In the early days, before the British Raj had spread North and West, there was a period when the Bengal Army was enlisted almost exclusively from the high-caste Hindu. In the campaigns against the Muhammadan princes the Mussalman sepoy, for reasons of expediency, was gradually weeded out. The Gurkha was unknown to Clive’s officers; the day of the Sikh and Mahratta was not yet; the Dogra was undiscovered; there was a sprinkling of Pathan adventurers in the ranks and a few Jats and Rohillas; but, generally speaking, the Rajput and Brahman had something like a monopoly in military service.
The Rajputs, of course, are par excellence the military caste of Hindustan, and there is no more glorious page in the annals of chivalry than the story of that resistance to the successive waves of Moslem invaders. Three times the flower of the race were annihilated in the defence of Chitore. But they never yielded, for the Rajput would take no quarter. He was true to his oath not to yield; and when the odds against him offered no hope of victory, his only care was to sell his life dearly and to cut his way deep into the ranks of the enemy before he fell.
The Rajput of today does not hold the same pre-eminence in the army as did his ancestors.
The women, too, refused the dishonour of survival. Led by their queen and the princesses they passed into a sepulchre of flame. Others fought and fell beside their husbands and sons, and their courage was celebrated by the pen of Akbar, whose testimony to the spirit of the race does not fall short of the Rajput bards.
The Rajput of today does not hold the same pre-eminence in the army as did his ancestors. His survival in the land he held so bravely is due to the British, who only came in time to save the race, exhausted by centuries of strife, from conquest by more vigorous invaders. Yet it was on the Rajput and the Brahman more than on any other class of sepoy that we depended in our early campaigns. They fought with us against the French; they helped us to crush the Nawab of Oudh. They served with conspicuous gallantry in the Mahratta, Nepal, Afghan, and Sikh wars. They formed part of the gallant band that defended the Residency at Lucknow.* And later in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Burma, they maintained the honour they had won. Had there been class regiments in those days the izzat of the Rajput and Brahman sepoy would have been higher than it is.
The western Rajputs, generally of purer blood, are not so fastidious about caste, while farther east, especially Benares way, the Rajput is inclined to become Brahmanised. Brahmanism, whatever its merits, is not a good forcing ground for “˜the military spirit.
The Brahmans only enlist in two class regiments of the Indian Army. The type recruited is of magnificent physique; their breeding and pride of race is reflected in their cleanliness and smartness on parade. They are fine athletes, expert wrestlers, and excel in feats of strength; and they have a high reputation for courage. Unhappily they have seen little service since the class system was introduced, and so have not had the opportunity of adding to a distinguished record.
For various reasons the Rajput does not enlist so freely in the Indian Army as his proud military traditions might lead one to expect. The difficulties of recruiting are greatest among the classes which should provide the best material. The difference of quality among Rajput sepoys is to a large extent determined by the locality of enlistment. Those from Rajputana and the neighbouring districts of the Punjab as a rule rank higher than recruits from the United Provinces and Oudh. The western Rajputs, generally of purer blood, are not so fastidious about caste, while farther east, especially Benares way, the Rajput is inclined to become Brahmanised. Brahmanism, whatever its merits, is not a good forcing ground for ‘the military spirit. Exclusiveness is the bane of “the twice-born,” especially in war.
On service the essentials of caste are observed among Rajputs and Brahmans as fastidiously as in peace-time, only a certain amount of ceremonial is dispensed with. At ordinary times the high-caste Hindu when he is away from home prepares his own dinner and eats it alone. Before cooking he bathes. Complete immersion is prescribed, preferably in natural running water. Where there is no stream or pool he is content with a wash down from a bucket; and as he washes he must repeat certain prayers, facing the east. While eating he wears nothing but his dhoti (loin cloth) and sacred thread; the upper part of his body and his feet are bare. A small square is marked off for cooking. This is called the chauka. It is smoothed and plastered over, or lepai-ed as he calls it, with mud, or cowdung when available. Should anyone not of the caste touch the chauka after it has been prepared, all the food within its limits is defiled and must be thrown away.
Brahmans have fought for us from Plassey to the present day and their fastidious personal cleanliness has contributed to the smartness and discipline of the Indian Army.
