For 55 days, the Boxers laid siege to the heart of Beijing.
The rebels, mainly young Chinese farmers and workers, kept more than 400 foreigners holed up in Beijing’s Foreign Legation Quarter. The siege was the dramatic denouement of months of anti-Imperialist and anti-Christian sentiment that swept across China at the turn of the 20th century. Known as the Boxer Rebellion, the events cast a long shadow on Chinese history throughout the 20th century, invoked by later nationalists in their own fight against Imperialism.
The history of the Boxer Rebellion is well known. What isn’t is the crucial role played by troops from British India in lifting the siege, which eventually paved the way for the occupation of Beijing by foreign troops.
Indian regiments made their way to the foreign quarter “crawling through the Imperial sewage canals”, undetected by the Boxers, and were the first troops to come to the aid of the besieged foreigners.
The lifting of the siege was one of only several key instances where Indian troops left an unlikely mark on the course of Chinese history in the early twentieth century.
This forgotten history of regiments from British India has been retraced by Colonel G. Jaishankar, who is currently serving as the Defence Attaché in the Indian Embassy in Beijing.
“Our leaders have been talking about ancient historical and cultural links, but little is known about the far more recent history of Indian troops in China,” he said in Beijing on Wednesday, at a presentation on the history of Indian regiments in China.
On August 4, 1900, a relief force of more than 3000 soldiers from Sikh and Punjabi regiments left Tianjin, part of the larger eight-nation alliance that was dispatched to aid the besieged quarter, where 11 countries had set up legations. Indian troops were also dispatched to guard churches and Christian missionaries, the targets of the Boxer uprisings.
Among the Indians, there was sympathy for the Boxers, Colonel Jaishankar said. Gaddhar Singh, a Rajput who was in Beijing in 1900-01, empathised with Chinese grievances in his accounts, arguing it was an entirely justified peasant rebellion.
The British also dispatched Indian regiments to China leading up towards the Opium War, which ended with the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 and the opening up of Chinese ports to the British.
The British deployed Sikh soldiers as law enforcement officers in ports like Shanghai, where their trading companies had set up a large presence by the early twentieth century. The Sikh soldiers were feared by the Chinese with their imposing figures, so much so that the British deemed that they did not even need guns when on duty, Colonel Jaishankar said, citing records from the time.
The history of Indian troops in China is one that is ignored in Chinese accounts, and is likely a sensitive legacy considering they were often deployed against the Chinese.
It is, nevertheless, a shared history that both countries should remember, Colonel Jaishankar said. “We should not run away from history,” he said. “But we are too swamped with recent events to take an objective look.”
There were also positive lessons to be remembered by both countries with shared colonial experiences, he stressed.
An example is the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War, when Indian and Chinese troops fought together against the Japanese.
The 585 Indians who lost their lives are still remembered today in Hong Kong’s war cemeteries.
Another case in point was in 1994, when the Indian army returned a bell that was looted by British troops from Beijing’s Temple of Heaven when the city was ransacked by foreign troops following the Boxer Rebellion. The bell was later put up for display by the Chinese military.
“The Battle of Hong Kong was a unique event,” Colonel Jaishankar said. “That was the first time in history,” he noted, “that Indian and Chinese troops fought on the same side.”