by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, August 15, 1992, pp.12-13 and 28; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
The idea of the ‘modern Indian army’ is rarely associated with the Tamils. The nature or its ethnic composition generates the impression that it is a predominantly north Indian phenomenon. This impression has become so strongly established that the military history of the British Empire’s rise has been studied in recent times in connection with the role of the ‘martial peoples’ of north India in the British Indian army. The tenacity and power of this ‘impression’ in modern scholarship is best illustrated in the argument of David Washbrook:
"The role the British Indian army played in international affairs over the course of the 19th century however, lifts it out of the context of British Indian relations and places it in a broader global perspective. It was not an army intended primarily for domestic defence and police duties in India. Rather, it was the army of British Imperialism, formal and informal, which operated worldwide, opening up markets to the products of industrial revolution, subordinating labour forces to the dominating of capital and bringing to ‘benighted’ civilizations the enlightened values of Christianity and Rationality. The Indian army was the iron fist in the velvet glove of Victorian expansionism.Moreover, because the British Empire was the principal agency through which the world system functioned in this era, the Indian army was in a real sense the major coercive force behind the internationalization of industrial capitalism. Paradoxically (or not!), the martialization of north Indian society and, in many ways the feudalization of its agrarian relations, were direct corrolaries of the development of capitalism on a world scale during the 19th century." (Washbrook: 1990)
Washbrook’s view is based on what the Indian army was towards the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is underpinned by an "impression" which arose many years after the British had established their strategic hold on India and had laid the Empire’s foundation with what was known as their ‘Coastal Army’ which was built up in the latter half of the 18th century, mainly with Tamil soldiers. The British succeeded in empire-building not by martialising dominant north Indian military caste communities, but by building up a cheap but loyal and effective army of predominantly Tamil soldiers. Until the latter half of the 19th century, it was the Tamil Christian soldier who was the main coercive force behind the expansion of the Empire in the subcontinent and elsewhere.
The British recruitment handbook for Madras classes, says "It can truthfully be said that the Coast Army was mainly instrumental in conquering India for the British." (p.8) The Tamil soldier was seen as the bearer of the Sword and the Bible – with few religious and caste prejudices which madehim suitable for expeditions beyond the sea unlike his more expensive brethren in north India. Contrary to what Washbrook claims, the early phase of British overseas expansion in East, West and South Asia was not based on the martialisation of north Indian society, but on the south Indian alternative to its military labour market – the loyal classes of Tamils.
"During this whole period, as always throughout its existence, the Coast Army was specially noteworthy for the cheerful alacrity with which its regiments have volunteered of service overseas. The Bengal regiments on many occasions refused to embark for foreign service, on the plea that it was contrary to their religion. But the Coast Army willingly embarked, and took a leading part in many successful expeditions, including Manila (1762), Mahe (1779), Ceylon (1782 and 1795), Amboyna and the Spice Islands (1796), Egypt (1801-02), Bourbon and Mauritius (1810) and Java (1811-12)".
The Coast Army took part in the final expedition against the King of Kandy which was followed by the first war in Burma (1824-26). The first war by the British in China was also fought by them in 1840-42 where the 37th Madras Infantry was made grenadier battalion for its distinguished conduct. Sir Hugh Gough reported on their service in the China war that "their perseverance and gallantry before the enemy have secured for them the confidence of the British European soldiers." (Recruitment Handbook for Madras Classes, p.6)
Even a brief study of the history of the Coast Army and the Tamil soldiers who were recruited into it would reveal that the ‘military agency’ which "conveyed British capitalist power to areas of the world (including the South Asian hinterland) it could not otherwise have reached" had a very small proportion of north Indian military groups. Washbrook’s argument that the World Capitalist system which the British Empire helped so much to expand rested heavily on the intermediation of the Indian army and that without it and similar agencies constituted outside the European capitalism core, "the forces of world capitalism would have been ethnic, much weaker or else of a very different kind" is plausible but the argument that harnessing the dynamic potential of the readily available north Indian military groups made it cheaper for the British to rapidly expand their empire, is untenable in view of the two most critical phases which determined the hold of the English on the subcontinent.
The first phase begins towards the middle of the 18th century. It was the contest with the French that first compelled the British to abandon their policy in India till then, that was was bad for trade, and raise local troops. There was in the subcontinent at that time paramilitary caste groups whose services could be obtained for a fee. The British unlike the great Indian princedoms in that era could not afford the soldiery of the high caste martial groups although they very much desired them. From the proceedings of the government, dated 7th May 1770, it appears that the Sepoy battalions then consisted of Mohamedans, Tamils and Telugus, but no details of caste are given. It may be inferred that the number of Brahmans, Rajputs and Maharattas in the Madras army was very small. It is clear that the authorities were desirous of restricting enlistments to men of good caste, but it is equally clear that this wasnot practicable during the last (18th) century."
Again in 1795, it is stated that "owing to the small pay of the sepoy and the high price of rice, considerable difficulty was experienced in obtaining good recruits, and the battalions were kept up to their proper strength by accepting undersized men and those of low caste." (Phytian Adams: 1943). Yet Stringer Lawrence and Clive succeeded in making the cheap low caste Tamil sepoys into an army with which the English were able to establish themselves as the main European trading group in India, in the contest with the French. It later won all the crucial battles that subjugated most of India during the course of the seventy five years since recruitment of the first Tamil sepoy levies began in the northern parts of Tamilnadu in 1746.
