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A Fact Brushed Under the Carpet: The Indian Army Fought in China at the Behest of the British Empire

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The author is an air warrior, military historian and writer on warfare and military history



China and India have been near neighbors in Asia since the dawn of history. Both are ancient civilizations that trace their heritage to 4000 BC but the surprising fact is that there was very little intercourse or contact between the two civilizations. Over a period of 3000 years, only a handful of people to people made contact. One of them was Fa-Hien who visited India from 399-413 AD. Another name is Hsuan-Tsang who was in India for 14 years from 629 AD. From India, Bodhisattva went to Tibet to spread the message of Lord Buddha. Contact between the Indian people and the Chinese people was simply not there, for two reasons firstly Tibet was a buffer state and secondly, there was the lofty Himalayas, the highest mountain chain in the world which was almost impassible.

There was a change in the 19th century when the British Empire began to shape the globe. The British had colonized the subcontinent and they had a deep interest in China. To enforce their rights and privileges in China, they began to use the British Indian Army which was mainly officered by the English but the bulk of the soldiery was from the so-called martial clans consisting of the Sikhs, Gurkhas, Rajputs, and Punjabi Muslim's. The Empire used these troops with impunity in fighting the Chinese and was eminently successful. This role of the Indian Army's operations in China is generally a taboo subject in India, as nobody wants to remember the fact that the Indian army fought on behalf of the British to suppress the Chinese. This remains a forgotten chapter of the Indian soldiery notably the Sikhs.

However the Chinese have not forgiven the Indians for this. I was reading a biography of General BM Kaul, who recounts that when a Chinese Military delegation visited India in 1958, in a reception in the officer's Mess at Ambala, for them, the Chinese general lost his shirt and shouted that the Indian army had committed great atrocities in China.

I will however throw some light on the role of the Indian army in operations in China in the 19th and early 20th century despite this being a taboo subject.

weighing opium in India for export to China

weighing opium in India for export to China

Battles in China

The first instance of the use of Indian troops in China was during the Opium Wars. The first Opium War was fought from 1839 to 1942 and the Second Opium War was from 1856 to 1860. The wars were fought by the East India Company on the Plea of free trade and unfettered import of opium into China. China lost both wars.

Opium wars

The First Opium War is acknowledged as an important event in world history. The principal protagonist in this war was the East India Company(EIC). It is mindboggling to recount that the EIC provided half the soldiers, the bulk of the funding, and most of the ships, sailors, and auxiliaries for the campaign.

I will now give you some details of the Indian soldiers involved in this war. The following regiments were transported to China namely 1 coy Madras Rifles, 2nd Madras native infantry, 6th Madras Native Infantry, and the 14th native Madras infantry of the Madras Army took part in the 1st opium war. The Indian sepoys were widely used in the battles of Canton, Amoy, etc. The Indian soldiers defeated the Chinese army.

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The Second Opium War was fought between the Qing dynasty and the Anglo-French alliance. The British who had just put down the Indian mutiny in 1857, brought in the loyal Indian troops notably the Sikhs and they helped in defeating the Chinese.

The result of the two opium wars is well known as China had to cede Hong Kong to British control, open ports for trade and special rights to the British and the French in addition unfettered trade in opium was allowed to the British which was mostly manufactured in India and transported to China.

Boxer rebellion

The Boxer rebellion was the last gasp of the Qing dynasty to throw out western influence, in particular those who are propagating Christianity. Churches were attacked and westerns and priests imprisoned. It was a nationalist uprising but unfortunately, the Chinese army which was spearheading the movement was disorganized and poorly armed. One of the traumatic moments of this rebellion was in 1900 when many young Chinese farmers and workers surrounded 400 foreigners in Peking's Foreign Legation Quarter.

Unknown to the Chinese the British had brought in Sikh troops from India. They were tasked to save the 400 foreigners surrounded by the Chinese. The Indian force consisted of some 3000 troops mostly from the Sikh and Punjab regiment. The rescue was completed on 4 August 1900. Even after peace was restored Indian troops were used to guard the churches and the missionaries for some more time till they were pulled back to India.


Political repurcussions

The involvement of Indian troops in the suppression of popular movements of the Chinese is remembered in China not in appreciation but with a sense of alienation.

The fact is India was a colony of the British and had little choice in the matter. After 1947 the Indian government downplays the role of Indian troops in China but history cannot be cloaked. However, there is a positive fact that the Indian Army covered itself with glory in China and defeated the Chinese who were numerically more and that in my opinion is a golden page in the history of the Indian Army.


The Opium War by Brian Inglis (

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J Silbey

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