In his autobiography, as Mahatma Gandhi urged Indians to join Britain’s First World War efforts, he made a scathing attack against a particular law brought in by the British government during the latter half of the 19th century. The Indian Arms Act of 1878, he wrote, was “among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India.”
“If the middle classes render voluntary help to the government in the hour of trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn,” he wrote.
Historian Robert Elgood’s book, ‘The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s guns’, begins with this fascinating anecdote about the father of the nation penning down his thoughts about the need for Indians to possess arms. Guns, he says, have played a significant role in shaping India’s national identity, or for that matter, that of any country. An authority on the historic use of arms, Elgood has written several books on the warfare technology’s use among Hindu communities in India and the Islamic world. His latest, published by Niyogi Books, was commissioned by H.H.Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur as part of his efforts to transform the magnificent Mehargarh Fort at Jodhpur into a Rajput museum. The coffee table book contains some 350-odd images of the extraordinary gun collection that the Jodhpur state holds, along with Rajput paintings that speak of their use.
But the book goes way beyond what its title suggests and is in fact a deeply researched, scholarly account of the evolution of gun technology in India. It begins with disputing the assumption that gunpowder was invented in India. It was in fact a Chinese invention which was carried to the west by the Mongols, who in turn introduced gunpowder technology to large parts of the Islamic world through medieval warfare. In India, it was introduced first by the Central Asian invaders and then later by the Europeans.
“My interest in guns has more to do with the anthropology of the objects rather than their use in warfare,” says Elgood in a video interview with Indianexpress.com. It is in their ritualistic and cultural usage that guns have become valuable objects of study, he says.
Excerpts of the interview
Why do you say that guns play a significant role in the national identity of any country?
I fear that the world being as it is, India would have been extraordinarily different had it not been for guns. It is in fact difficult to see the survival of a pacifist country. The subject of guns is so complex and so central, you have to bear in mind that these are necessities.
We all live in a comfortable age where we never expect to have to do anything in anger, at least not physically. But for centuries and centuries, everybody had to literally fight to survive. And I don’t mean just warfare, but also to drive away wild animals and to protect your own animals and your own family. So arms were absolutely central.
Modern thinking finds it embarrassing that these objects still exist but they are central to material anthropology in a rather wonderful way. They tell you so much about society.
What was the importance of guns in the military history of the Jodhpur state?
Every princely state had a huge collection of guns because all the Maharajas and princely families loved weapons. It was built into their culture from the earliest day.
But when it came to warfare, the Rajputs had a tradition of fighting the enemy eyeball to eyeball. They actually so disliked guns that they did not use them in a modern way and suffered heavy casualties because of this. The Rajputs actually paid money to anyone who was injured in the army. So if you are injured with an aged weapon you got one fee, and you got a lesser fee for the same wound if a gun was used. James Todd, the great historian of Rajasthan, talks about how a Rajput gentleman would rather fall off his horse dead than actually be seen using a gun. He preferred the traditional weapons of his ancestors. This carries on until the First World War.
There is a famous Rajput attack by the Jodhpur Lancers on the town of Haifa during the Palestine campaign of 1917, where the Turks were defending the town. The Rajputs had to attack it up a defile which was very narrow and it was covered in artillery and about eight Turkish machine guns. The Jodhpur Lancers attacked in the afternoon after lunch when they caught the Turks napping. They charged in the traditional manner. It is supposed to be the last time a town was taken by cavalry. They lost a number of people, but it was a famous victory and is still celebrated in Rajasthan to this day.
The Rajputs enjoyed playing with guns, but they regarded the bow and arrow as superior and more connected to their past.
Do we know when was the first time guns were used in a battle in India?
I think that’s a very difficult question. Clearly, when the Portuguese arrived, there was a massive, tremendous rush to get firearms by local rulers, particularly on the west coast of India. So they already had firearms. The problem is with documentation, and there is far too much ambiguity in descriptions.
Take for instance, Babur’s description of siege of a fort some time in the 16th century. People on the walls of the fort were laughing at the guns, they laughed at the explosions, they danced around till the time a number of them were shot. Then they began to realise it was something serious. But they had not seen them before and so it meant nothing to them. So descriptions of the earliest use of the gun would be variable.
You say that your interest lies more in the anthropology of guns. In the course of your research did you come across any rituals associated with guns in India?
Yes, the anthropology with regard to guns in India is so rich. Did you know that in Jodhpur or any Rajput town, if you wanted your gun to shoot straight, you scented it? You can actually walk into any souk and ask for perfume for your gun. Then you put the perfume on the gun since you want the Goddess to enter the gun so that it could shoot straight. The requirements of this perfume is listed very carefully and involves lots and lots of different ingredients. The belief was that if you did not do this your gun would not shoot straight.
Moreover, the decoration around the gun is also done in a way to make it attractive for the Goddess to enter. It is like if you were to make a living driving a taxi, you hang marigolds around the radiator to make it an attractive place for the Goddess to live. They do the same thing with the gun.
In modern times, there is so much debate in the US over gun laws. You do mention in your book that in India successive governments have tried to destroy arms in private hands. What do you have to say about the issue of government controlling guns?
I think it is inevitable to exercise a degree of control. There is always a balance to be struck between the liberty of the individual and the desire of the government for good governance. Where that line lies is partly determined by the responsibility of the population. As a historian, I have tried to avoid this issue in my book. But on a personal note, I would say that I favour individual responsibility for all actions and I prefer a government that gives me that freedom.
Going back to Gandhi’s statement on Indians being deprived of guns, clearly he was a politician looking for popular support. Clearly, he thought by saying this, that he would appeal to large numbers of Indians, who felt that they had been deprived of their guns. And I would suggest to you that quite a large section under India today’s feels the same way. And that is because there is such a long tradition of guns in India. I thought it is interesting that the Indian national government would take the same line as the British imperial government which was rather restrictive when it came to guns.
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