How The British Raj’s Army Opened Its Doors For ‘Indian’ Officers
Until the First
World War, Indians were not allowed to hold the King’s Commission.
The best they could hope for was a Viceroy’s Commission – granted
only to senior soldiers who had risen from the ranks. From 1917,
however, ten places at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst were
reserved every year for Indians. These King’s Commissioned Indian
Officers (KCIOs) were carefully selected: most of them hailed from
the martial classes that had fought in the war.
political reforms of 1919, Indians in the new Central Legislative
Assembly (CLA) began to take a keen interest in the ‘Indianization’
of the army. In response to the Esher Committee report of 1921, a set
of resolutions was tabled in the CLA by P. S. Sivaswamy Aiyer, a
leading liberal from Madras. These included demands for setting aside
25 per cent of the places at Sandhurst for Indian cadets and for the
provision of preparatory training in India.
commander-in-chief of India, as well as the India Office, rebuffed
the resolutions, arguing that their provisions would dilute the
efficacy of the Indian army and that no British officer would deign
to serve under an Indian. Even a plan drawn up by the
Commander-in-Chief in 1923, proposing complete Indianization in
forty-two years, was swatted aside in London. The summary rejection
of even so conservative a plan riled the Indians. Speaking at the
next budget session of the CLA, Jinnah noted that the Indian army had
2,078 British officers. At the going rate, he asked, ‘how many
centuries will it take to Indianise the Army?’ Concerned about a
nationalist backlash, the viceroy, Lord Reading, protested to London.
This resulted in a plan to ‘Indianize’ eight units (six infantry
battalions and two cavalry regiments). Thenceforth the KCIOs would be
posted only to these segregated units.
The Indians saw the
establishment of a military college in India along the lines of
Sandhurst as the fastest way to Indianize the officer corps. After
several resolutions were tabled in the CLA, the government
constituted the Indian Sandhurst Committee under the chief of the
general staff. The Indian component of the committee included Jinnah
and Motilal Nehru (the father of Jawaharlal). The committee proposed
a large-scale increase in Indianization, including the immediate
doubling of places for Indians at Sandhurst; the setting up of an
Indian academy by 1933 with an intake of three hundred cadets for a
three-year course; and the abolition of the eight-unit scheme in
favour of unrestricted induction of Indian officers.
The government was
taken aback. After being placed on ice for over a year, the report
was rejected on the grounds that it had exceeded its remit. But
realizing the need to mollify the Indians, the government held out
minor concessions, such as increasing the number of places for
Indians at Sandhurst from ten to twenty-five. The nationalists were
left cold. Motilal Nehru asserted that the term Indianization was a
misnomer: ‘The Army is ours; we have to officer our own Army; there
is no question of Indianizing there. What we want is to get rid of
the Europeanization of the Army.’ The constitutional report
prepared by the Congress under his leadership in 1928 also called for
seventy-seven KCIOs had been commissioned into the army. So, in April
1931, the viceroy announced the extension of Indianization from eight
units to a full combat division of fifteen units. An Indian Military
College Committee, chaired by the commander-in-chief, submitted its
report later that summer. The committee recommended the establishment
of an Indian Military College, with an annual intake of sixty cadets
for a three-year programme.
On passing out, they
would be called Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs). The Royal Indian
Military Academy was opened in Dehradun in October 1932. But it had
an annual intake of only forty cadets. Less than half of these would
be selected by open competition; the remainder were reserved for VCOs
and the princely states’ troops.
Through the rest of
the decade, Indianization proceeded at a leisurely pace. As war
clouds gathered, the CLA passed a resolution in September 1938
calling for a committee to recommend ways of increasing
Indianization. The government responded by appointing one led by the
chief of the general staff, Auchinleck, to examine the issue. After
interviewing several KCIOs and ICOs, Auchinleck was inclined towards
the Indians’ viewpoint, but before he could set down his
recommendations, war broke out in Europe.
commander-in-chief, General Robert Cassels, was prominent among the
conservatives, however. In March 1940, a study commissioned by him to
assess the requirements of the expanding army recommended that Indian
officers should not be sent to units officered solely by the British.
