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

Indian Soldiers

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

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

Before Agnipath

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

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

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

Two examples of veterans’ rage

Poonch, Kashmir – 1947

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

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

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

Weimar Germany, 1918-1933

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

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

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

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

Grave Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Brief Defiance of Raja Sukh Jiwan Mal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Cornwallis and Tipu's sons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tipu Sultan in Travancore – I: The Travancore Lines

Tipu Sultan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Sikh Empire’s Expedition to Balakot

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Tale of Two Cities: Pune and Nagpur

Peshwa Madhavrao I

The mighty Maratha Confederacy was brought to its knees due to disunity and intense infighting. After Shivaji passed away, the ambitions of individual leaders caused irreparable damage to the Maratha cause, even at the apex of Maratha glory. This led to fundamental weakness in Maratha polity and economy. The Maratha chiefs fought each other for power and petty jealousies, while the scions of the Peshwa and the Chhatrapati families indulged in kin-slaying and other conspiracies. This was indeed the kind of chaotic situation that the British used to their advantage in India. Today we look at an episode where Pune and Nagpur were razed in succession by opposing Maratha factions, in alliance with Hyderabad, their mortal foe.

The Maratha cities of Pune and Nagpur already had dark pasts. Nagpur, an important city of the Gond kingdoms, had seen several bloody wars of succession. Raghoji Bhosale, a Maratha chief and the governor of Berar, mediated multiple rounds of conflicts between two warring Gond princes. He had also been slowly claiming parts of the Gond kingdom as arbitration fees. The conflict finally ended when Raghoji marched into Nagpur and seized power in 1743. Raghoji Bhosale’s energetic rule and encouragement of immigration made Nagpur a major city.

Pune city also had a violent history. It was the fiefdom of Maloji Bhosale (the grandfather of Chhatrapati Shivaji) who served the Ahmednagar Sultanate. The Bhosales of Nagpur were distantly related to these Bhosales of Pune. In 1630 Pune was plundered, razed and the land thoroughly ploughed by a Maratha general of the Bijapur Sultanate. In 1637, Maloji Bhosale’s son Shahaji entered the service of the Sultan of Bijapur and got back the wasteland that was once his home. Shahaji rebuilt Pune and soon it became a thriving city again. By the 1710s, the Peshwas who were based in Pune made it the capital city.

Following the Maratha defeat in the 3rd Battle of Panipat in 1761, the surviving chieftains tried to recoup lost power and wrest control over the confederacy. The Nagpur Bhosales had been campaigning elsewhere and did not get decimated at Panipat. The new Peshwa was the young but brilliant Madhavrao. His uncle Raghunathrao was also capable, but he lusted for the Peshwa office. Tensions began to rise, and civil war was brewing. The Nizam of Hyderabad, great foe of the Marathas, used this situation to invade the Maratha heartland with a massive army. Within weeks the Nizam’s forces reached Pune. The Maratha chiefs came together at this point and the Nizam was defeated. However, the wily Nizam soon roped in Nagpur’s current ruler, Janoji Bhosale. Janoji had succeeded Raghoji Bhosale in 1755, after prevailing over his brother Madhoji. However, the Peshwa had pried off some of Janoji’s lands and bestowed them to Madhoji. This had made Janoji Bhosale very resentful.

In 1763, the Nizam and Janoji Bhosale invaded the Peshwa’s lands. Their combined forces sacked and burnt Pune in a swift campaign. The frantic Maratha chiefs promised the Janoji Bhosale great riches if he turned against the Nizam. Janoji agreed and his army fell upon his unsuspecting allies. The Nizam’s forces fled suffering heavy losses. Peshwa Madhavrao kept his word and offered rich prizes to Janoji, but the Peshwa secretly resolved to punish Janoji for burning down Pune. Moreover, Janoji openly favored the Peshwa’s uncle and rival, Raghunathrao.

The Peshwa got his chance soon. In 1768, Janoji attempted to raise Raghunathrao to the office of the Peshwa. Peshwa Madhavrao quickly imprisoned his uncle and marched into Nagpur. He decided to pay back Janoji in his own coin. The Peshwa invited the Nizam, the last victim of Janoji’s treachery, to join the expedition against Janoji Bhosale. The Nizam was only happy to oblige and sent his forces to aid the Peshwa. Janoji fled Nagpur, leaving the city undefended. The destruction of Pune by Janoji was avenged when the Peshwa’s and Nizam’s armies plundered and burned Nagpur. Soon, the humbled Janoji accepted the Peshwa’s suzerainty in return for amnesty.

This episode is representative of Indian rulers’ short-sightedness and the chaotic scramble for power in the 18th-19th centuries. Pune and Nagpur rebounded in time – and even these events pale in comparison to later Maratha misfortunes. However, the point is that these city destructions happened right after the great catastrophe at Panipat – which was clearly due to errors stemming from disunity and hubris. This was the kind of chaos that was quickly utilized by the British, who were united and driven by singular purpose. It might be harsh to judge such events with using the luxury of hindsight; nevertheless, this episode perhaps shows that shared ethnicity or caste or faith is not enough bind together various groups to create a nation. Perhaps there are other ingredients that are required to forge a unity that overpowers base instincts.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.



