The Forgotten Regiments

A.H AMIN corrects historical misconceptions.

It is an irony of our history that while grandsons of mutiny worthies and grandees as Indians who remained loyal to the British in 1857 were called, became Pakistan’s first Prime Minister and President, many real freedom fighters, who played a far more positive role in various real freedom struggles against the British have been either forgotten or totally relegated. On the other hand many opportunists and reactionaries who accepted knighthood and khan bahadur ships at a time when the Non Cooperation/Khilafat Movement was challenging the very foundation of British rule in India are today eulogised as our national heroes and philosophers!

No guard of honour is mounted on the grave of Ahmad Khan Kharral the only Punjab notable who challenged the British in 1857 but there are roads in Lahore named in the honour of some who were the most trusted British stooges. There is no monument at Gugera or in Murree for the Kharals or Dhunds (Abbasis) of 1857 but one at Taxila in the memory of the Punjab movable column sent to Delhi in 1857! There are regiments on the other hand who are proud of their march from Marinade to Delhi or for services rendered at Lucknow against the rebels, but hardly anyone in today’s Pakistan knows about regiments which challenged the British Empire at a time when it was said that the sun never set for the British Empire.

The First Afghan War is a familiar war of Indo British history. However, hardly anyone in today’s Pakistan knows about the 2nd Bengal Light Cavalry. This unit was sent to Afghanistan in 1839. Unlike  the English East India Company’s Bengal Army infantry which was three fourth Hindu the vast bulk of the Bengal Army Cavalry was Muslim; comprising Hindustani Pathan and Ranghar/Kaimkhani/Lalkhani  Muslims from modern UP and Hariana Provinces of India. The 2nd Bengal Cavalry disobeyed its officers orders to charge a body of Afghan Horsemen at Perwan on 2nd November 1840! Sir Fortescue the official historian of the British Army found the regiment’s behaviour inexplicable describing it as an incident  “which after endless explanations remain always mysterious”. Fortescue was surprised because the 2nd Light Cavalry was an excellent unit in terms of war performance till 2nd November 1840. The unit was disbanded for misconduct. There is one aspect of this unit’s history which was overlooked by British historians. As per Major General Shahid Hamid the unit was raised  from Afghans of Kandhari origin settled in Lucknow in 1788 by the Nawab Vizier of Oudh. It was renumbered as the 2nd Bengal Native Cavalry in 1796 and taken over by the East India Company’s Bengal Army .It is possible that the peculiar Afghan origin of the units manpower may have played a part in their reluctance to charge their fellow Muslim Afghans at Perwan!

Bahadur Shah Zafar thus remains a much more familiar figure in our folklore than the 3rd Light Cavalry which actually captured Delhi in 1857 and actually goaded and forced the reluctant Bahadur Shah, who was more inclined to enjoy the English East India Company’s pension, into accepting the role of the king who led the last major armed insurrection against the British in India! The 3rd Light Cavalry was raised at Monyah in Oudh in 1797 by Captain J.P Pigot and fought in all major wars of the English East India Company till it rebelled against the British and seized Delhi in 1857! This regiment was a predominantly Hindustani Ranghar and Hindustani Pathan unit of Muslims from the Upper Doab districts of modern UP, Ranghars from Rohtak, Gurgaon and Hissar districts! It was this unit which single-handedly transformed an essentially military revolt into a full-fledged war of independence by rebelling at Meerut and then marching 40 miles to Delhi and seizing it ! The unit withdrew to Lucknow after the fall of Delhi in September 1857 and to the Nepali Himalyan region of Terai in March 1858.The great bulk of its men either died in fighting or because of disease and starvation in Nepal. Some of its troopers returned to Rohtak and died penniless shunned by the society for complicity in the rebellion ! Today no one knows about the glorious role of 3rd Light Cavalry in the freedom struggle. Their exploits are, however, remembered in some Ranghar households from Kanar and Kalanaur from which the greater part of this regiments Ranghars were recruited. Men who should have been national heroes are the heroes of only one small sub caste of Ranghar Muslim Rajputs!

