A Home for the Mongoose

Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War tells an interesting story which happened in 1943 in Bengal. One night Krishna Chaitanya Mahapatro, a seventeen year old courier for the secret parallel government, reached Tamluk carrying copies of their newspaper. He had to make sure he was not caught by the soldiers who were out to catch the freedom fighters. As he hid behind some trees, a farmer, recognizing who he was invited him to spend the night in his home.
The house was a one room shack. The walls were mud plastered on bamboo and the roof, some leaves. Mahapatro noticed that the farmer was walking around as if something bothered him.

“Whatever the villagers had in the house — some fermented rice, some puffed rice–they would offer. But he was so poor he had nothing.” Kanu asked him not to worry. It was the middle of the night; he should just go to sleep. The farmer went inside, but soon emerged. “Babu, you had nothing. I am feeling bad,” he said wringing his hands. Kanu tried again to reassure him, but to no avail. In a little while the man got a small brass pot out of the hut, washed it in a nearby pond and milked the cow. “Please have at least this,” he offered. “I drank the warm milk, and his love brought tears to my eyes,” Mahapatro said [Churchill’s Secret War]

This incident happened in the midst of the Bengal Famine in which at least 3 million people died. If the famed mongoose had visited this farmer’s house, his body would have turned golden.

Indian Army after 1857

In his post, Punjabis in the Indian Army, Fëanor writes about the composition of the Indian army in the 1870s. He notes that there were more Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs in the army compared to others.

Because most fighting by Indian troops from the mid-nineteenth century onwards was in north-west India, it was thought that troops recruited from amongst the local Kshatriya castes were best suited in those military spheres; further, recruits from the local peasantry were thought to be more impressionable and more easily commanded than the Bengalis and Tamils in the erstwhile Indian armies – higher caste folks with far too many opinions on the ways and means of the world than were good for them.

Between 1881 and 1893, the proportion of these martial races went up from 25% to 50% of the entire Indian infantry.[Punjabis in the Indian Army]

Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War mentions this change in demographics of the recruits to the army and offers a different explanation. Following the Anglo-Indian war of 1857, Queen Victoria took direct control of the colony after dismissing the East India Company and military strategists had to think of ways to prevent incidents like 1857 from happening again. So the native portion of the Army was filled with “martial races” — Sikhs, Muslims or Rajputs — from the regions that had not gone to war in 1857.  Also recognizing the unity among various religious groups in attacking the English, they were segregated so that a Sikh regiment would fire into a Hindu regiment or vice-versa without any qualms.

When some groups are named “martial races”, the implication is that the others are not. What about the Native Infantries from Eastern and Central India that rebelled and quickly liberated various towns and cities in 1857? What about their leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers? Were they not “martial” enough?

Alivardi Khan on Governance

In Operation Red Lotus, Parag Tope wrote about the forgotten Azamgarh proclamation in which the Indian leaders of 1857 promised a triad of invaluable freedoms : political, personal, and economic. The review was getting too long and I had to leave this piece, about life in 1700s, which I found in Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War.

In the early 1700s, a far sighted diwan named Murshid Quli Khan reformed administration. Sixteen powerful zamindars, or overseers, and about a thousand minor ones, ran the province under his watchful eye. The zamindars, who called themselves rajas if they were Hindus and nawabs if they were Muslim, maintained armies, collected taxes and ran the courts, police, postal services, and often the schools. Villagers owned the lands they tended, and not even bankruptcy could evict them. Tax-exempt fields attached to the temples and mosques aided the poor, whereas those who excavated ponds or made other improvements earned tax remissions. Agricultural taxes — a fifth of the harvest — could be paid in kind, without resort to money lenders. The state, recognizing farmers, spinners, weavers, and merchants as the source of its wealth, tried to protect them. “The money in the hands of the people of the country is my wealth which I have consigned to their purses,” explained Alivardi, a ruler in the mid-eighteenth century, cautioning his grandson Siraj-ud-daula to abstain from extortion. “Let them grow rich and the state will grow rich also.”