The East India company established its first military department at Madras in 1752. The main reason behind the rapid rise of the British in this era was their low cost but hardy army. The major Indian kingdoms of the time, although possessed of modern and larger forces were falling into financial difficulties in maintaining their expensive high caste soldiery whose pay arrears was frequent cause for mutiny. The English fought with the advantage of an extremely loyal army which did not rebel for pay. The Recruitment Handbook of the Madras classes records "never were these qualities more fully tried than in the war with Hyder. The pay of the army was sixteen months in arrears, famine raged all over the country, the enemy was at the gates offering large bounty and pay to our Sepoys to desert, but in vain. Under all these circumstances severe action were fought. Their conduct during the war excited the admiration of all who knew it, and Frederick the Great of Prussia was known to have said, "after reading Orme’s account of the war, that had he the command of troops who acted like the sepoys on that occasion, he could conquer all Europe."(9)
The second crucial phase in which the future of the British as an Empire building power was determined was the period in which the Indian Mutiny erupted in North India. Again, it was the loyal Coast Army that helped the English survive the Mutiny. It was the Mutiny that made the British reorganize the Indian army into that form which Washbrook considers in his thesis.
"In 1857-58, came the great Mutiny of the army in Bengal, when the Coast Army displayed its loyalty and devotion in no uncertain manner. In a despatch dated the 19th August 1859, the Secretary of State of India said, ‘The commander-in-chiefs Minute contains only a slight sketch of the important services rendered by the Madras army during the great contest in the North of India. The great fact has been the perfect fidelity of that army and the perfect loyalty of the 23 millions of persons who inhabit this Presidency, which enabled the resources of the South of India to be freely put forth in support of our hard-pressed country men in North." Lieut-General Sir Patrick Grant said,
"The services in the field of the Troops of this Presidency employed in the suppression or the Rebellion and the Mutiny are now a matter of history, and the glowing terms in which they have been recognized must endure for ever, an unperishable record of this noble soldiers. It can never be forgotten that, to their immortal honour, the native troop of the Madras army have been, in the words of the Earl of Ellenborough, faithful found among the faithless."
The Dravidian ideology was underpinned by the idea of the loyal Tamil soldier of British Coast Army, bringing to "benighted" civilizations the enlightened values of Christianity and Rationality. Caldwell and his successors elaborated a theory of a Tamil Diaspora as the bedrock of Protestantism and the English Empire on this idea.
Bishop N.C.Sargant, who like Caldwell, was the Church of England’s Bishop of Tinnevely spells it out clearly in his ‘Dispersion of the Tamil Church’:
"The Tamils are great soldiers; they went with the army along with their families and lived in its newly established camps and in the newly captured territories…they were excellent instruments for establishing the Church among the Telugu and Kannada speaking peoples." "There is much evidence to show that Tamil soldiers – of the British Indian Army – and those (Tamils) who followed the army took the gospel with them to the other parts of India." (Sargant: 1940, p.32 and p.68)
About the intention of his word, Sargant says, "The Dispersion of the Jews was a preparation for the spread of Christianity in the ancient world. Similarly can it be said that the Dispersion of the Tamil church helped the missionaries? The first Apostles found some God feating Jews, as their first believers. Did the missionaries find the Tamils perceptive…was this race the first fruit of Christian work? I tried to find answers to such questions…This research made me understand that Christ realised many unexpected and inexplicable things through the Dispersion of the Tamils and the Tamil Church."
Sargant, like Caldwell and Bishop Whitehead before him, believed that research into ancient Dravidian forms of expression found in Tamil would reveal that there were many surprising words and ideas which denoted Christian concepts such as that of sin. "Like the ancient Hebrews the ancient Dravidians also tried to lead a righteous spiritual life."(p.3) The close connection between the British Indian army’s early conquests, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.), the Dispersion of the English Church, and the Tamils of Bishop Caldwell’s flock in Tinnevely is described by Sargant in detail (chapters 2, 3, 5). Thus the Tamil soldier, the Tamil Diaspora and the Dravidian movement came to constitute a basis of the British Imperial project.
The nationalist reaction to this project in the Tamil country, articulated by the terrorist movement, proclaimed modern Tamil militarism as the means of national emancipation from British rule.
(1) Recruitment handbooks of the Indian Army series. Madras Classes, by Lieut-Col.G.E.D.Mouat, revised by Capt.G.Kennedy Cassels, New Delhi: Govt.of India Press, 1938.
(2) I have used a Tamil translation of Sargant’s book. The Dispersion of the Tamil Church, N.C.Sargant, 1940; translated into Tamil by Rev.C.L.Vethakkan, 1964.
(3) Madras Infantry 1748-1943, Lt.Col.Edward Gwynee Phythiam Adams, Govt. Press, Madras, 1943.
(4) An interesting study of the military labour market in north India has been done recently by Ditk.H.Kloff-Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan 1450-1850, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1990.
(5) History of the Madras Army, Lt.Col.W.J.Wilson, Madras Govt. Press, 5 vols., 1882-89.
Posted May 24, 2005