The Imperial Cadet Corps and Indianisation of the Indian Army’s Officer Corps, 1897-1923: A Brief Survey

Dr Chandar S Sundaram*


One of the key attributes of modern nation-states is a professional military establishment. For a military establishment to be professional, it requires military training. During the British Raj in India until 1901, professional military training was the exclusive preserve of the British officer. Yet in 1901, military training was extended for the first time to the Raj’s Indian subjects, in the form of the Imperial Cadet Corps (ICC). The ICC was a failure. It was resurrected as the Prince of Wales’ Royal Indian Military College, founded in 1923 as a preparatory school for Indian cadets proceeding to Sandhurst; and after 1932, to the Indian Military Academy. The Prince of Wales’ College exists today as the Indian Military College or “Rimcoll”. Thus, it can be said that the ICC established the precedent for training Indian officers in India, which finally reached fruition in the founding of the Royal Indian Military Academy, which continues as the Indian Military Academy till today. The ICC therefore occupies a pivotal place in the history of the Indianisation of the Indian Army’s officer corps. However, it remains little studied and little known. This article complements earlier research by colouring-in some of the lesser known features of the Corps, as well as precisely pinpointing the reasons for its failure. 

Background History of the Corps

The Corps was the first tangible product of the 122-years Indianisation debate, which lasted from 1817 to 1940. It raised two questions: were Indians “racially” fit for military command and leadership in the same class as Britons; and if they were, how were they to be integrated into the Army in a manner that did not endanger the Raj? 

Before 1857, Sir Henry Lawrence came closest to advocating the granting of full officer commissions to Indians. He believed that, in a land like India which had witnessed the rise and fall of many kingdoms and empires, there simply had to be men with a European-like capacity for military leadership, who deserved avenues to fully express that capacity. Lawrence’s concern was pragmatic: he wanted to prevent the trend of Native Officers (today’s JCOs) joining the militaries of the Indian polities because they were dissatisfied with Company’s Army. He wrote that “justice and liberality will forge stronger chains of loyalty than a suspicious and niggardly policy.” 

The 1857 Mutiny killed the idea of Indianisation for thirty years. Since the British attributed their victory over rebellious sepoys and civilians to their superior military leadership, most of them flatly opposed encouraging or inculcating this quality amongst Indians. As one British general who had served during the “Mutiny” later said: “…selecting…[Indians], educating them, and training them in the arts of war…would make them…dangerous characters, and rather too efficient.”

In 1885, General Sir George Chesney, the Government of India’s Military Secretary, resurrected Indianisation, for two reasons. First, he believed that the British could not “continue to use the native as a subordinate military tool, but must associate him as an intelligent agent.” Second, Indianisation was already being advanced by the Indian Babu intelligentsia as proof of British insincerity, because, by barring Indians from high military posts, they were not honouring the promise made in 1858 Royal Proclamation to open up positions in government and administration to Indians. As if to prove Chesney right, the Indian National Congress, in 1887, passed a resolution calling for Indianisation and the establishment of a military college in India for that purpose.

Between 1885 and 1891, Chesney proposed Indianisation schemes four times, advancing three measures: first, the experimental Indianisation of the officer cadre of one or two units; second, the opening of an Indian military college to train Indians for higher commissions; third, the professionalisation of the VCO class. Though seemingly liberal, closer examination shows them as essentially conservative. Rather than being designed for all Indians, they were aimed at only: the classes then recruited into the Army – the so-called martial races – and the “native aristocracy” of Princely and British India. By advocating for these Indians, Chesney conformed to two dominant ideological strands of the late-Nineteenth Century Raj: firstly, that in India, unlike in the West, only certain rural “martial races” possessed the ability to effectively bear arms and become soldiers; and secondly, that the princes were the upholders of “traditional” India, the undue meddling of which had caused the “Mutiny”. In fact the 1858 Proclamation which established Britain’s Indian Empire promised to “...respect the rights, dignity, and honour of the native princes as our own.”

