While the story of how over a hundred Indian princely states were integrated into India by Sardar Patel and V P Menon is well known, what is not so well known is that the armies of these princely states too were incorporated into the Indian Army, to transform it into a strong and cohesive fighting force. Here’s the fascinating story of these forces, how they fought for the British on battlefronts abroad, and their fate when India achieved Independence.
When the British East India Company’s army was first raised in the late 18th century, the armies of various Indian rulers were stronger and more powerful than theirs was. However, with the Industrial Revolution in Europe and advances in military technology, the balance of power firmly tilted in favour of the British.
This enabled them to defeat various Indian powers like the Marathas, Jats and Sikhs and bring them under British suzerainty. From 1798 onwards, the British began what was known as the ‘Subsidiary Alliance’, according to which, Indian rulers were to maintain and pay for British forces on their territory for their own ‘protection’. As part of a well thought out plan, the once-powerful armies of the Indian rulers were whittled down to forces that were purely ceremonial in nature.
It was during the Revolt of 1857, when many Indian rulers like those of Patiala, Kapurthala, Bhopal and Gwalior aided the British, that the latter realized that the princely states and their soldiers could in fact be harnessed to further their own political ambitions.
At around this time, the ‘Great Game’ was unfolding in Central Asia, where both Russia and the British were vying for power in the region. During this time, the Russians conquered the Central Asian cities of Samarkhand and Bukhara and were eyeing Kabul and Punjab beyond it. In March 1885, the Russians defeated the Afghan army at Panjdeh, in present-day Turkmenistan, setting off alarm bells across the British establishment in India. The possibility of a Russian invasion of India, through Afghanistan, had always been Britain's worst nightmare.
The Indian princely states were quite rich in resources as well as fighting men, and the British felt they could be used to ‘support’ the British Indian Army without becoming a threat. With this in mind, the British launched the Imperial Service Troops Scheme of 1885, which created a reserve force from various princely states. The British provided them training and equipment, while the princely states paid for it and provided the men. They were commanded by Indian officers, unlike the British Indian Army, which was commanded by British officers.
These Imperial Service Troops included infantry, cavalry, artillery, sappers as well as transport battalions. The earliest theatre of war that these princely troops participated in was the Chitral Expedition in 1895, to fight a local warlord in Chitral (North of Peshawar). During the Boxer Rebellion of 1901 in China, the princely states of Alwar, Bikaner and Jodhpur sent their troops, with the 19-year old Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner personally participating in the war. The Bikaner Camel Corps also fought the colonial wars in Somaliland (Somalia) in 1901, while Hyderabad sent troops to South Africa, to fight the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1902.
The forces of the princely states played a key role in World War I, when Imperial Service Troops from Bikaner, Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Mysore were dispatched to Egypt and Mesopotamia to engage in combat there. The troops’ biggest achievement was in the Battle of Haifa (September 1918), when forces from Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad liberated the important town of Haifa (now in Israel) from Ottoman rule. This battle was historic as it was the last cavalry battle ever fought. To commemorate the victory and the sacrifices, the Teen Murti Memorial was built in Delhi. Other states provided resources and material, such as Gwalior, which donated the hospital ship S S Loyalty, which would play a very important role in India’s maritime history.
After the end of World War I, in 1918, it was considered necessary to reorganize the Imperial Service Troops. Accordingly, the Indian States Forces Scheme of 1920 was launched, to allow the princely states to expand their armies. But the states did not have resources to train or equip these troops. So while the size of the princely armies increased considerably, little emphasis was paid to their training and equipment.
During World War II, these ‘Indian States Forces’ participated in wars in Malay, Burma, North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. On the eve of India’s independence, in 1947, there were around 75,311 men in the armies of 44 different princely states.
The political integration of Indian princely states, which took place between 1947 and 1950, thanks to the efforts of Sardar Patel and V P Menon, also raised the question of these state armies. These forces were not as well trained as those of the Indian Army but they could not be simply disbanded.
The Government of India and the Indian Army considered them on a case-by-case basis. Some, like those of Manipur, Tripura and Bhopal were disbanded while others were incorporated into the Indian Army. Thus, by 1st April 1951, the forces of different states were absorbed into the Indian Army.
Here’s a look at instances of integration that echo in the Indian Army even today:
Madras Regiment: The infantry battalions of Travancore, Cochin and Mysore were merged into the Madras Regiment. Interestingly, the Travancore Nair Infantry, which is now the 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment, traces its origins to the Nair Brigade established in 1741 after the Battle of Colachel.
Maratha Light Infantry: The state forces of Kolhapur, Baroda and a part of the Hyderabad army were incorporated into the Maratha Light Infantry.
Punjab Regiment: The armed forces of Patiala, Faridkot, Nabha, Kapurthala and Jind were incorporated into the Punjab Regiment. Interestingly, the tiny 300-sq mile state of Faridkot had the largest army vis-à-vis its population! They played a very important role during the tribal invasion of Kashmir in 1947.
Garhwal Rifles: Troops from the princely state of Tehri-Garhwal integrated into the Garhwal Rifles comprising Kumaon and Garhwali troops.
Dogra Regiment: The troops from the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir, as well as Himachal states like Chamba, Suket and Mandi, among others, merged into the Dogra Regiment.
Grenadiers Regiment: Troops from the princely state of Mewar were incorporated into the Grenadiers Regiment as were those of the princely state of Kutch.
Rajputana Rifles& Rajput Regiment: The troops of the princely states of Rajasthan and Gujarat were incorporated into the Rajputana Rifles. They included the ‘Sawai Man Guards’ of Jaipur state. The infantry of Jodhpur and Bikaner became part of the Rajput Regiment. The famous Bikaner Camel Corps would become part of the Grenadiers.
Today, these divisions of the Indian Army represent different regions and symbolise the oneness of India. They also preserve the rich legacy of our nation.