the heir. Tuljaji appointed Schwartz as the guardian and Raja-Guru of Serfoji before dying. The regent, Tuljaji’s half-brother, usurped the throne in 1793 but Schwartz fled with the prince to Madras. In 1797, the British Governor General agreed to reinstate Serfoji at Schwartz’s insistence. Company forces escorted Serfoji to Thanjavur and deposed the usurper. However, a few months before his mentee was formally crowned, Christian Schwartz passed away. The grieving Serfoji commissioned an impressive monument – a white marble sculpture depicting Schwartz on his deathbed and holding Serfoji’s hand.

Marble Monument for Schwartz

Marble Monument for Schwartz

Christian Schwartz’s work as a missionary helped spread Christianity in South India.  The alumni of the public schools he founded served the civil service for decades. His institutions also trained many reputed scholars and artists. Schwartz’s role as protector, teacher and Raja-Guru to Serfoji also had a lasting impact. Serfoji proved himself to be a highly accomplished and enlightened King. During his long reign, Thanjavur became a quite well-developed state and a major cultural center. The British absorbed Thanjavur in 1855, after the last king Shivaji II died heirless, but Thanjavur remained a model kingdom emulated by princely states such as Mysore and Travancore.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 30, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Pirates of the Persian Gulf

Arab Pirate Dhow

Bombay port was a scene of hectic activity in November of 1819: a great imperial expedition was underway. Warships, troop carriers and support ships were being readied to carry three thousand British and Indian soldiers to wage war in the Persian Gulf. For decades, the so-called “pirate kingdoms” of the Persian Gulf’s southern coast(present day UAE, Qatar and Bahrain) had been preying on British shipping. The British had launched naval patrols and a punitive naval campaign ten years ago, to no avail. This time the authorities resolved that Arabian threat had to be put down for good. Also, the political system of that region had to be shaped to suit the Empire’s strategic objectives. The 1819 campaign turned out to be successful for the British and the impact of the expedition and the subsequent treaties endure to this day.

 

In the 17th century, the Al-Qasimi tribe (the line of the current Emirs of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah) established control over large parts of the Persian Gulf Coast. Other tribes held sway over Qatar and Bahrain. These tribes adopted what western historians called “piracy”, due to the lack of productive land, means of livelihood, and strong maritime authority in the region. Moreover, these states perceived themselves as legitimate authorities and claimed toll from vessels passing through their littoral regions. The imperious British did not acknowledge such claims and refused to pay. The Al Qasimis, the most warlike tribe of the lot,began plundering British ships. Imperial narratives portrayed this as piratical acts by predatory groups. (Multiple sources do point out that the tribes of this region had been known for preying on commerce and travelers for centuries). Within a few years the Qasimis grew bolder and bolder and even ventured into the Arabian Sea. Additionally, fundamentalist Wahhabism gained influence across the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabi clerics directed the Qasimis to plunder all infidel and “apostate” Muslim shipping, without exception. The religious aspect made the British very worried; they feared Wahhabism inching closer to India with her millions of Muslims denizens. Besides, the British had a history with piracy too. Down the ages, many nations had made piracy the cornerstone of their policy: England’s growth as a maritime power owed a great deal to slavery, piracy and privateering (privately owned vessel commissioned by royal letter of marque to attack enemies). She had preyed on Europe’s Catholic kingdoms, sometimes in league with Protestant Dutch and Muslim powers. By the 18th century, England had morphed into Great Britain. She adopted the trappings of a modern state and abandoned slavery and piracy. However, she had not forgotten the impact of piracy on her rise: perhaps today’s tiny pirate states could grow into a serious threat. Such a threat could not be allowed to fester so close to India, the Jewel in the Crown.

 

Dhayah Fort ruins

Dhayah Fort ruins

In November 1819 the British-Indian force set sail under General William Keir Grant. The Qatari state under Rahmah ibn Jabir, a much-feared raider, supported the British. He had long realised that the British were too powerful. Moreover, the Qasimi were his rivals in those waters. Sultan Said bin Sultan of Oman also supported the British for similar reasons. The British-Indian forces, the Omanis and the “good pirates” attacked the Qasimis in December 1819. Within a week the Qasimis were crushed. Their capital, Ras Al Khaimah, and other towns were razed to the ground. The Qasimi surrendered after suffering heavy casualties. General Grant navigated skillfully across the political landscape and brought in line every chief of the Persian Gulf’s southern coast. The landmark General Maritime Treaty of Peace was signed in 1820. Slavery, piracy, and inter-tribal conflicts without British sanction were banned. The chiefs had to fly “white pierced red flags”, instead of the blood-red flags they hitherto sported. The white signified that they had abandoned piracy. Even today, the flags of the Emirates of the UAE feature variations of this rule.