3rd Bengal Native Infantry was one of the most illustrious regiments of the English East India Company’s Bengal Army .It was raised in 1763 at Midnapur near Calcutta by Lieutenant  Swinton and was  known as "Solteen Ki Paltan". It had the typical class composition of the Bengal Army ie three fourth Hindustani Hindu Rajputs and Brahmans from the Gangetic tract from Bihar to east bank of Jamna and one fourth Muslims from the area between Hissar (in modern Hariana) and Benares. The unit took part in many wars of the East India Company  against Marathas Gurkhas and Pindaris. In 1857 it was stationed at Phillaur near and north of Ludhiana . It rebelled against the British on  7th June 1857 and marched along with the Jullundhur Brigade to Delhi . It fought against the British at Delhi while our first Prime Minister’s father was protecting the British line of communications from Lahore to Delhi at Karnal ! After the fall of Delhi it withdrew to Lucknow in September 1857 and to Nepal after the fall of Lucknow in March 1858. The vast bulk of the unit’s rank and file died in fighting or because of starvation and disease in Nepal’s Himalyan Terai rain forest while the remnants were repatriated to India in December 1859 and early 1860 under an agreement between Nepal and British Indian government . Its colours till 1920 were seen at Arsenal Museum Kathmandu and a detailed description of these is given in a book "Nepal" written by Perceval Landon in 1923 . As per Landon the Arsenal Museum also housed the colours of 48th Bengal Native Infantry (raised at Cawnpore in October 1804). This unit was stationed at Lucknow in 1857 and rebelled in June 1857. It finally found its way to Nepal in January 1859 where it surrendered to the Nepali authorities. The war of 1857 was a savage affair as is the case in all civil or revolutionary wars. Both sides took no prisoners and thus the rebels of 1857  decided to withdraw to Nepal rather than surrender and face certain execution . As a matter of fact as per Sir Alexander Cardew the Nepali Regent Jang Bahadur received a petition from 10,000 Sepoys asking for military help and if that could not be given, services of Gurkha officers to command each of the rough remnants of about thirty regiments of the rebel Bengal Army! Jang Bahadur who was a British ally refused and ordered the sepoys to leave Nepal within ten days! Jang Bahadur a staunch Nepali Hindu was, however, a very largehearted man! He allowed the Rebel Leaders including Hazrat Mahal of Lucknow to stay permanently in Nepal and also did not evict the remaining sepoys immediately, since British tempers were high and these sepoys would have been executed en masse . Later these sepoys were disarmed and repatriated in bodies of 1000 each via Segowlee to their villages in 1859-60 . Some however managed to stay in Nepal .

The Oudh Irregular Force was raised in 1856 after the annexation of Oudh from the ex soldiers  of the Nawab of Oudh’s Army  and direct recruitment . The force was composed of  ten regiments of infantry and three regiments of cavalry. The force revolted en masse in 1857 and many of its survivors reached Nepal in January 1859. Regimental Colours of Oudh Irregular Infantry  (see picture on page attached) were finally surrendered to Nepali authorities in March 1859. Another state force which took a prominent part in the rebellion was the Gwalior Contingent. The Gwalior Contingent was a predominantly Hindustani Hindu force re-raised after the Gwalior Campaign of 1843. It was composed of seven infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments and a few bateries of artillery. The whole contingent except one infantry regiment rebelled in 1857. The 3rd Gwalior Infantry stationed at Gwalior in 1857 was one of the units that rebelled in 1857 . The unit fought at Gwalior, Cawnpore, Kalpi and  at Lucknow  from where it finally landed at  Nepal in 1859 . Today only its colours which were surrendered to Jang Bahadur tell its story!

Another forgotten regiment i.e. 39th Bengal Native Infantry  had a very interesting history till its final disbandment in 1857. The unit was raised in January  1799  for service against Tipu Sultan in the Fourth Mysore War. The unit was one of the four units raised in Bengal Presidency and was then numbered as 2nd Battalion of the 19th Bengal native Infantry Regiment or simply Burrall Ki Paltan in the memory of  Captain (later Major General)  Littellus Burrell who commanded one of the wings of the unit at the fateful final siege of Seringapatam . It may be noted that in the eyes of the soldiers from modern UP who were serving in the Bengal Army of 1799, the patriot of today’s history books ie Tipu  Sultan was just a native ruler opposing  "Companee Bahadur"! India was not a country but only a geographical expression in 1799 ! The East India Company then was a good paymaster and one who won all the battles with relatively minimum casualties ! This unit was later renumbered as the 39th Bengal Native Infantry in 1824. The unit fought many wars including the Sikh Wars and was stationed at Jhelum in 1857 .By 1857 the units manpower perceived the East India Company as a foreign oppressor bent upon destroying their caste and religious entity! It was then a part of the Jhelum Brigade . It showed signs of disaffection and was about to rebel when the British forestalled its rebellion by moving it to Dera Ismail Khan , the heart of loyal Pathan country ! The unit was disarmed at Dera Ismail Khan and disbanded in mid 1857 . Today the only records of the unit can be found in form of its regimental colours kept in a museum in England!