Despite his dogged persistence, Chesney’s proposals were all rejected. His opponents employed three arguments. Firstly, that it was impossible that a British officer or other ranks would ever agree to be commanded by an Indian, which was something that the first two of Chesney’s measures would eventually result in. Secondly, since “everyone knew” that Indians did not possess the British “habit of command”, their posting to line units would lead to the Army’s loss of efficiency, thus endangering the security of the Indian Empire. Finally, General Sir Frederick Roberts, the C-in-C India 1885-1893, held that the Indianisation demand was illegitimate, because it only issued from “...the misguided Englishmen and Hindus who direct[ed] the machinations of the [Indian] National Congress”, and not from martial and aristocratic Indian “races” who, in any case, wisely realised that higher officer commissions were “...reserved for the governing race”.

Formation of the Corps

In 1897, the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, wrote to Lord George Hamilton, the India Secretary, asking whether his son, then at Eton, could obtain an officer commission in the British Army. Since the Maharaja was an Indian prince, and thus a “legitimate” Indian, his request was taken seriously. However, it was rejected because Indian princes were legally not British subjects, and thus were barred, according to the Act of Settlement of 1690, from holding officers’ commissions in any part of the Crown’s Armed Forces.

Undeterred by this failure, Hamilton was determined to press the princes’ cause regarding Indianisation. In 1900, he averred that, after their “...exhibition of loyalty and martial ardour [in the then ongoing Boer War] it is unjust and impolitic to deny them all prospect of military service, except in the lower grades.” 

In Lord George Curzon, the incoming Viceroy, he found a willing and like-minded ally. In June 1900, Curzon produced a proposal to set-up an Imperial Cadet Corps to meet the military aspirations of Indian princes and gentlemen. This was to be a small body of between twenty and thirty carefully selected young scions of the Indian princely and noble houses, and was to be attached to the Viceroy’s Durbar on special ceremonial occasions. For rest of their time, the cadets were to undergo a course of military training. The Corps was to be under the control of the Government of India’s Foreign Department, which handled all dealings with the princes. 

The normal course at the ICC was to last two years. However, those few cadets who showed real promise would undergo a third year of specialised military training. Upon successfully completing this third year, cadets would be granted commissions in His Majesty’s Native Indian Land Forces (HMNILF). Although these commissions entitled the holder to exercise command over “...all Native officers, soldiers, and other persons belonging to Our Native Indian Forces”, Curzon strongly preferred that holders be posted only in extra-regimental billets – as aides-de-camp, and on the staffs of general officers – where they would command nobody. 

Despite scathing criticism by certain high officials, such as the C-in-C India, General Sir Arthur Power Palmer, and Sir Charles Crosthwaite, an eminent senior Indian civil servant – who contended that the scheme was “ testing a man’s capacity as a judge by giving him a seat on a bench which never has any cases to try” – Hamilton and Curzon managed to secure London’s approval for the Corps. The Congress Party too endorsed the ICC, seeing it as “ the first instalment of a policy which will culminate in the establishment of military colleges...[where]... India[ns] may be educated and trained for a military career as commissioned officers in the Indian Army.” 

Assessing the ICC

The staff of the Corps consisted of the Commandant and the Adjutant, who were both British officers; and the Native Adjutant. The main brunt of instruction fell on the two British officers. They were assisted by a senior British NCO who handled drill. 

The academic year was divided into two terms: a cold weather term, from the beginning of November to the end of March, at Meerut Cantonment, and a hot weather term, from the end of May to the end of August, at Dehra Dun. At Meerut, cadets were housed in well-appointed tents. Accommodation was more formal at Dehra Dun: two lines, consisting of 12 rooms each, with attached bathrooms – uncommon even in Britain at the time. A separate line housed the ICC staff, the Muslim and Hindu messes, classrooms and the library. Book-learning was not emphasised. Per day, there were only three hours of classroom instruction, 30 minutes less than the draft rules stipulated. Most of the classroom time during the first year was devoted to English language instruction and arithmetic. Among the books read were Lord Roberts’ Forty-One Years in India, and RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island. While the first was a celebration of the Raj and its Indian Army in memoir form, the second was a “boys-own” adventure, inspiring masculine values. Outdoor subjects in the first year included drill and equitation. In the second and third years, military subjects, such as cavalry training, topography, administration and organisation, and tactics were introduced. The textbooks used were: Cavalry Training, Combined Training, The Manual of Military Engineering, The Manual of Field Sketching, Longman’s Geography, and Coleman’s Arithmetic. Throughout, there was a heavy emphasis on sports – especially team sports, like polo, which bred horsemanship as well as team spirit and leadership, and pig-sticking, which presumably added an unpredictable element, thought to be akin to the “fog of war.” 

