The modern Indian Army dates back to the early sixteenth century when Europeans, like the French, Dutch, Portuguese and British, settled in India as traders. In 1600 the East India Company was formed to coordinate all British trading activities. The Mughal Empire, being at its zenith, did not consider these locally recruited and foreign military units to be any threat to its political, military and economic power.
The Royal Charter of East India Company was, ostensibly, to trade with India. The British saw India as a vast and unending source of fabulous treasures, and encouraged the Company to enlarge and diversify its operations while tightening its stranglehold on a tottering and decadent Mughal Empire. Since its trading interests needed to be protected, the Company decided raise local levies to protect their trading posts along the coast. These were soon raised on a war footing while European units sailed into India to oversee safety of their expanding trade and allied assets.
During the second half of the seventeenth century the Mughal Empire declined rapidly. It was hastened by Nadir Shah’s successful invasion and by the steady advance of Marathas from Deccan into northern India. The Marathas under Shivaji rose against the Muslim principality of Bijapur and established an independent principality there. In 1664 Shivaji captured the important Mughal port of Surat, made temporary peace with the Mughals but, after his subsequent arrest and dramatic escape from Aurangzeb’s prison, Shivaji renewed war and kept the Mughals at bay.
By 1674 he established an independent Maratha kingdom and expanded it for thirty years by resorting to guerrilla warfare. In all his operations Shivaji upheld the Hindu chivalric tradition in his treatment of defeated soldiers and non combatants. By the end of the century there were four major powers - the Maratha confederacy, the Afghan Empire of Ahmed Shah, the French and the British, all competing to take over the nearly extinct Mughal Empire.
In 1640 AD the British East India Company established its first fortified post -Fort Saint George near Madras which soon became its headquarters. Eleven years later, in 1651, they set up another post in Calcutta on the bank of River Hooghly which they later fortified, and named it Fort William. In 1662 the British received Bombay from the Portuguese. British troops arrived in Bombay in 1665, but it was only in 1668 when Bombay was formally handed over to the Company. Soon Bombay garrison was converted into a strong commercial and military base comprising cavalry, artillery and infantry elements, which later became the Bombay European Regiment. However, local troops were raised as and when required.
The first authentic record of the existence of a sort of regular battalion in Indian soil dates back to the year 1741, when such a unit came into being for carrying out garrison duties in Bombay Castle. Seven years later Major Stringer Lawrence, ‘the father of the Indian Army’, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East India Company’s field forces in India with its headquarters at Fort St. David, 100 miles south of Madras and only 12 miles from the then French town of Pondicherry. The war with France, which had temporarily ended in 1748, had brought about a substantial increase in the local enrolment of Indian troops, since neither France nor Britain could spare regular troops for India. In 1754, however, a considerable force of King’s troops was sent to India from England, but this again proved to be woefully inadequate to manage the Company’s military affairs in India, and local recruitment continued.
In 1757, the reorganisation of the Indian troops into regular, organised battalions was entrusted by Major Lawrence to Robert Clive. That year was also famous for the Battle of Plassey, which gradually reduced French influence and led to an expansion of the Company’s territories in India. With the expansion, the number of troops at its disposal, quite naturally, increased.
Thus came into creation the first regular Indian infantry battalions, each with an establishment of one British captain, two lieutenants, several British sergeants, 42 Indian non commissioned officers and 820 Indian ranks and file. Clive was the first British officer in India to have Indian troops fully equipped, at the expense of the East India Company, which was popularly known as ‘Sarkar’. He even dressed them with British ‘Red Coats’, hence the term ‘Lal Paltan’ came into being, which was locally used for such units.
In 1759 Bombay Garrison’s Sepoy Companies were re-organized. In 1768 the first two regular Sepoy Battalions were formed, with a third in 1769 and a fourth in 1770. While a graduated albeit similar expansion was taking place in the other Presidencies as well, each now placed under respective Governors who subsequently rose in rank and power to become Governor Generals, by the middle of the century a Commander-in-Chief was provided to the Governors for coordination of military activities. Major Stringer Lawrence filled this post with great verve. This was the first move to integrate the military assets of the three Presidencies in a coordinated manner. In 1784-85 full military powers, including the power to appoint the Commander-in-Chief, were retained by the Board of Directors, which meant the British Government. For the Governor-General, a formal Army Headquarters was created with the Commander-in-Chief as head. To assist him were two Principal Staff Officers, namely the Quartermaster General and the Adjutant General. By1790 the total strength of the combined British-Indian Army was 80,000. The beginning of eighteenth century also saw the rise of Sikhs in Punjab and the Rajputs of Rajputana. The French also established a new base at Calicut in addition to their existing bases at Surat, Pondicherry, Muslipatam, Chandernagar, Balasore and Kasim Bazar. The first invasion by Ahmed Shah in 1774 was halted at Sirhind by a combine Mughal and Rajput force and the invaders were forced to retreat to Afghanistan.
