Mangal Pandey, the mercenary

I am not keen to see the blockbuster film “Mangal Pandey”. I find jingo-patriotic themes tiresome and hypocritical.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee in a recent book has demolished the notion that Mangal Pandey was a patriot leading the Indian struggle for independence. More probably, he ran amok under the influence of bhang. For Pandey, mulk meant Awadh or Bihar (where he was born). No nation existed then, only kingdoms and empires. So there could be no loyalty to nations.

Loyalty was frequently given to those who paid most and offered the best prospects of plunder. Soldiering was a profession, and soldiers could honourably serve the highest paymaster. The British never had any difficulty in hiring all the Indians they required: that is how they conquered India. When regular soldiers mutinied in 1857, the British quickly hired irregulars in Punjab, who then recaptured Delhi.

Today, we look down on such soldiers as mercenaries. Yet Mangal Pandey himself was a mercenary. He hired out his services to not even the British Army but the East India Company. That made him a double mercenary: a mercenary soldier serving a mercenary corporation.

Nor was he alone. Indians queued up to serve the British, who were reliable paymasters. This was more than could be said for many Indian rulers.

Some politicians and historians regard 1857 as the start of the independence movement. But this theory is deafeningly silent about the millions of Indians who happily joined the British Indian Army.

Tens of thousands joined the British to crush the 1857 mutiny. Then, during World War I, more than a million Indians enlisted, without any compulsion. This was entirely a volunteer army, bigger than the one India has today.

The Indian mercenary tradition reached its zenith during World War II. No less than 2.5 million Indians enlisted. It was and remains till today the greatest volunteer army in history. Historian Indivar Kamtekar has shown how the average weight of recruits rose sharply after recruitment. Decent food was sufficient reason to fight for a foreign master.

The Quit India movement of 1942 figures big in history books. Tens of thousands of Indians did indeed come out in protest. But, simultaneously, millions of others joined the British Indian Army.

Why am I raking up this history of Indian mercenaries? Does it have any relevance today? Surprisingly, yes.

Thanks to the Iraq imbroglio, the USA today is suffering its worst recruitment crisis since the Vietnam War. The US Army missed its recruitment target by 27% in February, 32% in March and 43% in April. The enlistment bonus has been raised to $ 90,000 over three years, $ 20,000 in cash and the rest in benefits. Even so Americans are not interested in enlisting.

After Vietnam, no US President dares suggest another draft (compulsory recruitment). How, then, will the US get volunteers to continue operations in Iraq, and create reserves for contingencies?

Answer: by recruiting foreigners. The US Army already has 30,000 foreigners drawn from over 100 countries. These are legal residents who enlist to get citizenship quickly, short-circuiting the long, painful green-card process. After 9/11, Bush decreed that anybody joining the armed forces would be eligible for citizenship, and in 2003 reduced the waiting time from three years to one.

But legal resident foreigners are not numerous enough to plug the Army’s recruitment gap. So some legislators and military commentators (notably Max Boot) are suggesting that the US “offer citizenship to anyone anywhere in the planet willing to serve a set term in the US military.” This would not be unprecedented: almost one-fifth of Abraham Lincoln’s soldiers in the US Civil War were foreigners.

Will such ideas attract enough support to become law? Maybe: the momentum for them is building. So, thousands of desperate Indians seeking illegal migration to the US may suddenly find a legal window of entry.

Every time the Indian Army opens fresh recruitment in Bihar, desperate applicants cause stampedes in which many die or are injured. I suspect such people will queue up to apply to join the US Army, with its $ 90,000 bonus and promise of US citizenship.

Good or bad? I personally dislike the prospect. Whatever may have been our historical traditions, we now live in a world of nation states and national armies. Yet I must admit that any Bihari who joins a foreigner’s army will simply be replicating Mangal Pandey (and millions of others).

Will one such Bihari recruit serve in Iraq, run amok, and be shot as a mutineer? If so, surely some film-maker will make Mangal Pandey II, about an Indian hero defying US imperialism. Audiences will cheer. But some who cheer will then quietly apply to join the US Army.

That’s the irony. Everybody loves loyalty, yet loyalty is more portable than you might think. Such portability has enabled the USA to forge a nation out of migrants from a hundred lands.

What do you think?