IN THE KUMAON HILLS, RANIKHET IS HOST TO THE ARMY, BOTH PHYSICALLY AND METAPHORICALLY.
I just returned from a short vacation to Ranikhet, a military cantonment tucked into the heart of the Kumaon mountains, only to be cast out of the cold interiors of the Anand Vihar Kathgodam Shatabdi Express straight into Delhi’s fiery 47 degree heat. I am, well, disoriented. Already that brief trip has started to take on the qualities of a detailed and fussy dream – the spotless hill station with its stately pine, oak and deodar trees outfitted in white chalk skirts and badged with their genus and species; the bazaar that seems to have stopped time back in the ’80’s, with its tiny mixie and scooter repair shops and the one ‘shopping plaza’ displaying gaudy polyester saris; the hymn-singing children from Canossa Convent sweetening the mountain air with their soprano voices; the dilapidated Ranikhet Club, where we stayed, feasting on Anglo-Indian fare dished up by a Kumaoni Gerard Depardieu. But my memories took on a particularly dreamlike quality with regards to the military museum.
Maintained by the Kumaon Regimental Centre (KRC), the main army establishment in Ranikhet, the museum is a long, dimly lit underground chamber sunk beneath a memorial garden dedicated to the Kumaon regiment’s decorated officers. The garden is a sun-trap, with a riot of flowers punctuated by magnificent busts of the officers, and offers a stark contrast to the gloomy museum underneath, dedicated to the recording the origins of the Kumaon regiment. The Regiment it tell us, is one of the oldest and hoariest in the Indian army, having fought in practically every battle, skirmish or war (collectively termed “military engagements” in innocuous officialese) in the subcontinent’s history.
While most military formations in India were forged out of the colonial past, the Kumaon regiment came into existence as early as the 1700s, when it was ‘raised’ as a part of the Nizam’s army by the British resident of Hyderabad, Colonel Russell. The museum takes pains both to record as well as comment on the strange Hyderabadi origins of an outfit that is today composed almost entirely of Kumaonis, Garhwalis and Gorkhas. Perhaps it is a reminder of the rambling, rambunctious glory of the British Empire, now ossified here below the ground, where the Himalayan sun set differently from the Daccani one.
Entry to the museum is free and open to all, but visitors are stopped at the entrance, where the receptionist collects all cameras and mobile phones and places them in boxes labeled “army personnel and families” or “others”. Traveling with my army parents, I am awarded with a smart salute for not being one of the “others”. The civilian-military divide is evident everywhere in Ranikhet, a blow that is softened for us because my father is a retired officer of the Indian army. Even at the entrance to the KRC, by the decaying colonial-era Globe Theatre compound, the army sentry relaxed, visibly, at the sight of my father’s army identity card before he waved us through; little privileges that accrete every minute, every day, to make us feel, on our four-day trip, like minor royalty.
Walking around Ranikhet with my diminutively built parents, attracting the odd salute from the profusion of check posts around the cantonment, I revisit my father’s army identity: 2-Engineer Regiment, Madras Sappers, a corner of my mind repeats from years of unconscious aural memory. I don’t really know what it means, I don’t know if it is more or less covered in glory compared to, say, the Bombay Sappers, or the Bengal Sappers. As the next generation of a misfit army parent who has splashed on the sides of the great stream of military valour washing through this subcontinent, I know very little, in fact. That stream flowed strong and wide through the KRC museum, with its unrelenting display of shells, mortar, artillery, rifles, machine guns and cannons, each lovingly captioned in the grammatically correct, public school-trained, patriotic prose of the military.
I am struck by an incongruity; the telling and retelling of the sordid business of war has always been a closely guarded enterprise, reserved for beautifully produced notes in museums. Contrary to stereotypes of the garrulous army drunk, my father and his course mates from the Indian Military Academy never spoke about the two wars in which they had fought, no matter how raucous the party. There were funny stories from the war, personal stories, little tales, but never the big picture, never the larger narrative about The Thing itself. Once in a blue moon my father, almost muttering to himself, would shake his head and say it was terrible, what happens to men in battle, but when I’d look up it was as if he had never spoken. By a seemingly unconscious agreement amongst its recruits, the secrets of the Indian army are spirited away to its battlefields, where they remain. Throughout my childhood I waited to hear one story of bravery from my father. It never happened. I realise now he remembered no bravery; indeed he remembers nothing of the larger story outside of what this and other museums and official histories have curated for him. Perhaps no other way is possible.
