Indian soldiers during the first World War
An Indian cavalry regiment in France during World War I (representational photo) | Photo: Wikimedia
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With regard to recruitment to British Indian armed forces, it would be worthwhile to trace the mischief caused by the colonial military policymakers who, in the post-1857 revolt, formulated lists of characteristics, which allegedly separated one community from another, for the purpose of identifying so-called ‘martial races’ from which Indian soldiers could be recruited.

While reorganizing the Indian army in the post-1857 revolt, the Jonathan Peel Commission had the task of identifying social groups and regions from which ‘loyal’ soldiers could be recruited. The principle it emphasized was that the native army should be composed of different nationalities and castes and mixed promiscuously through each regiment. Recruiting of soldiers was seen more in terms of the communities to which they belonged rather than as individuals. Caste, religion and ethnicity or race became more crucial while enlisting a soldier. Greater Punjab now became a major catchment area for the Bengal Army. By late 1870s, the Bombay Army and Madras Army began to be looked upon as being definitely inferior to the Bengal Army. The Commission set up in 1879, under the chairmanship of Ashley Eden, reconfirmed the policy enunciated by the Peel Commission. During the 1880s, a novel doctrine was spelt out, which divided Indian society into two broad categories, namely, martial and non-martial. The term ‘race’ was used in the sense of a well-defined group that had several common physical features.


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Courage was not considered an aspect of individual’s personality, but a racial quality. If one belonged to a community that was ‘racially’ brave, only then could one be courageous. Accordingly, most of the ‘martial races’ were concentrated in the north- western corner of the Indian empire mainly Sikhs, Pathans, Baluchis and some selected Muslim communities, besides Gurkhas and Dogras. The quality of being martial declined as recruitment moved from among the southerners and others from western and eastern India.

When political systems are engaged in warfare, they tend to draw more heavily from low classes and low castes for manpower according to the intensity and duration of conflict. War may provide a great, albeit unintended, opportunity for social mobility for such groups, although with the onset of peace such opportunities rapidly fade way. This cyclical pattern characterized recruitment in India both before and after the creation of the modern Indian Army.

Pre-British peace-time Indian military establishments were dominated by aristocratic warrior elites; when a campaign was undertaken, the peasantry volunteered or was conscripted for the duration of the conflict only. In Bombay Presidency (Maharashtra), something different evolved due to the Maratha rule—the royal phase under Chhatrapati Shivaji and later under the Peshwas, since the 17th century. The military formation was diluted by bringing non-kshatriyas into the fighting force, which included both the lower castes and peasantry, as well as the high-caste Brahmins. This system prevailed until the collapse of Peshwa rule and the beginning of the British rule in Maharashtra in 1818. In the years before the Revolt of 1857, the Mahars of Western India were probably the most heavily recruited section of the British Army. The British also recruited at various times: Bhils, Santals, Mhairs, Moplas, Ahirs, Minas, Christians, Kolis and other scheduled castes and tribes. After the Revolt, the Army was reorganized. The Chamar recruitment from the Bengal Army was substantially reduced and were replaced by another untouchable caste, the Mazbhi Sikhs, a change which reflected the growing Punjabization of the Indian Army.

When the Revolt of 1857 broke out the Mazbhis were drawn into the British Indian Army and formed the First Sikh Regiment. To counter-balance the high-caste Bengal Army sepoys, a large number of Jats, Gurkhas, Sikhs and Pathans were added to those units. Since the increase of military activities in North-West, these classes became more popular among the British recruiting officers and, as a consequence, the untouchable recruitment gradually shrank. By the 1870s, the untouchable caste units in the army had given a good account as a fighting force.

Despite this favourable show as an armed force, low-caste units were gradually reduced in size and number between 1870 and 1914.

The military view of the martial race theory attempted to judge the reliability and ability of different military classes according to their recent combat experience. The person responsible for such an approach and in the termination of low-caste recruitment was Lord Roberts, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army during the years 1885–1893. Naturally, pure-racist theories of military competence were invoked and it came to believed that untouchables were by birth and varna inherently unmilitary and, therefore, of little use for the British. A more concrete racial theory was developed later by Gen Sir O’Moore Creagh, Commander-inChief of the Indian Army during 1909–1914, and one who succeeded Lord Kitchener.

Besides, before the World War I, there were situations in which high-caste soldiers were reluctant to obey orders from low-caste NCOs. The British colonial administration used this fact to argue against the recruitment of all Mahars but the latter countered by pleading for separate regiments for Mahars, or separate companies attached to Muslim regiments. They expected a fairer treatment from the Muslims than their Hindu coreligionists.

As the war of attrition progressed during the First World War, such theories were found irrelevant to the problems of recruitment and rather it retarded recruiting efforts. In 1914–1918, the Mahars were again permitted to enlist in the Indian Army. After being with Madras battalion for a while, they were given their own unit, the 111th Mahars, which was disbanded after the War. The Mazbhi Sikhs, who were heavily recruited during the First World War, were afterwards retrenched until 1932. Eventually, their unit was disbanded but only to be again recruited during the Second World War.