 

UAE Emirates' Flags

UAE Emirates’ Flags

Such provisions defanged the Arab states and made the Empire their de-facto master. Minor inter-tribal conflicts persisted till 1835, when the states agreed to a “perpetual maritime truce”. The former pirate states became known as ‘Trucial States’ as they were bound by a truce with the British Empire. For a long time, security and support were provided by British India. This engagement was deep, and the Indian Rupee became the de facto currency in the region. In 1968 Britain abandoned its protectorate of the Trucial States. After some political upheaval, the sovereign nations of Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain emerged. It is interesting to note that Indians have been always involved in the fortunes of the present-day Persian Gulf states. Two centuries ago Indians helped forge the Trucial States in blood and fire. Since the 1970s, Indians played a major role in building the sovereign nations that emerged.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 16, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Operation Jackpot: August 15, 1971

Bangladesh Liberation

Pakistan’s horrific military campaign “Operation Searchlight” (March-May 1971) was a success by most yardsticks. The Mukti Bahini, the resistance movement of ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan, was severely mauled. A genocide of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis had commenced under the explicit directions of General Yahya Khan and his Junta. Many Bengali leaders, intellectuals, and students had been captured – and, in many cases, massacred along with their families. Even soldiers and officers of Bengali ethnicity were rounded up and murdered. Operation Searchlight also crushed pockets of resistance by unleashing legions of West Pakistani soldiers and local collaborators: the Mukti Bahini’s defense units were simply outfought and outnumbered. By June 1971, East Bengal seemed to be “pacified”.

The genocide

The genocide

However, the Pakistani Junta had underestimated the determination of the Bengalis. Those who escaped to India planned to strike back before the invaders dug in further and wrought even more destruction. Many leaders had managed to escape Searchlight and had set up a government-in-exile under the Indian Government’s aegis. East Bengalis chafing under the occupation risked their lives to aid the Mukti Bahini. India did not want to be rushed into a war with one of America’s closest allies – not without adequate preparations. Moreover, the East Bengal terrain was difficult, and Pakistan was no minnow. With Operation Searchlight the Junta had also demonstrated its capacity for bloodshed. Nevertheless, India was also keen on surgical strikes before war erupted: the Junta had to understand that the continuing genocide and Pakistan’s increasing belligerence towards India would not go unpunished.

 

 

After Sheikh Mujib Rehman was arrested, Major Ziaur Rahman declared Bangladesh’s independence on March 26, 1971. At this juncture, in a French dockyard a new submarine (PNS Mangro) had just been built for Pakistan. The naval crew which had travelled to France to take over the submarine had thirteen ethnic Bengalis among them. As per the accounts of one of the Bengali officers, the Junta’s actions during the past few months had greatly disturbed the Bengali sailors. When the news of the declaration of Independence and the genocide reached them, eight of the East Bengali sailors escaped before their comrades turned on them. After a harrowing journey crisscrossing four European nations they reached India (thanks to timely action of the Indian government) and joined the Mukti Bahini. By this time the Indian Navy and the Mukti Bahini had planned a naval commando force to target Pakistani assets in Bangladesh: the eight defectors and fifteen more Bangladeshi seamen would form the nucleus of this force. India had blocked the air route from West Pakistan, only the sea route was now open. The Pakistanis had commanded every seaworthy vessel it could find to ferry men and material into Bangladesh’s coastal and riverine ports. This lifeline had to be severed. There was also the matter of revenge – during Searchlight and afterwards, Pakistani combat vessels transported thousands of soldiers and militia across Bangladesh. In horrific cases of overkill, these vessels’ weapons were turned on civilians and Mukti Bahini combatants. The commandos would target these combat vessels also.

 

The secret training camp “C2P” was operationalized in Plassey, West Bengal. Over 500 men were trained in an arduous 3-month commando course. Some trainees were combatants, but most were university students and other civilians. When training concluded, leading commandos were infiltrated into Bangladesh. Pakistan deployed her own special forces to intercept these commandos but met limited success.  In the early hours of August 15, “Operation Jackpot” was executed: nine ships in Chittagong harbor were blown up by commando frogmen using limpet mines. This operation nearly crippled the crucial port of Chittagong. Operation Jackpot continued, and another thirty-six vessels were soon sunk in other ports. This action showed the world that the resistance was alive, and that Bangladesh has not been “pacified”. By November, the commandos sunk over 100,000 tons of shipping, suffering very few causalities. The fighters were now provided gunboats; two patrol boats were also loaned by the Indian Navy. This flotilla struck Pakistani and allied ships in the sub-campaign “Operation Hotpants”. Ports, rivers and waterways were soon clogged with damaged or sunken vessels. Around this time, Gano Bahini guerilla units entered Bangladesh from India’s North East. All lines of communications of the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh were now throttled; Pakistani control shrunk to urban areas. Consequently, the occupation crumbled when war erupted on December 3. When Pakistan surrendered on December 16, the nation of Bangladesh was born.

