(Last Updated on : 27-01-2012)
The political control and surveillance which the British East India Company established through its army are critical to an understanding of its rise to political dominance in north India. It can be stated that the role of army in making British East India Company the corporation it stood in yesteryears India, is foremost and primary. As the Company attempted to inflate its territorial and political domain from Bengal further westward into the Ganges valley, it came into contact and conflict with three types of indigenous military traditions. In the lower Gangetic basin the zamindars of Bihar, the Benaras Raj and the Awadh Nawabi were occupied in the recruitment of peasant regiments. These were infantry regiments recruited from the high caste rural groups of the region. Further westward the Muslim kingdoms of Farrukhabad and Rohilkhand had stabilised their rule over a predominantly Hindu Rajput society by maintaining a large army of Afghan troopers. The loyalty and discipline of these troopers were forged around the royal Afghan household. Lastly, in Shinde's territory and Begum Samru in the western Doab region, political stability was achieved by integrating the Rohilla-Afghan Mughal ex-servicemen of earlier polities into the army. Shinde and Begum Samru assayed to relocate these troopers into the much sought after Mughal military tradition, which was characterised by a preponderance of urban-based 'gentlemen' troopers. The westward drive of the East India Company was successfully accomplished because its armed forces officials manoeuvred and shaped each of these three indigenous military traditions to suit its military, political and economic interests. Sensible considerations concerning the actual problems of governance rather than a well-formulated policy of recruitment characterised the early phase of the Company's military organisation and rule in north India.
From as early as the 1770s, the British East India Company army officials began to compete with Indian rulers in recruiting peasant soldiers from the zamindaris of Bihar, the Benaras Raj and the Awadh Nawabi. The comparative success of the Company in recruiting its peasant army gradually drew these Indian polities into its military and monetary orbit. The Company settled both its old as well as its wounded soldiers in the forests and wastelands located on the fringes of the Awadh Nawabi, the Bihar zamindaris and the Benaras Raj. It thus created encroachments into their economy and political functioning. Further, the British regulation and administration of these sipahi settlements, called the Invalid Thanah, in Bihar and Benaras provided a major forum through which the Company projected its benevolence and created pockets of influence in the outlying regions of north India. Indeed, the Thanah formed a significant institution through and by which the Company was able to break out of the prototypes of legitimacy provided by the eighteenth century Indian states and establish its own authority in most parts of north India. The role army in British East India Company eased additional exertion for the Company officials, owing to a handful of cooperating 'natives' in northern parts.
From 1802, the East India Company began its expansion into the region of the Farrukhabad Nawabi, the Rohilkhand state and the Shinde and Samru territory, which later in the nineteenth century came to be known as the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. Consequentially, the Company began to deviate from its established military practice of recruiting peasant soldiers. But the army continued to play a crucial role in consolidating British East India Company power in the region. Here, the Company began to shape the predominantly cavalry-based military culture of the Ceded and Conquered Provinces to suit its political interests. For in this newly acquired territory, the Company's peasant army and Invalid Thanah experiment were less suited to the political fluctuations of its rule. The Company urgently required cavalry regiments to control revenue-bearing territories as well as meet the challenges of the mounted armies of the Marathas, the Mewatis and the Pindaris against whom this part of the Doab had acted as a buffer zone. East India Company's cavalry regiments not only accomplished this military objective successfully, but in course of time they also came to perform an important economic function as well. For the cavalry generated a demand for horses and military accessories. Role of army in anchoring British East India Company was increasing by the hour. This encouraged the Company to bring the north Indian horse trade and breeding zones under its control. The Company's control over these trade routes and breeding areas became critical to the establishment of its political ascendancy in north India. More importantly, the cavalry regiments provided an important forum within which the Company could construct a cultural idiom, through and by which British authority was to be represented in its newly acquired territory. Indeed, as the Company struggled to consolidate its rule in north India, it exhibited an enthusiastic interest in the complexities of the Mughal and Muslim troopers' life-style, religion, family, dress and demeanour. The Company voiced its concern in these matters, because the demeanour of the troopers constituted one of the few ideological bridges between the Company and Indian society in general and formed a major source of authenticity for it.
The first part concerning the role of army in British East India Company studies the significant role the indigenous army played in stabilising the power of the eighteenth-century Muslim-conquest states of Farrukhabad and Rohilkhand and the polities of Shinde and Begum Samru. It is now crucial to understand these political formations, because the tradition of military service which they had created shaped the East India Company's military experiment in the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. The second section highlights the significant role the Company's irregular cavalry experiment played in the establishment of British power and authority in the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. The 'irregulars' had explored the political, social and economic functions performed by the cavalry, under which the career and achievements of a Eurasian military officer, James Skinner had turned decisive. James Skinner had assayed an important role in shaping the military experiment of the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. Indeed, he had formed the bridge which had linked indigenous military convention to the Company's military practice.
James Skinner is regarded as a representative for a category of European and Eurasian military leaders, who had determined the East India Company's cavalry-based military tradition in the Ceded and Conquered Provinces. The efforts of such officers had exerted long-term political and military benefits for the Company. They were especially useful because most of them had served the late eighteenth-century Indian states. They were therefore experienced in dealing with Rohilla-Afghan ex-servicemen of the Mughal Empire. Role of army men in British East India Company had indeed governed British Indian history to a considerable extent. William Linnaeus Gardner and the Irish mercenary soldier George Thomas were two other such leaders. Even though George Thomas was never directly employed by the Company, he had assisted it indirectly by laying the foundation of a military tradition in the Aligarh-Haryana region, which was later expanded by Skinner.
The employment of officers like James Skinner who had successful careers in the Maratha army of Shinde, introduced into the Company's army certain military practices of this Indian state. Most important however was the incorporation of the Mughal practice of recruitment and conception of military honour into the Company's army.
However, the winds of political, economic and social change of the 1830s affected Skinner's military system as well. The brashness of the post-Orientalist generation of Company officials and the influence of laissez-faire philosophy on the Company's policy resulted in substantial cuts in the armed forces budget. One consequence of this was a considerable reduction in the number and size of the irregular cavalry regiments. The eclipse of the cavalry regiments was further hastened because by the 1830s East India Company had developed its own administrative infrastructure. It no longer needed assistance from cavalry regiments for the governance of north India. However, the Company's reformers minimised the possibility of any outbreak of discontent among the unemployed soldiers by settling them in the countryside and heartening them to cultivate land. These Rohilla-Afghan troopers were further threatened when the Company began to extend its peasant army tradition into the Ceded and Conquered Provinces as well. It is then not a surprise that in 1857 (referring to the legendary Sepoy Mutiny, or Revolt of 1857) they fought with unrelenting fury to preserve their former privileges. The final and crucial role of army in establishing British East India Company had thus gradually faded into oblivion, making way for stringent measures.