Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Myth of Martial Races

Though I've always been proud of the Sikh tradition in military service -- particularly in the First and Second World Wars -- the fact that the British Raj designated certain ethno-religious groups as martial races makes me uneasy. And recently I've been reading a book on the Gurkha regiments, (Byron Farwell's The Gurkhas), and after working through a number of chapters I'm ready to throw out the designation entirely.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Gurkhas (or Gorkhas) come from a region of Nepal west of Kathmandu, and have been actively recruited by the British for service as mercenaries since 1815. It so happened that the British discovered the Gurkhas' military aptitude after defeating them in a series of particularly tough battles -- just as they did with the Sikhs, the Marathas, and indeed, the Zulus (all of whom would be designated "martial races"; see the full list here). Often, troops from one recently conquered region would be instrumental in defeating the next group (the Gurkhas were deployed in the Anglo-Sikh Wars, for instance).

As a side-note, though most Gurkha regiments joined the Indian army at independence, the British did retain a small number of Gurkhas for the British Army after 1947 -- and they still actively recruit them today (on a fully voluntary basis, of course). Gurkhas were deployed in the Falklands' War, in Kosovo, and are now in Afghanistan. Retired Gurkhas are also probably going to be deployed to monitor the fragile peace agreement between the Maoists and the new government of Nepal. Joining the Gurkha regiments in the British Army is considered desirable, but it's a tough gig to get: one of the physical tests in order to be accepted involves running uphill for 40 minutes with a 70 pound bag of stones strapped to your back!

The author of the book on the Gurkhas is mainly a military historian, not an anthropologist, so it's probably too much to expect to ask him to deconstruct the idea of "martial races." But it's extremely frustrating that in episode after episode Farwell seems to reiterate a few straightforward stereotypes as explaining the Gurkhas' effectiveness in battle on behalf of the British: they are simple peasants, they are hardened by life in a mountainous region, and they have a strong sense of cultural identity. The same could be said of many other ethnic groups, most of whom were not designated "martial races." So why the Gurkhas?

It seems hard to escape the conclusion that "martial race" is a convenient term created by the British to continue military recruiting patterns favorable to the progress of imperial expansionism.

The authors of the Wikipedia entry on "martial races" have stated the problems with the term quite well:

Martial Race was a designation created by officials of British India. The British officials described these races as naturally warlike and aggressive in battle, and to possess qualities like courage, loyalty, self sufficiency, physical strength, resilience, orderliness, hard working, fighting tenacity and Military tactics. The British recruited heavily from these Martial Races for service in the colonial army. This doctrine of martial races postulated that the ability and desire of the soldier was inherited and that most Indians, with the exception of the specified castes, did not have the requisite genes that would make them warriors. Critics of this theory state that the Indian rebellion of 1857 may have played a role in reinforcing the British belief in Martial races. During this event some Indian troops (known as "Sepoys"), particularly in Bengal, mutinied, but the "loyal" Sikhs, Punjabis, Dogras, Gurkas, Garhwalis and Pakhtuns (Pathans) 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" Bengalis and high-caste Hindus who had sided with the rebel army during the war.



The geography and culture of these martial races had common marks, such as hilly and mountainous terrain, a basis as hunting or agricultural societies, and a history of conflict, whether internally or with external groups. A case in point are the Gurkhas, who challenged British imperial expansion and gained the respect of their enemies for their fighting prowess and tenacity, thus earning them their reputation and their continued employment in the British Army. Some authors like Heather Streets rebuff this Martial Races Ideology stating 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. The Martial Race theory has also been described as a clever British effort to divide and rule the people of India for their own political ends." (link)


The damning parallel between the groups that were loyal during the Mutiny and those who would be designated as "Martial Races" later seems hard to escape. Though I generally try and avoid paranoid speculation, the idea of "divide and rule" also seems to be relevant here: by keeping the various ethnic regiments of the Indian army divided along linguistic or ethnic lines, they prevented them from congealing along racial (as in, brown vs. white) ones.

For better or worse, groups once designated by the British as "martial races" still tend to carry that badge with pride. But it's a dubious source of honor, and also an extremely dubious way of asserting one's manhood & masculinity. (How much violence against women has been perpetrated in the service of the myth of Jat or Pathan/Pashtun martial masculinity?) I think it would be better if we just threw out all those old myths, spattered as they are with the blood of wars of subjugation.

24 comments:

tamasha said...

