BrownCast Podcast episode 13: The British Indian Army

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In this episode Omar talks to Major Agha Humayun Amin and Dr Hamid Hussain. Both gentlemen are deeply interested in military history and know everything there is to know about the British Indian army and its daughter armies in India and Pakistan. We talk about the army of the East India Company and its domination of the Indian subcontinent, the 1857 mutiny, the army after 1857 and finally a few words about partition and in particular about the role played by British officers in the Pakistani army and in the capture of Gilgit and Baltistan (a region that is now central to our plans to form an alliance with China). We hope to have more podcasts in the future about the various India-Pakistan wars.

Major Amin and Dr Hamid Hussain
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22 Replies to “BrownCast Podcast episode 13: The British Indian Army”

  1. I winced at more than a few of Major Amin’s takes, which seemed suspiciously in tune with the old Pakistan armed forces canard that Hindus can’t fight (but maybe Sikhs can), an impression further solidified by the overly emotive tone with which he discussed other topics.

    I’m going to draw attention to at least two factually incorrect claims made by Major Amin as they relate to the discussion of the Marathas. In his introduction, he asserts that no Indian opponent ever won a major battle against the East India Company, and then immediately contradicts himself by listing three exceptions, recalling Tipu Sultan, Haider Ali and the “Sikh army”. How does Major Amin view the first Anglo Maratha War?

    A second statment was made that no Indian force had a navy. This is false — the Marathas had a navy capable of effective coastal defense. Although perhaps not equipped for engagement at high sea, it was armada strength and capable enough to control the Konkan coastline and put an end to Portuguese expansionist designs, restricting them to what is today Goa. Lastly, although it is true that the Marathas engaged mercenary forces in large numbers, Amin seems to give the impression that this was the majority of the Maratha armed forces (again, only big upping its Pathan and Arab component). This is also false. The navy for example, was drawn mostly from local sailors.

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    1. Tatya, several Indian states had capable navies. Including Travancore and Tipu Sultan.

      The Marathas fought as a confederacy with many allies (similar to the UN or NATO). This was one reason for their dysfunction.

      Full disclosure I have not yet listened to the podcast.

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      1. Thanks for the clarification — Major Amin’s bizarre assertion in the podcast was that no Indian entity had any navies to speak of. The Maratha Navy is a counterexample that the Portuguese could tell you all about. If there are more examples, then that just proves the point further…

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  2. @Tatya Tope

    Its not strange once you meet some Pakistani folks. Almost all of them have this view that 1857 was sort of a muslim-british war (since the titular leader was a mughal) which the hindus sat out . Its to compensate for 1947 where muslims (of the Muslim league) hardly had any role in opposing the British. After some time people could see through this charade of British dominating us while the muslim league was busy supporting the British and fighting the Congress(hindu brahmin-bania party), so a counter narrative that 1857 was “our war vs the British” . Also “muslims dont do non violence like (weak) hindus they fight like in 1857 ” is a common retort.

    “he asserts that no Indian opponent ever won a major battle against the East India Company, and then immediately contradicts himself by listing three exceptions, recalling Tipu Sultan, Haider Ali and the “Sikh army”.”

    Yes in his view he is right , what he means by Indian is Hindu, while Hyder Ali and Tipu were muslims so of course they are Pakistani. Its not contradictory 🙂

    “. Lastly, although it is true that the Marathas engaged mercenary forces in large numbers, Amin seems to give the impression that this was the majority of the Maratha armed forces ”

    This is something which is taught is our own history books where the British as well as Bengalis , Punjabis ,Rajputs regularly used “mercenary” as an epitaph for the Marathas. So i guess what Amin gets is from our own history writers who also happened to be Bengalis or Punjabis , the 2 ethnicities which collaborated and profited the most during British rule.

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    1. I wouldn’t want to make this too much about fault lines in Indian and Pakistani mentalities, merely that Major Amin lost some credibility in scholarly terms since the views of his former employer clearly shine through.

