by Major Douglas Messenger, late The 4th Queen’s Own Hussars

The long campaign for Indian independence, which had begun with the Indian Mutiny (1857-59), grew in intensity following the Second World War (1939-45).

Indians increasingly expected self-government to be granted in return for their wartime contribution. But with this came serious inter-communal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

The Indian Independence Medal was awarded to all Indian military personnel serving on 15 August 1947.
Indian Independence Medal

In August 1947 British India was partitioned, ending three hundred years of colonial rule with the creation of two independent nations: India and Pakistan (comprising West and East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh).

India and Pakistan’s independence at midnight on 14-15 August 1947 was a key moment in the history of the British Empire.

India had been its cornerstone and many colonies had been secured in order to protect the trade routes to it.

During my service in the British Army, it was my duty on many occasions to stand in the way of rioting mobs.

Early in 1942, the 2nd. British Division was en route in a large convoy of ships on the voyage around the Cape and up to the Western Desert.

The ‘Quit India’ campaign broke out and Churchill personally ordered the diversion of the Division to Bombay, where we disembarked (with much military display to advertise our arrival) as reinforcements ‘in aid of the Civil Power’, to use the army parlance in vogue at the time.

During 1942 and 1943, the Division carried out training in both Jungle and Amphibious Warfare, for eventual deployment against the Japanese. It was also on permanent stand-by for anti-riot duty.

The 2nd. Reconnaissance Regiment, in which I was serving, was well-suited to such duty as it was composed of both armoured scout cars and Assault-Troops mounted in armoured personnel carriers. It could thus deploy quickly and safely to any trouble spot. So, we frequently found ourselves standing to in front of hyped-up and violent rioting mobs, whose blood-lust had been whipped-up by Congress agitators.

The unfortunate actions of the much-maligned General Dyer at Cawnpore, in 1926, had resulted in a host of regulations for dealing with politically inspired unrest in the Raj. There was a ‘Drill’ for every eventuality.

When he received intelligence that a riot was brewing, the local Chief of Police would approach the nearest Magistrate and request him to declare a State of Emergency. This done, he would then call upon the Military for assistance.

A decision would then be taken as to a suitable site upon which to quell the riot and prevent the mob from reaching their objective. The combined force of soldiers and policemen would then converge upon this site, accompanied by the Magistrate.

The police would have a large banner, bearing a message in English and the Vernacular, stating that the rioters must disperse on pain of death: the troops would include a trumpeter or bugler to sound a warning: and the Magistrate would have a loud-hailer to read the ‘Riot Act’.

On arrival at the selected position, the Assault Troops would dismount from their vehicles and form up in a suitable position. The police Riot Squads would form up behind the soldiers and the armoured vehicles would be positioned in sight behind them. As the Mob approached, the soldiers would make much of their drill to load rifles and fix bayonets; and would adopt the aggressive ‘on guard’ position.

The riot police would be armed with ‘lathis’, which were long iron-bound staves, similar to Friar Tuck’s quarter-stave but longer and more lethal.

For their part, the rioters would be armed with machetes, bill-hooks, clubs and brickbats. On some occasions, they might also hurl bottles of sulphuric acid and fire off an ancient shotgun or two. The Molotov cocktail had not then come into general use.

The trumpeter would sound the Alarm call and the police would unfurl their banner: upon which the Magistrate would read out the ‘Riot Act’ and demand that the rioters disperse or risk being shot. This usually had little effect, except that the ring-leaders would intensify their incitements and the bricks would fly faster.

In fact, it is doubtful whether the mob could understand what was written on the banner or hear the Riot Act above the general clamour, although the trumpeter could be heard clearly and would sound the alarm again. Then a snatch-squad of police would charge through the lines of soldiers with the stated aim of arresting a few ringleaders, who at once fled behind their cohorts.

The policemen would lay about them mightily with their lathis and crack as many heads as possible, before returning with a few limp prisoners to shove into the Black Marias. The Instigators would reappear and endeavour to keep things going: whereupon the Chief Policeman would request the senior soldier to shoot one or two of them with single shots of fire from marksmen.

If a couple of dead rioters bleeding in the roadway did not cool things down, this process would be repeated and the police would carry out another lathi charge.

Eventually, they would drive the rioters back and disperse them. Slowly the tumult and the shouting would die away and order would be restored. It was very rare for either police or soldiers to be seriously hurt during these proceedings, but it was deadly serious stuff for all that.

Although there were aspects which could remind one of a sort of ‘Carry on Rioting’ film, and one half expected a blacked-up Sid James to come capering out of the crowd, it could never really be considered a Jolly Jape.