I commented on SM previously, but forgot to ask if you've seen the Sikh Art show at the Rubin in NYC? It's quite lovely if you're in the area in January.

Anonymous said...

A very very good post. Well researched and very informative. A worthy lesson in history. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Dear Amardip,

While I fully agree with your thesis that it is patently unfair to brand races as martial or non martial, it does coem with many practical military advantages. Primarily, it allows the army to perpetuate a myth of "martialness" in the jawans which makes them reluctant to do anything that will singe this epithet. This is a particularily handy psychological weapon in the hands of capable commander since it can be called upon to force the jawan in to making a sacrifice that he would otherwise be willing to make. Many battles have been won by the Indian Army solely on the basis of maintaing the "izzat" of the regiment. Secondly in a country as diverse as India, it becomes very difficult to provide facilities to jawans with different attitudes, food habits and cultural/linguistic backgrounds. thsi neccesitates the creation of community based regiments with similar cultural traits. Thirdly due to evoloution and socioeconomic factors some regions of the country on an average produce men with a stronger disposition (in terms of strength, tenacity etc) to the profession of arms. It would be foolhardy to not recruit people from other regions of the country with the same capabilities but it is just that these regions produce more such men on an average.

Lastly I could not understand why you are proud of the Sikh Martial Tradition in the world wars and before or after that?

Regards

Sunil Teluja.

mail to: sunil.teluja@gmail.com

Dev Kumar said...

The 'martial races' settled in urban areas prefer to send their sons abroad and those in the villages may have no choice but to encourage their sons to enlist. Is it any surprise that the Indian Army is short of 12000 officers today but there are stampedes when soldiers are recruited.

Dev Kumar said...

Another interesting aspect of the martial race theory is how the British had also created 'Dalit' regiments. The Mahar Regiment, for instance, was formed by recruiting men of the Mahar community of Marathwada. Dr B.R.Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, was the son of a Subedar Major of a Mahar Infantry Battalion. It is possible that his exposure to the army at a young age may have given him his vision. Similarly upper caste Sikhs are recruited into the Sikh regiment. Upper caste Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus dominate the Punjab Regiment and lower caste Dalit Sikhs are recruited into the Sikh Light Infantry. Before Independence there also existed a Chamar Regiment which was disbanded. Politicians like Ram Vilas Paswan have been asking for the government to set up a Dalit Regiment. But the Government is said to have taken a policy decision that no more Regiments associated with caste or community will be created.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion terming the Sikhs as a martial race is justified since the same is also confirmed y history. The Sikhs did indeed become martial in the face of Mughal attrocities. However, the same cannot be extended towards the Gurkhas since, unless I'm mistaken, they have historically not been known to be fighters. As you mentioned before, they are simply people hardened by life on the mountains.

Whether they really are a martial race or not, there is not doubt they have been instrumental for the British, not only in colonizing different parts of India, but even as recently as World War II. The Gurkhas are known to have fought hand in hand with Italian troops. The only British regiment which was able to hold the German forces was the Gurkha, and Hitler too once expressed his desire to acquire a Gurkha regiment with which he could capture all of Europe. It is also the Gurkhas who are to be mostly credited for fighting the Japanese in Asia. Based on this, I guess it would be somewhat correct to attribute soldier-like qualities to them. Why only them? I guess the Himalayan terrain is harsh enough to make them stronger than other groups from India.

I am not sure if the whole terming as martial race was specifically another 'divide and rule' strategy or not. The Bengalis, for example, have almost never been good fighters (they are attributed more with art and culture). It is mostly the North Indians who were the real fighting groups (which makes sense since they have historically faced the brunt of invasions into India) and I guess the British, in their own interest, did all they could to encourage them to enlist. Though groups such as the Marathas were also fierce fighters, it was more a result of good leadership than ingrained harshness and strength as in the case of the Sikhs or the Gurkhas (not very sure of this one though).

Kerim Friedman said...

The only thing I would add to this excellent post is the fact that for much of European history wars were fought by mercenary armies, such as the Swiss. The idea of a national army made up of citizen-soldiers is quite recent (and already seems to be falling by the wayside). In this sense, then, the concept of employing soldiers from "martial races" does have some earlier antecedents in European history, albeit without a fully developed concept of "race."

dave s. said...

These guys (and I found the link to this article at the blog Gene Expression) say:

"Genomic studies of human genetic variation are useful for investigating human evolutionary history, as well as for designing strategies for identifying disease-related genes. Despite its large population and its increasing complex genetic disease burden as a result of modernization, India has been excluded from most of the largest genomic surveys.

