Martial Race in the post-Second World War period

CHENNAI: The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was the first united movement against the British rule in India. It brought with it much more than a spirit of freedom and rebellion. It brought in a new composition in the Indian Army, the shadows of which still exist today. The revolt which started in Kolkata soon spread across other major cities in the country. With the lack of army support, the East India Company rule began crumbling. The British realized the importance of a loyal army.

With this realization came the concept of ‘Martial Classes’ – a theory that considered a set of ethnic groups to be better at warfare because of their socio-cultural background. David Omissi, a historian explains the British-logic behind it. He wrote,After the mutiny, British officers concluded that prosperity made the commercial and urban classes of India unfit to be soldiers. As a result, recruiters developed a detailed system of ethnographic classification that identified certain rural ethnic groups, religions, and castes with the specific biological and cultural attributes of a martial race.”


According to ‘India: Foreign Policy & Government Guide, Volume 1’, “The popularization of this notion (Martial class) was widely attributed to Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Earl of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford. He was the commander in chief of the British Indian Army from 1885 to 1893.

Roberts believed that most martial races were located in northwestern India. He regarded Bengalis, Marathas, and southern ethnic groups as lacking in martial virtues. Their warlike propensities, he contended, had dissipated because of the ease of living and the hot, enervating climate of these regions.”

Roberts’ views profoundly influenced the composition of the British Indian army in the last decades of the 19th century. For example, when the Bengal Army was reestablished in 1885, its new units were drawn from Punjab. In 1892 army policy was changed significantly. Units were no longer raised on a territorial basis but along what was referred to as “class” lines.

In effect, regiments admitted only those having similar ethnic, religious, or caste backgrounds. Between 1892 and 1914, recruitment was confined almost entirely to the martial races. These modes of recruitment and organization created a professional force profoundly shaped by caste and regional factors and loyal and responsive to British command. The procedures also perpetuated regional and communal ties and produced an army that was not nationally based.


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..


By the advent of World War I, Sikhs in the British Indian Army totalled 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.

Nothing changed much till the onset of the Second World War. Srinath Raghavan, a historian and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said, “The first thing that happened as a result of the decision to take India to the war is the tremendous expansion of the Indian armed forces. The army went from around 200,000 in 1939 to around 2.5 million in 1945.When you are talking about expanding an army of this size, then it’s no longer possible to hold on to the same type of composition. So the whole idea there are certain groups in India that are capable of bearing arms or fighting has to be thrown out.”

The concept of martial class was thrown out after the Second World War. However, the shadow of the same still looms over the Indian Army. Omar Khalidi in 2001 compared the statistics of recruitment from various States on the basis of data from 1971.

Haryana, which had only 2.2% of India’s population, contributed 7.82% to the armed forces. Similarly, Himachal Pradesh had only 0.6% of India’s population contributed 4.68% of the armed forces. Likewise, Punjab contributed 16.6% of the personnel with a population of only 2.4%.


The same figures for Orissa were 3.65% to 1.27%, Bengal was 7.8% to 3.63%, Maharashtra was 9.8% to 7.64%, Bihar was 10.8% to 5.13%, Andhra Pradesh was 7.45% to 4.08%, and Tamil Nadu was 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.

Muslims constitute 13.4% of India’s population. But the Indian Army has had only eight Muslim major generals so far, while the Air Force was once commanded by a Muslim air chief marshal. The Indian Military Academy has had one Muslim commandant, while the National Defense Academy has had two.

The Indian Army has been the only public body that has steered away from political or religion biases. However the hovering of the Martial class theory on its recruitment process casts a dark shadow.


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