Armed Ascetics, Yoga and the British

In twelfth and thirteenth centuries a number of armed ascetic orders such as the Dasnamis, Satnamis and Naths emerged from erstwhile reclusive religious spaces. The loss of respectable lifestyle tied to temples and state patronage, following the foreign invasions of the previous century, had perhaps led to this evolution. Some orders were newly founded to resist invaders bent on iconoclasm and forcible conversion. These orders soon controlled major trade routes and access to major pilgrimage sites. Caste was not much a concern for these orders and core principles were based on the Saiva and Tantric streams. Many orders utilized Haṭha-Yoga and other physical training routines to prepare themselves for both ascetic life and combat. The training regimes nurtured in the orders’ Akharas (training congregations) were reportedly similar to military drills. The militarized orders did not hesitate to contest state power, or fight between themselves, to preserve their interests. Some orders were mobile, roving across different regions and a few of these gained notoriety as mercenaries, albeit with a mystical veneer.


While the relationship between these orders and Muslim and Hindu kingdoms oscillated the British turned out to be another matter: revenue collection was always their overriding objective. Till the mid-nineteenth century, the armed orders stoutly resisted rising socio-economic control by the British. Bankim Chandra’s Anandmath, featuring the Sanyasi Rebellion, drew from this history. The Haṭha-Yoga practicing orders were perceived as prime threats due to their physical prowess and organization. It took the British over a century to eliminate or disband the orders. A handful managed to survive by relocating to remote locations where they could retain their core practices. Most renounced their militarized nature and settled as seminaries, still calling themselves Akharas. A popular disdain for such orders developed following these events. To survive, many Yogis were forced to become road-side performers: the training they once utilized for asceticism and combat was now used to shock and amuse. These displays became a source of both fascination and repulsion for foreigners; the Yogi lying on a bed of nails became the defining image of India. Modern Hindus chafed at this portrayal and assigned blame on the Yogis. Orthodox Hindus following purity and pollution norms largely avoided the caste-less Yogi. Additionally, the British were also wary of Yoga due to its association with their old enemies. Visibility and acceptance of yoga suffered and proponents of yoga positioned it as mere meditation rituals.


However, as a result of unintended consequences Yoga soon re-emerged. Victorian era had ushered in the idea of “Muscular Christianity”, coinciding with the rise of fitness culture in the West. The belief of “sound mind in a sound body” gelled with nationalistic ideas of “defense through strength” and emerging eugenics. Also, colonial interests necessitated portraying strong conquerors against conquered weaklings. Consequently, Indians were depicted in demeaning manner: many of these portrayals persist to this day. These factors, and the colonial yoke itself, provoked many Indians to promote India’s own Yoga by developing a culture of nationalistic physical prowess. The efforts of Aurbindo Ghosh, Swami Raghavendra, etc. soon created an evolved, modern Yoga. Here, modern practices and training regimens were developed and blended with ancient principles. Some schools of Yoga, and certain popular Asanas of today were rebooted, if not invented, in modern times. The global physical culture wave also helped increase the acceptance of Yoga in this period. The martial nationalism of these modern Akharas attracted many and soon influenced organizations such as the RSS and Arya Samaj. Yoga also became a cover for training religiously inclined revolutionaries. Early revolutionary groups, such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar displayed institutionalized militancy and rigor similar to the ethos of the old orders. Yoga was in the government’s crosshairs again and revolutionaries had to disguise themselves as travelling gurus, dispensing training in new Akharas disguised as gymnasiums. Both modern Yoga and military training was combined under the heading of “Yoga” to evade detection. Brazilian Capoeira was similarly secretly developed and disguised as dance to prevent colonial crackdown.


The militant nationalistic streams never became as popular as the mainstream national movement. Therefore, the efforts to create an army of trained Indians to forcefully wrest power never materialized – and by the mid-40s independence was in grasp. However, these efforts of the covert and overt proponents of Yoga had successfully created a system which produced many Yoga luminaries, thereby leading to global popularity of Yoga. Naga Sadhus and other Akharas, more visible today due to Kumbh Mela and the new socio-political scenario, are the remnants of the armed orders of old.


