The Jat, as we have seen, is the backbone of the Punjab; for it is from this Scythian breed that most of the Sikhs and a number of the Punjabi Mussalmans derive their sinews and stout-heartedness. If you used the word in its broad ethnic sense, signifying all classes of Jat descent, the muster would include the best part of the roll of modern Indian chivalry. But it is with the Hindu Jat, whose ancestors were not seduced or intimidated by Islam and who himself is not sufficiently attracted by the Khalsa to become a Sikh, that this chapter deals. That neither material expediency, love of honour, nor the glamour of an ideal has turned him aside from the immemorial path of his ancestors presupposes a certain stolidity, in which one is not disappointed when one knows the man.
I have passed many years in a district where there are Jats, but the Jat villager is not the same man as the Jat sepoy, and I did not make acquaintance with the sepoy breed until I ran across the bomb-havildar of the 6th Jats in Mesopotamia.
The Jat is primarily a farmer. He has not the ancient military traditions of the Rajput, Mahratta, or Sikh, though none so stubborn as he to fight for his own land.
I was taking my bully, and “Tigris” and whisky, with a Jat regiment, the 6th, when the discussion arose as to why the Jat wears gold in his teeth. The doctor thought the idea was that gold carried you over the Styx; it was a kind of Elysian toll. I persuaded the Colonel to call one of the men into the dug-out and to draw him on the point. So Tara, the bomb-havildar, was sent for, a jiwan of five years’ service and the quickest intelligence in the regiment.
Tara entered, saluted and stood at attention, each joint of him independently stiff and inflexible, the stiffest wooden soldier could not be more stiff than he, and his rifle was speckless in spite of the mud. At the O.C.’s command his limbs became more independent of one another, but rigidity was still the prominent note.
“Why do Jats wear gold in their teeth, Tara?” the Colonel asked: “this Sahib wants to know.”
“For the sake of appearance, Sahib,” he said, “to give them an air.”
“Is there no other reason?”
It was a stroke of genius in Guru Gobind Singh when he turned the Jat into a Sikh, gave him the five badges, and wedded him to steel. Tradition grew with the title of Singh, and a great military brotherhood was founded
Tara consulted the tarpaulin overhead, the mud walls, the mud table of the mess, where “La Vie Parisienne” and a Christmas annual gave the only bit of relief to this dun-coloured habitation. Then he smiled and delivered himself slowly, “There is a saying among my people, Sahib, that he who wears gold in his teeth must always speak what is true. Gold in the teeth stops the passage of lies.”
“But you have no gold in your teeth?”
“Is that why you tell the tall story about all those Germans you killed at Festubert?”
Tara smiled at this thrust.
“No, Sahib,” he said, laughing. “It is true I killed ten between two traverses.”
“Better ask him right out, sir,” the doctor suggested.
“I have heard some story about gold helping the Jat to heaven,” the Colonel observed to Tara.
The gleam of reminiscence in the havildar’s eyes, as he confirmed this legend, showed that he was not speaking merely to please. It was the old story of Charon. Gold, he explained, was a passport in the other world as in this, and it was not safe to carry it on the finger or on the ear where it might be detached, so it was worn on the teeth.
“And who puts it there?”
If the Jat is wanting in initiative and enterprise, this is merely a defect of a virtue, for once set going it never enters his honest hard head to do anything else but go on. And that is why the Jat has done so well in this war.
“The goldsmith, Sahib,” and he enlarged upon the exorbitance of the Sonari; for the Jat is as thrifty as the Scot.
It was on account of these charges that Tara had omitted the rite.
“When you go back to your village,” the Colonel said, dismissing him, “don’t forget to visit the Sonari, and then you will not tell any more lies.”
Tara saluted with an irradiating smile. “Assuredly, Sahib, I will not forget,” he said. “I shall go straight to the Sonari.”
This was quite a sally for Tara, and we all laughed, for the Jat is not quick at repartee. The way we had to dig the story out of him was characteristic, but he is not as a rule so responsive to badinage. The Jat has no time for play. When he is a boy he is too busy looking after the cows, and his nose is kept at the grindstone until he crumbles into the soil that bore him. He has no badges, flags, emblems, no peculiar way of tying his turban or wearing his clothes; and he has very little sentiment. It was a stroke of genius in Guru Gobind Singh when he turned the Jat into a Sikh, gave him the five badges, and wedded him to steel. Tradition grew with the title of Singh, and a great military brotherhood was founded; but in the unconverted Jat there is the same strong fibre, the stronger, the regimental officer will tell you, for not having been uprooted or pruned, and he prides himself that he will make as good a soldier out of the Jat as ever the Guru did.
The Jat is primarily a farmer. He has not the ancient military traditions of the Rajput, Mahratta, or Sikh, though none so stubborn as he to fight for his own land. He does not figure in history among the adventurers, builders of kingdoms, leaders of men, but circumstance has moulded him from time to time into a fighting man. Prosperity may soften him, but adversity only stiffens the impression of the mould.
