Just before India formally became part of the British empire, it was dominated by the extra ordinarily powerful British business entity, a trading company with a grandiose title of ‘The Honourable the East India Company’ also known as ‘John Company’ or ‘Kampani Bahadur’. Over a period of eighty years it assembled the largest volunteer force ever. The East India Company ruled India through its three Presidencies and their armies – in Madras, Bombay and Bengal – with the Madras army being the senior most of the lot.
And even though Madras was the senior most of the three Presidencies, it had lost out to Calcutta as the seat of power, which had become the jumping off point for those sent out to assist with Britain’s expansion into northern India. Madras remained, in contrast peaceful, and irredeemably provincial, with buildings clustered around Fort St. George, and the vast plains behind. The Madras army remained relatively uninvolved with the British campaigns in North and Western India and in Afghanistan. Their dominance over South India had been established with their victory over Tipu Sultan in Seringapatnam in 1799.
With opposition to the ‘Company’ taken care off, and princely allies under control, the South was left to enjoy a long period of civil order, with the authority of the Madras Presidency enforced by Collectors and local garrisons of native infantry, in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mysore. But whereas civil society in Madras was snobbish, status and caste ridden, life in the military was very different. Their comradeship and espirit- de- corps was exceptional and very civilized. And in those days Regiments moved across the land with baggage trains in tow and an attendant army of camp followers, with sepoys dressed and drilled like their grand fathers and commanded by men old enough, to be their grand fathers! Officers still bought their way into certain plum posts, and some in desperation clubbed together funds to buy out older officers, who blocked the promotion ladder.
This was before the foundations of the modern Indian army, as an exceptional institution were hammered into being by Coote Bahadur and Stringer Lawrence, three quarters of a century later. Much has been written about those days, but the memoirs of one individual, Albert Henry Andrew Hervey, who was gazetted as an Ensign in the Madras Native Infantry (MNI) in 1833, throws up interesting insights about regimental life in those days, in ’A Soldier of the Company: The Life of an Indian Ensign’.
As the mutiny of 1857-58 finished off the old John Company, the Bengal army was destroyed with its old infantry regiments being disbanded. But as there was no mutiny in the Madras army – despite a few provocations – and events in the North being of no concern to them, its 52 battalions of infantry, stood firm. By 1874, Albert Hervey had returned to Madras from Singapore to become the regiment’s Colonel Commandant, only to die in 1877, on the forty third anniversary of his joining the 40th MNI.
Fortunately for him, he did not live long enough to see his Regiment being disbanded in 1882, on the basis of a questionable theory propounded by Lord Roberts, then Commander in Chief of Madras, of ‘martial races’, that claimed that the Madrassis did not make good soldiers, as they had lost their ‘ancient fighting spirit’. This would have surely been resisted by old soldiers like Hervey, who wrote that there were: ‘no soldiers more faithful, more brave, or more strongly attached to their colours, than those of the Madras army.’ Our Madras Regiment is today is made up with such brave men, carrying forward an old legacy.
Maroof Raza is a strategic affairs commentaror.