  • 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.


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.


When Jerusalem changed the world

A hundred years ago Jerusalem surrendered to the British, and the world would never be the same again.


The present day territories of Israel and Palestine has been the epicenter of religious conflict for centuries. Down the ages the desire to possess this sliver of a Holy Land had led the followers of a dozen gods and their countless aspects to slaughter each other. Locations central to the lore of all three Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, lie in this territory – and for the believers no price seems too high to pay for possessing it. Within these religions themselves numerous denominations jostle for control over shrines and sites of significance, each convinced that their way is the truth. The lives of billions are tied to contentious debates over who owns what in the Holy Land. The holy city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of this conflict.

A watershed event occurred exactly a hundred years ago during World War I, when Ottoman Jerusalem ignobly surrendered to the British under General Allenby. Seven centuries after recapturing it from the Crusader Christians, Muslims had once again lost Jerusalem.  The third holiest city in Islam, Jerusalem’s takeover by the Kufr is perceived as a great transgression by many Muslims. The inflection point of the West Asian conflict may be traced to this event and the events surrounding it. The waves of Jewish immigrations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the formation of Israel, and the current situation in West Asia are a result of this British campaign. The road to the British capture of Jerusalem was quite eventful and has lasting ramifications – and Indians also played a role here.


The Ottoman Problem and the Great War:

The Holy Lands had been held by the Ottoman Turks since the early 16th century. The possession of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem enabled the Ottoman Emperor to title himself “Caliph of all Muslims”. In World War I (1914-1918), Ottoman Turks aligned with Germany against Britain and her allies. By early 1917 the British were in trouble: in the early phase of the war the Turks had mauled them in Europe and Iraq. Also, the Ottoman Emperor in his capacity as Caliph called on Muslims under British yoke to rise against their overlords. Though Indian Muslims, especially the thousands serving in the army, did not take up the call to Global Jihad en masse, a few mutinies and insurrections did break out. Many Indian revolutionaries and Pan-Islamist movements latched on to this and commenced numerous operations such as the Ghadar Mutiny, Christmas Day Plot, the Kabul Mission, etc.

The British in response utilized the talents of Lawrence of Arabia to aid the Arab rebels against their Turk overlords. British aid to the erstwhile ill-equipped but fanatical tribes of Arabia invigorated the Arab Revolt. By the end of 1916 major cities such as Mecca, Aqaba and Aden had fallen and the Ottoman hold on the Arabian Peninsula was weakening. In January 1917, the British attacked Gaza and Palestine from Egypt, a British protectorate since 1882. For six months the Ottomans and their German allies managed to defend, but then the capable General Allenby took charge.


Allenby’s brilliance and Lawrence’s success in Arabia had tipped the scales. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF – “E”) now smashed into the Holy Land. This force was nearly one fifth Indian, many of them Muslims. At this point the well-reported “Jerusalem Syndrome” set into many Christian soldiers. The men could identify each city, town and geographical features as these names were part and parcel of their religious life. The feeling that they now walk on lands where Jesus and other Biblical figures walked was overwhelming. This instilled religious fervor and even hysteria in many soldiers and officers. Purely military objectives started to get tainted with other considerations. Since the Allenby campaign began, the Western press had also contributed by drawing real and imagined parallels from the Bible, and foraying into apocalyptical millenarian (“End Times”) themes. Soon the feeling that this campaign was a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims took root. Ministers, top bureaucrats and generals were not immune to such emerging zeitgeist. Moreover, the situation in France was bleak: the victories in the Holy Land seemed portentous and were a welcome respite.


A home for the Jews in the Holy Land:

In this environment Zionists such as Herbert Samuel, the Rothschilds, and Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first President of Israel) were able to influence politicians and swing support for a Jewish home in the Holy Land. Zionism, the movement which sought the return of Jews to Palestine had gained steam in the late 19th century with the worldwide rise of Jews in science, arts and business. Zionism also had support of powerful Christian denominations which believed that a Jewish state in the Holy Land was a pre-condition for Biblical prophecies. The slaughter of tens of thousands in The Great War fed apocalyptical millenarian views among Christians and Jews – this also hastened the development of the project. The American President Woodrow Wilson and the British Prime Minister Lloyd George supported the Zionist cause. In fact, most British cabinet ministers were evangelicals who supported Zionism. Efforts of Zionists also created a Jewish Legion in the British Army, veterans of which would later ascend to great heights in the nation of Israel.

Weizmann in particular was very important to the war effort due to his inventions in armament production. His friendship with Lloyd George and the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour led to the Balfour Declaration in November 2, 2017, which promised a home for all Jews in the Holy Land – albeit in joint ownership with Palestinian Arabs. The declaration was also timed in response to the ongoing October Revolution in Russia which threatened Russian participation in the War. The declaration could gather support of influential Russian Jews and perhaps break the revolution.