This would have an undesirable impact ‘not only on the efficiency
of such units but might be likely to prejudice the future requirement
of British officers’. Clearly, old assumptions died hard. Nor did
the study recommend the Indianization of more units. It merely
suggested that the Indians now being given Emergency Commissions
could be absorbed in garrison and administrative units.
Cassels produced a
plan that he hoped would mitigate the challenge posed by the growing
number of Indian officers. His solution was to fix a high ratio of
British to Indian officers in the army and plan accordingly for
recruitment. Any further acceleration of Indianization, he warned the
viceroy, would ‘inevitably result in ruining the Indian Army as an
instrument of war’.
The upshot of this
was that the average number of officers in units had dropped to
desperately low levels by 1941. Only after Cassels’ departure from
office and the appointment of Auchinleck as commander-in-chief did
the army adopt a rational policy towards Indian officers. From
January 1942, there was marked upturn in the number of Indian
officers right through to the end of the war. During the same period,
the ratio of British to Indian officers fell sharply.
The recruitment of
officers was a two-stage process. Initially the volunteers were
screened by their local Provincial Selection Board. Those who got
past this were then interviewed by the Central Selection Board of the
General Headquarters. Initially, the army used rather informal
techniques for officer recruitment. K. V. Krishna Rao - future chief
of the Indian army - was among the youngsters who made it to the
second stage. There he was quizzed on general questions about the war
and at greater length about his passion for cricket: ‘how a
leg-break was bowled, what a late cut was, what position was known as
gully and so on’. Satisfied with his replies, the chairman of the
board remarked: ‘Well, Mr. Rao, I hope you will get to play plenty
of cricket in the Army.’ A successful Jewish volunteer, J. F. R.
‘Jake’ Jacob, was asked in his interview in mid-1941: ‘Do you
shoot games?’ Jacob replied, ‘No sir, I don’t shoot games, I
shoot goals.’ There were peals of laughter round the table and no
The officers so
recruited went through a five-month crash course at Dehradun or the
new officer training schools at Belgaum and Mhow. By 1943, the rapid
Indianization of the officer corps began to raise questions about the
quality of the volunteers. This led to the adoption of a more
‘scientific’ system based on applied psychology – one that
aimed at selecting men fitted by temperament and character for the
duties of an officer. To attract suitable candidates, the army
offered such incentives as the reservation of a percentage of
appointments in government services for retired officers. Age and
educational qualifications were relaxed. Propaganda was stepped up in
schools and colleges. Teams of officers travelled around showing
films depicting the life of an officer and interviewing potential
candidates prior to the formal selection process. Yet, 50 to 65 per
cent of the volunteers were weeded out by the Provincial Selection
Boards. Of the rest, almost 75 per cent were rejected by the GHQ
Central Selection Board.
The army, in short,
was unable to attract the best talent. Most of those who signed up
saw it simply as an avenue of employment. As one Indian officer
cheerfully confessed, ‘Hats off to the University for granting me
the degree but I think a degree of the Punjab University is not worth
There were only a
few officers like A. M. Bose – nephew of the distinguished
scientist J. C. Bose – who joined the army because they ‘wanted
to do my bit to fight the Nazis’. Why did the best men not
volunteer in adequate numbers? While there may have been a variety of
reasons at the individual level, collectively high school and college
students were strongly drawn to the nationalist movement. As Krishna
Rao recalled, ‘Whenever a great leader such as Mahatma Gandhi
visited, most of the students used to cut classes and attend the
public meetings, as volunteers’. Indeed, students were in most
places the backbone of the Quit India revolt in 1942 and went to
prison in droves. Given the political deadlock during the war, the
best and brightest seem to have chosen not to volunteer.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin from India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945, authored by Srinath Raghavan.
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