Martial race was a designation created by army officials of British India after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, where they classified each caste into one of two categories, 'martial' and 'non-martial'. The ostensible reason was that a 'martial race' was typically brave and well-built for fighting, while the 'non-martial races' were those whom the British believed to be unfit for battle because of their sedentary lifestyles. However, an alternative hypothesis is that British-trained Indian soldiers were among those who rebelled in 1857 and thereafter recruitment policy favoured castes which had remained loyal to the British and diminished or abandoned recruitment from the catchment area of the Bengal army. The concept already had a precedent in Indian culture as one of the four orders (varnas) in the Vedic social system of Hinduism is known as the Kshatriya, literally "warriors."
In their attempts to assert control in India, the British faced fierce resistance in some regions while easily conquering others. British officials sought 'martial races' accustomed to hunting, or from agricultural cultures from hilly or mountainous regions with a history of conflict. Others were excluded due to their 'ease of living' or branded as seditious agitators. The doctrine of 'martial races' postulated that the qualities that make a useful soldier are inherited and that most Indians, with the exception of the specified groups, did not have the requisite traits that would make them warriors.
The British recruited heavily from the 'martial races' for service in the colonial army. Sensing the inequalities and fierce loyalty to one's tribe or group of the diverse native peoples of the subcontinent, the British found opportunities to use it to their own great advantage. These already wide divides were a fertile breeding ground to inculcate pride in one's identity based on 'race'. This served the British in two ways. On the one hand it made sure that there was no repetition of the Indian rebellion of 1857 by ensuring there was no unity among the different subjects of the Raj. On the other hand, it encouraged a sense of competition among the different 'races'.
British general and scholar Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn (1869–1952) noted in his writings "It is only necessary for a feeling to arise that it is impious and disgraceful to serve the British, for the whole of our fabric to tumble like a house of cards without a shot being fired or a sword unsheathed". To this end, it became British policy to recruit only from those tribes whom they classified as members of the 'martial races', and the practice became an integral part of the recruitment manuals for the Army in the British Raj. According to Jeffrey Greenhut, "The Martial Race theory had an elegant symmetry. Indians who were intelligent and educated were defined as cowards, while those defined as brave were uneducated and backward."
The British regarded the 'martial races' as valiant and strong but also intellectually inferior, lacking the initiative or leadership qualities to command large military formations. They were also regarded as politically subservient or docile to authority. For these reasons, the martial races theory did not lead to officers being recruited from them; recruitment was based on social class and loyalty to the British Raj. One source calls this a "pseudo-ethnological" construction, which was popularised by Frederick Sleigh Roberts, and created serious deficiencies in troop levels during the World Wars, compelling them to recruit from 'non-martial races'. Winston Churchill was reportedly concerned that the theory was abandoned during the war and wrote to the Commander-in-Chief, India that he must, "rely as much as possible on the martial races". After Indian Independence, the Indian Army abandoned this theory and recruitment took place without discrimination.
Critics of the theory state that the Indian rebellion of 1857 may have played a role in reinforcing the British belief in it. During this event the troops from the Bengal Native Infantry led by sepoy Mangal Pandey mutinied against the British. However, the loyal Pashtuns, Punjabis, Gurkhas, Kumaoni/Kumaunis and Garhwalis did not join the mutiny, and fought on the side of the British Army. From then on, this theory was used to the hilt to accelerate recruitment from among these 'races', whilst discouraging enlistment of 'disloyal' troops and high-caste Hindus who had sided with the rebel army during the war.
Some authors, such as Heather Streets, argue that the military authorities puffed up the images of the martial soldiers by writing regimental histories, and by extolling the kilted Scots, kukri-wielding Gurkhas and turbaned Sikhs in numerous paintings. Richard Schultz, an American author, has claimed the martial race concept as a supposedly clever British effort to divide and rule the people of India for their own political ends.
