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The shadow of the ‘Martial Race’ theory in the Indian Army – Does it still exist?

May 20, 2012

Writer: Ayan Ghosh

The revolt of 1857 is a much-analyzed chapter in Indian history. Thanks to post-independence nationalist propaganda, everyone knows of heroes like Mangal Pandey, Laxmi Bai, Zafar, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope and the British officers on the other side like Nicholson, Napier, Havelock, Campbell, Neill, Rose, Hodson, Outram and Lawrence, who have always been portrayed as imperial blood thirsty tyrants. Without getting into the myth of hero worship from both sides, and the debate over who was right, I feel the mutiny had a much deeper impact on the social organisation of India’s armed forces, and is evident even today, more than 150 years after it occurred. Here’s why.

Photo courtesy: Kevin Jones 

William Dalrymple’s brilliant book, ‘The Last Mughal’, has interesting trivia about the mutiny that few Indians know of. One of them is how the people of Delhi called the rebel sepoys as ‘Purbias’ and ‘Tilangas’. Though obsolete now, ‘Purbia’ was used in reference to Easterners of present day West Bengal, Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Tilanga to people from modern Telangana. Both were geographical areas from where the East India Company heavily recruited sepoys from in the 18th century.

The early stronghold of the company was in the Deccan and Bengal, and sepoys from these regions formed the bulk of the army and served the company well in its campaigns against the French and Tipu Sultan in the South, the Anglo-Maratha Wars, the first Anglo-Afghan War, the Anglo-Burmese Wars, the Gorkha wars and the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

This trust backfired when 90% of the Bengal Army joined the rebels during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Of the 74 regular Bengal Native Infantry regiments in existence at the beginning of 1857 only 12 escaped mutiny or disbandment. All ten of the Bengal Light Cavalry regiments were lost. John Lawrence, the Governor of the newly acquired Punjab, had to drain all available resources from the volatile Afghan Border to raise a relief force. This ‘Punjab Movable Column’ consisted largely of mercenaries and irregular troops (Crucial support was provided by the maharajas of princely states by providing elephants which pulled the artillery howitzers). This siege train went on to recapture the rebel cities of Delhi and later Lucknow and Kanpur. Most of these new recruits were Pathans, Baluchs, Punjabi mussalmans, Jats and Sikhs. The Kumaonis, Gorkhas and Garhwalis had already served the Company in the Gorkha Wars against Nepal in 1814-16. 

The loyal service these ethnic groups provided was rewarded after the mutiny was quelled. The British gave them the status of martial races. According to them, these races, in today’s parlance -ethnic groups, were better suited for warfare. Considered to be physically stronger as they came from hunting or agricultural cultures, or from mountainous regions with a history of conflict, these races had a strong identity centered around their tribes and thus had an exalted sense of loyalty and patriotism.

Post 1857, the newly constituted British Indian Army started recruiting heavily from these races. As a result, the Bengal, Awadhi, Bihari and Deccani representation in the army declined. Also affected were the Marathas, who had a glorious martial past but ended up on the wrong side of the mutiny with several top leaders like Tantya Tope, Nana Sahib and Rani Laxmi Bai being Marathas. Exceptions were made only in the case of Jadhavs, Dhangars and Mahars, who were all Marathas. Shivaji originally recruited the Mahars as scouts and fort guards in his army.

The prominent ethnic groups from modern India considered martial post-1857 were: Dogras, Garhwalis, Gujjars, Gorkhas, Jats, Kumaonis, Pathans, Rajputs, Sikhs, Janjuas, Mahars, Kodavas, Gakhars, Ghumman, Khokhar and Yadavs.

Post 1947, the martial race theory was discarded on paper. The Indian Army now claims to be a secular army, with every Indian having an equal right to serve the nation.

But is it really so?