Cadets selected for the third year course, which consisted only of military subjects, took a commissioning examination at the end of it, which became more professionalised with time. For instance, while the first one, in 1905, contained no core military subjects, the 1909 examination had a paper on military law – a fundamental cornerstone of a professional officer’s training. 

Other aspects of the Corps, however, were not so professional. Separate messes, on communal lines, were instituted. While catering to “Indian sensibilities”, this inevitably militated against the camaraderie that is the cornerstone of any professional officer corps. Cadets were also allowed to bring their personal servants, and sometimes, their private tutors. Furthermore, the Cadets’ dress and ceremonial uniform were very extravagant. Designed by Curzon himself, it was snow white, with sky-blue and gold facings and was topped by a sky-blue Sapha (Rajput style turban). Made of the finest materials, the uniform then cost a princely sum of Rs 500. The opulence and expense of the uniform was no doubt intended to appeal to extravagant tastes and the social exclusivity of the Indian aristocrats. 

Imperial Cadets were to attend on the Viceroy at Imperial functions. One such occasion was the 1903 Coronation Durbar, organised by Curzon. Here, the ICC, “...mounted on black chargers and resplendent in their strikingly beautiful uniforms...formed an important contingent in the Viceroy’s escort.” According to modern commentators, the Corps’ participation was essential to the Raj’s Order, which saw Indian aristocrats as the essential mediators between the Indian peasantry and the King-Emperor. 

The Corps was not cheap. Between 1901 and 1908, its budget totalled Rs 4,57,835. Expenditure on the ICC averaged out at Rs 65,405 per annum.

Recruitment and Future Employment

Membership in the ICC was by invitation only. Agents to the Governors’ General in the various States Agencies – but especially those of Rajputana and Central India, deemed to be the Corps’ main recruiting grounds – periodically forwarded names of suitable candidates to the Government, who were then seen and interviewed by higher officials. Every effort was made to avoid the lazy, socialite “gaiety lounge type”, while inducing either young ruling princes, or heirs of princely states to join. In fact, by 1907, six princes had joined, though none of them completed even the two-year course. The major source of cadets, however, were the four chiefs’ colleges that had been set-up in the late-Nineteenth Century to provide an English public school education to the Indian aristocracy.

Intake into ICC was never high. Between 1901 and 1908, 68 cadets were admitted, and new enrolments reached double-digit figures only twice, in 1902 and 1905. Fifty-four cadets came from princely India, with only 14 from British India. While Rajputana led the way, providing 18 cadets, it is interesting to note that supposedly non-martial states, such as those of the Kathiawar Agency (seven) and Hyderabad (four), supplied more individually than any martial state. 

During the Corps’ existence, only eleven cadets were granted HMNILF commissions: four in 1905; three in 1907, one in 1911; and three in 1913. The Corps reached a low ebb in 1909, when the two cadets who passed the commissioning examination – both from Hyderabad – declined to accept their HMNILF commissions. The ICC was unpopular for three main reasons. The first was the absence of tangible employment opportunities for graduating cadets. The second, fuelled no doubt, by the first, was the ruling chiefs’ lack of sustained interest. Finally, there were complaints about the Corps’ training regime, location, high attrition rate, and the fact that some of the Foreign Department’s political officers3 saw the Corps as a reform school for wayward boys. 