The authors performed an extensive investigation of Indian genetic diversity and population relationships, sampling 15 groups of India-born immigrants to the United States and genotyping each individual at 1,200 genetic markers genome-wide. Populations from India, and groups from South Asia more generally, form a genetic cluster, so that individuals placed within this cluster are more genetically similar to each other than to individuals outside the cluster. However, the amount of genetic differentiation among Indian populations is relatively small. The authors conclude that genetic variation in India is distinctive with respect to the rest of the world, but that the level of genetic divergence is smaller in Indians than might be expected for such a geographically and linguistically diverse group."

http://genetics.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.0020215

and this would suggest that the idea of a martial race, separate from other subcontinentals by genetics, doesn't work very well. Cultural differences making Gurkhas particularly good soldiers are much more plausible.

Bhasker said...

Before commenting anything on gurkhas, I think we should know about the nepalese war history first and, how she was expanding and how war between Nepal and British East India Company broke out. It's common everywhere to praise one's own breed as the bravest .......... but true bravery is to be praised by the enemy, which to my knowledge gurkhas are the only breed to receive the honor. First by british in the war against East India Company, then Napoleon and Hitler. Watch Kargil, it is mentioned in the movie too. And if you want to research, there are lots of resources on internet and they are not written by Gurkhas. And ask any army personals who have been across gurkhas, they can shed light on it too. I reckon they will praise Gurkhas too.

Bhasker said...

Before commenting anything on gurkhas, I think we should know about the nepalese war history first and, how she was expanding and how war between Nepal and British East India Company broke out. It's common everywhere to praise one's own breed as the bravest .......... but true bravery is to be praised by the enemy, which to my knowledge gurkhas are the only breed to receive the honor. First by british in the war against East India Company, then Napoleon and Hitler. Watch Kargil, it is mentioned in the movie too. And if you want to research, there are lots of resources on internet and they are not written by Gurkhas. And ask any army personals who have been across gurkhas, they can shed light on it too. I reckon they will praise Gurkhas too.

Anonymous said...

Sachin From Nepal

I must apprecieate the Writer/Researcher .. Good Work :)

Anonymous said...

The whole of the Punjab, from which most of the Pakistani Army is recruited, considers itself to be a 'Martial Race'- Jats, Warraich and the like.
What a joke!

Philip Bahadur Rai said...

I don't know why, whenever there is a discourse on martial races, the Gurkha word is flung high and heavy and flat to the ground. The Gurkhas are for most of the part a peace loving people but then the Gurkha's martial prowess is not a British product. In a brief span of 30 years (1790-1820),before coming in contact with the Britishers, the Gurkhas with a country of population of 25 lakhs, with an area of just over 54,000 square miles created an Empire of about 45,000 square miles and a population of 30 lakhs from which they generated revenue well over 8 lakhs. The conquered are included modern day Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
The synonym for Gurkha Soldiers in Gurkhali is 'Lahure'. After the Anglo Nepalese, a signifacnt number of Gurkha Commanders and soldiers refused to join the British rank and file. Instead they went on to Lahore to join Ranjot Singh's army in the fight against the moslem invaders of Afghanistan. One of the Gurkhali commanders of the Anglo Nepalese, Bal Bhadra fought to the last men
commanding the Nepali regiment of Ranjit Sigh in Yussufieji in Afghanistan in 1823. Even Ranjit Sigh himsel had confessed, my ablest men against the Afghans were the Gurkhas. In the Sino Indian war, the Gurkhas won a PVC. When other intelligent and educated regiments were running for safety the Gurkhas held their ground on many battle spots and fought to the last me. Not only did they fire against the enemy, they also fired at their own treacherous non Gurkha soldiers whoe were fleeing away. In the 20th and the 21st century the Gurkha is the most higly decorated soldier of the world. Barring the continent of Australia, he has fought in all the continents and the best part, these wars were never his. Sometimes it is for India and sometimes for Britain itself. And the first Gurkha V.C. was won by Kulbir Thapa, in 1916 at Manquissart, France not for killing but for saving fellow soldeirs. It should be remembered we as Gurkhas are partially happy when it is mentioned Bravest of the Brave but profoundly happy when MOST GENEROUS OF THE GENEROUS is added. The Gurkha will always stand out as the ultimate soldier because instinctively he follows Erwin Rommel's phrase Krig Ohne Hass - a war without malice. No matter what u say, we forgive you because we know we are brave. Nobody need tell us that

Anonymous said...

