Review: The Garrison State: Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947

The Garrison State: Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947 (SAGE Series in Modern Indian History)

The following is a review sent in by Major Agha Humayun Amin (retd). As usual, Major Amin is sometimes, shall we say, harsh, but his knowledge of this subject is encyclopedic and always worth reading..

My first association with works of Professor Tan Tai Yong started in 2000 when he wrote an article that as per his own admission forms the basis of this book.

Although Professor Yong seemed at that time in 2000 to be a well meaning scholar,there were serious basic flaws in his research.

I wrote a letter to the Journal of Military History at that time in 2000 which that journal , keeping in line with its tradition of intellectual dishonesty, did not publish, citing lame excuses about lack of space. That letter is appended at the end of this review, so that the reader may have an idea about what was the basis of my criticism.

The West is in the habit of accepting so called scholars like Professor Yong as experts on Indo Pak history. So Journal of Military History of USA was merely following this strange tradition.

When I read this book under review in 2018 some 18 years after my initial critique I was disappointed to find that Professor Yong had not improved his knowledge , although most the faults he has committed in this book were entirely avoidable.

The first issue is regarding why the British started preferred Punjab and Frontier for the army recruitment.

First the assertion that it was only by the 1880s that the British started favoring soldiers from Punjab is wrong.

The hard facts of the situation are that some 90 % of the pre 1857 Bengal Army recruited from UP and Bihar had rebelled or disbanded in 1857 and an entirely new army was created, composed mostly of set of regiments raised in Punjab (frontier being its part) in 1857-58.

While Lord Roberts pronouncements can be credited as “ Martial Races Theory” a clear shift in British recruitment policy favouring Punjab over UP and Bihar had been initiated in 1857-58.

Peel Commission of 1858-59 had clearly laid the basis of this policy. Thus the “Peel Commission” constituted after 1857 to study and analyse the future composition of the Indian Army recommended that the native army should be composed of different nationalities and castes, and as a general rule mixed promiscuously through each regiment! Such system had existed in the Madras and Bombay armies but these were much smaller as compared to the Bengal Army. However, India was now viewed in terms of loyal and disloyal.

Professor Yong , if I am to understand this book , simply denies the existence of the British loyalist Syed Ahmad Khans landmark work “Causes of Indian Mutiny” written in 1859 and republished as an Indian translation in 1873.

This pamphlet which suggested formation of class regiments did have immense impact on British thinking and pre-dates Robert who only came into prominence after 1885.

Lord Canning’s views about the policy of “Divide and Rule” expressed in 1857 are thought provoking; Canning thus said in a letter dated 9 October 1857:’ “the men who fought against us at Delhi were of both creeds; probably in equal numbers. If we destroy or desecrate Mussulman Mosques or Brahman Temples we do exactly what is wanting to band the two antagonist races against ourselves… we must rule 150 million of people by a handful (more or less small) number of Englishmen, let us do it in the manner best calculated to leave them divided (as in religion and national feeling as they already are) and to inspire them with the greatest possible awe of our power .

Canning went further and very subtly defined certain guidelines regarding employment of various classes after 1857:-

“All exclusion of Mahomeddan, Rajpoots or even of Brahmans should be a matter of management rather than of rule; and indeed that it will be right to take an opportunity, though not just yet, to show by an exception here and there, that the rule does not exist. It is desirable that no class should feel that it had henceforward nothing to expect from the government”

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Collaboration and Loyalty in British India

This topic comes up a lot and there are many (contradictory) nationalist myths about who did and did not collaborate with the British during their rule in India. Major Amin has a short podcast about this topic that is worth listening to:

India was conquered by the East India Company using (mostly) the Bengal army, recruited primarily from what is now eastern UP and Bihar. Most of these soldiers were Hindus and a large section were Brahmins, but all religions, ethnicities and castes joined the EIC army at various points and all have examples of mutinies (many small, one large), frequently triggered by grievances over pay and conditions, but sometimes acquiring or having a nationalist color as well. Have a listen.