 

Operation Jackpot

Operation Jackpot

If Pakistan had retained a measure of control over the rivers and coast (and thus their lines of communications and the countryside), perhaps Bangladesh’s liberation would not have been accomplished within a fortnight. Given Cold War dynamics, India’s window of opportunity would have narrowed considerably. History would have been very different indeed if the intrepid warriors of Operation Jackpot had not succeeded.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on September 2, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Pig Rupee: A Currency Controversy

The Pig Rupee

The design and issue of currency sometimes lead to controversy. Such controversies have often led to withdrawal or redesign of currency, with governments scrambling to offer explanations, contain the damage or to save face. This is due to the status of currency as a symbol of the state’s credibility, vitality and influence. Kings struck coins in their name as a symbol of their authority – and as a guarantee of the coin as legal tender. Currency also provided a medium for the sovereign to speak to his subjects and the rest of the world. Therefore, symbols and language used in currency, real or perceived currency defects, or sudden changes in the currency system itself can have major consequences. The Demonetization saga has not yet ended, and there was controversy regarding the quality and color of the notes issued after Demonetization. In 2004 we witnessed the controversy of the alleged Christian cross in newly issued coins. The stated theme of those coins was “Unity in Diversity” but following the controversy these coins were withdrawn. The British Raj also had its share of currency related troubles. In the bleak tale of the Raj’s currency system there is the “Pig Rupee” episode in which the British scrambled to stave off potential disaster due to a problem with coin design.

 

The Raj’s policies on currency standard, reserves, coin compositions, etc. were designed to benefit Britain and not India. From 1870s-1910 colonial policies on coinage, and the global collapse of silver value, put great burden on Indians. British currency policies were highly criticized, to no avail, by the few Indians who fully understood how India was adversely affected. The masses also intuitively realized that the British monetary system had somehow gutted commerce and led to their increasing misery. In this juncture, King Edward VII died in May 1910 and was succeeded by King George V.  Every coronation required a Grand Durbar in India, and the issue of new coins bearing the sovereign’s face. The King was crowned a second time in the 1911 Delhi Durbar, seated on a throne cast from melting thousands of silver coins. This time the British authorities wanted to issue impressive coins – the coins of Edward VII were rather unremarkable. Sir Bertrand Mackennal, the famed sculptor and engraver was commissioned to design the new coins.

 

Delhi Durbar

The Delhi Durbar of 1911

Soon, 700000 new coins – out of 9.4 million newly punched coins of rupee and fractional denominations – were circulated. The crowned and regally decorated bust of the King appeared on the obverse side, while the reverse side had a floral design. Unlike the simple floral pattern of its predecessors, the new reverse side design screamed British Empire.  This design featured the three emblems of the United Kingdom: the Rose of England, the Thistle of Scotland, and the Shamrock of Ireland. The Lotus of India appeared on the top. The people soon noted something interesting on the obverse side. This side featuring the King’s bust depicted the Order of the Indian Empire, which was worn by the British sovereign. The golden collar chain of the Order was decorated with golden elephants, roses and peacocks.  Due to poor engraving the coins’ “elephant” looked like a pig. The elephant’s body and legs were quite disproportionate. No tusks were discernible, and the short trunk resembled a pig’s snout. These coins soon earned the name “Pig Rupees” and became the object of much scorn and rage. The Muslim community in India was outraged as the pig is an unclean animal in the Islamic faith – a pig appearing in everyday legal tender seemed to be a direct insult to Muslims. As the anger swelled some British mandarins noted the eerie similarity to the origins of the 1857 Rebellion, the dark memories of which were fresh in everyone’s minds. The mutiny that sparked off the Rebellion had begun with the rumor that pig fat (and cow fat) was used to produce the newly issued rifles’ cartridge grease. That perception attained monstrous proportions and British rule in India nearly ended. The British were also ostensibly aware of the resentment towards their monetary policies; a sensitive religious issue on top of this could perhaps upset the apple cart. The British quickly withdrew the new coins from circulation.  They melted the withdrawn coins and the huge stock of unissued coins. Subsequent coins issued from 1912 onwards featured a redesigned obverse side. This time it was clearly an elephant, with proportionate trunk, tusks and legs.

Very few pieces of the “Pig Rupees” remain, they are now much sought-after collector’s items. It might be tempting to scoff off the episode, but as noted before currency is also a means of mass communication. Explicit and implicit information conveyed by currency has the power to break regimes, and the British acted swiftly before this unfortunate miscommunication threatened the Raj.

 

PS: This is my article in DNA, published on August 19, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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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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