Apart from the intimidating mob of inflamed Indians – some high on ganja and all bent on mayhem and murder – there was also the fact that the various ‘drills’ were one’s only protection against some wily Congress lawyer bringing a murder charge against one. It was all very messy and sometimes rather nasty.

The Indian Mutiny always lingered on in the sub-conscious mind, as the Pax Britannica was only a grand confidence trick, whereby a few thousand Sahibs imposed their will on the great multitude of Indian Subjects. What had happened once, could well happen again.

My wife, Mary, was a partition Refugee in her own right. At the time, she was married to Peter Poole, who was a Major in the Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army, stationed up on the North-West frontier in the Hill Fort of Thal. She had arrived in India, to join her husband, only a few months before Independence was declared: and except for Bombay and the long train journey up to the Frontier, via Delhi, she had no experience of the country.

When the eruption of violence and mayhem commenced, Peter and his infantry Company were sent down to provide train protection; along with the rest of the Battalion.

Thal was left to be guarded by a Rear party and it was decided, by the Powers that Be, that a pregnant wife would be safer elsewhere.

In any case, the fort was geared up for repelling any attacks and placed under siege conditions: so she was given the alternative of taking her chances on a railway journey along with a party of Indian wives: or of a bumpy ride down to Rawalpindi in a military ambulance, accompanied by a sick Brigadier, a small escort of Indian soldiers, and Peter’s bull terrier bitch with her litter of seven pups.

Very properly, Mary opted for the Brigadier and his many bottles of Bombay gin. If you should be told that the Brigadier went by the nickname of Blotto and was laid low with an acute attack of gout, this may give you some inkling of the Fred Karno aspect of the journey.

When the ambulance arrived in ‘Pindi, Brigadier blotto was carried away to hospital and Mary was taken to Flashman’s Hotel, where she believed she had been booked in by the Orderly Room staff in Thal.

Like her Biblical namesake, she found there was literally no room at the Inn, as the emergency had caused a tremendous influx, and those due to depart were lingering on. The innocent and trusting Mary allowed herself to be gulled into accepting alternative accommodation in a definitely ‘Indian’ hostelry, away down in the bazaar, where no Memsahib who fully understood the meaning of the word would have been seen dead – and in the circumstances would fully have expected to end up that way! No doubt, the eight assorted bull-terriers and her own complete disregard for the conventions were enough to preserve Mary’s virtue and her life.

In due course, peter was informed of his young wife’s predicament and was permitted to abandon his care of the masses in favour of the rescue of his wife and embryo family.

It is wiser not to enquire into the fate of the unfortunate puppies which Mary, in her innocence, had distributed as largesse to the various Bearers, Ahmas, Chowkidars, Bheestis, etc., who had imposed themselves upon her during her unscheduled sojourn in Rawalpindi Bazaar.

So much for the partition of India, at least as understood by someone who was around and interested at the time.

This little essay can only be a slight scratching of the surface. During the years 1939 to 1945, the World War had taken up all our time and energy.

Those of us who had spent time in India – or Burma, Malaya, or any other Far Eastern outpost of Empire for that matter – during the war, realised that the myth of the Sahib or Tuan or Master had been superseded by a realisation that the World no longer owed them a living. One way or another the Glory Days of Empire had but a short time to run.

This was true not only for the British, but also for the French and the Dutch and the Portuguese, and any other country which had laid claims to Asian and South East Asian territory. Whatever else they had failed to achieve, our Japanese enemy, together with our American allies, had awakened the nationalistic fervour of the hitherto subject peoples.

We had fought for Democracy, and undoubtedly, that is exactly the harvest we would reap, not only in the East but also in Africa and elsewhere. Did we really lay down the White Man’s Burden with relief that it was all over? We did not! What burden? It had been the Good Life as far as we were concerned.

You have only to look around the World as it is today to see the legacy of Empires. Like the Curate’s Egg – most is only good in parts.

With the loss of India, the rest of our own Empire soon came tumbling down, and with it our prestige and a great deal of our pride. It is doubtful, even now, that we have accepted our greatly reduced status.

We can’t even feel superior about the mindless violence of Indian rioting – not when we consider the long-running contretemps of Northern Ireland. In its time, the Partition of India was an obscene outpouring of hatred and violence which we viewed with horror and dismay.

We have become a lot more blasée since then.

Related topics

  1. Obituary: Maj D Messenger, 4H
  2. The Indian Mutiny, 1857