Almost since the ICC’s beginning, cadets, their families, and some officials expressed concern about the future employment of cadets. As early as 1903, one cadet became disillusioned because it was clear that he and his fellow cadets would not receive real officer commissions. But Curzon and his coterie were unconcerned. To a suggestion that graduating cadets could be profitably employed in the Imperial Service Troop (IST) contingents maintained by various princely states, the Viceroy retorted that if that were the ICC’s purpose, he “...would throw the scheme into the waste-paper basket!” 

The crux of the problem was the thorny powers of command question, and the solutions proposed involved “special regiments”, to be officered exclusively by ICC graduates. In 1904, Major Watson, the ICC’s first commandant, proposed that existing IST units be converted into Local Imperial Troop (LIT) units officered by ICC graduates. This would increase the effectiveness of the princely forces, and counter worries about the Corps. But Curzon was again highly dismissive, stating that he was not prepared to convert the whole IST system to benefit “…a narrowly limited number of young Indian gentlemen who have received a somewhat perfunctory military education over a period of three years.” This, from a man who, a scant three years earlier, had praised the princes as the one Indian class that had exhibited unstinting loyalty towards the Raj, is perplexing. 

In 1906, Major Cameron, the new ICC commandant, tried again. Arguing that, as perpetual ADCs, HMNILF holders were being stultified professionally, he proposed the formation of a Regiment of Mounted Infantry (RMI). The RMI would consist of four 150-man double-companies: two of Rathore Rajputs, and one each of Rangars (Muslim Rajputs) and Punjabi Muslims. ICC graduates would be posted initially to subaltern posts, of which there were eight, and be duly promoted, based on their performance. Two years later, at the behest of Lord Minto, Brigadier Drummond, the Inspector-General of the ISTs, formulated a scheme essentially similar to Cameron’s. Drummond argued that his scheme would provide regimental employment to ICC graduates, while not negatively affecting the prestige of British officers. 

As early as 1904, the ICC was garnering bad press. The Civil & Military Gazette published a damning assessment, saying that the ICC seemed to be “tottering to a fall.” Citing the fact that only seven of twenty-two “carefully selected” cadets had qualified for the 3rd year course, it maintained that such a wholesale culling would only deter young Indian aristocrats from joining. Finally, it contended that the “… ‘failed cadets’, with their expensive European tastes and some proficiency in polo, will be a new and not wholly desirable addition to the ranks of the discontented.” Although Calcutta was quick to counter that it never intended to select a majority of cadets for the 3rd year course, and that cadets had withdrawn of their own accord for a variety of reasons, the Corps’ prestige had been dented. Indian politicians now joined in. Addressing the Imperial Legislative Council, Gopal Krishna Gokhale stated that, with regard to the ICC, the Government had irresponsibly raised hopes that it had no intention of fulfilling. And, not to be outdone, the All-India Muslim League advocated the posting of ICC graduates as officers of the Indian Army. 

In 1907, the Corps took a direct and devastating hit, when the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who had gotten the whole ball rolling with his 1897 request to Hamilton, withdrew his sons from the Corps, citing his disappointment that his sons would not be commissioned as regular officers in “...the Indian Army.” This, and the Maharaja of Bikaner’s decision not to send any more boys from his state to the Corps, unless their being granted regular officer commissions was ensured, galvanised London. Lord Morley, the India Secretary now sent a despatch to Calcutta, enquiring about whether the Corps met princely aspirations. 

Calcutta responded, in 1910, that “...nothing short of regimental employment...[would]...satisfy the aspirations of educated young Indian noblemen who sought a military career.” It therefore recommended the implementation of Drummond’s scheme, and the conversion of the Corps into a full-fledged military college under the Military Department to train Indians. Morley then convened a special committee to consider the issue. However, mainly because of Curzon’s intervention, no decision was reached, and the Corps was allowed to soldier on, with dwindling numbers. Another conference, convened at Simla in 1912, reached an impasse as well, this time because the War Office representative insisted that, if indeed Indians were at some point in time admitted into the Indian Army’s officer corps, no Indian could receive a commission without attendance at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Clearly, the Corps had no place in these plans. 

