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A Look at the Only Scheduled Caste Regiment the 'Chamar Regiment' of the Indian Army

Updated on October 30, 2021
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.

Introduction

The modern Indian army traces its history and lineage to the days of the East India Company army and later the British Indian army. The British must take the credit for laying the foundation of the Indian army. Known earlier as the Company Force it metamorphosed into the British Indian army after 1858. It served the British for close to 250 years. The British leaders and soldiers however confined the recruitment to the army only to the so-called “martial castes”. Thus the army had Sikhs, Gurkhas, Dogras, Rajput’s, Garhwali’s etc. as part of the army. This classification of martial and non-martial was based on the personal experience of the English commanders who had fought the Indians in wars when they were consolidating their rule. The caste's like the Sikhs who had given the British a tough time were given pride of place in the army. This system continued for close to 200 years and it can’t be faulted.

The Second World War and change in thinking

The Second World War greatly taxed the Empire. Facing Hitler and Tojo was no easy task. Though the army numbered almost 2 million men, GHQ led by General Lord Auchinleck was keen to increase the strength of the force. A proposal was mooted to induct Chamar (cobblers) into the army. This decision was taken on the back of some historical research which showed that the Chamars had fought some wars in the past. It was felt that the Chamar though not a martial clan or caste could help the empire beat back the Germans and the Imperial army.

The go-ahead was given in 1943 and a committee was appointed to go into details. The recruits of the Chamar Regiment came mainly from North India and by end of 1943, the basic framework of training and induction of the Chamar Regiment was completed. The regiment was thrown into battle against the Imperial army in the famous Burma campaign with Field Marshal Slim as the C in C. It was part of the army that was fighting the Japanese in the east.

Chamar( Cobbler) Regiment


The Chamar regiment after initial basic training was thrown into battle against the Imperial army in Burma around mid-1944. The regiment fought as well or badly as any other regiment. The Japanese were hard fighters but the Chamar regiment acquitted itself well in combat. It took part in the attack and the final liberation of Rangoon from Japanese occupation.

The officers of the Chamar regiment were drawn from many classes and were either English or higher caste Indians. Muslim officers like General Ayub Khan were part of this regiment. General Ayub later became the president of Pakistan. The fighting prowess of the Chamar soldiers has been well chronicled in the history pages of the research section of the Indian defense ministry.

There is another side of the picture. The Regiment was pitted against the Indian National Army (INA) headed by Subhas Bose but many of this regiment joined the INA. One of the most prominent members of the Chamar Regiment was Captain Mohan Lal Kureel who threw his lot with the INA. He was court-martialed but freed and became a member of the Indian parliament.

In 1946, the regiment personnel's undisciplined behavior led to its disbanding by the British government.


Disbandment

Disbandment was around the corner after the war ended. Hitler had so sapped the vitals of the British Empire that an army of 2.6 million could not be sustained. Demobilization was announced by the Lord Attlee government and about 2 million men were sent home as the army strength was reduced to about 450,000 which was the peak strength of the British Indian army in peacetime. The ax fell on the Chamar regiment which was disbanded around the end of 1946. The British were not happy with the conduct of the regiment.

India became free on 15 August 1947 and Nehru an Indian Anglophile wished to carry on with the British traditions. So was the top brass of the Indian army which was steeped in British culture and influence could not think beyond a caste-based army. Independent India thus carried on with caste-based regiments all of who were from the so-called martial classes. The British theory was accepted and any proposal to revive the Chamar regiment never saw the light of the day. All that is now left of the Chamar regiment is a footnote in Indian military history

Last word

By the end of 1946, all the soldiers of the Chamar regiment were sent home. The Indian government under Nehru and the C-in- C India did not think of carrying on with the Chama regiment as they preferred to continue with the Sikhs, Rajputs, Gurkhas etc.

During the time of the Janta government from 1998 -2004, a proposal was mooted by some backward caste political leaders to revive the Chamar regiment. The Indian army has however decided that there will be no more caste-based regiments added to the existing ones and hence the proposal was not approved by the Vajpayee government.

References

Indian society and the soldier: will the twain ever meet by Roy Kaushik (2016)


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