The museum also houses bric-a-brac, like the silver presented to Colonel Russell by the Kumaon regiment “in recognition of the services rendered by him.” I think to myself that it is a bad sign when gifts start flowing upwards in any economy, but I am, for the moment, sunk beneath the ground, high on a mountain, struck by the incongruity of the Russell tureens and casseroles, their silvery domesticity cheery in the dim homage to war that surrounds us. Beneath a life-size diorama of bayonet-wielding soldiers sits a clunky, portable telephone exchange from World War II that looks like an elaborate toy built over a long summer and abandoned as soon as school began. Yet even in its rudimentary outlines I sense the heft of this decommissioned war remnant. This is the stuff of lore, of Hollywood movies and Reader’s Digest stories: an embattled, outnumbered Good Force and its useless instruments who are no match for the Bad Force, or more specifically, for the deadly design of the Japanese and the Germans, as in the Battle of Slim River in the Malay Peninsula where the Kumaon regiment was ‘engaged’. Technological retardation was often a stand-in for moral purity in our Cold War histories, and the Kumaon Regimental Centre museum cements this connection, encasing its outdated military equipment in toughened glass, subtle lighting and rousing histories.
I am overwhelmed, and a little ill, when I re-emerge into the clean mountain air above. I focus on the foliage of the spectacular deodar at the entrance to the museum, mentally re-cataloging the exhibits as I remember them. For the terrible truth is that despite being an army girl, and despite my vast love of history, the museum has left me stone cold. Many minutes later my father emerges, temporarily blinded, like all of us, by the mountain sun. He is visibly energized, smiling and waving as he walks briskly towards me. I don an old Doubting Thomas face, grimacing and shaking my head, unable to resist puncturing his mood. My father immediately looks annoyed.
He will never know this, but I always take his side. I am asking him, impossibly, at the ripe age of seventy, to fight the Indian army’s ridiculous old traditions and its enduring caste systems, most strikingly revealed in the way its regiments and battalions are named and organised hierarchically amongst the ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ ‘races’. We know that colonial prejudice, colonial practice, but most of all colonial pragmatics fashioned these hierarchies out of the tangled web of identities on the subcontinent. Thus, tempering the grand narratives of races and peoples produced by countless colonial gazetteers and officials was expedience, and sometimes, plain contradiction. When Sikh identity, damaged and dispirited after the 1840s Anglo-Sikh wars, was restored by large-scale recruitment of Sikhs and the naming of an entire regiment of the British Indian Army, the Nairs, following their even earlier challenge to the British in 1809, were marked out as untrustworthy. The Rajputs were shoved into modernity with their medieval self-portrayals recast by social Darwinism as ‘natural’ fighting prowess, while the Marathas post-1857 were excoriated as plain rebellious. The Jats and Ahirs – long inheritors of peasant-soldiering traditions – were reinvented by an agriculture-dependent empire as sturdy, dependable yeomen and soldiers, while the Gujjars and other pastoralists – also inheritors of the same tradition, were classified as ‘criminal tribes’.
As the KRC Museum reminds us for the hundredth time, the Kumaonis were a martial race; hence this elaborate homage in the heart of Kumaon. What this homage marks more unconsciously however, is the ‘other’ of that hierarchy: the “Madrassis”, Bengalis and Biharis that were either to be suspected in perpetua or rendered useful to the British only as non-martial ‘coolies’. My father, small and brown and Madrassi, a runaway to the army from his home, has been well schooled in these notions, coming to believe he was lucky to be accepted, even if only partially, by the ‘martial’ Punjabis and Rajputs with whom he shared mess meals and bunkers, even when they poked fun at his dark brown skin and curly hair, his tiny frame and tough attitude. So between all the salutes and the silly thrill of gaining entry at checkpoints, I fight with him.
Strolling back into the civilian parts of Ranikhet, I wonder also if the right side of the hierarchy is any better than the wrong. The locals are scattered in Ranikhet, wedged into the interstices of the vast tracts of land colonised first by the British and then by the Indian territorial army. There lie only a few hundred miles between Kumaon and the China border in the east – the Kumaonis will have to prove their martial mettle yet again when the treacherous yellow-skinned Chinese advance on the border, or so the army officers tell themselves and each other, lubricated on the nation’s best whiskey and cossetted by some of its most talented labour. The ethno-centric hierarchies nurtured by the Indian Army for two centuries have morphed and changed shape, finding new enemies and targets, consecrating new heroes, but have remained robust, disseminating outwards from the army to lodge in the soul of this militarised nation. They will probably be here when the pines and deodars get old, demanding, as they have for two centuries, martyred sons and memorial gardens. If Ranikhet is a dream, it hasn’t always been a happy one.
Author: Sunalini Kumar
Illustration: Reshidev RK