Having well established themselves, the Europeans started increasing their influence with the princely States and often resorted to war and intrigue against them. Native soldiers were also raised by them to fight against each other and for taking sides in local wars. During the first, Carnatic War (1744-48) hostilities ensued between the British and the French. The French seized the main British base at Madras after a fierce encounter. The Nawab, who had allied himself with the British, arrived near Madras with a large army. In the battle of St. Thome the French detachment of 230 European and 730 native soldiers attacked and routed a force of 10,000 of the Nawab’s troops near Madras. Commanded by Dupleix, the French tried unsuccessfully for 18 months to take the British base near Madras, but had to raise the siege following the arrival of British reinforcements. In1748 the British tried to take Pondicherry, defended by Dupleix, but were forced to withdraw. After the Treaty in Europe, the French returned Madras to the British. In 1749, Ahmed Shah’s second invasion was a combined raid and reconnaissance in force which led him to believe that he could conquer Punjab and Kashmir. The Dutch exploitation was finally eliminated in 1759 in the battle of Wandiwash, and Portugal’s control was confined to their occupation of Goa, Daman and Diu. Despite formal peace between France and Britain, hostilities between the two continued through their involvement in Indian conflicts. During the Second Carnatic War, the British, under Sir Robert Clive with 500 soldiers and three guns, captured Arcot so as to relieve pressure on a small English garrison at Trichinapolly. They took advantage of native rivalries in an almost continual warfare. The British East India Company had a remarkable organization. It built up its own Army, composed of European adventurers and native troops, under English Commanders. Further military influence was exercised in 1754 by an English regular regiment, the 39 Foot, (later the Dorsetshire Regiment) at Madras, which became the backbone of the British military operations in India. Many of its officers and men were later transferred to the Company’s service. The French under Dupliex and its native allies, however, controlled a great part of Southern India. In Bengal, after Siraj-ud-Daula had seized Calcutta in 1756, Clive recaptured it next year in January. On I March He took Chandernagar from the French so as to clear his line of communication before pursuing Siraj-ud-Daula. Clive found him entrenched near Plassey, north of Calcutta, with 50,000 troops and 53 guns. With 1,100 European and 2,100 native troops, Clive launched a masterly operation and won the decisive and historic battle of Plassey. This gave the British suzerainty over Bengal, Bihar and Orrisa and made them overlords of the vast territory. The British advanced westward, along the Gangetic plain, and occupied areas upto Allahabad to further consolidate the territories they had acquired.
Readying for the Deccan Campaign
In the south, from 1766 to 1769, Haider Ali fought the British in what came to be known as the First Mysore War, and later conclude a treaty with the East India Company. However, not getting any help in his war with the Marathas, Haider Ali joined the French. He attacked and cut to pieces a small British Force at Perambakam in the Carnatik (modern Karnataka) in 1780, sparking off the Second Mysore War which swept unto the gates of Madras. With 8,000 men sent by sea from Bengal, Sir Eyre Coote attacked and defeated Haider Ali in the battle of Porto Novo on 1 June 1781, thus saving Madras.
Artillery for use against French troops
In August and September that year, Haider Ali was defeated at Paliburg and Sholingurh. In 1783, owing to the withdrawal of French aid and death of Haider Ali, his son Tippu Sultan succeeded the throne and made peace. In 1789, Tippu attacked Tranvancore and starting the Third Mysore War. In this war the British invaded Mysore, stormed the fortress at Bangalore and drove Tippu into Seringapatam where he was besieged. Tippu made peace in 1792 by ceding half of his dominion to the British. In 1796 the Madras Army consisted of two European Infantry regiments, four native Cavalry regiments, two Artillery battalions, each of five artillery companies, and 15 ‘lascar’ (voluntary tribal) companies and eleven Native Infantry regiments, each of two battalions. Between 1796 and 1824 the Native Infantry was raised to 25 regiments of two battalions each. In 1806 two regiments were disbanded because of the mutiny at Vallore. In 1803 Colonel James Skinner raised a regiment of Irregular Horse from Scindia’s Army and pressed it into Company service. In 1815 three Gorkha battalions were raised as Bengal local battalions, of which only one survived. This became 1st Gorkha Rifles. The British conquest of India thus progressed, as did trade, under the joint efforts of the British Crown and East India Company. Resistance by Native States increased as they received French support, particularly the Marathas in the south who had large armies of well-equipped French-trained soldiers.
