Martial race was a designation which was created by army officials in British India after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, in which they classified each caste as belonging to one of two categories, the 'martial' caste and the 'non-martial' caste. The ostensible reason for this system of classification was the belief that a 'martial race' was typically brave and well-built for fighting,[1] while the 'non-martial races' were those races which the British considered unfit for battle because of their sedentary lifestyles. The British had a policy of recruiting the martial Indians from those who has less access to education as they were easier to control.[2]

British and Indian officers of the 1st Brahmans, 1912.

According to modern historian Jeffrey Greenhut on military history, "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". According to Amiya Samanta, the martial race was chosen from people of mercenary spirit (a soldier who fights for any group or country that will pay him), as these groups lacked nationalism as a trait.[3][4] British-trained Indian soldiers were among those who had rebelled in 1857 and thereafter, the Bengal Army abandoned or diminished its recruitment of soldiers who came from the catchment area and enacted a new recruitment policy which favoured castes whose members had remained loyal to the British Empire.[5][page needed]

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".[6] Brahmins were described as 'the oldest martial community',[7] in the past having two of the oldest British Indian regiments, the 1st Brahmans and 3rd Brahmans. Now, except a clan known as Gaur whose habits are simpler, very few are found in the army.[8] Following the transfer of the British Indian Armed forces to the Indian Armed forces, these communities continued to have a high representation.[9]

Following Indian independence, the Indian government in February 1949 abolished the official application of "martial race" principles with regard to military recruitment, although it has continued to be applied formally and informally in certain circumstances.[10] In Pakistan, such principles, although no longer rigidly enforced, have continued to hold considerable sway and have had major consequences for the nation's political life—the most extreme case being the Bangladesh Liberation War, following decades of continued Bengali exclusion from the armed forces.[11]


In their attempts to assert control after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, 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.[12] The doctrine of 'martial races' postulated that the qualities that make a useful soldier are inherited and that the rest of most Indians did not have the requisite traits that would make them warriors.[13]

British general and scholar Lieutenant-General 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".[14] 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.

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.[15] They were also regarded as politically subservient or docile to authority.[2][12] 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'.[16] 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".[17]

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. Similarly, the Revolt of Rajab Ali from Chittagong also caused trouble with British forces. However, the loyal Rajputs, Jats, Pashtuns, Sikhs, Gurkhas, 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

Tribes and groups designated as martial races

In British colonial times

French postcard depicting the arrival of 15th Sikh Regiment in France during World War I. The post card reads, "Gentlemen of India marching to chasten the German hooligans"
14th Murray's Jat Lancers (Risaldar Major), c. 1909, by AC Lovett (1862–1919)
The list of Military castes cited in the 1891 census general report.

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:[21][22]

Communities that were at various times classified as martial races include:

Post-colonial period


India was quick to formally disclaim the martial races theory after gaining independence. The largest single source of recruitment for the British Indian Army had come from Punjab, with Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims particularly preferred, with the result that at independence over 90% of the new Indian Armed Forces' senior officers came from East Punjab, and were Punjabi Sikhs despite the fact that it made up just 5% of the new country's population.[38] Recognizing the destabilising potential of an unrepresentative armed forces, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru soon urged the Commander-in-Chief, India and Defence Secretary to undertake "large scale reform to the armed forces”.[39]

However, while most caste or tribal bars on recruitment were lifted, recruitment in regions populated by the former "martial races" was progressively intensified, with the result that by the beginning of the 1970s, India had more than doubled the number of "martial class" units. The Punjab Regiment, which recruits mainly Sikhs and Dogras, had gone from five to 29 battalions since independence, while the Rajputana Rifles, which is mainly composed of Jats and Rajputs, increased from six to 21 battalions over the same time period.[39] The three states that comprised the former East PunjabHaryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab—remain substantially over-represented in the contemporary Indian Armed Forces. In 1984, Haryana, which accounted for 2.2% of India's population, accounted for 7.82% of the armed forces' headcount; the figures for Himachal Pradesh were 0.6% of the population, and 4.68% of the armed forces, and for Punjab, 2.4% of the population and 40% of the armed forces.[40] This was before 1984 and since then the Punjabi people more specifically the Sikhs had left the army and waged a war on the Indian state while accounting for 2.4% of the population they currently are 12.6% of the Armed forces, the decrease of their participation in the army due to political reasons.