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Thus, the ebb and flow of untouchables in and out of the Indian Army and their participation in military affairs seems to be closely related to the intensity of warfare. This recruitment was part of a broader trend of untouchable seeking employment outside of the traditional village economy and social stratification. It also gave them high esteem of the military among village masses. Pride, self-reliance and increased solidity were very important to the untouchables. After the First World War, the Mahars were again banished from Indian Army, only to again recruited during the Second World War. Against this policy, on 18 June 1941, Dr B. R. Ambedkar raised the issue with British colonial administrators by writing a letter.

This excerpt from Indians in the First World War: The Missing Links by Aravind Ganachari has been published with permission from Sage Publications. 

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9 COMMENTS

  1. what a load of crap this report is . the British ruled india with a HANDFUL of men compared to the population of Hindus muslims Sikhs. All of them produced brave soldiers who were WILLING to follow their British and indian officers into battle. Then could have shot them in the back as they lead they men into battle but they didn’t and the officers had full confidence in they troops that they would follow and do they best to prove how brave they were. if the British empire was such an evil thing why o why do people from all over the world do they utmost to come and live under the EVIL British way of life ? why ? because the British way of life is the safest the most free and protected and most respected way of life regardless of race ,caste religion. The British never turned they back on the indian soldiers the indian population BOOTED the British out of indian. They NO LONGER wanted the British so you cant blame the British for that . wake up to history.

    • M. K. Gandhi, Ballabhbhai Patel in Gujarat, and Surendra Nath Banerjea jumped to make enrollment of men for the British army with the outbreak of WW-I a common cause with the alien rulers and promoted their efforts in this behalf. I invite attention of readers to what Banerjea wrote in his over-hyped autobiography, A Nation in Making [1925].

      “The war had broken out in 1914, and an appeal was made for recruitment to the people of Bengal. I went about from town to town urging my countrymen of the better classes to enlist as soldiers and fight for the Empire, which was in danger. I addressed more than thirty meetings in different parts of the province…To me, these recruitment meetings were a novel experience. I found myself for the first time in my public life standing side by side, and on the same platform, with high Government officials, pleading for a common cause, and receiving from them the courtesy for which I was hardly prepared. We were able to raise something over six thousand recruits, mostly from among the respectable classes in Bengal. The quality of the recruits, it is said, did not always come up to the mark…”

      Note the phrases, e. g., better classes and respectable classes which mean in Bengal parlance, upper castes only. So the great, overrated nationalist had Brahmans, Baidyas and Kayasths—the tiny bhadralok only— in view for enrollment in the Imperial army. But we, however, appreciate his honesty to admit that they “did not always come up to the mark” which perhaps explains why Bengali all over the world have earned name as non-martial race and stamped out as unfit for warfare. The stigma persists even today.
      Banerjea along with 500 youth of good health drawn from the same respectable classes went to the Army authorities for enrollment as honorary soldiers to fight for the Empire, when in 1885 tension gripped the Anglo-Russian relations over capture of an Afgan Fort by Russia on Afgan-Russian borders.
      This was mere 11 years after he was sacked from the ICS in 1874!
      It’s worthwhile to mention what C. J. O’Donnell, ICS who was the Superintendent of Census of Bengal in 1891 wrote in his report thus.
      “The tall and long limbed Chandals” were “the active and successful enemy of the Aryan invaders” and that is why “there is little trace of actual conquest by the early Hindu kings beyond the [river] Bhagirathi , except the riparian districts along its banks.” The Chandals were rechristened in 1911 as Namasudras, the largest untouchable caste of Bengal. They were undoubtedly the most suitable stuff for army though, they were neglected.

  2. World over the soldiers do not come from Luitens, Manhattan, HidePark or Colaba. Traditionally the backbone of Army has come from the villages and from the amongst the farmers, to give it colour of cast is incorrect. Even during the Maratha and Peshwa times most of the soldiers were mobilised for war only they were no professionals. When the entire village was mobilised it came with the full spectrum services the cooks, the labour the traders with dual purpose functions .

    • But the Britishers did it after 1857 intentionally. By this time they came understand one thing that unless Indians are divided by the poison of cast, creed& religion, Indian would be next to possible to win & rule.
      So, it was a obvious plan of the British Kingdom to break Indian societies on the basis of castism, so that they can manipulate us to rule easily.

  3. Can’t understand the logic of this article and why Indian has to accounted British when it come to history, Military or philosophy, Britishers ruled in India for merely 200 years, India has its own rich history, the point is here low caste were deprived from joining military doesn’t scientifically prove that they weren’t brave, Now the much more clearer picture through DNA research is came into light which says Native Indian to whom Eurashian aka upper class termed as low class has the more bravery gens than any race in India while foreigners upper class Eurashian walk away in emergency while lower class remain rigid, Bima koregaon battle and chakrawarti King of King Ashoka is the example of it. Remain is history.

  4. Caste based regiments in the Indian army need to be abolished. Hopefully we can prod our neighbor to the West to do with the same as well.

  5. Writer of this article should have read about the battle of Bhima Koregaon first, where a handful of Dalit soldiers (834 to be exact) defeated 28000 strong Peshwa army.

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