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Cantonments: Home to the Brave

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

The march of time and human development and the evolution of society and culture are evidenced through the emergence of civilisations. This phenomenon is a global one. The Indus Valley Civilisation marked a visible historic phase in the Indian subcontinent and its offshoots have made what the region is today: a unique conglomeration of races, cultures, faiths and political systems. It provided a lasting blueprint for systematic growth of urbanism in an otherwise vast hinterland of rural landscape. Successive micro civilisations, empires and kingdoms emerged with each pushing the basic historical agenda of progress and development, even if it was not uniform and linear in its unfolding.

In the context of India, one transformative initiative came with the coming of the British to the subcontinent through the agency of their East India Company, whose exploits and their outcomes have been chronicled copiously. But, for our purpose, we will focus on one peculiar innovation and landmark institution that has played a significant role and discharged commendable responsibility towards nation building and stability of the Indian state. This was the creation of army cantonments across stategic locations in India. In this, our Dehradun cantonments played a seminal role.

For the East India Company, India was a vast alien country with a jigsaw of cultures, languages, religions and races. Their local rajas, chiefs and other elite had their own governance model. Besides diplomatic skills, the British depended greatly on their military superiority in men, materials and modern management learned during their European campaigns against Napoleon. But their near debacle during the uprising of 1857 had made the British extremely vary of the Indian sensitivities on several counts. They now sought to devise a more effective method of territorial governance if they were to safeguard their huge investments for which, till 1857, they were answerable to the Board of Directors of the East India Company headquartered at Leadenhall Street in London. But 1857 and its immediate aftermath brought important changes.

By now, it was a given that to hold onto the prize jewel in the Crown, the army would be the bedrock and a guarantee to a secure colony that was integral to the prosperity of Britain. It was for this reason the British Crown abolished the East India Company and took up direct control of India.

In the entire scheme of managing the country, the Army was a crucial pillar and pivot of territorial control and governance. For this, the army cantonments were designed and put on a firm foundation. All the sixty plus cantonments in India were the creation of British policy of having in place an effective armed deterrent to disruptive developments from any quarter. The essence of creating cantonments was that a congenial environment was to be created for the health of the British officers, the ranks and then for the native troops, albeit well segregated from the Britishers. The proximity of other civilian natives living in towns and cities was largely considered to be a negative influence for the morale and discipline of the army.

Another factor was the issue of unsanitary conditions that generally existed in the civilian quarters. Contaminated drinking water was another reason for separation. Cholera was a scourge that was more fatal than war. Annually, seven out of every thousand British soldiers died due to cholera! Sanitation, housing and drinking water were, therefore, key markers of good cantonment administration. This was sound reasoning as the manpower cost of recruitment and training and maintaining the army was a major expenditure on the exchequer, especially as the British proverbially abhorred any pinch on the pocket.

In creating a healthy ecosystem in the cantonments in India the lead was taken by none other than a certai

Florence Nightingale (aka Lady with the Lamp). Vastly experienced about conditions in army camps during the Crimean War (1853-56), she lobbied for improving the sanitation in Indian cantonments for the better living conditions of the soldiers. An acknowledged statistician, she elicited feedback through a questionnaire to advise the policy makers to work for the welfare of the soldiers. Thus, when cantonments were being considered for housing British troops in Dehradun, there was already an emerging awareness for what should be achieved.

Post the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814-15, a flurry of activity was underway in the Doon Valley. With demobilised Gorkha soldiers at hand in Dehradun and nearby Sirmour the opportunity was seized by the British to induct the Gorkhas to augment the effectiveness of its army. At first, the Gorkha units (Sirmour Battalion) had their barracks at the present Parade Ground and the Rangers’ College in the heart of the city. However, in those days the area was open parkland. The nearby Paltan Bazaar was established to serve the needs of the soldiers. Their commandant, Captain (later Colonel) Fredrick Young, had his palatial mansion on Rajpur Road in the present St Joseph’s Academy campus.

With the city getting its municipal board in 1867, the pressure to relocate the cantonment was increasingly felt. A 552 acre parcel of land was acquired in 1872 across the Bindal River on an elevation with magnificent views of the Himalayas towards Mussoorie where a convalescent depot had been set up at Landour. Commemorating the Anglo-Gorkha War, a memorial gate, popularly known as Lal Gate, was later erected to become a landmark at the approach of the cantonment.

The appeal of Doon Valley being what it was, two more cantonments were added. At Birpur, on the eastern banks of the Tons River, 742 acres were taken in 1904 to lay out the facilities for the 9th Gurkhas. And, later, for accommodating the Mountain Batteries in 1904-08, another 366 acres were needed further west in village Ghanghora on the banks of the charming Nun River coming down from western Mussoorie. Wide roads, extensive open areas, stately trees lining the roads all in days to come came up to make these cantonments some of the prettiest in the country. Between Birpur and Ganghora, the village of Garhi became the prized location for veteran Gurkha pensioners to settle down.

The Dehradun cantonments with their impeccable sanitation and water supply from the specially constructed Bijapur Canal became the envy of the civil portion of the town and perhaps set high standards for the latter to emulate.

Completing a laudable two hundred years of their presence in the Doon Valley, the cantonments continue to be an endearing home to India’s brave.
[Clement Town and Chakrata cantonments have been covered in my earlier columns: The Saga of Chakrata; and Clement Town: A Chequered Century.]

[Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the ‘Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun’ (2011) and the ‘Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehradun’. (2017)]