This led to the Deccan campaign of 1803 under Wellesley, in which Pune and Ahmednagar were captured by the British to support their ally, the Peshwa. Advancing further south the British defeated the Marathas in the Battle of Argaon and stormed Gwalior on 15 December to end the campaign. While peace prevailed for more than a decade, matters came to alarming proportions when the Maratha chieftains lent tacit support of the outlawed Pindari chieftains, which led to the Third Maratha War from 1817 to 1818. While the British took on the Pindaris head-on, clashes took place between the Marathas and British forces at Nagpur and Kirkee, which ended with the surrender of the Marathas in June 1818. It marked the end of Maratha political power. In the north, during three years of warfare between 1799-1802, Maharaja Ranjit Singh united the Sikhs to control most of Punjab. Growing friction between the British and the Maharaja was settled by an agreement at Amritsar in 1809, by which Sutluj was accepted as the boundary between the Sikh territories and those the British had seized from the Marathas.
Zorawar Singh Ranjit Singh
Turning to the west, Ranjit Singh conquered the whole of Punjab from the Afghans and local princes. Consolidating his land with the help of French and Italian offices, he developed the most powerful and affective native Army in India. He also conquered Kashmir in 1819. His able general Gulab Singh, who was given the ‘Jagir’ or Kingdom of Jammu to rule in 1822, went on to expand his empire. One of his trustworthy and daring generals Zorawar Singh, with a modest force comprising 5000 Dogras and loyal Ladakhis, ventured into battle in 1841. After subduing Ladakh and Baltistan he conquered large tracts of Tibet upto Mount Kailash, on the banks of Lake Mansorover, and areas as close as 24 miles off Nepal and the Kumaon hills before making the supreme sacrifice. Braving stiff opposition, extreme cold weather conditions and rugged, snow covered mountainous ranges of over 5000 metres, his daring exploits earned him the name of the ‘Mountain Fox’.
In November 1814, while Ranjit Singh was expanding and consolidating his territories, expeditionary forces from British Indian Army were sent to Nepal to stop Gorkha raids into northern India. The ferocity of the Gorkhas repulsed the initial attempts but General Orchterlony campaigned systematically to penetrate the Kathmandu valley and forced peace on the Gorkhas after the battle of the Manlaun in 1816. Ever since, the Gorkhas have been at peace with India and its youth have been joining the Indian Army regularly, albeit on a voluntary basis. Since the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839, friction between the British and Sikhs in the Punjab increased and led to the First Sikh War (1845-46). A Sikh Army of 20,000 crossed the Sutlej and attacked the British at Mudki in December 1845 but were repulsed with heavy losses. In February, having crossed the Sutluj, the British defeated the Sikhs, inflicting heavy casualties. The final coup came in the form of two winter campaigns fought against the Sikhs, with its capital at Lahore, between 1846 and 1849.
The battles of Sobraon, on the banks of River Sutlej, and thereafter Chillianwalla were decisive in linking up the Gangetic and Indus basins. With the treaty of Lahore in 1846, Punjab became a British protectorate. The remaining Sikh Empire was thereafter bifurcated into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, with Gulab Singh becoming the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir.
In Rajputana, during the period 1825-26, the British invaded Bharatpur with a large force to settle a disputed succession. Hitherto considered impregnable, after a desperate conflict in January 1826 the town’s defences were assaulted a number of times by British forces which finally emerged triumphant, but the heroic fight put up by the defenders came as a stunning shock to the British, who suffered staggering casualties.
In the Bengal Army, which formed part of the Bengal Presidency in 1824, the Native infantry battalions were separated into 68regiments and re-numbered according to their seniority. After the Sikh war, two Sikh infantry regiments were raised. In addition, a Frontier brigade consisting of a corps of guides, four regiments of Sikh infantry and the Punjab Frontier Force, comprising five regiments of irregular cavalry and five regiments of irregular infantry, were raised in 1846.
In the Madras Army, coming under the Madras Presidency, there were eight cavalry regiments. 25 regiments of the native infantry were reorganized into 50 single-battalion regiments. Two more regiments were raised in1826 and in 1830 and Madras Rifle Corps was abolished.
In the Bombay Army, now part of the Bombay Presidency, four regiment of irregular cavalry were raised between 1839and 1850; a camel corps was raised in 1843 and five infantry battalions were also raised. Bombay also had eight local corps battalions. The Hyderabad contingent, which remained a separate entity, comprised five cavalry and eight infantry battalions.
By 1850 the British had overcome all contenders to power and had achieved a territorial definition of India, never achieved before, and which invited a clearer unified identity. The introduction of telegraph and the beginning of the constriction of the railway, also added to this growing sense of awareness.
This status of Jammu and Kashmir under Gulab Singh was maintained till India attained independence in 1947, and the state permanently ceded to India following Pakistan’s invasion and attempted annexation of the state.