What difference does it make whether we are martial race or non-martial race? It was a term coined by British to exploit us for their own selflish wars in India and aboard.

MS13 said...

i liked bhaskhar's comment very much!

Anonymous said...

we nepali gurkhas will cut down anyone with our khukuri!
no doubt

Anonymous said...

Long live the gurkhas.

"jai mahakali, aayo gorkhali".
hail the gurkhas the bravest warriors.

i completely agree with what bhaskar has said.
"It's common everywhere to praise one's own breed as the bravest .......... but true bravery is to be praised by the enemy, which to my knowledge gurkhas are the only breed to receive the honor. First by british in the war against East India Company, then Napoleon and Hitler. Watch Kargil,"

S.T. MAGAR said...

listen up...........................join the army and show some bravery, you will be praised indeed.so did the gurkhas and so can everyone.british people did praise gurkhas for what they saw and realised. "martial race" is the title not inherited by gurkhas but honestly and bravely earned by THE GURKHAS

THAPA MAGAR

Anonymous said...

The "Martial Race" theory was propounded by the British because they wanted hardy, ill-educated "non-thinking" soldiers in their colonial (Indian) army who would blindly obey their British officers and even fire on their own countrymen without a word of protest. Educated and intelligent Indians who were capable of independent thought processes were designated as "Non-Martial" and as such were not recruited. The "Martial Race" theory therefore should not be taken seriously and even abandoned.

Anonymous said...

Gorkhas were not trained by british coz they have defeated them on their first attack. some cast in Gorkhas were of Kirat dynasty and in the history of Mahabharata these Kirats have defeated Arjun also. Yes they are very loyal and as soldiers no one has ever reached that state till date. Their contribution to India and Britain is incredible and many Britishers says in my next life i wud like to born as a son of gorkha and this is true. but in India these days they are neglected forgetting the blood they shed in Pak and china war.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of the so called Martial Races ............. we have one in south India - Kodagas or Coorgies! Has anyone heard about a martial race which never had it's own king. They were always ruled by Lingayat Kings. where was this martial race when Tipu ransacked Coorg in late 18th Century? This group was classified as a martial race only because of their loyalty to the British (mis)rule. Two chiefs of Indian Army are from this tribe. But, very few know that they made it to Army on a "reserved seat" which was granted to their community for helping the British suppress a freedom movement in Coorg. The classification was simple - those who questioned the British were non-martial races. Those who followed the British were martial races!

harindran tikka said...

the novel was so influencing that many not only historians but also the intellectuals of communist party too were misguided so much that in the books written by them , they mention this as the mass or people's revolt against the ruling class or marthanda varma.it also made people to think that nairs were the controlling the state affairs and all the powerful land lords or atleast all the powerful lords were nairs who used to keep a sur name as pillai.this also created a new story that nairs of travncore were against marthanda varma and as ruler he crushed them.this was really not the actual case.nor the nairs were anywhere near to be called powerful for they were so few in number in kerala and travncore.only after the formation nss many castes which were not actually considered nairs were included and thus the number of nairs have increased.earlier these castes were having (still now) seperate caste names and considered nairs to be so much lower to them that even touching them was not allowed.but they used to appoint nairs for their house hold works,but still they were kept aside.the water touched by a nair was not considered good to drink by them (because of the untouchablity practised at the time) doing so was punishable with bhrasht meaning throwing out from their caste and denying all the rights,which included social out casting.even today many castes which joined with nss(nair service society) consider themselves higher than nairs and dont like to got together with so called nairs, eventhough many times they dont use their old sub caste title but generally considered as nairs by others.marriages are not encouraged amoung them or they dont prefer to make an aliance from the nairs.pillais of trivandrum also are part of the nss ,they too are considered as nairs generally.but they use the surname as pillai and not nair.the caste name is vellala pillai.marriages doesnot occur between these castes.in southern districts nairs castes itself is considered as two types.one higher and other lower.generally speaking higher traditionally possess more lands.they generally distance away from the lower nairs.higher nairs generally doesnot support rss or hindu fundalmentalist organisations and movements.

santhi varma said...

