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19 - Indian Contingent passing saluting dias, Victory Parade, London.jpg


Did any Indians receive commissions and serve as officers?

Indians received commissions from the Honourable East India Company as Native Officers, and after 1857 from the Viceroy as Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers, though the date on which this designation was introduced is subject to debate.

Throughout the nineteenth century the British held the misplaced view that Indians could not command other Indians in war and they certainly could not hold command over white British troops.  Regiments were therefore officered by British officers trained at the East India Company’s officer training establishment at Addiscombe, and later at either the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (for infantry and cavalry), or the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (for artillery and engineers). 

It was not until 1920 that places were made available at Sandhurst to train Indian officers who then received King’s Commissions, though a few medical officers had been commissioned during World War I.

It was a slow process.  A decline in numbers opting for Sandhurst led to the opening in December 1932 of the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, but a perception of inequality between Indian Commissioned Officers and King’s Commissioned Officers led to a decline in numbers so that by the time of the outbreak of World War 2 there were fewer than 500 Indian commissioned officers in the Indian Army.  The situation changed dramatically during the war so that by March 1947 the total number of Indian Army officers was 22,000 of which 13,500 were British and the remaining 8,500 Indian.


In the early days of the East India Company Indians did command regiments and squadrons of cavalry and companies of infantry and, as they had done under previous Mughal or other rulers, proved their worth in doing so.  Very often these officers were of local standing and authority and, indeed, had raised the units they were now commanding.  There were at that time relatively few British officers in the Company’s Army and so the Indian officers, known then as Native Officers, provided much needed leadership for the troops.  In those early days the native Commandant and Adjutant provided the headquarters, while the British officers and NCOs provided the staff.  “The native Commandant and the senior British officer stood side by side on the parade.’     As time went on and as more British officers came out to India, the position of the Indian officers was gradually eroded so that by 1787 the position of the native commandant had disappeared, with the native adjutant going in 1796, and regiments were commanded by British officers only.


Nevertheless, the requirement for Indian officers did not go away – indeed, they provided the backbone of a regiment and an essential link between the men and their British officers.  Following the Mutiny of 1857 the positions of commanding officer, the second-in-command, the adjutant and the commanders of the two wings (four companies each) were all held by British officers.  Squadrons and Companies were commanded by Rissaldars and Subedars respectively, Troops and Platoons by Jemadars, with the Rissaldar Major/Subedar Major acting as the commanding officer’s principle adviser and link to the men.  These senior ranks, however, had no direct equivalent in the British Army.  All such officers had started at the bottom of the ladder, as sowars or sepoys, and worked their way up through the ranks, though by a system of preferment that relied on seniority rather than merit.  Thus a Rissaldar Major or Subedar Major would probably have served for something over 20 years in his regiment before reaching the very top.  Despite, this, and despite the incredible amount of experience that he would bring to the job, he was still regarded as junior to the most recently commissioned subaltern out from Addiscombe or Sandhurst and had to accept any orders that this young officer might give.   

Attempts had been made to introduce ‘Indianization’ or the commissioning of Indians as early as 1885 by General Sir George Chesney, the Government of India’s Military Secretary, though they came to nothing.  In 1900 Lord Curzon, the recently-appointed Viceroy, established the Imperial Cadet Corps with a view to giving a military-style education to the sons of the elite and an eventual commission in His Majesty’s Indian Native Land Forces (HMNILF).  ‘During the Corps’ existence, only eleven cadets were granted HMNILF commissions: four in 1905; three in 1907, one in 1911; and three in 1913.’     The scheme was not a success.

7 - FM Sir Claude Auchinleck with Subadar Major Mahboob Khan of 20th Indian Division..jpg

FM Sir Claude Auchinleck meeting Subadar Major Mahboob Khan.  He wears the distinctive formation sign of 20th Indian Division – an Indian sword or tulwar held in a clenched fist.  The Division saw active service in Assam, Burma and Indo-China until it was disbanded in April-May 1946.

At some stage, though the exact date is open to discussion, the term ‘Native’ Officer was dropped and replaced by Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO).   Brian Farwell    suggested that the term came into use after the Mutiny of 1857 when control of India passed from the HEIC to the British Government and when the Governor General became the Viceroy and sovereign’s representative.  Sam Menezes    said that ‘The designation VCO is used for easier understanding, even though it was formally only introduced in the early 1930s’.  The Willcox Committee report of 1945    gives an excellent synopsis on the genesis and development of the VCO contained within an extremely concise organizational history of the Indian Army.  The Esher Committee, established in 1919 to report on the administration and organisation of the Army in India and the position of the C-in-C in his dual capacity as head of the Army and Member of the Executive Council, was “largely responsible for improving the terms of service of the Indian ranks of the Army in India... The Indian soldier and the Indian officer with the Viceroy’s commission are now fed, clothed, housed... on an adequate standard.”   The ‘Indianization of the Indian Army Committee’ (Shea Committee) of 1922    noted: “There should be no... Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers, and the existing Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers should be raised to the status of King’s Commissioned Officers.”     No action was taken, however, and yet the question of abolishing the Viceroy's commission was increasingly discussed and debated in the legislature, as well as in the press, over the next twenty years or so.

Going back to World War I, however, due to various reorganisations that had taken place within the Army, the only level of command left to an Indian officer at that time was that of a platoon.  By the middle of the war it had been decided to offer King’s commissions to certain VCOs but the proposal highlighted a number of disadvantages based on the relatively advanced years of VCOs and their lack of an education that would allow them to benefit from the training needed to become a King’s commissioned officer. 