There are two distinct kinds of food, kachi which is cooked in ghi, and pakhi which is cooked in water. Kachi may be eaten only at the chauka; but happily for the sepoy pakhi may be carried about and eaten anywhere; otherwise caste would completely demobilise him. Amongst Brahmans the caste convention of cooking their own food and eating it alone dies hard; and I know a Rajput class regiment in which it took ten years to introduce the messing system. Company cooking pots were accepted at first, but with no economy of space or time; for the vessels were handed round and each man used them to cook his own food in turn.
The Brahmans are even more fastidious. I remember watching a class regiment at their meal in the Essin position; their habit of segregation had spread them over a wide area. Each man had ruled out his own pitch, and a Turk would have taken the battalion for a brigade. Only in the case of near relatives will two men sit at the same chauka. In spite of the cold, one or two of them were naked except for the loin cloth. The others wore vests of wool, which (apart from the loin cloth) is the one and only material that Brahmans may wear at meals. All had first bathed and changed their dhoti according to the prescribed rites, and carried water with them to wash off any impurity from their feet when they entered the chauka.
There are many prescribed minutiae of ritual which vary with each sect and sub-tribe, but these are the main inhibitions. Even on service the Hindu preserves the sanctity of the chauka, and if not a Brahman, takes with him a Brahman cook, relaxes nothing in regard to the purity of his water from contamination by the wrong kind of people, and would rather starve than eat meat killed in an unorthodox way. The mutton or goat that the Mussalman eats must be slain by the halal or the stroke at the throat, and the mutton the Sikh or Hindu eats by the jatka or stroke at the back of the neck.
The most elaborate precautions were taken in France and were observed in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, to keep the two kinds of meat separate. There was once a complaint that the flies from the Muhammadan butchery settled on the meat prepared for the Hindus, and the two slaughter-houses were accordingly removed farther apart. Orthodoxy in this point is no mere fad, but a genuine physical need born of centuries of tradition. The mere sight of the wrong kind of meat is nauseating to the fastidious, and in cases where it is not physically nauseating, toleration would be extremely bad form. I think the story has already been told of the Gurkha subadar on board the transport between Bombay and Marseilles who, when asked if his men would eat frozen meat, replied, after consulting them, “Sahib, they will have no objection whatever, provided one of them may be permitted each day to see the animal frozen alive.”
On service, of course, as on pilgrimages under hard climatic conditions, there are dis-pensations in the ceremonial, though not in the essentials, of caste. Brahmans have fought for us from Plassey to the present day and their fastidious personal cleanliness has contributed to the smartness and discipline of the Indian Army. In early days, when the ranks of the Bengal regiments were filled almost entirely with high-caste Hindus, orthodoxy was maintained in spite of all the rigours of war. Today little has changed. Bathing when the nearest water is an icy glacier stream is not indulged in now on a frontier campaign; and where there is no water at all the sepoy does not lose caste by the neglect of his ablutions. The Rajput as a rule will eat his meals with his boots and clothes on, as he has done no doubt whenever he has been under arms since the Pandavas and Kouravas fought at Delhi.The fastidious caste ceremonial is discouraged in the Indian Army. It leads to complications at all times, especially on a campaign; and a good Commanding Officer prides himself on his men’s common sense and adaptability to environment. Yet there have been occasions, even among sepoys, when ritual and caste exclusiveness have been turned to disciplinary uses. Here is a story which is very much to the point. The first scene of this little drama was played in Egypt; the last on the banks of the Tigris.
There was a company of Rajputs somewhere in the neighbourhood of Suez, which contained a draft of very raw recruits. Three of these youngsters and a particularly callow lance-naik were holding a picquet on the east bank of the canal when they lost their heads. One of them blazed off at a shadow. He was frightened by the tamarisk bushes in the moonlight, and thought they were Turks’ heads. A panic set in. All four blazed into the scrub, threw down their rifles, bolted as if the devil were behind them, and were only held up by the barbed wire of their own outpost.
Rajput pride is at the bottom of the saddest story of a sepoy I have ever heard. The man was not a Rajput of the plains, but a hillman of Rajput descent, as brave a man as any in a battalion whose chivalry in France became a household word.