It was during the reconstitution of the Indian Army in 1893, that the Jats were built up again into a fighting race. A good regimental officer can make anything he will out of the Jat. It takes earthquakes and volcanoes to turn a regiment of these hard-bitten men out of a position they have been given to hold. If the Jat is wanting in initiative and enterprise, this is merely a defect of a virtue, for once set going it never enters his honest hard head to do anything else but go on. And that is why the Jat has done so well in this war. Every knock hardens him. Courage is often the outcome of ignorance, but the remnants of a Jat battalion which has been wiped out half a dozen times will go into the attack again as unconcerned as a new draft.
Give him a trench to hold and he will stick to it as a matter of course until he is ordered to come out.
The 6th Jats was one of the first of the Indian regiments to be engaged in France. As early as the 16th of November, 1914, they had broken into the German trenches. It was on the 23rd of the same month that they made the gallant counter-attack over the snow at Festubert with the Garhwalis and won back the lost trenches. At Givenchy, on December 20th, they held their ground against the German wave when they were left practically in the air; and they would not let go their hold at Neuve-Chapelle when they were enfiladed from the Port Arthur position, still intact, on their right. Two months afterwards, on the 9th of May, they made their frontal attack on Port Arthur. A double company penetrated the German lines; only seven men returned unwounded. History repeated itself in Mesopotamia. It has been the part of this gallant stock to arrive on the scene in the nick of time and to be thrown into the brunt of the attack.
The Jat is not troubled with nerves or imagination, and he is seemingly unacquainted with fear. Alarums, bombardments, and excursions having become his normal walk of life, he will continue on his path, probably with fewer inward questionings than most folk, until the end of the war. zThe regiment in the trenches were mostly Jats of Hissar and Rohtak, and the Colonel told me with the pride that is right and natural in the regimental officer that this was the best stock. “You must get the Jat where he is top dog in his own country,” he said, “and not where he lives among folk who think they are his betters. And he is best where the land is poor. In districts where the sub-division of the soil among large families does not leave enough to go round you will get a good recruit.” Locality is all important; a dividing river may make all the difference. The Colonel admired the Jats of A, but he had no good word for the Jats of B.
When a Jat sits down and watches the canal water and the sun raise his crop, his fibre slackens, for his stubborn qualities proceed from the soil. It is the same with other agricultural classes in the Indian Army, but the Jat is probably the best living advertisement of the uses of adversity.
The Rajput Jat, especially from Bikaner, he admitted, were stout fellows, though they were not of his crew. There were well-to-do districts in which the Jat would not follow the pursuit of arms whether in peace or in war. “And if you want recruits,” he enjoined on me, “don’t go to an irrigated district.” Water demoralises them. When a Jat sits down and watches the canal water and the sun raise his crop, his fibre slackens, for his stubborn qualities proceed from the soil. It is the same with other agricultural classes in the Indian Army, but the Jat is probably the best living advertisement of the uses of adversity. There is a proverb in the Punjab on the lines of our own tag about the three things that are most improved by flagellation, but woman is the only item recommended in both cases. The Hindu variant adds “flax” and “the Jat.”
There is another rude proverb of the country. “ Like Jat, like byle (ox).” There are many Jats and most of them have some peculiar virtue of their own, but quickness of apprehension is not one of them. I had an amusing reminder of this before I left the trench. Bullets were spattering against the parapet with a crack as loud as the report of a rifle, and our own and the Turkish shells screamed over the dug-out with so confused a din that one was never quite sure which was which. It was the beginning of the afternoon “strafe.” Still there was no call for casualties, and one only had to keep one’s head low. In the middle of it a subaltern coming down “Queen Street” looked in and told us that one of the Jats was hit. “Loophole?” the Colonel asked. But it was not a loophole. The jiwan had got hold of somebody’s periscope; he had heard that it was a charm which enables you to see without being hit—he was standing up over the parapet trying to adjust it like a pair of field glasses, when a bullet flicked off part of his ear.
The supply of good Indian officers is some- times a difficulty in a Jat regiment, for these children of labour follow better than they lead. But even in the acquisition of understanding it is hard plugging application that tells. “Continuing” is the Jat’s virtue, or “carrying on” as we say, and he will sap through a course of signalling with the same doggedness as he saps up to the enemy’s lines. “We’ve got some first class signallers,” the Colonel boasted, “they can write their reports in Roman Urdu.”
And the pick of the lot was Tara. What that youth has seen in France and Mesopotamia would keep old Homer in copy through a dozen Iliads, but it has left no wrinkle on his brow. Tara is still as fresh as paint.
“Sahib,” he asks, “when may I go to the Turkish saphead with my bombs?” He lost a brother at Sheikh Saad and wants to make good.