Indian Army under the British and after Independence

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Anupama Nair

The European powers had come to India to loot the massive wealth of India. In 1640 AD the British East India Company established its first fortified post called Fort Saint George near Madras that soon became its headquarters. Eleven years later, in 1651, they set up another fort in Calcutta, and named it Fort William. In 1662 the British received Bombay from the Portuguese and British troops arrived in Bombay in 1665, but it was only in 1668 when Bombay was formally handed over to the Company. Soon Bombay garrison was converted into a strong commercial and military base comprising cavalry, artillery and infantry elements, which later became the Bombay European Regiment. However, local troops were raised as and when required.


The first authentic record of the existence of a sort of regular battalion in the India dates back to the year 1741, when such a unit came into being for carrying out garrison duties in Bombay. Seven years later Major Stringer Lawrence, who is called ‘the father of the Indian Army’, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East India Company’s field forces in India with its headquarters was at Fort St. David. The war with France, which had temporarily ended in 1748, had brought about a substantial increase in the local enrolment of Indian troops, since neither France nor Britain could spare regular troops for India. In 1754, however, a considerable force of King’s troops was sent to India from England, but this again proved to be inadequate to manage the Company’s military affairs in India, and local recruitment continued.


In 1757, the re-organization of the Indian troops into regular, organized battalions were entrusted by Major Lawrence to Robert Clive who became the first Governor General of British India. The British India army proved their mettle in the Battle of Plassey, which gradually reduced French influence and led to an expansion of the Company’s territories in India. With the expansion, of the British empire the number of troops at its disposal, quite naturally, increased.


The first regular Indian infantry battalions, each with an establishment of one British captain, two lieutenants, several British sergeants, 42 Indian non-commissioned officers and 820 Indian ranks and file was created. Clive was the first British officer in India to have Indian troops fully equipped, at the expense of the East India Company, which was popularly known as ‘Company Sarkar’. He even dressed them with British ‘Red Coats’, hence the term ‘Lal Paltan’ came into being, which was locally used for such units.


In 1759 Bombay Garrison’s Sepoy Companies were re-organized and in 1768 the first two regular Sepoy Battalions were formed, with a third in 1769 and a fourth in 1770. While a graduated albeit similar expansion was taking place in the other Presidencies as well, each was placed under respective Governors who subsequently rose in rank and power to become Governor Generals, by the middle of the century. Major Stringer Lawrence filled this post with great vigor. This was the first move to integrate the military assets of the three Presidencies – Bombay, Madras and Calcutta in a coordinated manner. In 1784-85 the full military powers, including the power to appoint the Commander-in-Chief, were retained by the Board of Directors of the British Government. For the Governor General, a formal Army Headquarters was created with the Commander-in-Chief as head and two Principal Staff Officers — the Quartermaster General and the Adjutant General were appointed to assist him. By1790 the total strength of the combined British-Indian Army was 80,000.



The British military power in India comprised two elements – the Native Armies of the East India Company and British Army units. The armed forces were controlled by the Governor General, who was an official of the Company, appointed by the approval of the Crown. In 1857, the armies of the three presidencies, Bengal, Bombay and Madras consisted of 2,33,000 Indians and 36,000 British troops, who were commanded by British officers.


By the middle of the 19th century whole of India was under the rule of the East India Company. The British had grown over confident and complacent about the handling of sensitive issues relating to the Bengal Army. There had been rumors about cartridges made with the flesh of cows and pigs, and when this news spread like wild fire, it turned into a revolt which is now called as “First War of Indian Independence”.


The revolt first broke out in the Bengal Army garrison at Meerut on 10 May 1857, after some troops were disgraced and imprisoned. At a time when most British unit personnel were at church, the Indian soldiers released their imprisoned brethren and killed as many British officers, men and family members they could lay hands on. Before the British troops could retaliate, the rebels had fled to Delhi. On reaching Delhi the next day, that is 11th May 1857, the rebels were joined by many more troops of the native garrison who, with the help of the city rabble, began to kill every European that they saw. The British could not retaliate as most of the British unit were spending their summer in the nearby hill stations.


The British organized their forces and rushed to Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur. With the capture of the capital, the trust and belief of the people of India in the ultimate success of the uprising disappeared. “After bitter fighting, particularly at Lucknow and Jhansi their equally hard-earned victory at Gwalior by June next year ended the revolt”. The heroic tales of outstanding valor of Rani Lakshmi Bai, Mangal Pandey and Tantia Tope are household lore throughout India even today.


Almost three-fourths of the Bengal Army was involved in the uprising. The British managed to control the spread of the uprising of the Army Units of Madras and Bombay. This control of spread of the Revolt was carried out by other Indian troops who only had been the bitterest enemies of the British — Sikhs, Gorkhas, troops of the Punjab Frontier Force and Punjabi Irregulars. The British were quite ruthless in the suppression of the Uprising, and their brutalization continued against all other Indian nationalist movements as the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919 indicated.


While mopping-up operation continued, very harsh and repressive measures were adopted by the British against the rebels and suspects. On 1st  September in 1958, the governance of India was transferred to the British Crown, ending the century-old rule of East India Company. On 1 November 1858, Queen Victoria assumed the governance of India. It was realized that the British could no longer function in India purely as a military power. They, therefore, concentrated on improving their system of administration and introducing social reforms. In spite of the large disbandment of ‘disloyal’ units, the British Army soon expanded to about 90,000 strong, and every garrison had one third British troops. The East India Company’s European regiments were transferred to the British Army, and artillery was transferred to the Royal Artillery, except for the Punjab irregular force, and four battalions of the Hyderabad contingent.


In November 1902, Lord Kitchener became the Commander-in-Chief and immediately started to work on the reorganization and redistribution of the Indian Army. The regiments in India were christened in 1903 as  Madras Regiment, Punjab Regiment, Bengal Infantry Maratha Regiment, Rajputana Regiment, Sikh Regiment and so on. During the First and Second World Wars, the Indian Army faithfully fought for the British.


Next I will be writing about the Indian National army founded by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose.


(Dedicated to the website of Indian Army archives, and numerous recollections of friends in the army)






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