Explicit ethnic- or caste-based requirements have nevertheless persisted amongst some military formations. The most notable instance is the President's Bodyguard, the most senior and arguably the most prestigious unit of the Indian Army, which recruits exclusively from Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs in equal proportion. The Indian government has defended what it terms as "class composition" restrictions on the grounds of the "functional requirements" of the ceremonial detachment, namely its "ceremonial duties [which] demand common height, built, appearance and dress for reason of pomp and projection".[41]


At independence, the new Pakistan Armed Forces likewise reflected the institutional legacy of the "martial races" theory, although it was no longer formally applied there as well. The British preference of Punjabis, combined with the fact that Bengalis (who were the single largest group in the new nation) had been disfavored ever since the Revolt of 1857, led to an even more ethnically lopsided army corps than in India. At the Pakistan Army's establishment in 1947, Punjab, with 25% of the new nation's population, accounted for 72% of the Army's headcount, while East Bengal, with 55% of the total population, was virtually unrepresented. In the Armoured Corps, there was not a single Muslim member from Sindh, Balochistan or Bengal, which together comprised 70% of Pakistan's total population.[11]

This imbalance created tensions, particularly amongst the Bengalis of East Pakistan, who felt humiliated by the continued belief in the theory which continued to hold sway in West Pakistan, that they were not 'martially inclined' compared to the Punjabis and Pashtuns.[42] 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".[43] As a result, in 1955, out of the Pakistan Army's 908-strong officer corps, 894 hailed from West Pakistan and a mere 14 from East Pakistan. Thus, following the coup d'état of 1958, the exclusion of East Pakistani Bengalis from military leadership translated into their exclusion from the nation's political leadership. This deepened the alienation of East Pakistanis from the Pakistani government, which would eventually lead to the independence of Bangladesh.[39]

Furthermore, it has been alleged that the continued influence of the theory among the command of the Pakistan Armed Forces, whose rank and file had largely drawn from the martial races, contributed to an otherwise unjustified confidence that they would easily defeat India in a war, especially prior to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.[44][45] Based on this belief in martial supremacy[46][47][48] numerical superiority of the foe could be overcome.[49] 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 Bengali Rebel Forces based on the theory alone.[50] 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.".[49]

In contemporary Pakistan, army recruitment still reflects the biases of "martial races" theory, with a considerable over-representation of ethnic Pashtuns and Punjabis, particularly from the Salt Range, and under-representation of Balochis and Sindhis.[11] In the past few decades there have been some efforts to rectify these imbalances and make the Armed Forces more representative, in part by relaxing recruitment standards in Sindh and Balochistan.[11] In 2007 a report published by the Inter-Services Public Relations claimed success bringing the army's composition closer to national demographics; the proportion of Punjabis in the army had fallen from 71% in 2001 to 57% in 2007, and was expected to reach 54% by 2011.[needs update] In turn, the proportion of Sindhis was expected to increase from 15% to 17%, and Balochis from 3.2% in 2007 to 4% in 2011. The report also projected an increase in the soldiers from Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan from 0% to 9% by 2011.[11] However, noting that, for instance, a disproportionately large share of new recruits from Sindh are ethnic Pathans (Pashtuns) rather than Sindhis, critics have alleged that such figures, in measuring provincial origin rather than ethnicity per se, mask continued biases in recruiting.[11]

See also


  1. ^ Rand, Gavin (March 2006). "Martial Races and Imperial Subjects: Violence and Governance in Colonial India 1857–1914". European Review of History. 13 (1). Routledge: 1–20. doi:10.1080/13507480600586726. S2CID 144987021.
  2. ^ a b Omar Khalidi (2003). Khaki and the Ethnic Violence in India: Army, Police, and Paramilitary Forces During Communal Riots. Three Essays Collective. p. 5. ISBN 9788188789092. Apart from their physique, the martial races were regarded as politically subservient or docile to authority
  3. ^ Greenhut, Jeffrey (1983) The Imperial Reserve: the Indian Corps on the Western Front, 1914–15. In: The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, October 1983.
  4. ^ Amiya K. Samanta (2000). Gorkhaland Movement: A Study in Ethnic Separatism. APH Publishing. pp. 26–. ISBN 978-81-7648-166-3. Dr . Jeffrey Greenhut has observed that " 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. Besides their mercenary spirit was primarily due to their lack of nationalism.
  5. ^ Streets, Heather (2004). Martial Races: The military, race and masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-6962-8. Retrieved 20 October 2010.
  6. ^ Das, Santanu (2010). "India, empire and First World War writing". In Boehmer, Elleke; Chaudhuri, Rosinka (eds.). The Indian Postcolonial: A Critical Reader. Routledge. p. 301. ISBN 978-1-13681-957-5.
  7. ^ Gajendra Singh (16 January 2014). The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy. A&C Black. pp. 29–. ISBN 978-1-78093-820-2.
  8. ^ a b MacMunn, George Fletcher (1979). The Martial Races of India. Mittal Publications.
  9. ^ YADAV, ATUL (22 January 2022). Valour Unlimited : Haryana and the Indian Armed Forces (1914-2000). K.K. Publications.
  10. ^ "No More Class Composition in Indian Army" (PDF). Press Information Bureau of India - Archive. 1 February 1949. Retrieved 16 February 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Lakshmi, V. Vidya (1 June 2016). "Pakistan Army: Martial Race or National Army?". Mantraya. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  12. ^ a b Dr. Omar Khalidi. "Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army: The Contrasting Cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and Others". Retrieved 26 June 2023.Archived 20 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Greenhut, Jeffrey "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.
  14. ^ MacMunn, G. F. (1911). The Armies of India; painted by Major A. C. Lovett. London: Adam & Charles Black.
  15. ^ Philippa Levine (2003). Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-94447-2. The Saturday review had made much the same argument a few years earlier in relation to the armies raised by Indian rulers in princely states. They lacked competent leadership and were uneven in quality. Commander in chief Roberts, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the martial race theory, though poorly of the native troops as a body. Many regarded such troops as childish and simple. The British, claims, David Omissi, believe martial Indians to be stupid. Certainly, the policy of recruiting among those without access to much education gave the British more semblance of control over their recruits. [...]Garnet Wolseley, one of Britain's most admired late nineteenth-century soldiers, published a damning essay on "The negro as soldier" in 1888, and though his focus was on the African command with which he was most familiar, his dismissive comments are typical of those used against nonwhite soldiers more broadly. While "the Savage" lacked intelligence, was riddled with disease, and enjoyed human suffering, the Anglo-Saxon craved "manly sports" that had developed in him a "bodily strength" unmatched by any other nation.
  16. ^ Country Data Archived 14 June 2017 at the Wayback Machine – Based on the Country Studies Series by Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.
  17. ^ Bose, Mihir. The Magic of Indian Cricket: Cricket and Society in India; p. 25.
  18. ^ "Pakistan - THE BRITISH RAJ". Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  19. ^ Book review of Martial Races: The military, race and masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 By Heather Streets Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine in The Telegraph.
  20. ^ SHULTZ, RICHARD H.; DEW, ANDREA J. (2006). Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat. Columbia University Press. p. 47. ISBN 9780231503426. JSTOR 10.7312/shul12982.
  21. ^ Mazumder, Rajit K. (2003). The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab. Orient Longman. p. 105. ISBN 9788178240596.
  22. ^ MacMunn, George Fletcher (1979). The Martial Races of India. Mittal Publications.
