Martial race

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. However, the martial races were also considered politically subservient, intellectually inferior, lacking the initiative or leadership qualities to command large military formations. 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][3]

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

According to modern historian Jeffrey Greenhunt 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/her), as these groups lacked nationalism as a trait.[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 favored 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] Rural Brahmins were described as 'the oldest martial community', and only the Brahmins solely in agricultural vocation were seen fit to be recruited,[7] in the past having two of the oldest British Indian regiments, the 1st Brahmans and 3rd Brahmans.

Following Indian independence, the Indian government in February 1949 abolished the official application of "martial race" principles with regard to military recruitment.[8]


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.[9] The doctrine of 'martial races' postulated that the qualities that make a useful soldier are inherited and that the rest of most Indians, particularly mainstream Hindus, did not have the requisite traits that would make them warriors.[10]

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".[11] 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 historian 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.". According to Amiya Samanta, the mercenery spirit was because the martial race recruits lacked nationalism as a trait.[12][4]

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.[3] They were also regarded as politically subservient or docile to authority.[2][13] 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.[14] 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'.[15] 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".[16]

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 Rajputs, Jats, Pashtuns, Punjabis, 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19][full citation needed]

Tribes and groups designated as martial racesEdit

In British colonial timesEdit

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)

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:[20]

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

By the Pakistani militaryEdit

Though seldom used in today's context, it has been alleged that the 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.[33][34] Based on this belief in martial supremacy.[35][36][37] and thus numerical superiority of the foe could be overcome.[38]

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.[39] 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".[40]

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.[41] 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.".[38]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Rand, Gavin (March 2006). "Martial Races and Imperial Subjects: Violence and Governance in Colonial India 1857–1914". European Review of History. Routledge. 13 (1): 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. Apart from their physique , the martial races were regarded as politically subservient or docile to authority
  3. ^ a b 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 agrument a few years earlier in relation to the armies raised by Indian rulers in princely states. They lacked compenent 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 Arican 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 Ango-Saxon craved "manly sports" that had developed in him a "bodily strength" unmatched by any other nation.
  4. ^ a b Amiya K. Samanta (2000). Gorkhaland Movement: A Study in Ethnic Separatism. APH Publishing. pp. 26–. ISBN 978-81-7648-166-3. Dr . Jeffrey Greenhunt 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. ^ "No More Class Composition in Indian Army" (PDF). Press Information Bureau of India - Archive. 1 February 1949. Retrieved 16 February 2020.
  9. ^ Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army; by Dr. Omar Khalidi. Archived 20 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ MacMunn, G. F. (1911). The Armies of India; painted by Major A. C. Lovett. London: Adam & Charles Black.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ "Ethnic Group Recruitment in the Indian Army: The Contrasting Cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and Others by Omar Khalidi". Archived from the original on 20 April 2012. Retrieved 4 September 2017.
  14. ^ Ethnic group recruitment in the Indian army: The contrasting cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and others by Omar Khalidi.
  15. ^ Country Data – Based on the Country Studies Series by Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.
  16. ^ Bose, Mihir. The Magic of Indian Cricket: Cricket and Society in India; p. 25.
  17. ^ Country Studies: PakistanLibrary of Congress.
  18. ^ Book review of Martial Races: The military, race and masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 By Heather Streets in The Telegraph.
  19. ^ Shultz, Richard; Dew, Andrea ( -?- ). Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat; p. 47).
  20. ^ Mazumder, Rajit K. (2003). The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab. Orient Longman. p. 105. ISBN 9788178240596.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Mazumder, Rajit K. (2003). The Indian Army and the Making of Punjab. Orient Longman. p. 99. ISBN 9788178240596.
  23. ^ Surridge, Keith (2007). "Martial Races: the Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857–1914 (review)". Journal of Victorian Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 12 (1): 146–150. doi:10.1353/jvc.2007.0017. ISSN 1355-5502. S2CID 162319158.
  24. ^ gokhale, namita (1998). mountain echoes a reminiscense of kumaoni women. Roli pvt ltd. ISBN 9788174360403.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ 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."
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ Benjamin B. Cohen (2002). Hindu rulers in a Muslim state L: Hyderabad, 1850–1949. University of Wisconsin–Madison. p. 78
  33. ^ 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."
  34. ^ 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'."
  35. ^ Indo-Pakistan War of 1965.
  36. ^ "End-game?" By Ardeshir Cowasjee – 18 July 1999, Dawn.
  37. ^ 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.'"
  38. ^ a b The Idea of Pakistan By Stephen P. Cohen Published by Brookings Institution Press, 2004 ISBN 0-8157-1502-1 pp. 103–104.
  39. ^ Library of Congress studies.
  40. ^ Rizvi, Hasan-Askari (September 2000). Military, State and Society in Pakistan. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 128. ISBN 0-312-23193-8.
  41. ^ Pakistan's Defence Journal.

Further readingEdit

  • 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.