Additions and method of changing caste of characters,and alloting caste historical person done by C.V.Raman was later criticized by many others later.but generally that critics literature is not popular among the masses.any way many persons before and after C.V.Raman had done the same thing .alloting castes to 18 siddhars of tamilnadu is one such example ,done by those who transilated their works to malyalayam.this has happened in recent past ,from 70's to till date.many who reads these works only were easily fall to belive that they belonged to that caste or at time of these historic perosns caste system existed and was strong as in later years.even now some new papers knowingly or unknowingly put caste names to persons when they write a feature about historic events.examples can be seen even now in 2012.

there are some works such as kerala mahathmyam,kerala charitham,kerala pazhama etc which claim to be history books.but actually these were written by bhrahmins of kerala during the second half of 19th century or after 1850s.in it many forged stories were written with characters taken from puranas ,ramayana and mahabharatha.the stories of parasurama one purana character throwing axe to sea,story of mahabali and vamana etc are wrtten in these books.no facts or actual history is dealt in these works.but it was claimed that it was written very very early.but it contains reference of british rule,cannons,rifles etc which shows that ,it was written after 19th century.the aim and claim of these works is that kerala is for bhrahmins or bhrahmins are only rigthful owners of kerala.for that parasurama story was forged ,donating of kerala by him to bhrahmins etc were written.ofcourse it was written by bhrahmins of kerala who were leading lasy or easy living in kerala during that period.so in that books they claimed kerala was for them only.

saint sri chatampi swamikal during the first half of 20th century wrote a book named prachena malayalam.in that he claims that he had found some reference in tamil books about nair caste orgin.but that books were not mentioned by him.he goes at length claiming that nairs were desecenders of snake worshipers or naga aradhars lived in kerala long ago.he also argued that these people were called nagas because of their method of worshiping snakes.the main claim of the book is that nairs were there in kerala from time immorial and from the date on which earth was formed and that the nairs were the only authorised owners of kerala or kerala belongs to nairs.its so sad thing that a person who was revered as an acomplished saint could't even rise from the caste thoughts accumulated in him from his childhood.

Shubhjit Majumder said...

Anonymous said...
In my opinion terming the Sikhs as a martial race is justified since the same is also confirmed y history. The Sikhs did indeed become martial in the face of Mughal attrocities. However, the same cannot be extended towards the Gurkhas since, unless I'm mistaken, they have historically not been known to be fighters. As you mentioned before, they are simply people hardened by life on the mountains.

Whether they really are a martial race or not, there is not doubt they have been instrumental for the British, not only in colonizing different parts of India, but even as recently as World War II. The Gurkhas are known to have fought hand in hand with Italian troops. The only British regiment which was able to hold the German forces was the Gurkha, and Hitler too once expressed his desire to acquire a Gurkha regiment with which he could capture all of Europe. It is also the Gurkhas who are to be mostly credited for fighting the Japanese in Asia. Based on this, I guess it would be somewhat correct to attribute soldier-like qualities to them. Why only them? I guess the Himalayan terrain is harsh enough to make them stronger than other groups from India.

I am not sure if the whole terming as martial race was specifically another 'divide and rule' strategy or not. The Bengalis, for example, have almost never been good fighters (they are attributed more with art and culture). It is mostly the North Indians who were the real fighting groups (which makes sense since they have historically faced the brunt of invasions into India) and I guess the British, in their own interest, did all they could to encourage them to enlist. Though groups such as the Marathas were also fierce fighters, it was more a result of good leadership than ingrained harshness and strength as in the case of the Sikhs or the Gurkhas (not very sure of this one though).


However my dear friend you have mentioned that sikh fought against mughals. I agree with your comment but they fought in 17th century when kingship was almost finished and where was punjabi or sikh till 17th century. Thousands of year they were ruled by hindus and then muslim. First time when they took sword that also with the help of hindu rajasthani,haryana and dalit people who were in there misls. Rajasthani hindu were there general and subedar as well read history. They were the people who were coward till 17th century and that time aurangazeb power was almost finised and he was ruling aurangabd that is in south. Gurkhas fought in every war that history says. If you talk about bengalis they are into art and culture now and before. Just go back couple of years back i think you only know history after 16th century. go to 5th century shashanka ruler of bengal. 7th to till 11th century pala dynasty ruler of bengal ruled all over bengal and northern india including u.p punjab, m.p, bihar and delhi.you will find pala scriptures in punjab. every has to give taxes to pala. the the sen dynasty ruled. Muslim couldnt rule bengal. bengali were buddhist then hindu and last muslim. british came ruled india mosthly freedom fighter were from bengal. showed courage and strength everytime in everyfield. marathas fought when shivaji came in 16th century