Manimugdha S Sharma,TNN | Mar 31, 2014
Indian officers of Skinner’s Horse with their British officer in 1900.
NEW DELHI: Popular culture in India has glorified the martial traditions of the Rajputs. One of which was saka, in which fighting men of a defeated state rode out for a final, suicidal battle dressed in yellow. That antiquated Rajput code has survived in the yellow ceremonial uniform of one of Indian Army’s oldest cavalry regiments, the 1st Horse or Skinner’s Horse. Over two centuries after it was raised by a “white Mughal” — James Skinner — who was denied a commission in the Honourable East India Company’s army owing to his mixed blood (his mother was Rajput), very little of the regiment is known in India outside the armed forces. In the West, though, it continues to fire up popular imagination.
For the last six years or so, a group of some 30 Englishmen and women — all heritage enthusiasts — has dedicated itself to the “recreation of the dash and glamour of one of the most famous Indian cavalry regiments of the time of the Raj”. No, they have nothing to do with the Indian Army regiment; they are but a group of heritage enthusiasts. “We felt the need to educate the British people about the role and contributions of the Indian Army to what have always been perceived as Britain’s wars. The British people have great admiration and respect for the Indian Army, but it is important to make our present generations aware of what the Indian Army did for us: we couldn’t have won the two world wars without Indians,” says Mike Trevor, who has assumed the rank of major.
Men of the actual Skinner’s Horse at Teen Murti Memorial, New Delhi
While Skinner’s Horse’s history is of great interest to the group, it is also dedicated to raising awareness about India’s role in conflicts that are wrongly considered the white man’s war. The group recently received funding from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, and with 2014 being the centenary year of the First World War, the team plans to use the money to fund a memorial ride — “From the Sea to the Somme”.
The journey will commence in August at Nieuwpoort in Belgium and culminate at the river Somme, the scene of heavy fighting during WWI, in France two weeks later. En route, there will be a memorial service at the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial in France to mark the sacrifice of the 4,742 Indian soldiers and labourers killed on that front.
Mike Trevor with wife outside St James’ Church, Delhi
But there is a problem. “We haven’t found any Asian rider to join us on this memorial ride. It’s very important that we find some. I am sure we wouldn’t have faced this problem if we had done it in India; the 61 Cavalry would have certainly helped us,” says Trevor, who got married at St James’ Church in Delhi a few years ago in full regimental uniform.
Over 1.3 million Indian soldiers had participated in the First World War to defend, quite ironically for a colonised nation, liberty and democracy in Europe. Seven Indian expeditionary forces named A to G took part in different theatres of the war — in Europe, the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Middle East, east Africa, and even China. Indian cavalry regiments participated with distinction and glory in the western front and the Middle East. In fact, the infantry divisions were withdrawn towards the end of 1915, but the cavalry corps stayed on until 1918. And in doing so, they left an indelible mark on European history: the last cavalry battles ever on western European soil were fought by Indian lancers and sabre men.
Skinner’s Horse group showing equestrian skills (Photo credit: Barry Wilson)
What is India doing in remembrance of the feat? “We are not participating in the centenary celebrations. We don’t have much recorded history or photographs of our regiment’s participation in the war; we do have records of Second World War. Also, we are mostly concerned with whatever the regiment has done post Independence,” says Colonel Amit Sood, the commandant of Skinner’s Horse. It’s surprising why the regiment is not in a remembrance mode when it had won the battle honours ‘France and Flanders’ in the Great War.
Dominiek Dendooven, researcher at In Flanders Fields Museum and celebrated author, disagrees with this dismissive view India has of her history. “This is the only time your history meets ours. And it’s remarkable it happened 100 years ago when transport and communication were not as developed as they are today, and racial bias existed in every sphere. Without India, the war might have ended in a resounding German victory and altered the course of history. Indians decisively intervened for Europe. And neither we nor you should forget that,” he tells TOI.
Mike Trevor with wife outside St James’ Church, Delhi
In that context, the words uttered by Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France at the unveiling of the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial in 1927 are unforgettable:
“Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way; they made the first steps towards the final victory.”
We in India simply forgot to spread the word.
Ireland was an English colony. And what is the role of a colony? First and foremost the role of a colony (after “control” was obtained) is to be exploited for natural resources – very little of the wealth produced in Ireland was reinvested in Ireland – most of it financed the lifestyle of the absentee landords. The prevailing attitude was that an Irish Catholic was less than human and to kill them was a heroic act, profiting from Irish White slavery was seen almost as a humanitarian act. Cromwell sold about 38,000 soldiers into the armies of nations not at war with England, such as, Spain, Portugal, Poland, and the British East Indian Company. Not much to celebrate or remember since the army-human beings were used, abused, injured, or killed, ordered to kill people they didn’t even know, and all in order for the “Company” to plunder and pillage other countries for their wealth. Close to ninety-six percent of the British East India Company’s army of 300,000 men were native to India and these sepoys played a crucial role in securing the subcontinent for the company. The “Company” made millions. How did the soldiers fair? There are actually many dots that could be drawn between India and Ireland, in fact, all countries which were colonized by the British Empire (and other Empires in Europe). These rich parasites have their money today by killing the rightful owners of their resources. The colonized holocausts throughout the centuries are not unique from each other – there’s a pattern which hasn’t changed much with time…
Will Durant, The Case for India (1930), Chapter 1: “We can now understand why there are famines in India. Their cause, in plain terms, is not the absence of sufficient food, but the inability of the people to pay for it. Famines have increased in frequency and severity under British rule. From 1770 to 1900, 25,000,000 Hindus died of starvation; 15,000,000 of these died in the last quarter of the century, in the famines of 1877, 1889, 1897, and 1900.185 Contemporary students186 estimate that 8,000,000 will die of starvation in India during the present year. It was hoped that the railways would solve the problem by enabling the rapid transport of food from unaffected to affected regions; the fact that the worst famines have come since the building of the railways proves that the cause has not been the lack of transportation, nor the failure of the monsoon rains (though this, of course, is the occasion), nor even overpopulation (which is a contributory factor) ; behind all these, as the fundamental source of the terrible famines in India, lies such merciless exploitation, such unbalanced exportation of goods, and such brutal collection of high taxes in the very midst of famine,137 that the starving peasants cannot pay what is asked for the food that the railways bring them.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski It is infinitely easier to kill a million people than to control them: