George F Kennan believed that in examining the history of the 20th century, all the lines of inquiry led back to the First World War. Westerners tend to view the First World War through the narrow but compelling lens of the Western Front, but the war was truly global, in part because Britain, France, and other European powers had colonies and allies throughout much of the world. India then was the jewel in the British imperial crown, but as Umej Bhatia shows in his meticulous new book Our Name is Mutiny, the jewel was coming loose due to Indian nationalism and global jihadism, and for a brief moment the Indian revolutionary ferment exploded in Singapore.
The author is both an historian (with degrees from Cambridge and Harvard) and a longtime member of the Singaporean Foreign Service. He is currently Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva and Vienna. His book focuses on the Singapore sepoy mutiny of February 1915, in which about 800 Indian soldiers, most of whom were devout Muslims of the 5th Light Infantry, forcefully rebelled against their British overseers, killing 47 British soldiers and civilians and 13 Singaporean civilians, while suffering over 200 casualties. The mutiny was mercilessly put down by British troops with assistance from French, Russian, and Japanese forces, and many of the surviving mutineers were executed or sentenced to life terms on the Andaman Islands’ penal colony.
The intellectual seeds of the Singapore Mutiny were planted by the Ghadar (which means mutiny or rebellion) movement, which sought to coordinate various Indian nationalist groups into a revolutionary party. Its founder was an anarchist named Har Dayal, and he founded the Ghadar Party in March 1912, in Portland, Oregon, USA. “Over the next few months,” Bhatia writes, “it would bring under its umbrella the broad network of Indian associations in North America.”
Other leaders of the Ghadar movement included Vinayak “Veer” Savarkar, Rash Behari Bose, Gurdit Singh, Hussain Rahim, Nawab Khan, Bhai Parmanand, Kaseem Ismail Mansoor, Abdul Hafiz Mohammad Barkatullah, and Harnarm Singh Tundilat, and Bhatia provides interesting biographical and character sketches of these long-forgotten (at least in the West) Indian revolutionaries.
Har Dayal and other leaders of the movement ran the Party from a house on Hill Street in the St Johns section of Portland, later referred to as the “House on the Hill”. Bhatia describes it as a “dull and drab two-story wooden house” with “a backyard with a garden, large shady trees, a small pool, grass and pretty flower beds”. Here Har Dayal and others combined “revolutionary work” with philosophical meditation. The Party’s newspaper, Ghadar, promoted nationalism, jihadism, and incited rebellion. Bhatia notes that the newspaper’s masthead “identified it as ‘The Enemy of the English Race’”, and in its first editorial proclaimed that “people can no longer bear the oppression and tyranny practised under English rule and are ready to fight and die for freedom”. “It is the duty of every Indian”, the editorial continued, “to make preparations for this rising”. But as Bhatia notes, the revolutionary Party was long on rhetoric but short on planning and organization, which would prove fatal to the success of the mutiny.
As the Indian revolutionaries planned for the uprising, the gathering storm in Europe presented them with potential allies in Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Bhatia notes that retired German general and strategist Friedrich von Bernhardi in 1911, urged German leaders to use Muslim Indian revolutionaries against Britain in the coming war, while the Ottoman Sultan issued fatwas designed “to turn Britain’s Muslim subjects against their colonial masters.”
When war erupted in August 1914, Ghadar trumpeted: “The War between England and Germany has started. Now is the time for India.” Indian nationalists in Oregon, San Francisco, and Vancouver boarded ships, including the Komagata Maru, destined for Asian ports, including Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore. Meanwhile, Singapore and other British colonies were mobilized for war, and Muslim sepoys there were expected to do their duty in defense of the British Empire. And that might mean service on the carnage-ground of the Western Front.
British authorities were aware of the Indian revolutionary movements, and had infiltrated some of them. William Charles Hopkinson, who was born in Delhi, worked for the British in North America as a secret policeman. He tracked the movements of the Indian revolutionaries on the west coast and ran what Bhatia calls a “stable of double agents”. Hopkinson was murdered in Vancouver by a Sikh revolutionary who under pressure had incriminated Ghadar Party members. In Singapore, however, the British authorities, including the colonial governor Sir Arthur Henderson Young, seemed oblivious to the danger of mutiny. In Singapore, Bhatia writes, the mood among the British was “like Europe’s perfect summer before the guns of August changed the world”.
The Singapore mutiny broke out on 15 February 1915. “Events moved,” writes Bhatia, “with the force of their own logic and momentum.” Sepoys of the 5th Light Infantry seized ammunition near a guardhouse and began shooting. Some members of the Malay States Guides joined the mutiny. Bhatia provides a detailed blow-by-blow account of the fighting near the Tanglin Barracks, Alexandra Barracks, Commanding Officer Edward Martin’s bungalow, on Cemetery Hill, and elsewhere. The fighting lasted for two days. British reinforcements came to the rescue under the field command of Lt Col Charles Brownlow and stemmed the mutinous tide. Many mutineers were rounded up and punished. But a mutiny is much easier to stamp out than an idea. Indian nationalism only grew stronger, but it took another and more destructive global war to finally end the rule of the British Raj.
Bhatia notes that during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II, some Indian nationalists turned again on their British rulers and formed the Indian National Army, which fought on the side of Japan. The Indian nationalists, writes Bhatia, soon learned that they “had exchanged a European master for an Asian one.” Thousands of Indian soldiers gave their lives for Imperial Japan on the Burmese front and elsewhere.
India gained its independence after World War II, but the cost in lives was great. Bhatia blames the post-independence violence on the British, which is only a half-truth at best. This book, for all of its many virtues, is written almost wholly from an anti-British perspective.
The Singapore Mutiny of 1915 combined the twin forces of nationalism and global jihadism—forces that have played major roles in world politics ever since, confirming George Kennan’s insightful observation about the tremendous historical impact of the First World War.