PS: This is the original version of my first article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on July 16, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.



The Hajj lands and the Western Empires

In the second half of the 19th century, the Hajj pilgrimage was characterized as a “source of twin infections” by the British, French and Dutch empires: the cholera pandemics which killed millions, and fundamentalist Islamism stoked in the Hajj lands. By the early 1800s, imperial expansion had brought millions of Muslims under foreign rule and the responsibility of the pilgrimage now fell upon the new non-Muslim masters. Steam power made the hajj accessible to the lower strata of Muslim society and the number of pilgrims increased. The acceptance of the Kufr rulers was heavily based on how Islamic worship and sensitivities were treated. To ward off rebellion and mass deaths through pandemics, imperial machinations regarding the Hajj continued till the accession of Sultan ibn Saud as the Emir of the Hajj lands.

It was clear to imperial authorities that trade, mass gatherings and migrations were responsible for the sudden cholera outbreaks. It was therefore imperative to police the Hajj, where people from many nations congregated. Most pandemics were found to have originated in British India and consequently there was much pressure on the Raj. The second threat, the “infection” of anti-colonial radicalism against western powers, was perceived to be even more dangerous. The Hejaz, the strip of land linking Mecca and Medina and bordering the Red Sea, was an area where Islamic exiles and malcontents always gravitated to. Also, several Islamic sects were based here and their adherents from around the world exchanged ideas and experiences here. Fundamentalist Wahhabism gained had been gaining power steadily in the Arabian Peninsula and was perceived to be a threat by all empires. Some of the highlights of the Wahhabi rise were a failed rebellion against the Ottomans which led to the beheading of the first Saud Emir, and the sack of Karbala, a major spiritual centre for Shia Islam. The Hejaz was under Ottoman control and relationship between Ottoman Turkey and the west had deteriorated since the Crimean War bonhomie. The vastly superior western navies however plied the Red Sea and the Turks could not stop this. Nevertheless, the growing pan-Islamist movements under the aegis of the new Ottoman Emperor Abd Al-Hamid II was a major threat.

The French wildly oscillated in their Hajj policy – ranging from outright ban to subsidy extravaganzas. The British and Dutch were more even-tempered and relied on diplomacy, track-II diplomacy, and secret agents. Elements of the Muslim communities which feared the rise of radicalism actively aided the western empires here. The western quarantine measures were universally despised though. Crude methods of disease containment and disposal of bodies caused much suffering and death at the home ports and the Red Sea ports. The black legends of “western medical conspiracies” grew, if not originated, in this period. The Ottoman administrators in the Hejaz also successfully deflected the blame towards the westerners. The colonial narratives and mindset also created racist bureaucracies which offended and hurt the pilgrims. The high-handedness in the name of pandemic prevention even led to occasional bursts of violence. To an extent this phenomenon was reduced when the British recruited Muslims into the Hajj bureaucracy and actively gathered the opinions of various communities and sects.

The cholera threat was subdued by science by the end of the 19th century, but the anti-colonial threat remained. The Ottomans had long dreamed of re-conquest by posturing their Emperor as the Khalifa of all Muslims, because he was custodian of the shrines of the Hejaz. In response, the British threw their lot with Abdulaziz Ibn Saud and his Wahhabi allies during World War-1. This Arab Revolt succeeded and control of the Hejaz passed to Ibn Saud, who quickly united various tribes and eliminated rival power centres – including his former ultra-radical Wahhabi allies called the Ikhwan. Soon, the discovery of oil and the new American alliance propelled Ibn Saud to great power and influence. The Saudi control over the Hajj played a major role in the independence of Algeria from the French: the Saudis recognized the rebels as the rightful representatives of all Algerians pilgrims and actively aided the rebellion. In a way, the nightmare of Hajj inspired anti-colonial radicalism leading to loss of empire had finally come true.


PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on April 30, 2017. Here is the link to the original article.



India and the secret war in Tibet

The late 40s saw the rise of the Communist rule in China, a frightening development for the U.S. bloc. Prados’s “Presidents’ Secret Wars” and Knaus’s “Orphans of the Cold War” and other works, including those of Indian authors such as former IB chief B N Mullick, detail subsequent U.S. operations to destabilize the Chinese occupation of Tibet, which was violently annexed in 1950. Thousands of bitter Tibetans were recruited by the CIA in Sikkim, Nepal and India. A major figure in the Tibetan resistance was the current Dalai Lama’s brother, Gyalo Thondup. Training was imparted in various global locations, and trained Tibetans were infiltrated into Tibet throughout the 1956-1962 period. These were mostly intelligence gathering missions but the Tibetans also routinely skirmished Chinese forces. Operations were mainly directed from a US site in East Pakistan. Indian authorities were aware of these clandestine activities and the Americans made considerable efforts to prevent Indian interference. This was the “Indo-Chini bhai-bhai” period, and India was trying its best to court the Chinese.

Everything changed when the war broke out in 1962. Faced with military collapse India planned to use Tibetans to attack the strained Chinese supply lines. They were aware of existing US-trained Tibetans forces in US bases in Asia. Gylao Thondup was contacted for assistance: India’s newfound interest was welcomed by the Tibetans and thus India entered the secret war. Army Chief Kaul and Mullick chose the enterprising Brigadier Uban to lead this mission. Most of the trained Tibetans were relocated to Chakrata and “Establishment-22”, which would later metamorphize into the Special Frontier Force (SFF), was thus formed. Before the Indo-US-Tibetan project could participate in the war, the Chinese unilaterally declared a cease-fire. India was now wiser to the long-term Chinese threat: the shooting war was over but there was work to be done. Biju Patnaik, no stranger to intrigue and adventure, also played a part in this covert program. Armed with Nehru’s support, Patnaik initiated the formation of an operations base in the Charbatia airstrip in Odisha. With the assistance of American veterans and under the cover of Patnaik’s Kalinga Airlines, this base named “Oak Tree-1” turned into a major node of the program. Patnaik apparently helped route funds discreetly, arranged the services of his own air-crew, and provided office space and equipment from his own businesses. The Special Service Bureau (SSB), which would evolve into the Sashastra Seema Bal, was also founded by Mullick and Patnaik to support to these operations. A fictitious Gurkha regiment was created to hide the presence of the Tibetans in various Indian military facilities. Great care was taken to hide American personnel from the public eye.

The joint operations lasted did not last long despite major successes, including uncovering the Chinese nuclear weapons program. US-Pakistan ties deepened in the 60s due to the Cold War; on the other hand, the Russians actively courted India after the 1962 war. India’s outspoken non-aligned stance also enraged the US Government and by 1965-66 American involvement in the Indian leg of operations wound up. Officials and political personalities who once actively worked with the Americans had by now faded away or were tuned to the breakdown in relationship. The growing clout of China, the Pakistan effect and the Nixon visit to China ultimately ended US assistance to the Tibetans in the early 70s. The improvement in Sino-Indian ties in the late 60s also led to significant roll-back of covert operations in Tibet. The sizeable Tibetan force was disbanded, with a few being absorbed into the SFF and SSB. However, episodes like the 1967 clashes, the 1987 episode and the Indo-Pak conflicts saw Tibetans in major combat roles. Remaining Tibetan forces in Nepal were less fortunate after the King turned on the Tibetans in late 1974, to gain Chinese support. Major leaders were killed or incarcerated and only a personal appeal from the Dalai Lama to the Tibetan forces avoided heavy causalities. India could not intervene but absorb a handful of escaped fighters and refugees.

Tibetans serve in the Indian Armed forces to this day, undoubtedly dreaming of their homeland’s liberation. Other Tibetans like the Dalai Lama continue the struggle through peaceful means.


PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on April 2, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.