119 Years of Trust


Saturday, May 29, 1999

This above all

regional vignettes

The mutiny of Connaught Rangers
A slice of history
By Thakur Ranvir Singh

IN the history of the British armed forces, two mutinies took place. One was the famous naval mutiny, well known as the Mutiny on the Bounty, and the second but lesser known was the mutiny by an Irish regiment in India shortly after World War I in the summer of 1920. This mutiny, which lasted for a month, had its roots in the political struggle of the Irish people.

The rebellion or mutiny by the famous Connaught Rangers, running parallel to the Irish freedom movement under De Valera, was considerably influenced by the Indian struggle for Independence. Nearly a thousand Irish men who rebelled had no real reason for that action except their deep love for their motherland and passionate patriotism. They strongly felt that British colonial rule was perpetrating grave injustice by crushing their countrymen. Hearing of the ugly happenings in Ireland, where the Britishers were hunting down, torturing and executing freedom fighters, the Irish soldiers inwardly simmered.

The British ensured that the newspapers in India did not cover Irish incidents, but news of the cruel and inhuman measures taken by Britishers against the Irish occasionally filtered into the barracks of the Connaught Rangers in Jalandhar cantonment where they were stationed. During that turbulent period of Irish history, many pitched battles were being fought between the Irish Republic Army — the Sinn Fein — and the British security force — Black and Tans. The news of these battles reached Irish soldiers, thousands of miles away in India where a similar wind was blowing.

The fuse blew when one of the Rangers got the shocking news that his brother in Ireland was hanged by the Crown for giving shelter to rebels. He went berserk and beat up an English officer. This set off a chain reaction. The soldiers captured the armoury, took English officers as hostages, declared Jalandhar cantonment as the seat of the ‘free Irish Government-in-exile’ in hardly two days. Caught unawares, the British Government in India was shaken to the core.

The Irish soldiers in India were not fighting for a piece of territory, but for a fundamental principle. Therefore, when they felt confident that they were the masters of Jalandhar cantonment, they started negotiations for the freedom of Ireland in lieu of returning the hostages, releasing the armoury and returning the territory of the cantonment. How could the British pay heed to such nonsense? To them it was tantamount to an act of mutiny, but to the Irish soldiers it was a "protest" against the Crown’s cruelty and breach of the repeated promise of giving Ireland its freedom.

In the barracks, a lot of argument and heated discussion went on to decide the next course of action. One of the major groups was for capturing more territory and strengthening their positions so that the British could be taught a lesson and the world would know of their plight and Ireland’s struggle for freedom. Some level-headed men, however, argued that as violence would be self-defeating, the only way to tackle the British would be through negotiations. The most vocal of this group was one Jim Daley.

He pointed out to his enraged comrades that as long as they did not take to arms, it would not amount to a mutiny, but would be a "sit-down protest" to express their concern for the motherland. Eventually, they wrote a long petition to the King and ceremoniously handed it over to British officers. But no reply ever came. The King obviously never received it!

The British authorities and the top military brass, though caught unawares, reacted fast. They quickly moved eight White regiments from Amritsar, Ambala, Lahore and Simla cantonments and surrounded the Jalandhar cantonment with a tight ring of tanks, guns and infantry. Having cordoned the Irish, they cut off the supplies of food and provisions and finally switched off the water mains also. From a position of strength, the British now asked for a peaceful surrender by the ‘mutineers’. The Irish however, had enough provisions and water from one or two wells inside their ‘territory’ to withstand the siege. Thus, for a while, it was checkmate. In the meantime, all the Indian regiments were moved away from Jalandhar. A tight censorship was clamped with the excuse that some secret war exercise was being conducted in the area. Thus, neither the Indians nor the outside world knew of the high-tension drama taking place in the heart of India.

Having taken all security precautions and after tightening their grip, the British sent a deputation to demand an unconditional surrender. The team was flabbergasted by what they saw when they reached near the regimental barracks. The scenario that greeted them was one of total abandon and gaiety. The Irish tricolour flew majestically not only on the tall flag mast of the regimental quarter guard but atop every single barrack. Most of the Irish soldiers were singing patriotic ballads in the barracks while some danced to Irish jigs instead of listening to the British delegation.

This act of defiance and rowdy behaviour angered the British but they felt that attacking the Irish would be politically suicidal. What would the world say to white men killing white men on Indian soil where the situation was already explosive! It would not only tarnish the British image all over the world but also ignite innumerable political fuses. Thus, having an upper hand, they preferred to wait.