In 1914, the eleven HMNILF commission holders were holding posts in IST units, attached to the staffs of commanders of military divisions, or were attached extra-regimentally, to line units. For them, regular officer commissions – “the great objects of their longing” – remained out of reach. Yet, in 1918, when London finally sanctioned Indians’ eligibility for regular officer commissions, the first nine were bestowed on ICC graduates. The ICC itself had closed its doors in 1914, though quite a few Foreign Department files from later years listed this as being only a temporary measure. Apparently, the authorities did not want to admit the Corps’ failure. Yet, that was not the end of the ICC. When, in the early 1920s, Indians at Sandhurst were failing at an alarming rate, New Delhi decided to open a preparatory Indian feeder school for Sandhurst. Christened the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College – and now the Rashtriya Indian Military College – it used the old ICC lines at Dehra Dun. The ICC had finally found its true calling, as a preparatory school, first for Sandhurst, and then for the Royal Indian Military Academy, which opened in 1932. 


The ICC failed, but why? First, the fundamental “smoking gun” was the error made in wording of the first ICC rule. If, as the foregoing article has made abundantly clear, the authorities concerned had no intention of giving HMNILF commission holders the same powers of command as British officers, then the phrase in the first rule of the ICC’s draft rules stating that ICC graduates”…may be able to take their place in the Imperial Army as British officers...” should never have been printed, especially as the ‘Draft Rules’ was a public document that was even sent round to princely durbars upon request. Given the fact that Indian nationalists were already pointing out to British hypocrisy and evasive statements regarding the 1858 proclamation, it is surprising that officials made a similar error regarding the ICC rules. The only plausible explanation, given the fact that no attempt was made to amend the first rule’s wording, is that the Foreign Department discounted the ability of the Indian aristocracy to detect the discrepancy. Yet intelligent aristocrats, like Amar Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar did indeed express their dissatisfaction – the last in a very public way, which forced the authorities to act, though not, in the end, substantively. 

The second reason for the Corps’ failure was the persistent lack of rewarding and meaningful career options for graduating cadets. Yet the authorities were consistently resistant to providing this. Witness Curzon’s disdainful “waste paper basket” reaction to an entirely reasonable suggestion. As this article has articulated, the three entirely feasible special regiment schemes were all rejected, for reasons that were flimsy, at best. Despite countless meetings4, and secret memos, consultations and notes, the racial barrier – the notion that officer commissions were reserved for the governing race, however camouflaged by concerns over “military efficiency”, exam-hungry and unmartial babus, fear of another mutiny outbreak, and the like – prevailed. 

The ICC also showed, in stark relief, what could not be done in the matter of Indianisation. One could not set-up a training institution and make vague promises of future employment and then fail to honour those promises by not providing meaningful and satisfying employment. Also, one could not set-up a military training corps under the Foreign Department and expect full Military Department cooperation. It also showed that Indian noble and gentlemanly classes had expectations, and could not be taken for granted. The ICC raised the expectation among Indians for full and substantive King’s Commissions, with full powers of command. Had the Corps fulfilled this, there is no doubt that Indian nationalist politicians would not have had to maintain a sustained pressure on the Indianisation issue in the inter-war years. The words uttered by Sir PS Sivaswamy Aiyer in the Central Legislative Assembly while introducing a set of resolutions on Indianisation in 16 March 1921, speak for themselves:

“It is a characteristic of British rule in India...that they never have the knack for doing the right thing at the right time. They let the psychological moment pass by, and reasonable demands for justice and fair play are conceded only after years of persistent agitation.”

Yet, although unlimited Indianisation was only sanctioned in mid-1940, and was forced, like its initial declaration in 1917, by the exigencies of war, it is undeniable that the ICC was a necessary first step in the whole Indianisation process. 


*Dr Chandar S Sundaram is an historian specialising in the military history of India. Till recently, he was attached to the CAFHR, USI of India, where he was researching on the Imperial Cadet Corps. 

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXXXIX, No. 577, July-September 2009.