In many ways 1920 was a tumultuous year for the British in India. That was the year in which Mahatma Gandhi launched his first non-cooperation movement pushing the nationalist movement out of elite drawing rooms to the masses and the streets.

The British had not yet succeeded in pacifying an India that was seething under the Amritsar massacre and Punjab excesses of the previous year. In another part of the Empire the Irish had intensified their war of independence. The British, in other words, had their hands full.

But little is known about a mutiny in the summer of that year by Irish troops based in India that threatened to push the British Empire up against the wall. The Irish soldiers were part of a force that had been hitherto critical in holding down an increasingly rebellious India. The mutiny that appeared to be virtually spontaneous lasted less than a week but it severely shook the confidence of the British in its own troops to safeguard the Empire. Taken in conjunction with a series of events in Ireland it forced them to loosen their hold on at least one part of their empire – Ireland.

The regiment that rebelled was the Connaught Rangers, also known as the Devil’s Own for its ferocity. The biggest cause of worry for the British was that the mutiny took place in the troubled province of Punjab during the summer and spread to units that were located in the hills not far from their summer capital Shimla (then Simla).

Perhaps one of the factors that unnerved the British was that the soldiers who took part in the mutiny actually managed to make their way from Jullundar (now Jalandhar) to Solan, a distance of more than 240 kilometres without either being detected or checked on the way. This could take place despite the fact that they were white and were among a population that was largely supposed to be hostile to British Tommies (that was the English colloquial term for members of the other ranks).

They could just as easily have linked up with the Indian freedom fighters. This was indeed a suspicion voiced in a report in The Times newspaper in July, 1920 that accused the Irish freedom struggle party Sinn Fein of tampering with the army in India.

As is to be expected after such rebellions end up in failure, about 100 soldiers were court martialed out of whom 60 were convicted. For 14 it was the death sentence while the rest were given various terms in prison. In the end only one – private James Daly of Tyrrellspass, county Westmeath – was executed by firing squad, while the other 13 had their sentences commuted to prison terms.

A lad barely 21 years old Daly was said to have shown extraordinary determination and leadership for one so young. Hewas executed on a cold November dawn in 1920 in the courtyard of the Dagshai prison near Shimla. Though execution for mutiny was not uncommon during the First World War, Daly was the last British soldier to be executed for this offence.

Due to various reasons the mutiny has received considerable attention in Ireland but it has rarely found mention in historical accounts in India despite the fact that the developments in Ireland were closely followed by Indian nationalists. An attempt was made to fill this lacuna on the centenary of the Daly’s execution by the history department of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Irish Embassy which jointly organised a webinar on November 2 and 3, ‘India, Ireland and World War 1: The Connaught Rangers 1920 Mutiny and its Socio-Political Dimensions.

Historians, journalists, authors, an archivist of an Irish army museum and a few descendants of the mutineers shared research findings and experiences about the mutiny at the webinar. They followed the ups and downs that the fate of the mutineers traversed over the hundred years that have passed since 1920. But little light was shed on possible connections that the mutineers may have had with activists of the Indian freedom movement though some of them did speak about it in interviews given afterwards.

The mutiny broke out on a hot June day at Jullundur (now Jalandhar) as one of the soldiers walked up to the guard room at the barracks, gave himself up for arrest and said that he would no longer soldier for the British. The provocation for this action was the reports of atrocities committed by a police force called the ‘Black and Tans’ who had been posted in Ireland by the British and given a free hand to deal with the Irish who had stepped up their campaign for freedom from Britain, both by violent and peaceful means.

Officers of the regiment tried to brush the soldier’s action under the carpet but their efforts came to nought when four more soldiers joined in three days later. Soon the unrest had spread wider and about 400 refused to soldier for the British any further and surrendered their arms. Panic stricken messages travelled up and down the army’s lines of communication while the officers on the spot tried to threaten, cajole or trick the mutineers to re-join duty. But they were largely unsuccessful and force to be could not be used as the soldiers had risen not in arms but in peace.

To what extent they had been influenced by the non-violent methods advocated by Mahatma Gandhi it cannot be said though the similarities were striking.

Even while the army authorities were trying to figure out ways of dealing with this rather unusual mutiny there was further bad news for them. Two of the mutineers had escaped from the Jullundur barracks and reached Solan 240 kilometres away in the hills near Simla (now Shimla) and spread the mutiny among contingents of the regiment posted there. Though the weather was cooler at Solan, heads were hotter and in young private Daly, who had joined the British army only the previous year, the soldiers had found a confident and determined leader. To the authorities it seemed as if their worst fears had materialised as violence broke out at Solan when the mutineers rushed the armoury. Two of the mutineers were killed in the firing that followed.

Thus, ended the mutiny at Solan and the offenders were straightaway placed in confinement. Matters at Jullundur simmered for a few more days before the situation was brought under the control of the authorities who then set up courts martials to try about 90 of them identified as ring leaders. Of these 59 were convicted and 14 awarded the death sentence and others prison terms. The army chief commuted all the death sentences except that of Daly. Another of the mutineers, lance corporal John Flannery who survived, has left an account that includes a poignant description of the last days and the execution of Daly that was given to him by Reverend T.B. Baker who provided spiritual support and performed the last rites even as Daly fell dead after being shot by a dozen strong firing squad.

A year later fighting between the British and the Irish ended with a peace treaty at the end of 1921 under which Ireland was granted dominion status though Britain kept with itself the northern part that had a majority of protestants. Soon a civil war broke out among the Irish over the treaty as the more radical of the freedom fighters demanded republican status. It is interesting to note that in India too the demand for republican status began to gain ground around this time when an important change was introduced in the Indian National Congress that approved Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement at a special session in September, 1920.

