“Not fair to forget the people who helped to construct the empire on Indian soil”, Rettaimalai Srinivasan, the iconic Dalit leader who participated in the Round Table conferences with British in 1931 – 32 representing Depressed Classes, apparently told the colonial rulers on their face. Srinivasan who attended the conference with another iconic Dalit leader B R Ambedkar had this strong point to make.
It was indeed the depressed class, specifically the Paraiyar community, which stood shoulder to shoulder with the British as the British East India Company waged one war after another to augment their colonial gains in India in those initial years of the 18th century. So much so, the Madras Army established in 1757 had an exclusive Paraiyar Regiment called ‘Queen’s Own Sappers and Miners’ consisting mostly of muscular men of the Paraiyar community.
It would be audacious to term that the European powers made all the gains by themselves without being adequately supported by their native soldiers. The British East Indian Company realized the importance of raising an army locally after losing Madras (now Chennai) to the French so miserably in 1746. If not for the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle under which the French handed over Madras back, British aspirations in India would have been nipped in the bud.
Evident that we are reading this article in English rather than French, the British got back Madras as per the treaty. Having learned the lesson the hard way, the British East India Company was in no mood to be caught off guard next time. The company still had a regiment called Madras European Regiment formed in 1660 to safeguard the factories in India. But the need for a proper battalion was felt after the humiliating defeat to the French in 1746.
Stringer Lawrence, one of the finest military geniuses of those times, came down to India and assumed the charge of raising the army in 1748. Almost after ten years, the British East India Company had a proper army as Madras Army in 1757. It was pitched into the Battle of Plassey in the same year under Robert Clive. Three years later, the army commanded by Eyre Coote marched into the Battle of Wandiwash on Jan. 22, 1760, and what followed was the end of all French aspirations in India and the country yoked under the British for the next two centuries.
Manas Dutta, Research Fellow of History from the University of Calcutta in his paper ‘Revisiting the historiography of the Madras Presidency Army’ published in IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences elaborates how the marginalized or untouchable or labourer castes played a significant role in the Madras Army as Sepoys, the foot soldiers. The Paraiyars, the Tamil-speaking oppressed caste, spread over Northern Tamil Nadu provided a larger chunk of soldiers to the colonial army. The Madras Army was a win-win situation for British and Paraiyars as the latter who were suppressed as agrarian slaves by upper classes, found new employment, Dutta explains. The Paraiyars were exclusively recruited for one of the regiments of Madras Army which came to be known as ‘Queens Own Sappers and Miners’ [Paraiyar Regiment], Dutta records in his paper.
J Balasubramanian, Assistant Professor at Madurai Kamaraj University and scholar of Dalit studies, points out that recruitment to Madras Army helped the oppressed Paraiyar community towards social uplift. “It was like a twig or branch a drowning man would grab on for dear life, in this case, a dignified life out of oppression,” he reasoned.
The colonial rulers found the Madras Army very docile and disciplined. Most importantly, the southern Army came without the baggage of native sentiments like in Bengal Army. The Company had to be sensitive towards the caste sentiments of upper-class soldiers recruited for the Bengal Army. From living quarters to battlefields, caste prejudices followed. Not just the greased cartridges of Enfield Rifles, the fear of these soldiers being asked to undertake overseas journeys for battles also triggered the Indian Revolt or First Indian War of Independence in 1857. A voyage into the sea was believed to pollute the purity of caste those days. The Madras Army had little of such apprehensions. The army was in action at First Burma War in 1826, First China War in 1840 – 42, and the Second Burma War in 1852 – 54 thus earning commendation after commendation. It religiously marched to North India in 1857 to quell the Indian Revolt by the Bengal Army.
Manas Dutta states in his paper that the Company’s military officials had frequently praised the Paraiyan soldiers for their submissive nature and dutiful conduct. J Balasubramanian, Assistant Professor at Madurai Kamaraj University and scholar of Dalit studies, points out that recruitment to Madras Army helped the oppressed Paraiyar community towards social uplift. It was desperation to get out of the social shackles they were tied to in the rigid Indian society. “It was like a twig or branch a drowning man would grab on for dear life, in this case, a dignified life out of oppression,” he reasoned.
But the opportunity of such social uplift through the military did not last long for the community when the Presidential Armies were transferred to the crown in 1858 and merged into the British Indian Army in 1895. The reforms instituted by Lord Kitchener, commander in chief of the Indian Army, further wiped the prospects when Kitchener insisted that the recruitment should focus on the ‘martial races’ of India.
Folklore Scholar and Professor A Sivasubramanian compared the Paraiyar Regiment or Queens Own Sappers and Miners to Mahar Regiment of Bombay Army. In the epic battle at Bhima Koregaon on Jan. 1, 1818 the Mahar Regiment under Bombay Army withstood the numerically superior Peshwa’s Maratha Army. The battle in which a smaller army effectively managed an overwhelming larger army is hailed as a glorious example of valour and the role of the Mahar regiment is praiseworthy in the battle. The Mahar community celebrates this victory to date and the violence at Bhima Koregaon in 2018 merely signifies how much it hurts the upper caste pride, Sivasubramanian pointed out.
Dr. B R Ambedkar’s father was a Mahar regimental soldier and Ambedkar was very vocal about raising the Mahar Regiment again after it was disbanded under the same logic of martial race under Kitchener reforms. In spite of his repeated appeals by the community leaders and others, the British raised the regiment again only when they ran short of men during World Wars I and II.
Ambedkar in his speeches and writings said the “untouchables” helped the British conquer India and helped it to retain it t referring to the Bombay and Madras Armies in 1857 Mutiny. The Bombay Army and the Madras Army remained loyal because they were drawn from the untouchables, Ambedkar points out. He also expresses his anguish in his book about how the British abandoned the very people who helped them to conquer and retain India by reforms in the army. If there are regiments for Jats, Sikhs, Rajputs, why cannot be there a regiment for untouchables? The same untouchability made the British keep the communities away from the defence forces. In cases of conflict between justice and convenience, the British prefer convenience and they preferred the convenience of throwing the untouchables away without any sense of gratitude….Ambedkar’s writing goes on and on.
For a brief moment, the Paraiyar Regiment, Queens Own Sappers and Miners, did shine brightly in their colours and fade into history.