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The Indian Cavalry’s Charge on an Israeli City And Its Usefulness Now

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The Indian Cavalry’s Charge on an Israeli City And Its Usefulness Now

The politics of history can be useful for diplomacy but dangerous for grammar.

The Indian Cavalry’s Charge on an Israeli City And Its Usefulness Now
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Rakesh Agrawal

Would you like to live on the Three Statue Haifa Road? Well, I would, because it is close to a New Delhi-based library that I like: the Nehru Memorial Library. It is also in a posh enclave, so living there would mean that I would have become rich and influential. Otherwise, however, I find the name awkward and cumbersome. I may like the history behind this name, I may understand the politics behind it, but I do not accept its violation of grammar.

The History

The story of the name takes us back nearly a century and is in fact quite interesting. In September 1918, during the First World War, the Indian cavalry played a crucial part in the liberation of the Palestinian city of Haifa. Indian units – here and elsewhere on the Great War’s front – were a part of the British army. The city was garrisoned by a joint force of the three central powers: Ottoman Turkey, Germany and Austro-Hungary. As the British advanced towards Haifa, the Ottomans started to withdraw. A small contingent of Germans were willing to defend the city during the Turkish withdrawal but grew reluctant upon discovering that the Turks were not very eager to fight.

Thus, the attackers did not find Haifa a particularly tough nut to crack, but still the Indians played a part in it. One unit, the Mysore Lancers, attacked the German machine guns while the other, the Jodhpur Lancers (together with the help of some of their colleagues from Mysore) took on the Turkish artillery. The Jodhpur Lancers then “galloped into the town, where a number Turks were speared in the streets” as Field Marshal Edmund Allenby would later report. However, Allenby also added that “Colonel Thakur Dalpat Singh, M.C., fell gallantly leading this charge.”

Despite reportedly low casualties, it was technically a cavalry charge on gun positions and in fact one of the last such charges in the 20th century. The capturing of Haifa enabled the Allies to send ships with supplies to the city and, in the broader picture, this event was a part of Allenby’s forces routing of the Ottoman armies in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

The Politics (Then)

Indian soldiers contributed substantially to British efforts in the First World War. More than a million of them served under London’s command and more than 60,000 perished. They fought on the scorching plains of the Middle East, in the jungles of East Africa and on the intense battlefields of France and Belgium, including the ill-fated Ypres and Somme. Hence the British government decided to commemorate the efforts of its Indian subjects. The famous India Gate – a monument to all the Indian soldiers that lost their lives in the First World War (and the Third Anglo-Afghan War) was built in the very center of New Delhi.

But the brave Indian cavalrymen that took part in the attack on Haifa and other operations in the Middle East were of different political status which necessitated another commemorative gesture. They hailed from three “princely states”: Mysore, Jodhpur, and Hyderabad (and hence were called the Mysore Lancers, the Jodhpur Lancers, and the Hyderabad Lancers). The princely states were semi-autonomous monarchical states that dotted the landscape of pre-independence India and stood apart from the directly governed provinces of colonial British India. Once subjugated or allied, these princes (that is, the kings) were usually loyal to the British Crown and enjoyed some autonomy in comparison to the rest of India. Thus, while the majority of Indian soldiers in the First World War came from the provinces of British India, some of the Indian princes also dispatched their units for the war.

As a recognition of their Indian vassals’ loyalty during that global conflict, the British established another war memorial, not far from India Gate. An obelisk shielded by three bronze statues of soldiers was placed in the middle of a roundabout, and the three statues symbolized the forces of the three aforementioned princely states which had sent their lancers to the Middle East. The memorial came to be called Teen Murti (or “three statues” in Hindi), the roundabout – Teen Murti Chowk – and the short street leading to it became Teen Murti Marg (“The Three Statues Street”).

The Politics (Now)

That chapter of history is over, and independent India is not wishing to wipe out the memory of the Indians’ past efforts in the two World Wars. But the story of lancers has acquired new political importance.

Relations between India and Israel have been flourishing since the 1990s. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, is now preparing to visit Israel and may even skip Palestine during the same journey to state his preferences. The diplomatic spin doctors were clearly looking for friendly gestures towards Israel that the government could make use of before, during, and after the visit. Hence, at the end of April 2017 it was announced that the Teen Murti Chowk will be renamed as Teen Murti Haifa Chowk and the Teen Murti Marg as Teen Murti Haifa Marg. After all, the soldiers did fight in Haifa and Narendra Modi is sure to bring it up during his journey to Israel.

It is not the first time the names of locations in Delhi have been altered to serve diplomatic purposes. A similar decision was recently taken during the high-level visit of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to India. Interestingly, in these recent renaming processes the ruling party of India (the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) has been assisted by the lawmakers of another party (the Aam Aadmi Party) which rules Delhi and is a rival to the BJP (and had in the past criticized the BJP over its preference for Israel at Palestine’s loss). The decision to rename a street or a roundabout are formally taken by the relevant authorities at the Delhi level but in this context it is beyond doubt that the central government had to play its part in the renaming.

The Grammar

I do realize why it is politically prudent to rename both the street and the roundabout. Yet, the sequence, the grammar and the connotations of the new name are faulty.

Firstly, the Indian lancers took part not only in the attack on Haifa and it may be disputed why this operation should be singled out. Secondly, the Teen Murti war memorial is already a memory (in stone and metal) of the Indian soldiers that fought in the Middle East, including in the territories that now comprise the state of Israel. It is not that the interpretation of the events has changed or any new commemoration took place. It is just that additional emphasis was put on the name of a particular city in Israel.

But the name was inserted in a senseless manner. Teen Murti Marg was already not so good Hindi grammar, as it is actually singular instead of plural. It literally stands for “Three Statue Street”: the proper plural would be Teen Murtiyan Marg. Yet, such solution is possible in Hindi. Worse comes now with the insertion of “Haifa.” Once accepted, the name of the street will literally be “The Three Statue Haifa Street.”

It is as if the renaming authorities (and the bigger politicians behind them) wanted the best of both worlds and were helplessly caught in between. They obviously did not want to rename the street and the roundabout as “Haifa Street” and “Haifa Chowk” as that would mean focusing solely on the city, and not on the Indian soldiers that liberated it. I assume one could go for “Heroes of Haifa Street” or “Battle of Haifa Street” but I understand that the authorities were attached to the old name. And they had good reasons for this, as it had wider implications and was an established, recognized name. Or, to put it differently and more bluntly: the “Haifa” portion of the name is a gesture towards Israel, while retaining the “Teen Murti” portion is a gesture towards Indians. But the result of this compromise is a grammatical and logical monster.

Yet, as part of diplomacy, it makes sense. An average Israeli, I assume, may not know what “Teen Murti” stood for and since the historical implications of the name were unknown it was difficult to ride on them in a diplomatic charge. Now that Haifa will appear in a street name, many Israelis will chance upon the new name on a journey to India, while reading the guidebook or simply while browsing the Internet. Some of them may ask how did this name come about and may explore the story to a point that will reveal the Indian soldiers’ service. This may to a certain degree help in building India’s positive image in Israel. Still, I hope that next time language will not become a victim of Indian diplomacy.