It is the centennial year of the Battle of Haifa, which was fought on September 23, 1918. The protagonist of the battle was Major Thakur Dalpat Singh (1893-1918), Military Cross, who led the battle and became famous thereafter as the “Hero of Haifa.” He lost his life on the battlefield; it was due to his leading command and bravery that a few horsemen defeated the Ottoman forces armed with machine guns.
He was a young cavalryman, aged 25 years, of the Princely State of Jodhpur (a city in the state of Rajasthan, India) who was part of 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade which also had soldiers from two more Princely States—Mysore and Hyderabad. The lancers of Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad were fighting in World War I as part of the British Empire and they defeated the Turkish forces that pivotal day in 1918. The three princely states, known as vassal states, were under a subsidiary alliance with the British Empire and were obligated to assist the empire when asked. The colonial subjects obliged in World War II as well. The port of Haifa was one of the strategic assets of the Ottoman Empire and remained in its control for four centuries. The British Empire eyed this port city for itself as ‘fruits of victory’ and since the victory achieved by the Indian soldiers it had been under British rule until 1947.
An anachronistic tale of a hero
The growing political and diplomatic relations between India and Israel have given a new lease on life to the story of the Indian soldiers fighting in Haifa and ‘liberating’ it from the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, paid a visit to the Haifa Indian Cemetery while he was on an official visit to Israel last year. He unveiled a plaque commemorating the brave legacy of Dalpat Singh in Haifa that mentions the title “Hero of Haifa” given to him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu landed in Delhi on January 14 and went first to the Teen Murti (Three Statues) Square, which is a war memorial for the soldiers of the three lancers. In order to highlight the lesser-known history, it was renamed Teen Murti-Haifa Chowk Square. Prior to these high-end diplomatic ceremonies, the Indian army used to have only a modest commemoration of the battle.
The Haifa Historical Society, due to the efforts of Yigal Greiber, has been actively organizing gatherings as well as more material on the Indian soldiers, highlighting their role in the history of the city which precedes the establishment of the Republic of India (1947) and the State of Israel (1948). Every September since 2010, the society has invited representatives of the Indian army to participate in the memorial event at the Haifa cemetery. In the first event, Brigadier MS Jodha led the army delegation from India along with the participation of the Embassy of India. It is interesting to note that Jodha’s grandfather, Bahadur Aman Singh Jodha, was also with Dalpat Singh in the battle of Haifa. Brigadier Jodha came to Israel to participate in the centenary event this month with his new book, The Story of the Jodhpur Lancers . He had the esteemed company of Gaj Singh, titular Maharaja of Jodhpur.
The two ceremonies on September 5 and 6 were remarkable due to the presence of the royalty of Jodhpur, once the Princely State and now more famous as a tourist destination among many Israelis, known as the Blue City. Dalpat Singh came to Haifa as a soldier of the princely state ruled by then-Maharaja Umed Singh, grandfather of Gaj Singh, in 1918. There was no Indian army as understood in the nationalist sense. The legacy of the soldier has shifted from the hands of the royal family of Jodhpur to the official Indian army and the state. Gaj Singh’s presence at the ceremony this year brought back the larger picture of the Battle of Haifa. It evoked memories of the imperial interests of Britain and the lost lives of the Indian soldiers who were sent by their respective kings and princes to fight the Great War. This was the age of empires and not yet of nation-states. Dalpat Singh and other horsemen of the battle did not know then what the word ‘liberation’ would come to mean for the nation- states of Israel or India. They were merely following the “command of the king.”
It is interesting to note the current representation of the “Hero of Haifa” in the growing bonhomie between India and Israel. The keen interest of the official representatives of India and Israel in this story is about a piece of pre-state history that can underline camaraderie and convergence of interests. The narrative of the “liberation” of Haifa by the Indian soldiers for Israel sounds very good in these times. However, the soldiers conquered the city for the British Empire and not for the State of Israel or the Jewish people. Moreover, the leaders of the Indian national movement such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were vocal critics of Zionism in the years 1917-18 because of the Balfour Declaration given by the British in the favor of the Zionist aspirations. In pre-state history, the Indian national movement supported the Palestinian issue more than the Zionist cause. Therefore, the ongoing ceremonial narrative of the story of Dalpat Singh is exceptional because it establishes something of an imagined shared past between the two nation-states, both non-existing in 1918 .
‘Hero of Haifa’ had a caste too
Caste, the system of dividing society into hereditary classes, matters a lot in the Indian context. There is a caste dimension to the “Hero of Haifa” as well. Dalpat Singh was born into the caste of Ravana-Rajput, popularly known as Darogas, in Rajasthan. The Ravana-Rajput caste does not belong to the elite Rajput caste (the second highest caste in Hinduism) as often mistakenly understood. The Ravana-Rajput caste is part of the “Other Backward Classes” for the sake of affirmative support by the state, as it is one of the marginalized and subjugated castes in Rajasthan. It constitutes 7% of the total population of Rajas- than of around 70 million. His caste-community, the Ravana-Rajput Samaj, is also out there to claim his legacy, albeit differently than the official representation mentioned above.
The caste-community of Ravana-Rajput organized a mega-event to mark the legacy of Dalpat Singh in Jaipur on September 23. The event was massively publicized with banners and pamphlets showing photos of Dalpat Singh.
This event carried multiple agendas. First, it was to re-claim the representation of Dalpat Singh from the Rajput caste. As a warrior-soldier serving a Rajput ruler, his Ravana-Rajput identity got diluted. So it is to reassert that he was a Ravana-Rajput and that his legacy should be owned as well as represented by his caste-community. This is critical for them since the caste-identity of their hero brings pride and prestige back home to the community. Secondly, the unity of the caste is critical in the context of caste-ridden politics at the local and national level in India. The gathering called for the celebration of the martyrdom of Dalpat Singh is an appeal to bring out the largest possible assembly of Ravana-Rajput this year.
In addition to the poster of the event, a separate appeal was printed for mass circulation. Paid transport was also arranged to bring their people from different cities of Rajasthan. The third agenda is much more challenging because it is a complex socio-cultural remaking of their identity. And there is a dilemma to it as well. On the one hand, it is to carve out a history and caste-identity of Ravana-Rajput which can both stand apart as well as next to the dominant Rajput caste. They almost have an antagonist attitude toward each other. On the other hand, the com- munity members of Ravana-Rajput tend to have an inclination towards living life in a Rajput way when it comes to clothes, headgear and foot-wear – important items of dress code in Rajasthan – as well as social mannerism and public appearances. Breaking the mold is not an easy task, particularly since it has been lived that way socially and culturally for centuries.
The author teaches at the Jindal Centre for Israel Studies, OP Jindal Global University, India, and is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at The David Berg Foundation Institute for Law and History in Tel Aviv University.