Lets start from the top; the President’s bodyguards. The President’s bodyguards are considered the elite of the Indian Army with the highest honor of protecting the commander-in-chief of the Indian Armed Forces. Established in 1773 as ‘Troop of Mughals’ to protect Warren Hastings – India’s first Governor-General – the President’s Bodyguards are the oldest and also the senior-most in the order of precedence of the units of the Indian Army. Serving the President is a high point in every military person’s professional life.

Yet the reality is, every Indian does not have the right to this honor. In a blatant display of the Martial Race hangover from the days of the British Raj, the bodyguards are chosen only from Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs. Each of the three ethnic groups has their distinct headgear, colors and uniforms. Even after 64 years of Independence, a Bengali, a Tamil or an Assamese doesn’t have the honor of serving the head of state, simply because he belongs to the wrong ethnic group! Why no one ever questions this relic of the Raj remains a mystery.

However on closer inspection at the selection pattern in India’s armed forces, the thriving existence of the martial race theory becomes clearer. If we take percentage of a state’s population in India and the percentage representation from the state to the armed forces there emerges some very interesting statistics.

For example, Haryana, which has only 2.2% of India’s population, contributes 7.82% to the armed forces; an over representation of 255%. Similarly, Himachal Pradesh has only 0.6% of India’s population, yet contributes 4.68% of the armed forces; an over representation by 680%! Statistically though, none can match Punjab, whose corresponding figures are 2.4% and a whopping 16.6%; an over representation of 538%.

Just for comparison’s sake, the same figures for Orissa is 3.65% to 1.27%, Bengal is 7.8% to 3.63%, Maharashtra is 9.8% to 7.64%, Bihar is 10.8% to 5.13%, Andhra Pradesh is 7.45% to 4.08%, and Tamil Nadu is 6.2% to 5.09%. At the bottom of the under-represented states are those stereotyped for their business acumen; Gujarat with a percentage of 4.5% of the Indian population and only 1.48% of the armed forces, has an under-representation of 70%.

This discrepancy is noted even in the selection of officers. The figures for intake of officer cadets into the Indian Military Academy during the period 1983-87 by region shows a whopping 12.32% of officers from the Punjab, and a further 10.90% from Haryana and Chandigarh. That is almost 1/4th of the total officers. If one adds Delhi (9.21%), the figure is more than 30%. As expected, at the bottom of the list are West Bengal (2.47%), Gujarat (0.52%), Maharashtra (4.22%) and Tamil Nadu (2.3%). Statistically, the North-Eastern states are almost nonexistent.

This also reflects another interesting fact. The British believed the excluded ethnic groups had sedentary lifestyles, detested hard labor, and were engaged mainly in trade and commerce, hence would be more suitable for economic and administrative purposes. It was this preference, which resulted in Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat (A lone exception in the north was the Punjab) turning out to be hotbeds for the Indian independence movements, having learnt the concepts of organized political opposition through contact with western education and ideologies. In a huge twist of irony, the independence movement was not led by gun wielding princes or sepoys, but by Lincoln Inn trained barristers and college-educated youths from these very states.

The hangover of the martial race supremacy impacted not only India.

After the creation of East and West Pakistan in 1947, the Pakistani army continued to recruit heavily from Pashtuns and Punjabis, on the belief that the lean and thin, rice-eating Bengalis are not suited for heroic warfare, and are politically volatile to accept authority. The under representation of Bengalis in the Pakistan army was a major grievance of the East Bengal population and ultimately resulted in civil war and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Even modern Sikhs have a saying that one Sikh is equal to ‘sava’ lakh (one hundred twenty five thousand) of the enemy forces. None other than the tenth Sikh Guru, Gobind Singh himself, proclaimed this absurd display of religious chauvinism. Mathematics as propaganda for motivating armies to defend one’s faith is understandable, but this went way too far, and didn’t die with the fall of the Sikh Empire. This overestimation in a Sikh’s martial ability was no less a contributor to the rise of militancy in the Punjab in the 70’s and 80’s. Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is on record for exhorting Sikhs with the rhetoric that ‘One Sikh could easily reckon with thirty-five Hindus.’