The First World  War and the Khilafat Movement are familiar names in Indo-Pak history . Today hardly anyone in Pakistan has heard of the 5th Light Infantry and Mir Mast Afridi.  The 5th Light Infantry was another illustrious unit of the Bengal Army . It was raised in  July 1803 at Cawnpore by Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) J.M Johnson of the Bengal Native Infantry for service against the Marathas in the Second Maratha War , and was affectionately known by the sepoys as "Jansain Ki  Paltan" . The unit fought many wars including the Maratha, Burma and Nepal Wars and was renumbered as 42nd Bengal Native Infantry in 1824. It was stationed at Saugor in Central India alongwith 31 Native Infantry  ( still surviving as part of Indian Army and now known as 4th Battalion Brigade of Guards) in 1857. 31 Native Infantry stayed totally loyal but 42 Native Infantry’s four companies rebelled and joined the Nawab of Banda, finally landing up in Nepal. The 42nd, however, survived the rebellion since half of it had remained loyal. The unit was renumbered as 5th Bengal Native Infantry after 1857 and became an all Muslim (Hindustani Ranghar Muslim ) unit in 1892-93. In 1915 the unit was stationed at Singapore and was under orders to move to an unknown destination, which as a matter of fact was Hongkong, but was kept secret from the troops as a secrecy measure! This proved fateful for both the Britishers as well as the 5th Light Infantry! The Ranghar Muslims mistakenly thought that they were about to be sent to Mesopotamia to fight against their brother Muslim Turks and rebelled on 15th February 1915 a day before they were to embark in a ship which was to take it to Hongkong. The unit killed many Britishers and  seized Singapore for about two days. Many Punjabi, Jat, Sikhs of the Malay State Forces also joined the rebellion! The rebels also liberated about 300 Germans in a prison camp. These Germans, however, behaved in a most un-German like manner! Only 17 of these Germans joined the rebels. The British, however, crushed the  Ranghar Muslim- Jat-  Sikh-German rebellion  by employing sailors from French, British Russian and Japanese Naval ships. Thus by 18th February the rebellion was totally crushed . 46 soldiers of the 5th Light Infantry died in the fighting or were drowned while attempting to escape, while about 422 were captured alive. The prisoners also included six of the seventeen Germans who had joined the  Ranghar Muslim rebels of  5th Light Infantry ! 202 indomitable Ranghar Muslims and 11 Sikhs were tried by a Field General Court Martial. 37 of these were sentenced to death and publicly executed by firing squad at Singapore while 89 were sentenced for life and transported to the Andaman Islands. The remnants of the unit who had not rebelled were sent to East Africa and the unit was officially disbanded in 1921-22! Today, hardly anyone in Pakistan knows about these Ranghar Muslim heroes who actively rebelled against the British many years before the Khilafat Movement! Today the descendants of Muslim League loyalists are still enjoying proceeds from the Jangi Inams allotted to their ancestors for services against the Turks in First World War while the 5th Light Infantry is not even remembered as a number. I never heard about the unit in all my thirteen years of service in the Pakistan Army , but only came to know about it through a publication of  an Indian communist author   in 1994 ! So much for importance of inspiring annals of  Indo-Muslim military history in Pakistan!

Another forgotten hero in Pakistan is Jemadar Mir Mast Afridi from the 58th Frontier Force (Vaughan’s Rifles). Mir Mast was an Afridi Pathan from tribal areas of modern Pakistan. In 1914 his unit was shipped to France as part of the Indian Infantry Corps, which played a major role in stopping the German advance in France in 1914 in Ypres Sector . Mir Mast Afridi seems to have been a far more politically aware and resolute man as compared to many Muslims educated at MAO College Lahore, Aligarh or at many prestigious British universities and Legal Inns! Mir Mast decided that he must not fight the Britisher’s war and crossed over to the German lines on a rainy night in March 1915 along with 14 other Afridi Tribal Pathan. Mir Mast was awarded one of the highest German gallantry award Iron Cross by the German Kaiser Willhelm II . Mir Mast travelled all the way to Tirah in NWFP and took an important part in the tribal rebellion in NWFP during and after the First World War. The British in order to equalise the insult awarded Mir Mast’s  real brother Mir Dast Afridi (from 55th FF Coke’s Rifles)  a Victoria Cross  in April 1915.

In today’s Pakistan, we have all but forgotten the above mentioned regiments and the indomitable men who played a major role in rebelling against the British. On the other hand the grandsons and great grandsons of British collaborators who had little to do in real terms with any anti British movement launched between 1857 and 1947 are our national heroes. These are men whose sole aim in life was the award of a title of Sir or Khan Bahadur ! Maualna Zafar Ali Khan composed some very fine satirical verses about some of these gentlemen ! Ironically they are our national heroes today!