It was almost two weeks after the outbreak of this mutiny, which began in mid-June 1920, that the Rangers had their first casualty. A young soldier died of malaria. The heat of the Punjab plains, dwindling food stores, shortage of drinking water, lack of sanitation and on top of it the scourge of malaria.... all of it started to weaken the iron will of the dauntless Irish. The regiment broke up into various groups, each with different ideas and desperate plans. The British mounted their pressure for surrender, but the Irish did not budge. They firmly and resolutely stood together on the assumption that with courage they could win.

The drama of uncertainty, heightened tension, arguments, frayed tempers, boozing and brawls went on. It was only the logic and convincing arguments of Jim Daley and his group which kept a lid on the boiling situation, but even they could not keep everyone pacified. As soldiers by training and temperament believe in instinctive action, some of them blew up a part of the armoury hoping that it would attract the attention of the world. The British were, however, wily enough to cover it up as an unfortunate accident during the war games. The whole matter was thus hushed up and again no one knew the exact nature of the happenings in Jalandhar.

After this incident, Daley ran from barrack to barrack to calm the angry and desperate soldiers before they could commit any further suicidal acts. He and a few of his friends requested the British to let them send a delegation to Delhi to present their point of view, but no one paid heed to the request. It was now the third week and the tricolour continued to flutter proudly in that little Ireland inside India. It was only after malaria and cholera gripped the barracks that the situation became desperate. Daley and his comrades made frantic efforts to jack up the dwindling spirits.

At this stage, Daley started concentrating on finding a way out of the impasse as he did not wish to see his brave countrymen die like flies and sick dogs. As an honourable surrender appeared to be the right solution to him, he set out with a white flag to meet the General-Officer-Commanding and offered the proposal of surrender for the sake of his sick and dying brethren. His main condition of surrender was that all men would be honourably discharged and sent home as citizens of Ireland. The cunning British agreed because it was one way of bringing down the curtain on the ‘mutiny’ which had already lasted for three gruelling weeks.

The rains were late that year and the seltering heat in the month of July was unbearable. Living in tents in such uncongenial climate was like being literally in hell. Due to lack of sanitation and without medical cover, Irish soldiers started dying a dozen a day. Daley tried reasoning with the British military authorities for a fair treatment and early repatriation as agreed, but the high command obviously had other plans. When they saw that the sick and weak Rangers were demoralised and in a vulnerable condition, they broke them into small groups on the pretext of providing them accommodation in different bungalow until a special train could be arranged to carry them to a port. They were thus moved to various buildings around the cantonment, overpowered, and then moved to Simla.

This was to be the final enactment in the tense drama of the Irish mutiny. The military machine was set in motion to decide the fate of the mutineers. In August, 1920, court martial proceeding against 800 men began. The proceedings were conducted at the army headquarters at Simla. Day after day, sentences were passed. Hundreds were to be shot, many sentenced to life imprisonment and the remaining awarded 10 to 20 years of hard labour in lock-ups.

Back home in Ireland, the struggle for independence was gathering momentum. The British knew that they would not be able to hold down the valiant Irish for long. The Viceroy and the Commander-in-Chief of India deliberated on the situation, and took a political decision. This decision was considerably influenced by the situation prevailing in India which was not the least comfortable. All those who were to be shot were pardoned. Sentences of imprisonment were reviewed and remitted. The famous Connaught Rangers were disbanded and their colours shipped back to the King in England where they still hang at Windsor Castle. However, there had to be a show of military discipline and justice. Any defiance by a soldier amounted to an act of mutiny and this had to be firmly established for the dignity and honour of military tradition. To achieve this, somebody had made a scapegoat — symbolic of fair but firm treatment.

The one so chosen was Jim Daley. He was led blindfolded to be shot by a firing squad in one corner of Jalandhar cantonment in November, 1920. Under security cover, the body of Daley was buried in an inconspicuous place, without a cross, and then forgotten. He, who should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for peace, was instead awarded bullets. The other soldiers were packed off to England to serve their respective sentences.

Later, in the fifties, Jim Daley’s mortal remains were dug out on the request of the Irish Government and interned in a churchyard of Simla. They were finally sent to Ireland a decade later, to be buried with honour in the bossom of his motherland.back

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