The Mahar regiment has had a circuitous journey — from serving the British during the Anglo-Maratha wars to its distinguished service post-Independence.
At the centre of the Dalit-upper caste violence in Maharashtra is the celebration of the 200-year-old battle of Bhima-Koregaon, where Mahar Dalit troops serving the British defeated the troops of the Brahmin Peshwas. But even today, ‘Mahar’ is a key component of the Indian Army — since Independence, it is the name of a regiment that has produced two Army chiefs, won several battle honours, and has to its credit the nation’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.
One of first few regiments to have soldiers from different areas like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Odisha, the modern Mahar regiment went through a series of highs and lows before Independence, before emerging as a 19 battalion-strong force that has seen action in all theatres and given a good account of itself.
With its war cry of ‘Bolo Hindustan Ki Jai’, the Mahar regiment has been active during Partition, in Ladakh during the 1962 war, in Punjab during the 1971 war, and received the Param Vir Chakra for the action of Major Ramaswamy Parameswaran during peacekeeping action in Sri Lanka in 1987.
The logo of the regiment is a pair of crossed Vickers medium machine guns – it was one of the first regiments of the Army to switch to machine guns – with a dagger. Before Independence, in place of the dagger was the pillar of Koregaon, which is at the centre of the recent violence that has gripped Maharashtra.
Under the British
Within the British Army, the Mahar regiment had a circuitous journey — first used during the Anglo-Maratha wars, later abandoned by being classified as a ‘non-martial’ class, only to be resurrected as Britain scouted for troops during World War II and sent to join the Burma campaign.
The regiment served the empire for over a hundred years, including the battle of Koregaon in 1818 when Mahar troops of the British Army prevailed over Peshwa troops. However, after the revolt of 1857, its fortunes declined.
In 1892, the Mahar regiment was disbanded, leading to protests and a movement to resurrect it at the earliest. A shortage of troops during World War I led to the enlisting of only one battalion of Mahar troops, which was merged with the Punjab regiment and did not see action during the war.
Dr B.R. Ambedkar, whose father had been a soldier in the British Indian Army, was a strong advocate of raising the Mahar regiment again, an effort that paid off only during World War II, when the British Empire once again stared at a lack of troops to cover all fronts.
The first battalion of the Mahar regiment was raised in Belgaum, with the Koregaon pillar featuring in its logo. The 1st and 3rd Mahar units served in the North-West Frontier Province during the war, and the 2nd Battalion was pushed into duty for the Burma campaign.
In 1946, after the unit switched to machine guns, the logo was changed to include two crossed Vickers machine guns over the Koregaon pillar.
“During the disturbed conditions in the aftermath of partition, the regiment helped in the safe transfer of lakhs of refugees, in the face of violent armed mobs,” the official history of the Mahar Regiment reads.
“In 1956, the regiment absorbed three battalions of the Border Scouts, which had been earlier raised for manning the disturbed Punjab border. The class composition of the regiment changed over the years, to accept men from all states and classes while retaining basic Mahar composition in some battalions.”