Beyond Amritsar
The Indian Army and the fight for empire, 1918–20
in Exiting war
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One of New Delhi’s most iconic colonial monuments, India Gate, commemorates the war dead for the period from 1914 to 1919, rather than to 1918. This reflects the Indian Army’s overlapping roles in the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919). The latter conflict brought greater violence to the Indo-Afghan border and emboldened anticolonial campaigns. This was not the only continuity between war and ‘peace’. Most famously, General Reginald Dyer commanded Indian Army troops to open fire on an unarmed crowd at Amritsar in April 1919, killing hundreds. In addition to combating anticolonial rebellion domestically, the Indian Army also fought to support colonial rule in places such as Egypt, Iraq and Palestine. They did so not simply as a result of unwavering devotion to Britain or through financial necessity. The army cultivated devotion through acts such as funding soldiers’ pilgrimages to Muslim holy lands in Mecca and Medina, starting in 1919. Army officials hoped that this would encourage a pro-imperial version of pan-Islamic unity. The Nepali government cultivated British support by contracting Nepali soldiers to crush anticolonial rebellion in India. British officials responded by facilitating purification ceremonies for Nepali men who broke caste laws during overseas service. The Indian Army’s many post-war campaigns therefore emboldened anticolonial activism, helped to forge international political alliances, and enabled British officials to maintain tenuous imperial control around the world. South Asian soldiers played central roles in defining who could be considered an enemy or an ally of the colonial state.

Exiting war

The British Empire and the 1918–20 moment

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