How World War I busted the White Man’s myth about Kashmir


As World War I completed its 100th year on November 11, 2018, a traditional tribute in the form of war heroics and legends mainly marked the day. But hardly any observation was made about the historic myth-busting moment when the ‘non-warrior’ theory imposed on Kashmiris collapsed with their participation in the Great War.

The White Man’s myth about oppressed Kashmiris—some of whom were even skinned alive while others were left to die in the extreme cold during the treacherous foreign rule—was busted when Maharaja Pratap Singh decked up Srinagar for the World War I celebrations. Among the things that the warriors brought back from the trenches of Europe were the war trophies in the form of the German insignia and the flag.

Such was the homecoming fervour that the soldiers were given a hero’s welcome at the Jammu Railway Station. Among those war-rugged soldiers of the princely state, were Kashmiris. Their surprising presence became historic on many counts, given how they were written off by the British military officers as the ‘non-martial’ race—unfit for warfare—after the 1857 Mutiny.

For years, before becoming part of the Imperial British Indian army for WWI showdown, some of those Kashmiris would locally exhibit their warrior skills by locking horns in frequent turf-wars or disputes. Srinagar’s Old City, which would become one of the defiant pockets of Kashmir, housed some warrior-in-their-own-right clans, known for their excessive pride of their past and roots.

But given the invasive oppression, some historians argue, these tribes could never assert their warlike behaviour, until some of them were picked up for the Great War.

That day in Srinagar, the mood continued to stay celebratory, after the war heroes returned home from WWI that broke out on July 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The war at once polarised the world, pitting Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire as the Central Powers against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States.

By the time, the war ended on November 11, 1918—remembered as the Armistice Day—those JK forces had demonstrated their warfare prowess in France, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine and other fronts. Jammu and Kashmir had greatly contributed for the 13-lakh strength British Indian Army for WWI. And once the war ended, Kashmir Imperial Service Corps—declared as “the most reliable” troops—swept 31 awards, while Kashmir Lancers brought home many Chest Candies, for their decisive belligerence in Palestine.

Much of this, however, is either a forgotten chapter of history or has been conveniently swept under the rug, in the larger narrative controlled by the powers of the day in Kashmir.

There’s hardly any mention of how Maharaja Pratap Singh’s Kashmir Rifles stood out as a formidable force during the war. The monarch had sent three Infantry Battalions and one Mountain Battery for service under the British for WWI.

Maharaja Pratap Singh.

Apart from Dogras, Jat and Gujjar clans from Jammu, the princely state force had many Kashmiris in it, besides Bhuttas from Gilgit and Khakhas and Bambas from Muzaffarabad.

But while those tribes were hailed for their bravery, Kashmiris were forgotten. Even before the war, Kashmiris were treated as war misfits, according to some accounts.

It’s widely believed that much of that impression had to do with the fact that unlike Dogras and other clans, Kashmiris under oppressive regimes couldn’t produce their own martial legends.

But years later, even as some sons of the soil would make it to the wedding anthems in Kashmir for their ‘martial moves’, the theory popped up soon after the 1857 Mutiny continues to cast aspersions on the Kashmiri character. And majorly, the bracketing done by the Imperial British army officers was responsible for it.

Soon after it faced India’s First War of Independence in 1857, the British bracketed Indian tribes into martial or non-martial races. As per the theory, the ‘brave and belligerent’ were classified as martial, while those seen ‘unfit for battle’ by British became the non-martial races.

This bracketing, the world later learned, was the White Man’s myth imposed on different races—including Kashmiris, in order to ‘keep them in check’.

While those who participated in the Great Mutiny were branded as seditious agitators and non-martial, the castes that never took part in the rebellion—like Pashtuns, Punjabis, Gurkhas, Kumaoni and Garhwalis—were categorised as martial. Intriguingly, some of them were hillbillies who were into hunting, and had nothing to do with warfare.

“[Under Martial Theory] Indians who were intelligent and educated were defined as cowards,” Jeffrey Greenhut, a professional military historian, writes in The Imperial Reserve. “While those defined as brave were uneducated and backward.”  Though the British regarded the ‘martial races’ as gallant, they also considered them as ‘the retards bereft of Warcraft’.

The Mutiny of 1857.

More than anything else, this division instilling a ‘fake sense of bravado’ and a superior race pride (like, the Kshatriya, or Warrior class mentality) in some tribes, suited the colonizers. Post-bracketing, the tribes kept competing with each other, and therefore couldn’t come on the same page. With the result, India never witnessed another 1857 like Mutiny.