Coming back to the secular aspirations of the Indian army, preference on the basis of religion is another bias, which the army lives in denial with.

If one goes through the lists of the Chief of the Armed forces since independence, it is conspicuous by the lack of any Muslim names. Muslims constitute 13.4% of India’s population, yet the only Muslim to ever become a service chief was Idris Latif, who served as Air Chief Marshall from 1978-81. It is believed that currently not more than 2% of the Indian armed forces are Muslims. No Muslim has ever been General in the army, though a Parsi, a Sikh and a Christian have held the post.

It is difficult to believe that this absence of Muslims from the highest offices of the armed forces is only a result of apolitical selection based entirely on merit, and is free of any ethno-religious affiliation.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Sikhs, who comprise only a minuscule 1.8% of the Indian population. By the advent of World War I, Sikhs in the British Indian Army totaled over 100,000, i.e. 20% of the British Indian Army. Even now, Sikhs make up 10–15% of all ranks in the Indian Army and 20% of its officers, which makes them over 10 times more likely to be a soldier and officer in the Indian Army than the average Indian.

Does the Indian Army truly represent the ethnic diversity of India? As bitter the truth might be, the Indian Army is a prime example of stereotyping ethnic groups, religion and race. This martial race hangover is also a result of overtly virile and masculine chauvinism, which is an inescapable trapping of any armed force. It not only survives, but flourishes behind a façade of political neutrality, secularism and inclusiveness. Like any power institution, the Indian army continues to be a prisoner of its own past.

Note: All statistics have been referred from Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army: The Contrasting Cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and Others by Omar Khalidi Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter, 2001-2002). The article reflects the views of the writer alone and does not seek to offend any community within or outside India. Its purpose is to purely encourage discussion.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Suresh permalink
    June 5, 2013 8:03 pm

    You are talking about stereotyping by saying “No Muslim has ever been General in the army, though a Parsi, a Sikh and a Christian have held the post.” and “It is difficult to believe that this absence of Muslims …” . You are contradicting yourself. If a Parsi and a Christian can become the why not a Muslim.Its only cos there were no eligible candidates.Grow up.

  2. July 26, 2013 3:17 pm

    This has to be the most absurd analysis ever of the Indian Army recruitment policy and pattern; and it is not surprising that the numbers have been picked up from Omar Khalidi’s work. The bugger has been trying to malign the IA and bring in religion (and regional) angle to it for he knows this is one institution which has been whooping the arse of his jeehadi boys in Kashmir.

    To the author – please read up on regiment system and all class composition regiments before you make the above absurd claims and reach equally nonsensical conclusion(s).

    As for Martial Race Theory, to paraphrase a British Civil Servant, ” A man is known to behave as is expected of him.”

    Coming the the example of President’s Bodyguard (PBG) – Do you know each one of the troopers has to meet the minimum height criterion of 6 feet? So, even a 5;10″ Sikh or Rajput or a Jat cannot ‘serve’ the President. There is no need to break a tradition simply because it does not meet the exalted standard of some bleeding heart liberal.

  3. September 16, 2013 4:31 pm

    Very dangerous article.. Don’t know where these secularists will drag the country into.. This writer can’t see anything beyond religion. As per Omar Khalidi there should be reservation for muslims to become Army Chief. This writer fails to register the fact that supreme commander of armed forces is the President and there were more than one muslim presidents.

  4. Ramneek permalink
    May 22, 2014 8:32 am

    Dear Sir – the question is not that the Indian Armed Forces are biased in their recruitment, the question to be asked is why don’t those who are under represented join the Armed Forces (at the officer level – the ethnic receruitment policy does not apply). Clearly, to die for a country is a difficult job, that needs to be built on a belief – even if the basis of that is a myth.

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