  23. ^ Singh, Gajendra (16 January 2014). The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy. A&C Black. ISBN 978-1-78093-820-2.
  24. ^ Toland, Judith D. (28 July 2017). Ethnicity and the State. Routledge. ISBN 9781351294584.
  25. ^ Shukla, S. P. (1985). India's freedom struggle and the role of Haryana. Internet Archive. New Delhi : Criterion Publications : Distributed by Deep & Deep Publications.
  26. ^ Kapur, Manohar Lal (1980). History of Jammu and Kashmir State: The making of the State. India: Kashmir History Publications. p. 51.
  27. ^ Snedden, Christopher (2015). "Jammu and Jammutis". Understanding Kashmir and Kashmiris. HarperCollins India. ISBN 9781849043427.
  28. ^ Malik, Iffat (2002), "Jammu Province", Kashmir: Ethnic Conflict International Dispute, Oxford University Press, p. 62, ISBN 978-0-19-579622-3
  29. ^ Roy, Kaushik (2004). India's Historic Battles: From Alexander the Great to Kargil. Orient Blackswan. ISBN 9788178241098.
  30. ^ Mazumder, Rajit K. (2003). The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab. Orient Longman. p. 99. ISBN 9788178240596.
  31. ^ Historical Records of the XIII Madras Infantry. W. Thacker. 1898. p. 191. …Coorg for the purpose of trying to induce Coorgs and Gaudas to take service, but, after working the whole of Coorg, one recruit only, a Gauda, was obtained . According to the report of the native officer in command of the party, the inhabitants of Coorg, although a warlike race, are much…
  32. ^ Surridge, Keith (2007). "Martial Races: the Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 (review)". Journal of Victorian Culture. 12 (1). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 146–150. doi:10.1353/jvc.2007.0017. ISSN 1355-5502. S2CID 162319158.
  33. ^ gokhale, namita (1998). mountain echoes a reminiscense of kumaoni women. Roli pvt ltd. ISBN 9788174360403.
  34. ^ a b c Martial races of undivided India. Gyan Publishing House. 2009. ISBN 9788178357751.
  35. ^ 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."
  36. ^ Singh, Khushwant (2003). The End of India. Penguin. p. 98. ISBN 978-0143029946. Punjabi Mussalmans and Khalsa Sikhs were declared 'martial races' for recruitment to the army or the police; only one small Hindu caste, the Mohyal Brahmins, qualified as martial.
  37. ^ Hartmann, Paul; Patil, B. R.; Dighe, Anita (1989). The Mass Media and Village Life: An Indian Study. Sage Publications. p. 224. ISBN 0-8039-9581-4.
  38. ^ Wilkinson, Steven I. (2015). Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674967007.
  39. ^ a b c Guruswamy, Menaka (16 July 2016). "Why the Indian army needs to abandon the colonial concept of 'martial races'". The Scroll. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  40. ^ Khalidi, Omar (2001). "Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army: The Contrasting Cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and Others". Pacific Affairs. 74 (4): 529–552. doi:10.2307/3557805. JSTOR 3557805. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  41. ^ Ahsan, Sofi (18 July 2019). "President's bodyguards: Govt defends recruitment process, says it's based on 'functional requirements'". Indian Express. Retrieved 25 August 2021.
  42. ^ "Library of Congress studies". Archived from the original on 5 July 2019. Retrieved 7 November 2006.
  43. ^ Rizvi, Hasan-Askari (September 2000). Military, State and Society in Pakistan. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 128. ISBN 0-312-23193-8.
  44. ^ 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."
  45. ^ United States Library of Congress Country Studies Archived 19 July 2012 at "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'."
  46. ^ Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 Archived 9 May 2017 at the Wayback Machine.
  47. ^ "End-game?" By Ardeshir Cowasjee Archived 23 October 2010 at the Wayback Machine – 18 July 1999, Dawn.
  48. ^ India 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.'"
  49. ^ a b The Idea of Pakistan Stephen P. Cohen Published: Brookings Institution Press 2004 ISBN 0-8157-1502-1 pp. 103–104.
  50. ^ "Pakistan's Defence Journal". Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 29 February 2008.

Further reading

  • Cohen, Stephen P. (May 1969). "The Untouchable Soldier: Caste, Politics, and the Indian Army". The Journal of Asian Studies. 28 (3): 453–468. doi:10.1017/s0021911800092779. JSTOR 2943173. (subscription required)
  • Cohen, Stephen P. (1971). The Indian Army. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Chowdhry, Prem (May 2013). "Militarized Masculinities: Shaped and Reshaped in Colonial South-East Punjab". Modern Asian Studies. 47 (3): 713–750. doi:10.1017/S0026749X11000539. JSTOR 24494165. S2CID 145147406.