      Also, without sectarianizing the issue, I also wanted to highlight a common pattern of erasure in historical accounts of the Marathi people and the Maratha Confederacy that some quarters disappointingly inherit from the British. The British didn’t like losing to them, and more importantly, didn’t like not being able to co-opt them afterwards like they did with the Sikhs and Jats. Most of their history books recount the East India Company as being successors of the Mughal Empire, conveniently forgetting that the Maratha Empire was the preeminent subcontinental power for the better part of a century in between. They weren’t exactly benign rulers themselves, but that’s another story.

      Tellingly, the Marathas were stripped of the coopting titular of `martial race’ after the 1857 uprising because the main leaders of the mutineers were all Marathi (the Shindes of Gwalior, Rani Laxmi Bai, Nana Saheb Peshwa, and of course, my handle’s namesake). Simply put, the Marathas were formidable opponents that the British never managed to co-opt, and so weren’t the beneficiaries of any romantic stylized retelling of history. Only erasure. This led me to suspect that the guests on this podcast themselves relied on mostly secondary and tertiary sources for their punditry, compelling my comment (I tend to mostly lurk around here).

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    2. “Yes in his view he is right , what he means by Indian is Hindu, while Hyder Ali and Tipu were muslims so of course they are Pakistani. Its not contradictory ”

      You missed Tatya Tope’s point. Look up the battle of Vadgaon.

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  3. I think people are sometimes too quick to use Pakistani or Muslim name to jump to conclusions (we all do it, but still, worth guarding against it). While you can disagree with Major Amin’s views about this or that event, the assumption that these views are the result of some lingering anti-Hindu prejudice are not correct. He tends to be brusque in his opinions but he is almost never wrong about the core facts.. in this case his prejudice is not about Muslims or Hindus (I know him, and he couldn’t care less), but about what he considers nationalist romanticization of history in general.. again, you can disagree with that prejudice too, but we should all make an attempt to engage the particular statement that we consider wrong without having to go and assume motives and biases that may or may not be present.. e.g. let us look up figures for Marhatta forces and their composition (I have not looked it up, I am happy if someone can provide those figures) and thus correct any mistake that may have been made. No need to jump to broader conclusions 🙂
    Just sayin..

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    1. @Omar Ali

      If you’re responding to my comments, then I ask you please reread them and not conflate them with other commentators. If you’re responding to other commentators then please read on to the next paragraph. As mentioned in my previous comment, I do not wish to nationalize or sectarianize the discussion. That would be totally counterproductive to the elevated and dispassionate discussion of an fascinating topic that I think we’d all like to learn a lot more about.

      As you say, Major Amin may be an alright bloke who doesn’t care about Hindu/ Muslim issues blahblahblahblah. I couldn’t care less either. I merely made the observation that he made two demonstrably false statements that seriously dent his credibility as an impartial scholar. He is plainly wrong about certain core facts.

      Pay attention @Saiyan

      To repeat myself — his garbled point about no Indian entity defeating the East Indian Company on the battle field (notwithstanding his three exceptions detailed above) is bullshit. The first Anglo Maratha war resulted in the defeat of the British Forces. He also asserted that no Indian power had Naval Strength. Please just do some basic research on what the Maratha Navy accomplished vis a vis the Portuguese.

      In view of the former (and I believe this is what you’re responding to) I found it amusing that his views were fairly consistent with what one would expect from a product of the Pakistani military establishment, with it’s well documented and historically warped views of Hindu martial capability.

      It’s rather naive to think that an army man would not be indoctrinated by his training. I wouldn’t take him any more seriously as a historical authority than I would an Indian Major. Lets leave history to serious historians please, not amateurs that make laughable assertions that betray their skewed choice of sources.

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      1. Tatya Tope:

        The argument made in the podcast, was about the British being defeated in “a major pitched battle”. The guest explicitly states that small meaningless skirmishes/interactions aren’t included in his criteria. The Maratha’s never won a major pitched battle against the British. Please cite a CREDIBLE source that argues otherwise, instead of making snide remarks about the guest’s ethnicity.

