“Disaffection”, remarked the commander-in-chief of the British army in India on August 14, 1875, “is the greatest evil we have to guard against”. The British constantly feared the native soldiers, post-1857. Major General Mansfield deposed thus before the Peel Commission (which was constituted for the post-mortem of the Sepoy Mutiny) — “An army of 120,000 men could not mutiny without dragging a large part of the country with it. And if provinces strike for freedom, the soldiers who spring from them are sure not to forget the claims of race, religion and brotherhood”.
No dissent was born overnight. Rather, it grew over a period of time, usually having as its starting point a failure of morale that steadily turned from disaffection to desertion and dissent. Thus during the fight in the European front in 1914-1918, a variety of reactions led to a slow poisoning of the troops’ psyche. For instance, domestic pigs of the French irked the Muslim troops of the Indian regiment. Similarly, bad news from home like crop failure, dacoity or flood and reported infidelity of spouse often led to low performance and dissent at the front.
Important threats to the British Raj came from the Muslim troops during the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-1880. Pathans generally disliked confrontation with the Afghan amir, whom they respected as “their big man”. Hence the desertion of many Pathans during the war of 1878-1880 is understandable.
The second classic threat to the British troops came from the Punjab. This, despite the fact that the Punjab was the main source of army soldiers throughout World War I. The agrarian disturbances in the Punjab in the late 19th century and the birth-pangs of the Akali Dal in the 1920s gave the British occasional jitters regarding the Punjabi troops. Clearly, the British were always wary of Indian troops, their gallantry, loyalty and bravery notwithstanding.
The most important document to deal with dissent, however, was the Army Act of 1897, which elaborately defined mutiny as “collective insubordination, or a combination of two or more persons to resist or induce others to resist lawful military authority”. The noteworthy emphasis clearly was on the word, “collective”, which meant that a single soldier, no matter how much he has defied the authority, cannot be charged for mutiny, at least under the 1897 act.
The Indian army had had a fair number of mutinies between 1886 and 1930 — 14, to be precise. Pay, promotion and service conditions have also led to mutiny. Thus the Gorkha regiment in Almorah mutinied on April 12, 1886, because the “rice batta” was reduced by the garrison.
In a way, any dissent in an army reflects a failure of command. More so if the rebellion is a collective enterprise. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that as long as disaffection did not burst into physical violence, one could think of redressing the grievances of the disgruntled soldiers. However, to qualify as a mutiny, insubordination had to be collective. And the fact remains that the Indian army in the 19th and 20th centuries did face the unusual phenomenon of mutiny not once but several times. Times have changed. But the human mind changes slowly over the years. The age-old military adage, in any dissent, is still true: there are no bad soldiers, only bad commanders.