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Caste Based Regiments of Indian Army

Updated on February 10, 2020
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MG is a senior air warrior, graduate from Staff College and a PG in military Science is qualified to write on war and allied matters

Sikh  troops with British officer
Sikh troops with British officer

The British Indian Army

The Indian army traces its lineage to the days of the Raj (the era of British rule). It does not claim any affinity with the armies of the Hindu and Muslim periods. During the days of Hindu rule, the army consisted of only the martial caste. For a recap there are 4 main castes in Hindu society and innumerable sub-castes. The Hindus had a dedicated caste whose profession was soldiers. This caste was known as the Kshatriyas. It included many sub-castes, who also came under the nomenclature of Kshatriya. The Kshatriyas were the only caste allowed to bear arms and any attempt to bear arms by the lower castes merited a death sentence.

This division was studied by the English and they formed their own opinion with inputs from their experience of battle conditions in India with the Locals. The British who came to India needed their own army and they had willing recruits from the local populace. There was no shortage of manpower. However, the English were selective in the recruitment of Indians to the British Indian army and restricted their recruitment to certain castes only. These castes were referred to as martial. They divided the Indian races into martial and non-martial castes but relied heavily on the Hindu division as well. Thus the higher castes were only classified as martial and other castes were not given this classification.

The British fine-tuned old Hindu concepts and classified certain races as a martial class. They brought this concept into play with their experience of battle with Indians. Thus races like the Sikhs and Gurkhas who had given a harrowing time to the British in battle were given pride of place in the recruitment to the Indian army. The British formed the infantry regiments on caste lines. In a way, this was a good idea as India is a vast continent and the living style and food habits of the castes are different. The English had one particular caste or sect in a regiment and Sikh regiments had only Sikh soldiers, while the Dogra regiments had onlyDogras. Dogras are a martial clan from the Jammu region.

The Indian army inherited this British concept in 1947 when India became free. The then Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru decided that caste-based regiments were to continue. The army continued with caste-based regiments. Ipso fact this ensured that the infantry regiments consisted of only high caste Hindus as from earlier times the Shudras or lower castes were not allowed to bear arms.

Success of Caste Based Regiments

One may wonder whether these caste-based regiments were a success. The fact is that these regiments on innumerable occasions covered them with glory. A list of battles that these regiments fought for the English needs a separate study. Right from the Afghan wars, the Opium wars in China, the Boxer rebellion and the two World Wars proved the efficacy of the caste-based regiments.

In actual battle conditions, these regiments performed great deeds and during the first world war, the battles in the Middle East against the Turks were an example of what these regiments achieved. These regiments in effect defeated the Ottoman empire. One can also recollect the role of the Punjab and Sikh troops in lifting the siege of Peking during the Boxer Rebellion in China. In World War II, the Germans, who faced the units of the British Indian army were suitably impressed and later formed the India Legion to fight alongside the Wehrmacht.

The caste-based regiments had their own battle cries and also their own variety of food. As an example, the Rajput regiments were basically vegetarian, while Sikhs were served meat. The soldier's rations scales were suitably prepared as per the ethos of the regiment. The Muslim regiments were served halal meat.

The officer who commanded these regiments was 99% English though in the mid-twentieth century a sprinkling of Indians made it to the officer cadre. After India became independent, these caste-based regiments continued in the Indian army. In 4 wars from 1947, these same regiments have acquitted them creditably and the creation of Bangladesh is a direct corollary of the use of these caste-based troops under the overall field commander Lt General Sagat Singh

The Future

The Indian army is a formidable force and is the 4th largest army in the world. But unlike other armies, it is unique in some aspects. One of these is the division of the army regiments on the basis of caste. Though the army has now some mixed regiments, yet one cannot see that caste-based troops of the Indian army will ever be history. The culture of caste is too strongly embedded in the Indian psyche and one can be sure that in times to come the caste-based regiments of the Infantry will remain.

In sum total caste is not such a bad thing after all as it fosters esprit de corps and contributes to the overall efficacy of the Indian army. The only other army in the world that has a similar division is the Pakistan army, where also the recruitment is done on the basis of sects and clans.

Last Word

With the passage of time and the development of the automatic rifle like the AK-47, the concept of martial and non-martial races has undergone a change. It will be a fallacy not to recognise this. Generally in India, the people from the South were not considered as martial by the British but the daredevil attacks by the LTTE a pure Tamil fighting force in Sri Lanka shows that all fighting men are equal given an AK 47 or AK-56.

With the development of sophisticated weaponry, the brain and the intellect have a part to play. It is about time that the Indian Army considered doing away with the concept of caste-based regiments based on martial and non-martial races.


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