August 5, 2021

Caste and the Indian Army

The Indian army as we know it today was the British Indian army as well as traces it origin to the start of the occasions of the principle of the East India Company. In 1947, the prefix British was dropped and it became the Indian army, but in all aspects it remained as the British had left it. It was essentially a higher caste army and also was recruited on the basis of religion and caste. Thus the infantry regiments were all caste based. The lower castes and the untouchables weren’t recruited by the English. This was a continuation of the old Hindu caste system that forbade Shudras to muster arms on pain of death. The British accepted this Hindu concept, but brought in a few of their own.

The populace as a whole into non-martial and martial races was divided by The British. This distinction was made on the basis of their own personal experience in battle as well as a study of the socio-economic history of India. The British were of the view that races who had faced perpetual wars were martial. Here they accepted the Hindu theory and division between Kshatriyas(Warriors) and non -kshatriyas.

The British ended up being amazed by the fighting prowess of the Sikhs, Gurkhas, Rajputs, Jats, and Mahrattas and classified them as martial races. Of these the Sikhs, punjabi Muslims and Gurkhas had pride of place because in battles with them the British had a rough time.
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The British first tasted a tough challenge during the Anglo Gurkha wars of 1815-15. The Gurkhas fought bravely and though defeated won the admiration of the British. Once again in the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1846-49, the English would have been defeated, but for traitors in the ranks of the Sikhs. The Prime Minister and his normal Labh Singh were in league with the East India Company and conspired to defeat the Sikh army. However at Mudki and Chillianwala, the British tasted defeat. The East India Company won the war, but the admiration of theirs for the Sikhs as a martial race was engraved in their mind and at any given time the Sikhs with a population of 2 %, yet constituted 33 % of the British Indian army.

The British also had a normal respect for Punjabi Muslims and Pathans, which was a result of the three Anglo Afghan wars, where British were really hard pressed. The British were convinced that the hardy tribes of the North West frontier were martial as they had been continuously facing invasion right from the time of Alexander the great, a period of 2000 years.

Were the British right in this differentiation of non-martial and martial races? The taste of the pudding lies in its meal and the British were proved right as the regiments of the British Indian army helped win two World Wars and also fought for the Raj from places as much as China and Singapore. How many understand that the Boxer rebellion in Peking in China was subdued by Sikh and Punjabi troops of the British Indian army? Tibet was conquered by the Indian army in the famous expedition led by General YoungHusband.

In 1947, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi decided that the caste based regiments be retained. This was a practical step as these regiments had their own war cries and food and religious habits. Gandhi has gone on record so many times to say he favored the Varna system of caste as it was the bedrock of Hindu society. He didn’t wish this caste system of the army, which was all higher castes be broken up. One can’t comment whether this was right or wrong as currently in excess of 6 decades have passed and the caste-based recruitment continues.. Though the brand new regiments are broad-based, the core of the Infantry regiments remains as it was during the occasions of the Raj.

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