New Delhi: Once considered “non-martial” by the British, the “Biharis” today find themselves all over the headlines.
On 15 June, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in violent clashes with Chinese troops at the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh. A majority of these soldiers, including the Commanding Officer, were from 16 Bihar — a unit of the Bihar Regiment.
The loss — even as it gave a new twist to the ongoing tensions at the Line of Actual Control — is only the latest chapter in the history of the fairly new yet decorated Bihar Regiment.
In a video released after the Galwan clash, the Army paid tributes to the soldiers of the Bihar Regiment saying, “Born to fight. They are not the bats. They are the Batman.”
The Saga of #DhruvaWarriors and The Lions of #BiharRegiment.
"Born to fight.They are not the bats. They are the Batman."
"After every #Monday, there will be a #Tuesday. Bajrang Bali Ki Jai"@adgpi@MajorAkhill #NationFirst pic.twitter.com/lk8beNkLJ7
— NorthernComd.IA (@NorthernComd_IA) June 20, 2020
From the first fight for Indian independence in 1857 under the aegis of then Bengal Native Infantry, led by Mangal Pandey, to the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars, the Kargil conflict and the many counter-insurgency (CI) operations, the Biharis, as the regiment is popularly called, have won multiple battle honours and decorations.
Who are the ‘Biharis’?
The Bihar Regiment comprises two groups of troops, colloquially known as North Biharis and South Biharis. A battalion consists of a mix of both.
While North Biharis are largely troops from Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh, the South Biharis are mostly tribals, mainly from Jharkhand and Odisha — Mundas, Santhals, Hos and Oraons, among others.
The troops are recruited in equal numbers in both the groups. The war cry of North Biharis is ‘Bajrangbali Ki Jai‘, and for the South Biharis it is ‘Birsa Munda Ki Jai‘.
A senior Army officer from the Bihar regiment said the tribal soldiers have a natural alignment to perform very well in CI operations — better than many others — particularly those in forests.
“Similarly, the North Biharis… they value the sanctity and importance of land and thus have a kind of paranoia for motherland, and if it’s threatened, they perform beyond their call and capability,” said the officer who didn’t wish to be named.
The officer said the North Bihari lineage was amply demonstrated before the country’s independence and the regimental pride comes from its own history.
“The British saw the warrior clan from farmers and they understood the capability of Biharis as warriors, particularly fuelled by Babu Kunwar Singh and Birsa Munda, who led revolts against them,” the officer said.
“In fact, you can say the regiment has two religions — Hinduism and Christianity. So we follow all traditions of Hinduism and Christianity,” he said.
Brigadier Sanal Kumar (Retd), who served the regiment, said at one point of time his unit had tribals from Gujarat to Nagaland, even as most of the tribals who joined the regiment were from Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.
“We remember making a small little medley of tribal songs for the unit,” he recalled.
The Bihar Regimental centre is in Danapur, Bihar.
The rich lineage and its loss
According to available literature, the recruitment of Biharis as soldiers of the modern era began during the British East India Company regime, which raised the ‘Bengal Native Infantry’ in the 1750s.
The recruitment into the unit were mainly from Bhojpur, but also from Shahabad and Munger.
Their victories included those of the Battle of Buxar and Maratha Wars. They also won laurels in Malaya, Sumatra and Egypt.
However, things changed after the first war of Independence in 1857, when the Bihari troops — led by Sepoy Mangal Pandey — were among the first to revolt against the introduction of greased cartridges. There were two other leaders who emerged from the state to fight against the British — Babu Kunwar Singh and Birsa Munda.
Soon after, the British disbanded the Bengal Native Infantry calling it “non-martial“, which was made up largely of “purbaiyyas” (easterners) from an area that is now eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha.
Recruitment of Biharis was also stopped in the British Army.
Major General Neeraj Bali (Retd), who served the regiment, said the regiment had probably been downplayed for not being loyal to the British, adding that they were deliberately designated “non-martial” by the British as a punitive action for their participation in the 1857 uprising.
“The British, of course, called it a mutiny. So if you examine the concept of martial race as declared or recognised by the British, the knife of division falls neatly between those who supported the British and those who rebelled. The Biharis had rebelled,” he said.
“Despite requests to return the rich historical lineage of the regiment when the Bihar regiment was re-raised in 1941, that never quite happened,” he said.
The regiment was raised again during World War II and was recruited into the 19th Hyderabad Regiment.
“As far as giving recognition to the regiment is concerned, the British started on a slow foot because of the history of revolt. It did not have any financial implication or cost anything to the exchequer. It’s just that the Army and soldiers thrive on tradition, culture and pride,” he said.
“Every infantry soldier would tell that troops of all the regiments are equally brave and dedicated. The differentiator is always the leadership,” said Bali.
Talking about the regiment, Bali recalled how three men from his unit were killed in an IED blast once during his term as a commanding officer.
“I was wearing red tabs and was suggested by someone to take them off to avoid being targeted, but then one of the jawans of the unit tells me to keep them on to boost the morale of the men. This tells you the mental make-up of the men,” he said.
Brig Kumar agreed. “The regiment had tried to reclaim its history after independence, but no one teaches that in school,” he said.
A second veteran from the regiment, who didn’t wish to be identified, said somehow people related the regiment to the state, and at one point of time Bihar was not doing well as a state. That created a different impression about the regiment even as it was performing as well as any other in the Army, he said.
“But, it would take even a lazy research to tell anyone that the Bihar Regiment has accredited itself with eminence. It is hardly a fact that needs defending,” added Bali.
Most of the battalions of the Regiment participated in the India-Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971. A unit of the Bihar regiment — 10 Bihar — was awarded the Theatre Honour of ‘AKHAURA’ for its “gallant action in the Battle of Akhaura in 1971”.
1 Bihar participated in Operation Vijay in the Batalik Sub Sector and recaptured Jubar Hill and Tharu. The unit was honoured with Chief of the Army Staff Unit Citation, Battle Honour ‘BATALIK’ and Theatre Honour ‘KARGIL’. The unit was also awarded a total of 26 gallantry awards including four Vir Chakras.
The regiment has participated in multiple CI operations and all its battalions took part in ‘Operation Parakram’ in 2001.
In Operation Black Tornado during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan from the NSG fought the terrorists and was awarded the Ashoka Chakra (posthumously). His parent unit was 7 Bihar.