In 1918 the decision was announced to reserve ten places for Indian cadets at Sandhurst.  On completing their course they would be given King’s commissions.  Other King’s commissions were offered to a very small number of non-commissioned offers of the Indian Army and to a small number of graduates of the Cadet College at Indore.  Of the former NCO category, among the first was “Iskander Mirza, who rose to the rank of colonel during the time of the raj and later (post-1947) major-general and soon after became President of Pakistan.”     There were similar examples in India such as K.M. Cariappa who graduated from the Cadet College at Indore, became the first Indian of the Staff College, Quetta, the first to command a battalion and an infantry brigade and, after independence, the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army.


1923 saw the introduction of a scheme whereby eight units were earmarked for Indianization, meaning that in due course they would be officered entirely by Indians, though not until all existing British officers with the regiments had completed their service and would not, therefore, have to be commanded by an Indian.  The eight units were: 7th Light Cavalry, 16th Light Cavalry, 2/1st Punjab, 5/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, 1/7th Rajput, 1/14th Punjab, 4/19th Hyderabad and 2/1st Madras Pioneers.  Whilst holding the King’s commission they were actually referred to as King’s Indian Commissioned Officers (KCIOs).  This limited Indianization process had its drawbacks in that the lack of perceived or actual opportunity for advancement led to the number of candidates applying for places at Sandhurst to drop.  This led to a decision to open an officer training facility in India and the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun opened on 19 December 1932 in what had been the premises of the earlier Imperial Cadet Corps.  Graduates, however, were commissioned as Indian Commissioned Officers (ICOs) rather than KCIOs, meaning that they were only eligible to command Indian soldiers.  A further seven units were identified for Indianization in  order to give more scope for postings and it was envisaged that newly-commissioned ICOs would take over the command of platoons from VCOs, and that the VCO would gradually disappear.  Perceived inequalities in the value placed on ICOs compared to King’s commissioned officers led to a decline in recruitment in the run-up to World War 2 so that when it started there were fewer than 500 Indian officers in the Army.  By March 1947 there were some 8,500 Indian commissioned officers.

In the aftermath of World War 2 a number of other manpower planning documents were issued in 1945/46 pointing towards the future structure and role of the Indian Army but General Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief in India, felt that many were based on conditions obtaining in the closing stages of the War and were not thinking far enough ahead to future Army requirements in five or ten years.  He did, however, accept the urgent need for nationalization of the Armed Forces which he described as:

….a completely national army, that is, an army officered and manned throughout by Indians in the shortest possible space of time without lowering the very high standard of efficiency which obtains in the Indian Army today. 

Announcement of the establishment of the Armed Forces Nationalization Committee was made on 13 November 1946 and they were given six months to report back.    Initial thoughts were that a change-over of officers should be completed within 10 years.    Against this backdrop it should also be remembered that the Indian Army was undergoing a massive post-war demobilisation programme.  The strength of the Indian Army on 1st February 1947 was 736,000.  The target strength for 1st April 1947 was 434,000 which left a balance of 300,000 to be demobilised between 1st February and 1st April.  

Before the Nationalization Committee could report, and before the ink was properly dry on many of the manpower planning papers, the whole concept of reorganisation was thrown into disarray by the sudden announcement of independence and partition.

Before leaving the subject of Indian officers it is worth mentioning briefly that fact that a good number of the semi-autonomous Indian Princes who rule their own States were granted Honorary Commissions in the British Army in recognition of their war service in both world wars.  Significant Muslim rulers who were granted such ranks included:

Sadiq Muhamad Khan Abbasi of Bahawalpur – Lieutenant Colonel (November 1941) 

Nawab Muhammad Nasrulla Khan of Bhopal – Honorary Colonel 9 Bhopal Infantry (January 1918)

Nawab Haj Nuhammad Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal – Air Vice Marshal (post-WW2)

Mir Usman Ali Khan of Hyderabad – General (November 1941)

Imam Baksh Khan, Talpur of Khairpur – Lieutenant Colonel (January 1918)

Ahmad Ali Khan of Malerkotla – Lieutenant Colonel (pre-1921)

Taley Muhammad Khan of Palanpur – Major (January 1932)

Sayyid Raza Ali Khan – Major General (October 1946)


    Major General Shahid Hamid. Disastrous Twilight – A Personal Record of the Partition of India.  London: Leo Cooper/Martin Secker & Warburg Limited, 1986, p.141


    Major General Shahid Hamid.  So They Rode and Fought. New York: Midas Books, 1983, p.18


    Dr Chandar S. Sundaram. “The Imperial Cadet Corps and the Indianisation of the Indian Army’s Officer Corps, 1897-1923: a Brief Survey.”  Durbar (journal of the Indian  Military Historical Society), Volume 27, Number 2, Summer 2010, p.53


    Byron Farwell, Armies of the Raj – From the Great Indian Mutiny to Independence: 1858-1947 (Penguin Group, London 1989), p.28


    Lieutenant General S.L. Menezes, Fidelity & Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century (New Delhi 1993), p.307


    Willcox Report, op.cit., paras 47-50.


    Anon, The Army in India and its Evolution (Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta 1924), p.36


    Under the chairmanship of Lieutenant-General (later General) Sir John Shea, GCB, KCMG, DSO, then serving as Chief of Staff to the C-in-C India.


    Mrs Hemalatha, MA, M.Phil, ‘History of Growth and Reforms of British Military Administration in India (1848-1949)’ in Language in India, Vol. 8 (9 Sep 2008), p.52


    Farwell, Armies of the Raj, p.293


    Ibid. p.293


    Hamid, Disastrous Twilight, Appendix VI, p.322


    Transfer of Power (TOP) IX, Number 61 and BL/IOLR/L/MIL/7/19590, f.31


    TOP IX, Number 91 and BL/IOLR/L/MIL/7/19590, f.27


    Army Commanders Conference, 25-29 March 1947.  BL/IOLR/L/WS/1/1524


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