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Colonial Hangover: Indian Army and the British Legacy of Caste-Based Recruitment

Representative Image (Reuters)

Representative Image (Reuters)

In this explainer, News18 dissects the emergence and role of the caste factor in the Indian Army and how it continues to be an integral part of the system, even though it is a relic of the colonial past.

New Delhi: Rajput Regiment, Jat Regiment, Rajputana Rifles, Maratha Light Infantry, Madras Regiment, Mahar and Gurkha Regiments. These are how some of the regiments and corps of the Indian Army are named, ushering in a sense of caste hierarchy before igniting patriotic passion and valour.

This apparent and conspicuous revelation of the caste factor became the bone of contention recently when a plea urged the Delhi High Court to strike down a recruitment notice of the Indian Army as violative of Article 14 (Right to Equality) of the Indian Constitution.

In this explainer, News18 dissects the emergence and role of the caste factor in the Indian Army and how it continues to be an integral part of the system, even though it is a relic of the colonial past.

What is the Petition Before the Delhi High Court

The debate over caste-based recruitment in the Army was triggered recently after the response of the Centre and the Army chief was sought on a petition which alleged that only three castes are considered for recruitment to the President’s Bodyguard. The petition was filed by Gaurav Yadav, a Haryana resident, who sought setting aside of the recruitment of President’s Bodyguard on September 4, 2017 as only Jats, Rajputs and Jat Sikhs were invited for it.

The petitioner said he belonged to the Ahir/Yadav caste and fulfilled all the eligibility criteria of recruitment to the President’s Bodyguard except caste, and pleaded that he be recruited. The “preferential treatment” given to the three castes deprived other eligible citizens of the opportunity of recruitment, the petition said.

Is the Petition New

This petition is not new and there have been similar pleas on earlier occasions as well. In 2012, IS Yadav, a doctor from Haryana, filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of “caste based recruitment” to the Indian Army.

Again, in February 2018, 19-year-old Saurav Yadav from Gurugram filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, seeking expulsion of the caste-based recruitment process for the President’s Bodyguard.

The plea mentioned that the process has been going since 1947 and members from only three castes, Jat Sikhs, Hindu Jats and Hindu Rajputs are allowed to participate in the selection process. The plea sought quashing of the latest recruitment held by the Director of the Army Recruitment office in September 2017.

How is the Indian Army Recruitment Caste-Based

The British did recruitments in the Indian Army primarily on the basis of whether the candidate was ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’. The categorisation was on the basis of ethnicities and castes on the touchstone of which they determined the qualities of being ‘martial’. This recruitment practice is yet to be reformed and is what the army calls the ‘history’ behind such a recruitment policy.

Steven I Wilkinson, in his book Army and Nation, said that during Independence almost “half of India’s senior-most officers came from one single province, Punjab.”

What is the History of Such Recruitment

It was the mutiny in 1857 which triggered caste-based induction in the Indian Army. It is a well-documented fact that the stated British intent was to divide the army into martial and non-martial races, wherein they defined non-martial as a class who did not have the qualities to make good leaders. Since the mutiny rose from the east and south, it was natural for the British to strike them off from roles in the army. It was the north which got rewarded for its martial heritage and the tradition of contribution to the military service.

Wilkinson demonstrates that by the beginning of the 1970s, India doubled the number of ‘martial class’ units.

“The Punjab Regiment that recruits mainly Sikhs and Dogras, has gone from five to 29 battalions since independence,” Wilkinson wrote.

The Rajputana Rifles (mainly Jats and Rajputs) has increased from six to 21 battalions in the same period.

Military historians claim that in the regiment's initial years, Muslims from the Awadh region in eastern Uttar Pradesh were inducted. Hindus (Rajput and Brahmins) from the same region were allowed to join later.

Later on, the area of recruitment shifted from the Bengal Presidency to the Madras Presidency.

The revolt of 1857 forced the British to change the centre of recruitment to north India.

Consequently, Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims were enlisted. The recruitment of Brahmins and Rajputs reportedly ceased later on for reasons not entirely clear. Till very recently, mixed races were a part of the regiment, but presently, only Hindu Jats, Sikh Jats and Rajputs are taken and in equal numbers.

How Was President’s Bodyguard Selected and Why Does Caste Play an Important Role

This is the second petition against the recruitment policy adopted for the President’s Bodyguard. The position of the President’s Bodyguard is the senior-most unit of the army and the distinction is ‘Right of the Line’ on all official and ceremonial occasions. It, thus, assumes significance and position above all other regiments and corps in the Army.

The position of the presidential guards was raised by Governor-General Warren Hastings in September 1773. Hastings handpicked 50 troopers from the Moghal Horse, a unit which was raised in 1760 by local sirdars. In the same year, Raja Cheyt Singh of Benares provided another 50 troopers that took the strength of the unit to 100.

The establishment of the regiment varied through the years, being augmented in times of war and attained its maximum strength of 1,929, as per the Army List of 1845, just prior to the First Sikh War.

The position of the Presidential Bodyguard now is a small body of handpicked men, comprising four officers, 14 Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and 161 troopers, backed by administrative support personnel.

Six-feet is the minimum height for a presidential trooper. They are expert horsemen, fluent with ceremonial punctilio, trained combat paratroopers, armoured vehicle crewmen and tradesmen.

Did the British Single-out Certain Castes as Not Fit to be Part of the Army?

Author Aqil Shah in his book The Army and Democracy has explained the reason why Bengalis were classified as ‘non-martial’. Shah has noted that the British were anxious to avoid recruiting Bengalis because the 1857 Sepoy Revolt was led by soldiers of the East India Company’s Bengal Army and Bengalis spearheaded the early years of the nationalist movement.

This, according to the author, shows that recruitment based on caste and ethnicity was started by the British to divide the society and resultantly quash the repeat of revolts.

Another Yadav Petitions Court. Why?

The All India Yadav Mahasabha (AIYM) has sent around 20 lakh postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding a separate 'Yadav regiment' in the Indian Army. The organisation claims its long-pending demand for an ‘Ahir regiment’ exclusively for Yadavs should be met as other castes have regiments in their name.

"Jawans from our community have sacrificed their lives in the India-China and Kargil wars as well as in Akshardham and Parliament attacks. When we are ready to lay down our lives, there should be an exclusive regiment for us," AIYM Secretary General Satya Prakash Yadav had earlier said.

During a recent meeting at Yadav Bhawan, he recounted the contributions of Ahir jawans in the 1965 India-China war.

Will the Army Defend its Recruitment Notice?

According to reports, the army has decided to oppose the petition in the Delhi High Court by establishing that the system of recruitment is based on historical legacies, constitutional mandate and is thus lawful. The army is also reportedly going to state that the recruitment policy was examined by four committees since 1947 and that everything was found to be sound.

Were There Other Caste-Based Regiments Which Were Later Dropped

A caste-based regiment in the form of 1 and 3rd (Gaur) Brahman Infantry was created in 1903, only to be disbanded after the First World War. The British fancy for caste-based regiments did not stop here and with the outbreak of the Second World War, it prompted the British to create the 1 Chamar regiment, which continued to serve in Burma till its disbandment in December 1946.

Similarly, in 1941, the members of the Lingayat community, a caste group from southern India, were enlisted in the 1st Lingayat battalion which initially served as an infantry unit and subsequently as an anti-tank regiment till it was disbanded in the late 1940s.