The Balfour declaration caused widespread condemnation from Muslims worldwide, including leading Indian clerics and politicians. Lord Curzon and Montagu, who had experience governing millions of Indian Muslims remarked that they expect much bloodshed in future in the Holy Land. Deeper intrigue was afoot. The British, Russian Empire and the French secretly decided one year previously under the “Sykes-Picot Agreement” to partition West Asia between themselves. The Jews could surely be accommodated in the Holy Land under this top-secret arrangement. This agreement also negated all assurances made to the Arabs. The Balfour declaration was anyway momentous – the Jews who were exiled by the Romans in 70 C.E. could now return to the Holy Land under the aegis of another empire!


The Battle for Jerusalem:

In November 17, the British struck at Jerusalem: Indian units fought admirably in these operations. The defense crumbled and the Ottoman and German forces fled. Jerusalem was governed by a decadent and corrupt regime. When the defenders retreated the leadership sought to surrender as fast as possible, leading to farcical situations. The first offer for surrender was presented to two British cooks foraging just outside the city gates. To avoid the parallels to conquerors, or Christ riding into Jerusalem, Allenby was ordered to walk into the city to accept the surrender.  Jerusalem and adjoining areas now fell under British control. In the coming years the Empire managed to get a mandate to govern the Holy Land – which they did for 30 years with much trouble.

Meanwhile the communists and their allies captured power in Russia. One of their first acts was to expose the Sykes-Picot agreement, on 23rd November. Reactions to this revelation from all Arabs and non-Arab Muslims were severe, but the ongoing war prevented serious opposition. The mood in Jerusalem was charged as news of western perfidy spread. Also, many could not accept the loss of the holy city to infidels – or the greater freedoms that Jews and Christians minorities now enjoyed.


Amidst such tension the British were holding on gingerly. Due to the large Muslim population and their Arab allies in the peninsula the British had to safeguard the Islamic shrines. The British also had to guard Christian and Jewish shrines and sites from Muslim zealots (and also zealots of opposing denominations within these two faiths). Moreover, the Ottomans and the Germans were regrouping to the North. Diplomatic gaffes, triumphalism and religious exhortations could set off the tinderbox at any moment. An avalanche of protocols and regulations flowed from London to avoid this. In fact, the surrender ceremony itself had ended in a bad note when Allenby himself declared that “The Crusades have now ended”, to which the Arab dignitaries stormed off from the ceremony.

Indian troops were used for important guard duties: The Muslim units would guard the Islamic shrines and Hindu/Sikh units would keep the peace in other areas. Contemporary reports point out to the professionalism of Indian troops in such a charged environment. It was also to their credit that they were not swayed by religious fervor and propaganda in the heart of the Holy Land. Indian troops guarded sites such as the all-important Al Aqsa mosque, Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. The reaction of Indian Muslims to the fall of Jerusalem was quite muted, despite the decades-long support for Ottoman-sponsored Pan-Islamism by many Indian leaders. However, the embers of this loss remained. The emotions would flare up as the Khilafat Movement when the British and their allies attempted to annex remnant Turkish lands and abolish the Caliphate in 1921.


Aftermath: 1918 –

Jews around the world saw a chance now that Jerusalem was in British hands: over 500,000 would trickle into Palestine over the next 21 years in five waves of emigration called Aliyahs. Once the civil administration was set up in early 1918, the British embarked on further campaigns. The Indian component of the British force was increased in strength and it would take part in major operations till the end of the war. In total, over 100,000 Indians served in this theater and nearly 12,000 had fallen. Thousands more were maimed or wounded.

Indian involvement did not end with the war. In the late ‘30s to early ‘40s the threats of the Indian Muslim League and leading clerics were one reason the British withdrew support for Zionism. Jinnah reminded senior British officials that “one in three soldiers who won the Holy Land for the Empire were Indians, and many of them were Muslims”. He warned that continuing support for the Jews and the influx of Jewish immigrants would antagonize Muslims worldwide – including the millions in British India. Muslim League leaders worked closely with the Arabs to prevent Jewish consolidation in Palestine. The British did pull support for the Jewish home in the ‘40s following a bloody Jewish insurgency and Arab insurrections. However, by then 600,000-plus strong highly organized and militarized Jewish community was well-established. World War 2 and the Jewish Holocaust followed: in its wake the British relinquished its mandate sparking off the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The rest is history.


The bloodletting continues in these lands as a result of these events during World War I. Other conflicts across the globe, even in faraway places such as the Americas and Philippines, also stem from the British decisions regarding the Holy Land during the Great War. In fact, ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi specifically referred to the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement in one his videotaped messages. India’s national security is also indirectly tied to the situation in West Asia. Though we did not start the fire, Indian blood had also primed the West Asian conflict a hundred years ago.



  • Jenkins, Philip. (2014). The Great and Holy War. HarperCollins.
  • Monetfiore, Simon-Sebag. (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. Orion Books.
  • Grainger, John D. (2006). The Battle for Palestine. Boydell Press.
  • Fromkin, David. (2010). A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Holt Paperbacks.
  • Woodward, David R. (2006). Hell in the Holy Land. University Press of Kentucky.


PS: This is my article in The Mint, published on December 23, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.