However, in the turmoil in Ireland, it took a year before the release of the mutineers from prison was secured after negotiations though even after that the newly formed Irish government couldn’t make up its mind about whether to treat them as freedom fighters or simply as protestors who were trying to pose as freedom fighters. The mutineers themselves asserted that their action had been prompted by their feelings for Ireland and the atrocities committed on their fellowmen by the British. The hemming and hawing began after the mutineers asked for pension and other benefits offered to freedom fighters. The worst that was said about them was in 1929 by a parsimonious Irish finance minister Ernest Blythe who refused to consider their claims, expressing the opinion that patriotism was an afterthought in the case of the mutineers.

Though pension was eventually approved for the mutineers in 1936 it was not until another 13 years that a memorial to them was erected at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin where a number of Irish patriots had been buried. And it was a full half-a-century later in 1970 that the remains of Daly, who had been buried in a Catholic cemetery in Dagshai were carried back and re-interred in Glasnevin.

The Irish government had begun to maintain a distance from the mutiny and involved itself directly neither in the erection of the memorial in 1949 or in the 50th anniversary commemoration, dictated apparently by the requirements of international diplomacy and the relations between Ireland and Britain. At the time that Daly’s remains were re-interred the Irish did not wish to upset the British with whom they had good relations.

Ronan McGreevy of the Irish Times newspaper, one of the participants in the webinar, revealed that it was only earlier this year that Indian origin Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar visited Glasnevin Cemetery to pay tributes to the memory of the mutineers. It took a hundred years for official recognition. What the webinar showed was that the debate on the motivation behind the 1920 Connaught Rangers mutiny continues to rage in Ireland. Opening the webinar Irish ambassador Brendon Ward it was not mutiny at all – just disaffection and a side show to the Irish war of independence. The argument that he gave was that except for this one case of mutiny, Irish forces had served loyally in the British army everywhere.

Ambiguity towards the mutiny extends to scholarly circles too as was evident in the presentation of Prof. Mario Draper of Kent University who put forward the thesis that the Connaught Rangers mutiny had been moulded by the media to fit the nationalist ideal. Whether politics was in the minds of the mutineers at all, he said was “highly debatable.” Daly, he felt, had been “martyred for the cause.” But McGreevy asserted, on the other hand, that it was the mutiny that had redeemed these soldiers in the eyes of the Irish nationalists who viewed with hostility those of their countrymen who joined the British army before Irish independence.

Descendants of the mutineers, however had no doubts that patriotism had motivated them to rebel against the British army. Margaret Lambert, granddaughter of one of the mutineers, private James (Jimmy) Gorman, recalled that her grandfather had been angered by allegations that liquor was at the bottom of the mutiny. “They were not drunkards. They took part in the mutiny knowing they would be executed and I believe not they took that decision lightly,” she told the webinar quite reasonably. Gorman’s grandson Oliver recalled an interview by his grandfather to Irish radio RTE in which he had described as the bravest man he had ever seen and that he had died for Ireland’s freedom.

Further confirming this was what recorded in a 1970 interview by private Joseph Hawes, the “original mutineer” according to one of the scholars Prof. Thomas Bartlett of the University of Aberdeen. In the television clip of the interview played by McGreevy in his presentation Hawes said “We were discussing imperialism and I said that we are doing the same job in India as the British were doing in Ireland… suppressing the Irish people…we are out here to suppress the Indians. They said I think you are right…is there something we can do about it and I said we can do a lot of things… we walk over to the guard room in the morning and we’ll hand ourselves over and refuse to serve the British commander until such times as they withdrew their troops from Ireland.”

This contradicts the contention of Prof. Draper mentioned earlier and carries much weight coming as it does from one of the leading mutineers in Jullundur.

What is most surprising, however, is the complete absence of any mention of the mutiny either in Indian newspapers or in the words of those who led the Indian freedom struggle except indirectly at best. It is all the more astonishing that it eluded the attention of Indian activists in England and Europe despite the fact news of the mutiny appeared both in the British and Irish radical press. No answer was provided to this question at the webinar. It is clear though that developments in Ireland were being closely watched by the Indians as is evident from press reports. The death of Terence MacSwiney, mayor of Cork in Ireland, after a 74-day fast in prison in October, 1920 for example received attention in a long article that appeared in the Calcutta English language monthly ‘The Modern Review’ in its March, 1921 issue. The article was written by British friend of India and long-time associate of Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Freer Andrews.

In the same issue, the highly regarded editor of the monthly Ramananda Chatterjee noted in editorial notes that the British would not concede the Irish demand for republican status due to military reasons, apparently a reference to the peace treaty between Britain and Ireland in which the latter agreed to the dominion status. But the note was accompanied by a photograph of Eamon De Valera who it said was leading the demand for a republican Ireland. De Valera, who later became the prime minister of Ireland had distanced himself from the peace treaty that not only fell short of complete independence but also divided Ireland, a division that has continued to pose problems ever since, the latest being over the issue of Brexit.

What has become of the prison where Daly was imprisoned and executed? The prison itself was earlier being used as a store by the army authorities who were vaguely aware of its significance, was turned into a museum in 2011. The prison (now museum) stands at one end of a campus that is the compound of the Army Public School. Gaelic characters still adorn barracks adjacent to the prison, an indication of the fact that it was occupied by Irish troops. Some may ask, what is the point of digging up skeletons from the past as indeed was one of the questions posed at the webinar.

Whatever the scholarly answers, there is no doubt that it makes us take a relook at the people and ideas that went into creating the foundation of the Indian nation.

Kalyan Chatterjee is Professor at Amity School of Communication, Amity University, India. He has worked as a journalist for over two decades, first at United News of India news agency and then at Deccan Herald newspaper, covering politics and government.