The Tears of the Rajas: One Family’s Experience of Serving the East India Company

From my personal blog:

Ferdinand Mount’s The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon & Schuster 2015) tells the story of his grandmother’s family—the Lows of Chatto–who spent a century serving the East India Company. The book focuses on Mount’s  great-great grandfather, John Low, who arrived in India in 1805 and finally retired after the Mutiny of 1857 (the First War of Independence as it is known in India). John’s sons also served the Company, with one of them—General Sir Robert Low—being involved in the 1895 relief of Chitral, the northernmost outpost of British India (now in Pakistan).  The Lows were also related by marriage to other prominent British Indian families, including the Thackerays (which included the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray) and the Metcalfes. John Low’s daughter Charlotte married Theo Metcalfe, the son of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Resident at Delhi.  Through the stories of these families, Mount provides an enlightening perspective on what life was like for the British as they consolidated their Indian Empire during the 19th century.

It is ironic that John Low, who firmly believed in leaving native kingdoms alone whenever possible, was involved in the deposition of several princes from their thrones.    The first of these was the Maratha Peshwa, Baji Rao II.  In 1817-18, Low was the assistant to Sir John Malcolm and was responsible for getting the Peshwa to surrender and go into exile in Bithur, a small town just outside Cawnpore (modern Kanpur).   He also served as Baji Rao’s jailer in Bithur. The Peshwa’s surrender brought an end to the final Anglo-Maratha War.

Later, while serving as the British Resident at Lucknow, Low was responsible for deposing Munna Jan, the boy-king of Oudh (Awadh).  In 1837, after the death of Nawab Nasir-ud-din Haider, the British decided to put his uncle, Muhammad Ali Shah (Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s grandfather) on the throne.  However, the late Nawab’s stepmother, The Padasha Begum, had other plans and led a coup in favor of Nasir-ud-din’s son, Munna Jan.  Low thwarted this rebellion and sent the Begum and Munna Jan to Chunar Fort, near Benaras, where they were locked up for the rest of their lives.  A sepia drawing by Monsieur Dufay de Casanova, the Court Painter, entitled The Begum’s Attempt to Usurp the Throne of Oudh for Moona Jan, 7th July 1837 “conveys the darkling chaos with the heroic Resident standing firm and his brother-in-law John Shakspear with his huge black mustachios being manhandled by the supporters of the Begum, who is just visible in her palanquin below the throne” ( Mount 295).

In contrast to John Low, who did not believe that the British should annex territory, various Governors-General were interested in increasing the revenue of the Company and expanding the area under direct British rule.  The chief example is Lord Dalhousie, who is responsible for the final annexation of Oudh that sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah into exile in Calcutta. Mount writes: “Across the path of these vital modern communications there still lay a wodge of native principalities, as much a barrier to the spread of British justice as to the British spirit of modernity. The petty princes of Bundelkhand, the greater rajas of Nagpur and Jhansi and above all the King of Oudh were an offense to His Lordship’s pious and impatient eye. With their eunuchs and their dancing girls, they stood, or rather rolled, in the way of progress” (416).  John Low was against Lord Dalhousie’s intent to annex territory, arguing that deposing native rajas who had not broken their word to the British alienated the people as did “remitting large portions of the revenue for pensions and salaries in England (which bring no return to India), instead of spending such revenues within the countries which produce them” ( 421).  He went further and wrote that “the natives of India are in one respect exactly like the inhabitants of all other parts of the known world, they like their own habits and customs better than those of foreigners” (423). Low recognized that British annexation was the cause of great resentment among the Indian people.

However, for Lord Dalhousie, Oudh was “a cherry which had long been ripening” (430).  In February 1856, Wajid Ali Shah was deposed. Mount writes: “Wajid Ali Shah was the last of the weeping Rajas to discover how much British friendship was worth. Every native prince’s dealings with John Low and his clan seemed to end in tears” (443).

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