The slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, coined by Lal Bahadur Shastri, ennobles the role of warrior and peasant. In reality there is little respect for the profession of soldiery here. Any number of American politicians proudly announce their son’s enlistment as a private, the entry-level soldier. How many Indian leaders send their sons to become jawans? I can think of none. Foot-soldiery in India is for the poor.
In Kipling’s Kim, the one sensual episode is the brief exchange between the Dogra jawan and the Amritsari girl on the train. Kipling suggests she finds the jawan attractive for his status. The truth is that Indian society doesn’t see him that way. But no need for pity. The Indian jawan’s mercenary nature has sent him on adventures around the world. Let’s look at his story, for instruction as much as for entertainment.
In his great work Histories, written aaround 450 BC, Herodotus reported the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Accompanying the Parsi emperor Xerxes was a group of Indian mercenaries. Herodotus writes that the Indian infantry wore not armour but cotton, and carried cane bows and cane arrows tipped with iron. Indian cavalry was similarly armed, on horseback or in “chariots drawn by horses or wild asses”. Most of the Persian army withdrew with Xerxes in 479 after smashing the Spartans at Thermopylae and flattening Athens. The Indian mercenaries were kept back to fight one final battle at Plataea alongside the elite Persian guard called Zhayedan, the Immortals. This shows us what the quality and reputation of the Indians was.
Arms and the men: Jawans take position at the battlefront. Getty Images/AP
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
On 1 October 331 BC, the Parsis lost their empire to Alexander the Great at Gaugamela. Indian mercenaries “from both sides of the Indus” fought in the army of Darius, according to Alexander’s best historian. The Indians fought tactically with 15 elephants, and were placed “in the centre with Darius’s personal guard” (Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander). Though their side lost, the Indians fought well, Arrian reports. They broke clean through the Macedonian lines and made their way to Alexander’s baggage train—to loot it.
Indians would have also fought the previous battle at Issus in November 333 BC, according to Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, but there wasn’t enough time to hire them before the battle. In his otherwise unreadable and prejudiced work, called The History of Alexander, Curtius Rufus says “the Indian fighters were so tall that the Macedonians’ heads only came up to their shoulders”. It is likely they were Jats from Punjab/Haryana. After Darius was assassinated by traitors, Alexander marched his armies into Punjab.
While Indians offered their mercenary services to foreigners, they also roamed India in bands and fought for whoever paid them. Before the battle against Porus in May 326 BC, Alexander massacred 7,000 Punjabi mercenaries. The men had fought Alexander’s forces to a standstill in a skirmish at a town that had hired them. Arrian says they were then allowed to leave under a compromise. But Alexander worried they would be hired again, and broke his word, setting his soldiers upon them as the Indians left the town fortifications.
In his Life of Alexander, Plutarch writes: “Now the best fighters among the Indians were mercenaries, whose custom it was to travel from one city to another as they were needed: they defended their clients vigorously and caused Alexander heavy losses. So he concluded a truce with them when they were in one city (near Rawalpindi), allowed them to leave, and then attacked them on the march and annihilated them.”
Tactically, I think Alexander was justified in killing them, but the Greek historians were uniformly horrified. Diodorus Siculus described the action in his multi-volume work Bibliotheca Historica: “Not daunted at the greatness of their danger, the mercenaries joined ranks and, forming a full circle, placed their children and women in the centre so that they might effectively face those who were attacking from all directions. Filled with desperate courage and fighting stoutly with native toughness and the experience of previous contests, they were opposed by Macedonians anxious not to show themselves inferior to barbarians in fighting ability, so that the battle was a scene of horror. They fought hand to hand, and as the contestants engaged each other every form of death and wounds was to be seen. The Macedonians thrust with their long spears through the light shields of the mercenaries and pressed the iron points on into their lungs, while they in turn flung their javelins into the close ranks of their enemies and could not miss the mark, so near was the target.”
