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.
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.
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.