The hillmen – Kumaonis, Garhwalis, Dogras and Gorkhas – were initially a great impediment to the establishment of the British Empire, but once they gave their loyalty to the British they helped them greatly in their administration and were thus given the status of martial race. Kumaonis had helped the British in their efforts against the Gurkhas in the Nepal War. When they were observed by the British to be fighting on both sides—the British as well as the Gorkha side—their valour was given recognition by the British and they were included in the British Army. The 3rd Gorkha Rifles was known as the Kumaon battalion when it was formed, and included Kumaonis and Garhwalis along with the Gorkhas. The Kumaonis, once accepted as a martial race, were themselves to be recruited in the Hyderabad regiment and displace the native troops, ultimately becoming the Kumaon Regiment after the independence of India.
Tribes and groups designated as martial races
In British colonial times
British-declared martial races in the Indian subcontinent included some groups that were officially designated instead as "agricultural tribes" under the provisions of the Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900. These terms were considered to be synonymous when the administration compiled a list in 1925. Among the communities listed as martial were:
- Hindu Jat
- Jat Sikh
- Muslim Jat
Communities that were at various times classified as martial races include:
- Nairs (removed after rebelling)
The recruitment of 'Madrassis' for infantry only took place during the Second World War when large numbers of troops were required to defend the British Empire in the form of a newly raised Madras Regiment. The Nairs of Kerala were initially included in the list, however after the Nairs of Travancore rebelled against the British under Velu Thampi Dalawa, they were recruited in lower numbers.
By the Pakistani military
Though seldom used in today's context, it has been alleged that Pakistan Military believed in the concept of martial races, and thought that they would easily defeat India in a war, especially prior to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Based on this belief in martial supremacy, it was popularly said that one Pakistani soldier was equal to four to ten Hindus or Indian soldiers, and thus numerical superiority of the foe could be overcome.
The Pakistan Army was also accused of bias and racism by the Bengalis of East Pakistan who felt humiliated by this dubious theory that was being floated in West Pakistan, that they were not 'martially inclined' compared to the Punjabis and Pashtuns. Pakistani author Hasan-Askari Rizvi notes that the limited recruitment of Bengali personnel in the Pakistan Army was because the West Pakistanis "could not overcome the hangover of the martial race theory".
Defence writers in Pakistan have noted that the 1971 defeat was partially attributable to the flawed 'martial races' theory which led to wishful thinking that it was possible to defeat the Indian Army based on the theory alone. Author Stephen P. Cohen notes that "Elevating the 'martial races' theory to the level of an absolute truth had domestic implications for Pakistani politics and contributed to the neglect of other aspects of security." Since then, the 'martial race' theory has rarely, if ever, been used by Pakistan.
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- Greenhut, Jeffrey (1984) Sahib and Sepoy: an Inquiry into the Relationship between the British Officers and Native Soldiers of the British Indian Army. (In: Military Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), p. 15.
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- Ethnic group recruitment in the Indian army: The contrasting cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and others by Omar Khalidi.
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- Creative Pasts: Historical Memory And Identity in Western India, 1700-1960 From book: "In the early twentieth century, the Marathas were identified as a "martial race" fit for the imperial army, and recruitment of Marathas increased after World War I."
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- Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat Richard H. Shultz, Andrea Dew: "The Martial Races Theory had firm adherents in Pakistan and this factor played a major role in the under-estimation of the Indian Army by Pakistani soldiers as well as civilian decision makers in 1965."
- An Analysis The Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-59 by AH Amin "The army officers of that period were convinced that they were a 'martial race' and the Hindus of Indian Army were cowards. Some say this was disproved in 1965 when, despite having more sophisticated equipment, numerical preponderance in tanks, and the element of surprise, the Pakistan Armoured Division miserably failed at Khem Karan."
- United States Library of Congress Country Studies "Most Pakistanis, schooled in the belief of their own martial prowess, refused to accept the possibility of their country's military defeat by 'Hindu India'."
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- India by Stanley Wolpert. Published: University of California Press, 1990. "India's army... quickly dispelled the popular Pakistani myth that one Muslim soldier was 'worth ten Hindus.'"
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