Monday, January 14, 2008

The Kangra infantry

18th century India saw the rise to prominence of infantry groups like the Berads, Telingas, Ruhelas, Jats, and Purbias. All Indian armies from the ancient times had an infantry component, but the improved rate of firing and the longer range and accuracy of modern firearms, propelled this arm to the forefront of other formations (cavalry and artillery).

By the closing decades of that century, these groups, particularly the Purbias, had been formed into disciplined infantry units by (mostly) French military officers. These military changes, emerging primarily under the spread of the Maratha power from western and central India, were paralleled in the east and south by the steady expansion of the English East India Company rule.

The quaint hill-state of Kangra, though located far north in the Western Himalayas, was not unaffected by these changes. Rajput states traditional relied on their clan providing the main (cavalry) force to the army, while their artillery and infantry were manned by those who could not afford to buy or maintain horses. Even so, the Rajputs of the Jammu and Kangra Hills, whether on horseback or foot, had a reputation of being excellent marksmen.

In the mid-18th century, after a century-and-a-half of war and peace with the Mughal Empire, Kangra's new ruler, Ghammand Chand Katoch recovered his entire kingdom from Mughal occupation. This success was paralleled by the invasions of Ahmad Shah Abdali into the Mughal Punjab (1748-67)—during this period the trade routes traditionally passing through that province were diverted to the hill-states, further enriching their economy.

As the Mughals gave way to the Afghans, their soldiers sought employment elsewhere. Raja Ghammand Chand, because of his increased revenue, is believed to have hired an army of 4000 mercenaries, to supplement his clan-army. These mercenaries were primarily footmen armed with matchlocks and artillery guns and were composed of Purbias (Hindus from eastern India) and Ruhelas (Muslim Pathans disbanded from the Delhi army or adventurers).

Ghammand Chand's aim in hiring these foreigners was to aid him in capturing his ancestral Kangra Fort, still under Mughal control, and this could only be done by a regular siege and with plenty of firepower. In this he was unsuccessful, but by 1760 had managed to bring neighboring hill-states under his dominance.

His grandson, Sansar Chand's liberation of the Kangra fort, and his two decades of dominance in the hills must have seen the removal of the original Purbia and Muslim mercenaries through old age or death. It is not clear if he hired more of these foreigners or raised infantry and artillery-men from within his kingdom? At any rate Sansar Chand is definitely known to have made changes in this portion of his army by hiring Ruhelas (circa 1805) on the advice of the deposed Nawab of Rampur—this, and Sansar's struggles with the Gorkhas and Sikhs, is described in Kangra: the oldest state.

The Irish Colonel

Even after his subjugation by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the army of Sansar Chand continued to play a role in local warfare. An improvement in its condition came from an unexpected source. Matthew Heaney, a deserter from the 8th Dragoons, took up service with the Katoch ruler around 1810-12 under the alias of William O'Brien.

O'Brien is said to have initially raised a battalion for Maharaja Sansar Chand, drilled as infantrymen, and armed with matchlocks, which were stamped with O'Brien's name. The Irish soldier, who assumed or was granted the rank of colonel, had taken control of the Maharaja's armoury and manufactured eight guns for his unit from it. A small force of cavalry was attached to this force—the saddles and swords of these soldiers were also stamped with O'Brien's name. The cost of this entire corps was paid for by grants of land. The men for this infantry were all locals, making them the first "Dogras" constituted as trained modern infantry. This becomes clear from the Irish Colonel's correspondence with the Birtish during the Anglo-Gurkha War.

In the crisis of this conflict (1814-15), the British sought the assistance of Maharaja Sansar Chand, to assail his old enemies the Gorkhas from across the Sutlej in the Simla Hills region. But when the Katoch ruler only made a verbal promise while waiting for some concrete offer, Colonel Ochterlony the British political agent at Ludhiana, opened direct communication with O'Brien offering him a monthly salary of Rs 250 and a pardon for his desertion, if he came over to their side with his army. O'Brien's response, which he now considered safe to sign under his real name, is given here:
22nd March, 1815
Colonel Ochterlony,
I have received your letter, and have 1000 hill-men. I have also told the Raja I am leaving his service. All I'm waiting for is to get some troops settled that I have under my command. I have 8 or 9 horses that I mean to dispose of, for I cannot keep them on Rs 250 per month, as also I have some other property I mean to dispose of. I can join you in 20 to 25 days, as these mountaineers are very false people and great liars. I will let you know the wages of the whole of them when I meet you, which will be quick as possible the accounts are settled.
Matthew Heaney.