Diodorus says that the Indian mercenaries’ women also took up arms and “fought beside their men, since the acuteness of the danger and the fierceness of the action forced them to be brave beyond their nature”.
Outnumbered, the Indians were annihilated.
Plutarch wrote: “This action remains a blot on his career as a soldier.” After fighting Porus, Alexander then turned back, sailing down the Indus to the Arabian Sea and then through Persia to Iraq where he died on 10 June 323 BC a month before he turned 33.
Pakistani writer Mustansar Husain Tarar thinks that Porus actually defeated Alexander at the battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum). He believes Greek historians later papered over this humiliation by saying Alexander turned back because his army was disheartened (“sipah baddil ho gayi”). Alexander wouldn’t have retreated, Tarar argues, had the Indians not given the Macedonians a hiding. Funnily, Tarar says Pakistan has raised a monument to Alexander the Great (“Sikandar-e-Azam”) on the banks of the Chenab because they mistakenly think he was a Muslim who defeated the Hindu Porus.
The Athenian historian Xenophon, himself also a mercenary, writes in his superb work Anabasis that the Persian civil war between Cyrus the younger and his brother Arsaces featured many mercenaries on both sides. This was during the battle of Cunaxa, fought on 3 September 401 BC. Xenophon, who himself fought on the losing side of Cyrus (who was killed), does not name their nationalities but we can be sure Indians dominated the list. The Indica of Megasthenes is the source of the famous line that “India never invaded another nation”. But Megasthenes adds that India’s mercenaries always responded to Persian summons to invasion. Turk, Afghan, Mughal, Maratha, Sikh, Frenchman, Persian, Dutchman, Portuguese, Briton. The Indian jawan fought for and against all of these as long as someone gave him salary and rations.
Army chief Gen. Vijay Kumar Singh is from the Rajput Regiment (war cry: “Bol Bajrang Bali ki jai!”), raised in 1778. The Punjab Regiment (“Boley so nihaal, Sat Sri Akal!”) was raised in 1761. The origins of the Madras Cavalry and the Madras Regiment (“Veer Madrassi adi kollu, adi kollu, adi kollu!”) go back to 1776, the year of American independence. The Maratha Light Infantry (“Bol Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj ki jai!”) was raised in 1768 and the Dogra Regiment (“Jawala Mata ki jai!”) in 1877. Manekshaw’s Gorkha Rifles (“Ayo Gorkhali!”) came in 1824 and the Jat Regiment (“Jat balwan, jai Bhagwan!”) has its origins in 1795. The Sikh Regiment was raised in 1846 and the Kumaon Regiment’s (“Kalika Mata ki jai!”) battalions, raised in 1887, go back to 1813. The Marathis of Mahar Regiment (“Bol Hindustan ki jai!”) defeated Bajirao II’s Maratha armies at Koregaon on 1 January 1818 and this has been our story all along.
If India was independent in 1947, whom did the jawans in these regiments fight and kill for almost 200 years? Other Indians.
Question: Why do only the untouchable Mahars have a patriotic war cry? Answer: Because the regiment was disbanded under the Martial Races theory and then reformed before independence under Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s influence. None of the other regiments had “India” in mind. Jawans fought and died abroad in the tens of thousands for their employer, first a British corporation and then the British parliament. In World War I 74,000, in World War II 87,000, thousands more in the Anglo-Afghan wars. There are Indian mercenaries buried in swathes of western and southern Europe and they spilt and drew blood in some of the most savage battles against the Nazis and the Fascists.
If the United Nations raised an army and paid in dollars, would Indian and Pakistani jawans line up to get in? I believe so. And they would get in too, because they are brave, disciplined and loyal fighters, particularly when led by quality officers of the sort the British empire produced.
And why not? Our elites flee India to work in the West the first chance they get. Why insist jawans are different from other Indians? We only express our patriotism at Wankhede, but they must do it at Kargil and at Siachen. We transfer all responsibility for patriotism to them through slogans, but that’s unfair.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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