Sweeper the Brave


 April 24 2013

A page from History –‘Sweeper the Brave’ by Major General (retd) Syed Ali Hamid
—to the Editor a wonderful story of bravery—
We  thank Manzurul Haque and Sandy Pearson for forwarding it to the Koi-Hai web site


1 It is an insight into the working of Noble Leaders

and Brave follower.

Oh GOD !  give us both.


 The last line says it all...some were born sweepers,no fault of theirs but some were born,with a false sense of nobility but possessed the mentality of sweepers and did more damage to the institution and the nation.







              The British Indian Army has been accused of being an army of camp followers. Indeed without the services of the dhobi (washer man), cook, sweeper, mess waiter, cobbler, barber and the canteen contractor, administration in a regiment or battalion may just have collapsed. The battalion was akin to a village society in the Indian sub-continent. At the top was the commanding officer who was the head man and at the bottom-end was the contractors, tradesmen and the rest …the officers, VCOs and soldiers were the in-between. Of all the camp followers of yesteryear, probably the most famous was the Bhishti (water carrier) epitomized in Kipling’s poem Ganga Din.

I sha'n't forgit the night
When I dropped be'ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should 'a' been.
I was chokin' mad with thirst,
An' the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din.
'E lifted up my 'ead,
An' he plugged me where I bled,

An' 'e guv me 'arf-a-pint o' water green.

 Ganga Din meets his death while saving the British soldier and the poem ends with the verse:


Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!


                           By the beginning of the Second World War the Bhishti was gone, replaced by the water trailer and the water bottle but the other non-combatants including the sweepers accompanied their battalions and brigades into battle from Rome till Rangoon.

          Most of the sweepers in the British Indian Army came from the cast of ‘untouchables’, (Harijans i.e. children of God as Gandhi called them) who were at the bottom of or outside the Hindu caste system. Five or six sweepers were authorised to a battalion and they went with the battalion wherever it went during peace and war and served with pride. A British officer serving in the Burma Campaign has memories of Sweeper Kantu who was attached to the battalion mess during the war:

“Unless in close contact with the enemy, one used the officer’s mess commode or ‘thunder box’ which was usually dug down and covered over, and was serviced by the officer’s mess sweeper in battalion headquarters. During much of the fighting in Burma our officers’ Mess sweeper was a diminutive man called Kantu. He was an enlisted follower; not armed but accompanied the battalion wherever it went and was subject to military law. He was a delightful little man, always smiling, always smart and took particular pride in his job; so much so that it was somewhat disconcerting when one had barely finished one’s daily offering to hear and see it being whipped away in preparation for the next arrival.

During the after breakfast period he was always on duty near  the  Officers’ Mess thunder box tent/ dug-out  and  on  several  occasions when one  approached it, would come  smartly to attention, tuck his  sweeper’s brush under his left armpit (as  an officer  might his cane, in the days  when officers  carried a  cane), and give an immaculate  salute  with the words:

The Military Medal. The ‘other ranks’ equivalent of the Military Cross

                   Sweeper Govindan was serving in an Advance Dressing Station (ADS) but attached to a British battalion. He was assisting a group of injured British soldiers back to the ADS when they came upon a Japanese soldier hiding in the grass waiting to throw a grenade on this group. Govindan threw himself on the Japanese, dragged the grenade out of his hand and flung it away.  He then held onto the Japanese till help arrived. His citation for the award of a MM states “This Non-combatants initiative and courage in attacking and overpowering an armed man, though himself unarmed was of the highest order, and by this prompt action he probably saved the lives of his comrades.”

Sweeper Jia Lal’s award for a MM was for courage of a different type. He was serving in an ADS during one of the toughest battles of the Burma Campaign, the Battle of Kohima. It was the first major defeat suffered by the Japanese and the turning point of the campaign The ADS was located on Summer House Hill, the scene of some of the bitterest fighting.

Once a pretty setting with summer flowers, the area around the Summer House was bitterly contested.

                   The war history of the West Kent Regiment best describes the environment in which Jia Lal earned his MM……..‘Here the wounded, tended with the utmost devotion and courage by Colonel Young and his team of doctors, by the Indian orderlies of the Field Ambulance detachment and by the men of the West Kent’s medical section, were pathetic. Sniped, shelled and mor­tared as they were in their all too shallow trenches, many were killed, or wounded a second time. Some lay in individual trenches, and some in pits that held half a dozen wounded soldiers. The small operating theatre, which was’ to receive two disastrous direct hits, lay in an open dugout, covered by a tarpaulin. Here John Young and his surgeons, whose numbers dwindled as the result of shelling, carved, chopped, hacked, stitched, and healed men. And they gave of their best to cheer them and inspire them, even, when the days and nights seemed black beyond compare’. Amidst all this as Jia Lal’s citation states ‘he set an example of courage and devotion’. Apart from his tireless consideration in administering to the needs of over 350 casualties that lay in trenches and dugouts, ‘……..he cheerfully volunteered to perform tasks other than his normal duties and on several occasions carried stretchers when there was a shortage of stretcher bearers to evacuate casualties.’


While Govind and Jia Lal displayed exceptional qualities in the face of the enemy, Sweeper Chandu was a fighter who obviously relished being in combat. ‘The moment contact is made’, states his citation, ‘this fellow seizes a rifle and ammunition from either a wounded man or enemy casualty, and fights as a sepoy.’ Chandu was a sweeper with a company of 2/13th Frontier Force Rifles and accompanied the battalion all through the disastrous withdrawal of the British Indian Army from Rangoon till Imphal in 1942. He was then back in the war with his company in the Arakan offensive in 1944, took part in the famous landing at Ramree and finally in the capture of Rangoon in 1945. Any soldier would have been proud to have a citation like the one written for a lowly Sweeper from the village of Kumaspur in the district of Rohtak.



Bravery is not the birthright of caste, color, religion or creed. It rests somewhere between honour and desperation. 


Author’s Note: I am grateful to my son Ameer for having procured the citations from the National Archives in UK.