In other words O'Brien had plans of taking his soldiers to British service, leaving their families behind to face Sansar Chand's wrath, both of which were unacceptable to the hill-men, hence his complaint of them being "great liars". When the British sent agents to finalize the deal, these found the Irishman in a state of drunkenness, which lasted for days! Even so he had attempted to raise fresh soldiers to increase his bargaining power with the East India Company.

His treasonable correspondence with the British, and the presence of their agents in Kangra, was discovered by Maharaja Sansar Chand. In great anger he had the agents expelled, and disbanded the newly raised troops. This ended William O'Brien's attempt to rejoin his service and clear his name of desertion—by again deserting the service of his current employer!

His contacts with the British did not end here—after the conclusion of the Anglo-Gorkha War, munitions captured from the Gorkhas were purchased by O'Brien. Another deserting Englishman named James MacDonald came to Sansar Chand's court at Sujanpur Tira sometime after this and was sent to O'Brien—he was said to be the man responsible for improving the Kangra artillery.

The ruler of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, had been forced (1805) by the British to accept the Sutlej as an agreed boundary, leaving the cis-Sutlej Sikh states outside his grasp. In 1819 he attempted a fresh expansion in the hills, taking the aid of Sansar Chand's troops—his own men were led by Desa Singh Majithia and those of the Katoch ruler by O'Brien. They invaded Bilaspur state, capturing the forts of Pichrota, Nakalgarh, and Biholi Devi. Then they crossed the Sutlej and besieged the capital Bilaspur.

The outraged British then sent a demand for their immediate withdrawal to the agreed boundary—Ranjit Singh complied with the demand and further returned the captured forts to the Raja of Bilaspur.

Telinga Lines

In 1822 a Frenchman, Thomas Fukinaut, came to Sansar Chand's court applying for military service. He was in a bedraggled condition, so the Maharaja gave him ten rupees to buy new clothes and sent him to O'Brien. The Irish Colonel's camp was on the other side of the River Beas, opposite Sansar Chand's capital of Sujanpur Tira.

The complex was called the Telinga Lines. Telinga being the name of the earliest soldiers drilled into western-style infantry by French officers in the southern state of Hyderabad (Telingana region). The name became current for Indian infantry units, and was carried north by the Maratha expansion—but it passed into gradual disuse after the British conquest.

By this time William O'Brien had raised his troops to two battalions, 200 cavalry, and 8 guns.

Only a year later Maharaja Sansar Chand passed away and was succeeded by his son Aniruddha Chand. O'Brien also died in 1827, leaving behind no heirs, but only property worth Rs 60,000. This being accumulated from the land grants of Sansar Chand was taken over by Aniruddha—the Raja spent some of it in constructing a tomb for Matthew Heaney, alias O'Brien, somewhere close to Sujanpur Tira. The Irishman's favorite horses were believed to have been killed on his death, and were represented in sculptures behind this tomb.

Maharaja Sansar Chand holding courtthe Kangra infantry dressed in European uniforms

There is no clue as to who succeeded O'Brien to the command of the Kangra infantry, because in that very year a crisis erupted on the Kangra Royal Family——Raja Aniruddha Chand was forced to leave Kangra along with his family and close followers (to the number of 500) and take shelter at Hardwar under the British. Whether some of the infantry accompanied him is not known but seems logical——what became of the remainder of O'Brien's force is not known. The Europeans in it must have joined Ranjit Singh's service, as might have the infantry, or they might have returned to their villages instead.

When the Katoch rulers expelled the Sikhs from their country in 1845, they did so with the help of their clan army. And again when they rebelled against the British, the description of their initial army was given as, "a force of 800 Katoches." This must have included infantry and artillery, since many of their ancestral forts were liberated by these men——whether these were the remnants of the trained infantry is likely because even in the Anglo-Maratha War of 1803, after the desertion of the European officers, Purbia and Ruhela commandants took control of the Maratha infantry units at Aligarh, Agra, and Delhi.

Kangra subsequently became a recruiting ground for the Dogra Regiment. The word Dogra, derived from Duggar, is the name of the Jammu region, which had been united under Maharaja Gulab Singh and had expanded its power over Ladakh and Baltistan. Kangra and the other hill-states, on the other hand, had lost their independence and identity—hence the term Dogra was extended by the British to cover these states found in modern Himachal Pradesh.