As the Rajasthan government goes ahead with plans to rewrite history textbooks to show that Rana Pratap defeated Akbar at the Battle of Haldighati in 1576, could it be that a modern Indian Army unit displays the battle honour ‘Haldighati (1576)’? It was a proposal once discussed in the Battle Honours Committee of the defence ministry, during a thorough review of the battle honours after India became a republic in 1950.
The government had decided to do away with all symbols of imperialism, and of particular concern were the battle honours won during British rule that were “particularly repugnant” to national sentiments. The Indian Army, so proud of its own British origins, actually disowned a part of its legacy after Independence.
A battle honour is awarded to a military unit for a particular act of gallantry or outstanding performance, whereby the unit can emblazon the name of a battle or operation on its colours (flags that were historically carried into battle), uniforms or other accessories. Not every battle fought will automatically result in the granting of a battle honour, something which is held in very high esteem in the military and adds to the reputation of the unit.
If there was no Indian Army in Akbar’s time — the Army has its origins in the forces of the East India Company — how can any unit lay claim to battle honour Haldighati (1576)? This oddity is because a large number of units from the state forces were amalgamated into regular units of Indian Army after Independence. Some units of the erstwhile state forces, such as the Jaipur state forces, trace their origin to well before the establishment of standing armies in the 17th century. The Jaipur state forces unit that defeated Rana Pratap, and was awarded a battle honour Haldighati, was amalgamated into 17 Rajputana Rifles (Sawai Man) of the Indian Army. The battle honour, however, was never transferred.
The case was based on precedence from Britain, where the Royal Navy was awarded the honour ‘Armada 1588’ in 1954. A honour should be awarded if “the honour is not repugnant to national sentiment, the battle in itself or by its results, left a mark in history which made its name familiar, the unit has had an unbroken genealogical existence by whatever name and can adduce proof of its participation in battle”, argues Major Sarbans Singh, who was secretary of the Battle Honours Committee, in his book Battle Honours of the Indian Army 1757-1971.
Singh argues, in fact, that even Chittor (1303) should be a battle honour of a current Army unit, because one of the units of the state forces was awarded that battle honour. Chittor (1303) is the battle Alauddin Khilji is apocryphally said to have fought to get Rani Padmini, a tale made famous by Malik Mohammad Jayasi’s Padmavati in 1540.
Neither of these cases were successful. The earliest battle honour held by the Indian Army that is not considered to be “repugnant” and can be emblazoned on colours is ‘Bourbon (1810)’ which is held by the 3rd Battalion, the Brigade of the Guards.
The question of deciding which battle honours were fit to display in post-Independence India came up because of the colonial origins of the Indian Army. Starting from the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the East India Company — followed by the British Crown after 1857 —awarded units of the Indian Army battle honours for fighting against Indians. Coincidentally, battle honour Plassey (1757) was awarded only in 1829 vide Gazette of the Governor General No 43. A large number of battle honours were awarded also to units that helped the British brutally suppress the Indians participating in the revolt of 1857, including Delhi (1857), Cawnpore (1857), Lucknow (1857) and Jhansi (1857).
Besides 1857, many of these estimated 700 battle honours awarded by the British were for other campaigns against Indian princely states, such as Mysore, Bhurtpore, Seringapatam, Kirkee and Defence of Arrah. There are other battle honours that were awarded for campaigns against some neighbouring and friendly countries. These two considerations drove the government to issue orders on repugnant battle honours, which could not be displayed or celebrated by Army units.
The first such order came in 1955 when new regimental colours were introduced in independent India. It said that except for those that were considered “particularly repugnant” to the national sentiment, all other battle honours that were in use in the old colours could be emblazoned on the new regimental colours. In 1958, an explanatory instruction was issued which stated that awards for battles repugnant to national sentiment, such as the 1857 revolt, should not be emblazoned on regimental colours.
Subsequently, the pre-1939 battle honours were scrutinised by the defence ministry from the repugnancy angle. A list of 100 non-repugnant battle honours was approved by the defence minister and an Army order giving out the approved list was issued in 1966. The new list removed another 50 battle honours and many old units were the biggest losers. The much-vaunted President’s Body Guard — which used to be the erstwhile Governor General’s Body Guard — lost six of its seven battle honours. Some of the units resorted to keeping the slots on their regimental colours vacant for the repugnant battle honours — to indicate the total number of battle honours won — while emblazoning only the non-repugnant ones.
The 1966 list has not been updated for repugnancy since, although a lot of observations have been made. Major Singh contended that ten battle honours featured in the list were never awarded by the British. Even while deciding repugnancy, when more than one battle honour has been given for the same campaign against Indian states, some have been classified as repugnant while others are non-repugnant. For example, awards to Meanee and Hyderabad for the 1843 operations in Sind are repugnant while an award to Cutchee for operations in the same area between 1839-1842 is non-repugnant.
For battle honours for campaigns against friendly foreign countries, this is equally inconsistent. China, for 1840-1842 operations, is repugnant but the honours for China in 1858-1862, 1900 and Tsingtao (1914) are not. The same is the case with campaigns in Egypt in 1882. Inconsistencies have clearly crept in the determination of battle honours which are repugnant to national sentiments, which remain unresolved.
More than the technicality of determining repugnancy, there are two fundamental questions that lie at the core of the subject. The first is the changing national sentiment — Mughal emperor Akbar was a hero for the first 70 years but many state governments now want him to shown in poor light. The whole idea of rewriting history to depict Rana Pratap as a winner is posited on that premise. If Haldighati (1576) had been awarded as a battle honour to 17 Rajputana Rifles, would it have been considered repugnant to national sentiments now?
The second question is a more fundamental one. Do professional soldiers celebrate and value bravery, valour and military excellence or does the government they fought for matters more? There is no clear answer to this question, and that is why the debate over repugnant and non-repugnant battle honours in independent India will never end.