The Minority Army – Uday Shankar – Medium
1| Building the Indian Army
What is striking to the careful eye is that certain communities are grossly over-represented in the Indian Army — even today. Even though the officer cadre is region-caste agnostic and can be allotted to any regiment, the enlisted men of each infantry (and some Armoured) regiments come only from that particular region or caste. Despite this, the present day Indian Army is the most diverse it has ever been — and its roots lie in the history of India’s involvement in World War II.
The British didn’t start off with a stated aim of building an Army of communities on the fringes of Indian, and Hindu, societies. When the East India Company set shop in Calcutta in the 18th century, most of their army was recruited from Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. Almost all of these recruits were from the upper castes — the Brahmins and the Rajputs. The original Bengal Regiment was mostly composed of these upper caste men.
However, the First Indian War of Independence, in 1857, changed that. This was the genesis of Britain’s mistrust of the ‘majority’ — which would fatally culminate in the bloody Partition of 1947.
Remember the provocateur-in-chief of the First Indian War of Independence in 1857 — Mangal Pandey. A landowning Brahmin, a Bhumihar Brahmin. Very much the Indian, and Hindu, mainstream.
The biggest problem, from the British perspective, was that these men, by virtue of their caste and asset ownership, already had a high standing in society. They held cultural legitimacy all on their own. They didn’t need the British Indian Army uniform to lend them legitimacy. This is exactly what the British feared in them — the fact that these Indians didn’t owe them anything.
Some of the bloodiest battles against the British were fought on Uttar Pradesh’s soil. The National Identity XXVI is even titled, “Remember Cawnpore”, a British war cry to remind them of the atrocities Indians inflicted on the British.
After 1857, once the British took over formal control of India from the East India Company — they propagated a theory of “martial races”. Naturally, they wanted to incorporate the soldiers from regions which had supported them and needed ‘sound’ reason to do so. They inducted these soldiers in disproportionate numbers. The largest such region/section was the Punjab.
Thereafter, they began actively recruiting so-called “martial races”. In truth, these were castes and regions on the fringes of mainstream Indian, and Hindu, society. I consciously stay away from using the word ‘minorities’ because of the very different caste connotations of today. However, these were largely communities who would have been very much Shudras — the so called lowest rung on the caste system.
The Sikhs from Punjab, the Muslim Punjabis, the Pathans of North West Frontier Province, the Dogras from the Jammu plains, the Gharwalis and Kumaonis from the hills of Uttarakhand, the Gorkhas of Nepal — were all formed into regiments of the British Indian Army. The Bengal Regiment was disbanded in 1857 and never reconstituted.
(Please don’t confuse the Bengal Sappers, of the Engineers, with the Infantry’s Bengal Regiment)
The other great casualty of this recomposition were the Muslims. The Muslims had rallied in large numbers in 1857, and fought alongside the Hindus to reinstate the Mughal ruler at Delhi. For Muslims, this was viewed as a win-win scenario of ridding the British and placing a Mughal back on the throne. However, when they ended up on the wrong side of history, as seen by the British, their days of over-representation in the British Indian Army were also over.
Bar the Gorkhas, these so called ‘martial races’ were from North and North-West India. It is important to make clear, again, that these communities weren’t necessarily economically downtrodden or all of a lower caste. They key difference was that they didn’t dominate the national discourse in the same way Brahmins and Kshatriyas did (landowners were almost entirely from these two castes). All bar Punjab, were also regions far away from the maelstrom of movements for Indian Independence, brewing largely in the urban settings of Calcutta, Bombay, Poona and Madras. Even within the Punjab, the British recruited, till World War I, almost exclusively, only Sikh and Muslim Jats . The legitimacy the British afforded these communities came from the British Indian Army uniforms they donned.
The basis of such an Army is easy to understand from a British point of view — a ‘majority’ army can turn on the rulers at any time because they have popular support. Whereas, the legitimacy which a marginalised community derives from its over-representation in the Army is owed to the British.
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Many have also pointed to similar reasons for the lack of a Sikh Chief of Army Staff for nearly 60 years after independence. Although as I pointed out in National Identity XII: Games Generals Play…, Lt. General Surrinder Singh of 17 Poona Horse, and GOC-in-C of the Northern Command was poised to be the army chief in 1996 before nature set the line of succession. Though a practising Sikh, General Surrinder Singh didn’t wear a turban.
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These regiments fought valiantly, without defeat, in the First World War. Rapidly thereafter, however, the manpower had to be reduced due to the punishing cost of the war. As William Durant pointed out,
In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, in 1922, 64% of the Government of India’s revenue was devoted to paying for the British Indian Army.
In the decades to follow, the Great Depression and general economic malaise meant that the standing strength of the Indian Army in 1939 was just 200,000 and they were mostly used for internal policing.