The jiwans were notoriously wild and jungly, and everything that a recruit should not be. They had never left their village save for a few months’ training before they embarked on the transport in Bombay. A certain allowance might be made for stupidity and bewilderment, sufficient in the case of extreme youth to waive the death penalty. Had it been a moving campaign; had the regiment been in actual contact with the enemy, these young men would have been “for the wall.” There is nothing else to do when soldiers go the wrong way.
The O.C. and the Adjutant were considering how to deal with them when the Subadar-Major entered the orderly room. The man was a veteran, with a double row of ribbons on his breast, and he had never let the regiment down in all his service. He begged, as a special favour, that Rajput officers should be permitted to wipe out the stain. “Leave it to us, Sahib,” he said: “we will put such an indignity on them, that there will not be a jiwan in the regiment who will shrink from bahadri* again.”
The Colonel saw the wisdom of this. The Rajput izzat was at stake, and he knew his man. So the Indian officers of the regiment were deputed to deal with the case themselves, just as prefects at school take the law into their own hands and administer it with a much more deterrent effect than the headmaster with his cane. The jiwans were tapped on the head with a slipper, the last ignominy that can befall a Rajput. After such disgrace they could not enter the chauka and mess with their caste companions. That is to say, they were socially excommunicated until their honour was retrieved. For nearly eighteen months they lit their outcast fire and took their meals apart at a measured distance from the chaukas—at such a distance that no ray of contamination could proceed from them to it.
..it must be admitted that the caste instinct with all its disabilities made a man of him. Breeding brought into contact with regimental tradition gives the sense of noblesse oblige, and deference is the birthright of the twice-born.
They were still under the ban when the regi-ment left Egypt and went to Mesopotamia. They did not go into action until the relieving column found themselves in the impasse before Kut. This was their first chance, and all four rehabilitated themselves. Two died honourably, one of them inside the enemy’s trenches killed by a Turkish grenadier; one was awarded the Indian Order of Merit; and the lance-naik degraded was promoted to naik.
He was in the rearguard covering the retirement until dark, and it was noticed that he laid out all his cartridge cases as he fired, keeping them nicely dressed in a neat little heap, as had been well rubbed into him on parade. I am told that there is much promise in this jiwan. And it must be admitted that the caste instinct with all its disabilities made a man of him. Breeding brought into contact with regimental tradition gives the sense of noblesse oblige, and deference is the birthright of the twice-born. Thus the Brahman of Oudh, tried and proved in a wrestling match or a tug-of-war, thinks himself as good a man in a scrap as the most fire-eating Turk; and the assumption is all on the credit side.
Rajput pride is at the bottom of the saddest story of a sepoy I have ever heard. The man was not a Rajput of the plains, but a hillman of Rajput descent, as brave a man as any in a battalion whose chivalry in France became a household word. After two days’ incessant fighting with a minimum of rest at night, he fell asleep at his post.
On account of his splendid service, and his exhaustion at the time, which was after all the tax of gallantry, the death penalty was commuted, and the man was sentenced to thirty lashes. He would much have preferred death. However, he took the lashes well, and there was little noticeable change in him afterwards beyond an increase of reserve. He went about his work as usual, and was in two or three more actions, in which he acquitted himself well. After a complete year in France, the battalion was moved to Egypt, where they stayed five months. Then came the welcome news that they were returning home.
On the afternoon of the day he disembarked at Bombay the Rajput shot himself. He had chosen to live when there was work to do and death was his neighbour every day; now, when he might have lived, and when he was a bare three days from his family and home, he chose to die. The British officers tried to find out from the men what had driven him to it. But the sepoys were very silent and reticent. All they would say was that it was “on account of shame.”
The boy who commanded his platoon, and who had been shooting with him in his district before the war, knows no more than I the processes of his mind. He is inclined to think that he decided at once, immediately after the sentence had been executed, to destroy himself when his regiment returned. Or he may have turned it over in his mind day and night for more than a year, and in the end the sight of Hindustan resolved him.
When the idea of home became real and imminent, the thought became unen-durable that he should be pointed at in the village street as the man who had been whipped. In one case there is heroism; in the other a very human weakness; and in either case a tragedy of spirit that reveals the intensity of pride which is the birthright of the “twice-born.”