“The martial race concept,” says Richard Schultz, an American author, “was a supposedly a clever British effort to divide and rule the people of India for their own political ends.” While the martial race theory kept the thinking and defiant individuals at bay, it helped the colonisers to avail the local hired guns.

The same theory explains why Kashmiris were dismissed as a ‘non-martial’ race.

“While the basis of this theory is totally absurd, it’s also true that Kashmiris have been peaceful people throughout the history, mostly engaged in intellectual pursuits, trade and craftsmanship,” says Zareef A. Zareef, a Kashmiri poet-historian. “But to dismiss Kashmiris as non-martial is a shrewdly peddled myth. Those were the Kashmiris—called Dilawars, who resisted the first foreign occupation in Kashmir when Mughals became our first colonizers. Later their progeny kept resisting the different occupiers in their own right and might.”

100 years back, when some of those Kashmiris returned home from the war-trenches of Europe, it was a complete departure from their forefathers’ engagement in an oppressive regime, that even forced bonded labour aka Begair upon them.

After Mughals, the ruthless Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras made the oppressed nature of Kashmiris as some default character curse, much like how the black race was condemned to slavery by noted colonial ‘scholars’, many of whom were a product or a beneficiary of the slave trade system.

“It’s like you chain an elephant cub and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t set himself free. Even as he attains strength to break those chains as an adult, he continues to consider himself weak and meek. That’s what enslavement does to you. Kashmiris harboured the same mindset under those oppressive regimes and thought it as their way of life,” Zareef says.

Indian troopers during World War 1.

But when the Great War called for the greater participation from the Imperial British colonies, the so-called Martial Theory fell apart. As the ‘non-martial races’ were recruited in droves to overcome serious troop deficit during the WWI, Kashmiris soon found themselves on the frontlines, along with their counterparts from Pir Panjal Range—housing some prominent war veterans, some of whom would become sparkplugs of the Poonch Rebellion in the tumultuous 1947, months before the Muslim Massacre in Jammu.

Even as the theory hardly found any takers in the post-colonial era, the military fascination around kukri-wielding Gurkhas and kilted Scots continued to fuel the White Man’s myth.

“Some of the world armies, especially many in Indian army, still drive pleasure from this concept,” says a senior police officer, who was one of the earliest faces of counterinsurgent grid in Kashmir — the busy unit of state police set up during the nineties, when masses in Kashmir rose up in armed uprising against Indian state.

“Pakistani military would once take a lot of pride in martial supremacy, but when it messed with their politics, they dismissed it for good,” the officer continues. “But now, it has found roots on the other side, thanks to ultra-nationalist TV channels.”

Back home, however, as Kashmiri participation in WWI debunked the Martial theory, many tried to delve into the past to know more about Kashmir’s tryst with warfare.

One of the earliest treaties recorded in Kalhan’s Rajtarangini describes the expeditions of a few Kashmiri emperors, like Lalitaditya in Bengal and Odisha. It was the era, the text states, when Kashmiri warriors would venture outside the valley on regular war trips, on style of the monarchs of the day, driven by the territorial conquest goals.

Among the legends that underline Kashmiris’ warrior character is when they resisted the Muslim ruler Mahmud of Gazni’s repeated infiltration attempts into the Kashmir valley. Even today, some castes—for example, Lones and Dars—take much pride of their Kashmiri Kshatriya roots.

After passing through twists and turns, as the WWI finally broke the oppressive shackles of the times, majority of Kashmiris would grow as introverts and timid. The perpetual state of oppression in their backyard would even keep them on radar of their foreign rulers, who even shunted them out in their regimental ranks.

“Those treacherous regimes would instead recruit outsiders as their troops, who would then oppress, and collect taxes from the natives,” says Sahil Hameed, a scholar pursuing his doctorate on Medieval Kashmir. “But it’s equally a fact whenever some locals were recruited by these foreign regimes, they tend to behave curt ruthless. That tells you another story of the Kashmiri character, when power replaces oppression.”

Amid this, Kashmiris today are representing different forces. Of India’s one million troops, only 3 percent are Muslims—and among them, troops serving in the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAK LI) form 50 percent of the total Muslim troops of India.

Clearly, the ‘rising ranks’ of Kashmiris, coinciding with the 100th Armistice Day of the WWI today underlines a glaring change in their warfare ability—besides busting the White Man’s myth, all over again.


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