        On that same note, the guest never argues that there was no Indian Naval strength at all. Simply that it was so weak compared to the British, that it proved unable to seriously deter their monopoly of the oceans, which was a major military setback to fighting them. The Marathas themselves admit this. Again, I’ve seen no evidence that the Marathas ever did more than intermittently harass British ships via piracy. If you have contrary CREDIBLE evidence, please cite it.

        I’m also not sure why you would consider the Marathas the epitome of “Hindu martial capability” considering many of their most effective forces (including the majority of their gunners) were not Hindu.

        As for who degrades “Hindu martial capability”, the best people at doing that are other Hindus, who still by into the martial-race theories put forth by the British (the most illustrious military position of PM bodyguard is restricted to only Sikhs, Jats, and Rajputs, and the Indian military disproportionately employs those groups generally).

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        1. Guess we listened to two different podcasts. Also, if you want to call the first Anglo Maratha War (that involved close to two hundred thousand combatants) ‘a minor skirmish’ then you do you bruv.

          I find the rest of your comment baffling.

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  4. A lot of bigotry here in the comments, attempting to discredit scholarly narratives (that are agreed upon by virtually all scholars regardless of background), because they are voiced by a Muslim.

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  5. Are yaar, was just adding some masala. Without some grand narrative /conspiracy theory can we really be brown folks. 🙂

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  6. I heard the podcast in snatches because I wanted to listen to anything new/interesting the authors had to say. Frankly, I have a far below average understanding and knowledge of military affairs, so most of this is interesting information for me – esp. the bit around Indian (and Pakistani) army being traditionally good at defence.

    (BTW isn’t the so-called “cold start” an offensive doctrine, using mechanized infantry to gain advantage? Maybe the erudite guests could shed some light on that, esp. the Pakistani Army perspective)

    I also found the point about traditional Indian reliance on land army to be very interesting. Especially since India has almost as much coastline as it has land borders. Since there is no large southern neighbour (sorry, Sri Lanka!) I guess it was natural for Indians to always look to the North & NW for possible hostilities. Yet the age of colonization (first Portuguese, then Dutch, French and English) changed all that drastically – turned the doctrine on its head almost – and our seas (and sea-faring) are suddenly way more important for our security. (Maybe the guests can opine on naval strategy as well)

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    I just have a minor quibble, which I guess some other commentators also pointed out. The guests’ view of history of India seems a little Punjab-centric. And the guests do not seem to acknowledge the strength of Maratha sub-nationalism and see the confederacy (under the Peshve of Pune) as a loose/diffuse grouping rather than a set of related feudal lords with a fairly correlated vision of what the Maratha Empire was meant to be. I think understating the Maratha asabiya (to use Omar bhai’s favourite word) is a mistake.

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  7. Just want to get some clarification on the naval component of indian power in the 18th century by people who might be more aware.

    Firstly didn’t the travancore navy under marthanda varma defeat the dutch who till that point were the preeminent european naval power in the indian ocean region and secondly why did the british east india company decide to make murshidabad, at the eastern tip of india’s coastline the first place to launch their military campaign in india i.e. what military and strategic calculations went into choosing the nawab of bengal over the multitude of other principalities that lay along a seven thousand kilometer coastline.

    Anyone?

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    1. It’s arguable whether the English ever planned to “conquer” India- it seemed to be a very haphazard piecemeal affair rather than something coordinated

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    2. “what military and strategic calculations went into choosing the nawab of bengal over the multitude of other principalities that lay along a seven thousand kilometer coastline.”

      I mean we are talking about the Bengalis here, arent’ we? 😛

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    3. “what military and strategic calculations went into choosing the nawab of bengal over the multitude of other principalities that lay along a seven thousand kilometer coastline.”

      I mean we are talking about the Bengalis after all. 😛

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