General KM Cariappa’s experiment debunked the martial race theory and illustrated that differences in ethnicity, caste, religious, and regional backgrounds were not the determinants of fighting capabilities of soldiers.


Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd) 


Even after 75 years of Independence, India still subscribes to the martial race theory in the manning of some of its combat and combat support segments of the Army. Nepal’s repeated blocking of recruitment of Gorkhas under the Agnipath scheme could have been used by India to dissociate itself from this British belief of separating races based on their physical and behavioural characteristics as well as climatic conditions. But India continues to see substance in the theory birthed by the First War of Independence in 1857.

The theory was ignited by the Peel Commission Report that contained the findings of the enquiry into the causes of the revolt. According to the report, British authorities lacked knowledge about various Indian ethnic groups and their martial capabilities. The report stated that the revolt began within the Bengal Army filled with high-caste Brahmins, whom the British regarded as scheming and dishonest, while groups like the Sikhs, Marathas, Rajputs, and Gorkhas had upheld their loyalty due to their understanding of honour and duty. These loyal groups were labelled as India’s martial races.

Charles Darwin’s theory on species origin, which emphasised race differences, served to back up the belief that characteristics couldn’t be applied across different races. The mindset of Britishers in India endorsed this theory. Commonalities of the human race that had support from ideals of Christianity were undermined by the emphasis on the differentiation between races. The result was the view of superior and inferior races.

By the Late Victorian times, everything native was considered inferior to British technology, law, religion, and philosophy. This resulted in the reorganisation of the British Indian Army on the basis of martial race theory.


Keeping the distinction alive

Infantry, cavalry artillery, and most other units consisted of ‘class’ companies recruited according to government rules. Units could be ‘pure’ or of mixed classes who were then separated within it. Therefore, a unit could have Sikhs as well as Dogras or Punjabi Mussalman, but these different classes served in their own companies within the unit and separated according to different religions, ethnicities, and regions.

At the time of Independence, General KM Cariappa (later Field Marshal) initiated the first experimental move towards changing such a structural concept. He sought the introduction of mixed, all-class composition down to the lowest sub-unit like the section. He raised a new infantry regiment, the Brigade of the Guards, by selecting four of the oldest infantry battalions and reorganising them by mixing classes at all levels. It was an experiment to test whether such mixing of classes would promote national integration and combat effectiveness.

Independent India’s military history is witness to the success of the experiment not only from the achievements of the Brigade of the Guards but also many other combat and combat support units that notably were also formed with all-India class composition. The experiment debunked the martial race theory and illustrated that differences in ethnicity, caste, religious, and regional backgrounds were not the determinants of fighting capabilities of soldiers. It also proved conducive to national integration.

General Cariappa’s moves to dispense with ethnicity and class differences did not have much long-term impact on changing the composition of the old regiments of the Indian Army. The issue was again at the forefront in 1984, when some Sikh units mutinied in the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. General Krishnaswami Sundarji ordered a study, which recommended an experimentation process followed by a 30-year implementation stage. The experiment was declared as having failed. However, several new units did come up based on an all-India class composition, but it left untouched most of the old regiments of the infantry, armoured corps, and artillery. The traditionalists triumphed and continue to resist change. So, even today, a newly raised Punjab unit, for example, would be composed and organised on class basis.

It was, therefore, intriguing when in 2015, then-defence minister, late Manohar Parrikar, in reply to a starred question in the Lok Sabha, stated: “There is no proposal under consideration of the government to introduce reservation for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes for recruitment in the armed forces.” He was both right and wrong. Right in terms of there being “no proposal under consideration”. What was left unsaid was that the old system of class-based recruitment continues and vacancies arising were reserved for certain classes as those cannot be filled up by other classes. In practice, it implied a reservation system was in vogue in all but name.

It is common knowledge that the Army has has been struggling of late to fill the vacancies of Sikh troops as the numbers volunteering and selected do not meet the demand. It is also interesting to note some of the practices of reservations that still exist, with very limited but reserved vacancies for Mysoreans and Muslims among South Indian classes. One could expect that there are many such incongruities that are hidden from the public eye.


Time to ‘unify’ Indian army

In 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition against caste-based recruitment in the armed forces. The government’s position was: “Certain regiments of the Army were organised on lines of classification because social, cultural and linguistic homogeneity has been observed to be a force multiplier as a battle winning factor. The commonality of language and culture only further augments the smooth execution of operation.” It was an open admission of support for the martial race theory.

The question is, what determines fighting capability? The primary determinant is leadership at the unit level, personified in the Commanding Officer, which also shapes the quality of leadership at the sub-unit levels like the company, platoon, and section. In combat, the entity that a soldier identifies with in practical terms is the Battalion or Regiment. It is their lived reality. All other entities are imagined abstractions that cannot match the immediate and real experience of a deep sense of belonging and camaraderie. What then should be the main factors considered for recruitment?

Once the notion of martial race theory is jettisoned, education and physical fitness remain the obvious ones. In fact, these factors, tweaked for India’s population diversity, already form the basis of existing recruitment rules. What needs to change is a shift in the method of calculating vacancies tailored to cater for existing single-class and mixed-class units to all-India class. To privilege all-India merit, there would be a need to move away from the ‘recruitable male population’ criteria, which has for long been forgotten by the Navy and Air Force.

With the introduction of the Agnipath scheme, the written examination has already been replaced to a common all-India exam, conducted before assessment of physical standards. Now, India has the opportunity to move away from reservations based on caste, religion, ethnicity, and region. This would be possible only if the military leadership chooses to play its part in bringing about the required change.

There is no doubt that the shift from class-based composition could take about two decades as it must be done by induction of recruits from all-India class through Agnipath scheme. Maybe then, after hundred years of Independence, the martial race theory would have been buried. However, any change in existing recruitment policies will be politically loaded as it would be perceived by some sections of losing existing privileges and by others of deriving benefits therefrom. In an election year, the political leadership would be wary of bringing about any such change.

If India wants to be the power it aspires to be, all-India merit must form the sheet anchor of recruitment and all-India class composition the guiding organising principle of military units, though the Regiments would retain their historic identity that preserves their battle honours and memories of distinguished military service. That said, there is no better way to support Article 15 of the Indian Constitution that “forbids discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth” than by doing away with the divisive considerations of religion, race, caste, and so on in the Indian Army.