It was perhaps, the worst task in the Indian Army; having to kill those who served loyally by your side. But that is the task of many soldiers, who must euthanize service animals once they are too old for active duty.
The Remount and Veterinary Corps (RVC) have had the duty of rearing and training India’s war animals since 1779 – a 238-year-long journey prepping India’s dogs, horses and mules for military service. The largest breeding and training centre in the country, they supply the Army and other services with their animal needs.
Once on the battlefield, animals fulfil multiple roles – from mine-sniffing to guard duty and transport. Soldiers often spend as much time with their animals as they do with each other. The loss of one is as soul-wrenching as the loss of a comrade.
But this did not factor into the clinical logic that went into the Army’s euthanasia policy:
Army horses and dogs are evaluated for their fitness with respect to the performance of duties. The animals which are considered unfit for one-month active service are disposed of by humane euthanasia.
This policy first came to light after an RTI inquired as to the fate of animals after service. Following many protests from animal rights activists, the Centre has asked the Army to abide by the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, whereby even a stray dog may not be euthanized if it is healthy. From 2016, the Army has been exploring adoption as a route to offsetting its retired canine soldiers.
But this only applies to canines, and while NGOs exist to take in trained or abandoned dogs, there is little infrastructure for an army horse or mule. Or for that matter, a camel.
In his 1911 book “The Armies of India”, Alfred Crowdy Lovett describes India’s camel corps as:
…raised somewhat on the same principle as the silladar cavalry. Camel-owners are paid a sum down to serve with their own camels. The troops of the camel corps have two rates of pay, an employed and an unemployed rate…The Camel Corps men come from the Muhammadan tribes – Baluch, Jat, etc. – of the sand and karoo-like plains between the Ravi, the Jhelum, the Chenab, and the Indus… the camel-owners are wild, picturesque, long-haired rogues, almost as weird as their camels.
From these rather informal beginnings, the camel regiment became a mainstay of the Border Security Force. The BSF field an average strength of 1,200 male camels every year, who on average serve from the age of five until the age of 21. There are up to 75 different dress items ‘necessary to ceremonially dress camels and riders of the BSF’.
While they are a prominent feature of the annual Republic Day parade, the camels have also seen action in war. Bikaner has a record of a camel army from 1465 – and it was a Bikaner ruler, Maharaja Ganga Singh, who controlled the Camel Contingent that later merged into the Indian Army. It was named the Ganga Risela in his honour.
With the rise of mechanized armoured squadrons, many regiments of the army turned their nose at the camels. But the corp earned their stripes in the 1965 war with Pakistan, capturing Pakistani territory in the Bikaner and Gadra sectors. By 1975, they were fielded out of combat service – with one explanation being that they had no lobby; unlike horses, camels couldn’t play polo and entertain officers in peacetime!
Besides the camel, mules have also won honours in Indian wars. India’s Himalayan border regions are some of the most inhospitable places on earth; lands where the local mules are a ‘last-mile’ transport. One mule, named Pedongi, served with the Army for 37 years (against an average of 18-20 years) – and had a canteen named after it. Other anecdotes talk of a mule that strayed into Pakistani territory and was captured. After serving on the other side for a while, it returned to the Indian part of the border bringing Pakistani equipment with it.
In some places, they have also become the transport of spies. Near the Tibetan/Chinese border, RA&W agents rode mules to meet with informants. When they had to make a run, they put sticks into the animal’s ears to make them trot faster.
The ethical considerations of using animals in warfare is debated. It’s been found that even animals can suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And the hard conditions of military life may not be suitable for otherwise wild spirits.
But these creatures have saved many, many human lives in the course of service. Zanjeer was a golden retriever who worked with the Mumbai Police in the dangerous aftermath of the 1993 Bombay Blasts. Zanjeer could sniff out hidden stashes of RDX, assault rifles and grenades – barking thrice as his warning. In the course of his 14-year career, he sniffed out 3,330 kgs of RDX – enough to have claimed countless lives had the police not had this magic sniffer by their side.
There’s been a proposal to train stray dogs as bomb-sniffing dogs who could keep the city streets safer, but this has not met with fruition.
India’s military dogs may be heading for rehabiliation instead of euthanasia, but the fate of its camels, horses and mules remain uncertain. A memorial to the former British Imperial Camel Corps currently stands in Victoria Gardens, London. It’s time India honoured its heroic animals – and gave them a humane life after retirement.
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