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"Martial Races" Theory

By the end of the nineteenth century, recruitment was confined to certain social classes and communities--principally those in the northern border areas and Punjab. The narrowing recruitment base was a response to the Sepoy Rebellion and reflected the needs of prevailing security requirements. The bulk of the rebels in the Bengal Army came from the Indo-Gangetic Plain while those that had remained loyal were mostly from Punjab.

The experience of the mutiny also gave rise to a pseudo-ethnological construction, the concept of "martial races" in South Asia. The popularization of this notion was widely attributed to Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Earl of Kandahar, Pretoria, and Waterford; Roberts was an Indian-born veteran of the British forces that put down the Sepoy Rebellion and the commander in chief of the British Indian Army from 1885 to 1893. Roberts believed that the most martial races were located in northwestern India. He regarded Bengalis, Marathas, and southern ethnic groups as lacking in martial virtues. Their warlike propensities, he contended, had dissipated because of the ease of living and the hot, enervating climate of these regions.

Roberts's views profoundly influenced the composition of the British Indian army in the last decades of the nineteenth century. For example, when the Bengal Army was reestablished in 1885, its new units were drawn from Punjab. In 1892 army policy was changed significantly. Units were no longer raised on a territorial basis but along what was referred to as "class" lines. In effect, regiments admitted only those having similar ethnic, religious, or caste backgrounds. Between 1892 and 1914, recruitment was confined almost entirely to the martial races. These modes of recruitment and organization created a professional force profoundly shaped by caste and regional factors and loyal and responsive to British command. The procedures also perpetuated regional and communal ties and produced an army that was not nationally based.

Administrative Reform and World War I

Administrative reforms in 1895 abolished the presidency armies, and command was centralized under the aegis of a single army headquarters at Delhi. In the early twentieth century, the process of centralization continued; and during this period, the separation between military and civilian spheres of influence and the ultimate primacy of civilian authority gained final acceptance in both civilian and military circles.

During World War I, India's contribution of troops, money, and supplies to the Allied cause was substantial. More than 1 million Indian soldiers were sent abroad, and more than 100,000 were either killed or wounded.

The mobilization for the war effort revealed a number of shortcomings in the military establishment. Officer casualties had a particularly pernicious effect on military formations because only the British officers assigned to a battalion had the authority and standing to exercise overall command. In addition, Indian officers from one company could rarely be transferred to another having a different ethnic, religious, or caste makeup. As a consequence, after the war most battalions were reorganized to ease reinforcement among component companies. Strong pressure from the Indian public also drove the British to begin training a small complement of Indians for commissions as a first step in the Indianization of the officer corps. The Royal Indian Air Force was established in 1932, and a small Indian marine unit was reorganized into the Royal Indian Navy in 1934. Indian artillery batteries were first formed only in 1936. Although the practice of limiting recruitment to the martial races had proved inadequate during World War I and entry had been opened to "nonmartial" groups, the traditional recruitment emphasis on martial races was nonetheless resumed after demobilization.

Data as of September 1995