22 June, 2021

The British Seeds of Secession

The Sikh response to Indian nationalism was complex—­loyal soldiers of the colonial army, they didn’t fall for the ‘separate electorate’ idea

Men Of War
Sikh soldiers proved their loyalty to the East India Company in 1857 (right); Sardar Baghel Singh
Photograph by Alamy
The British Seeds of Secession

As the mutiny of 1857 dissipated into massacres of Indians by the British, the British began to sing paeans to the Sikhs as loyal soldiers who could be depended upon to do the bidding of their imperial masters. Memoir after memoir, written by the victorious officers of the East India Company, recalled how the Sikhs entered Delhi or Lucknow and massacred the defeated sepoys. Their “love for the excitement of war” came in for particular praise. This was much in line with what army surgeon McGregor had noted in 1846, as the then popular view among the British, that the Sikhs “loved war and strife bec­ause of the teachings of their gurus, particularly Guru Gobind Singh”. Over the next 50 years, the idea of Sikhs as a martial race would become a favourite principle of the British Indian army. By 1912, Sikh soldiers constituted some 20 per cent of the British Indian Army. Its most important ideologue, Lt. General George MacMunn, could say with great confidence in praise of the Sikhs that although “slow-witted, they were doggedly courageous and...

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