On The Myth (and non-Myth) of Martial Races


One point I haven’t mentioned before is that the British Raj propounded the ‘martial races’ concept, which had a big impact on the Indian subcontinent, and which Pakistan continued to accept after independence. Technically the concept was abandoned in the 1970s within the Pakistan military but until just a couple years ago Pakistani society held the military as the highest ideal — and (alongside cricket stars) the ideal for the male. The fiercest of military men as the model for manhood followed the British colonizer’s dictum, which was dryly summarized by Dr. 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.
The ‘high’ culture of the Bengalis in East Pakistan, which placed great emphasis on the arts and intellectual pursuits, was intolerable to West Pakistan’s military class — and this was partly the reason for the horrific atrocities they carried out against the Bengalis, both Hindu and Muslim.

Amardeep Singh:

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?)


A quick glance at the composition of Indian Army Regiments shows that the Indian Army is still run on the “martial races” concept — in particular, the post-1857 interpretation. This designation was based on British perceptions of which communities were best able to bear arms and loyally serve the crown, and is related to their cultural stances on climate (hill-folk favored over the plains dwellers) as well as occupation (favoring sturdy independent peasants). Ultimately however, the British favored groups which stuck with them in the 1857 mutiny (Jats, Sikhs, Gurkhas) over those groups perceived to be disloyal (upper-castes, Bengalis, Tamils).
Over a third of the recruits in the Indian Army are recruited from the Jats, Rajputs, Gujjars, and Dogras of Haryana, Punjab, and Himanchal Pradesh — though these states comprise just over 5% of the national population (given the caste identities, the Army is really drawn from an even smaller subset of that group). That is, roughly as many infantry as fielded by the entire US Army are recruited from a group of castes among a cluster of states totalling 50 million in population. Many of the rest are similarly drawn on a narrow regional/caste basis.

“Ray,” Small Wars Journal:

The Pakistan Army has always been psyched to believe that “one Pakistani is equal to ten Indians”.
This has been repeatedly debunked in all the wars fought between India and Pakistan.
While the outcome of wars is debatable, 1971 and 1965’s Battle of Assal Uttar (the physical graveyard of Patton tanks which were superior to anything India had) gave Pakistan no leeway to cover up their inadequacy at combat unlike the fact wherein Pakistan’s Operation Grand Slam is not discussed in history, military or otherwise or for that matter, any other debacle, not even the 1971 fiasco of their own making (except in general vague and defensive terms)!!
That apart, Musharraf has a chip on his shoulder. He is a Mohajir and hence non martial as per the British classification. And yet he was the COAS. In addition, he pipped Khatak (a blue blooded Pathan and a martial race man) to the post of COAS. He also had a personal grievance to settle. Gen. Zia chose Gen. Musharraf (then a Brigadier) in 1987 to command a newly-raised Special Services Group (SSG) base at Khapalu in the Siachen area. To please Gen. Zia, Gen. Musharraf with his SSG commandos launched an attack on an Indian post at Bilfond La in September, 1987, and was beaten back.

“Red Rat,” Small Wars Journal:

Despite serving under the same basic TACOS as the Indian Battalions conditions of service were generally better in the British battalions and their take home pay was greater due to various allowances they received. Although poorly paid by British standards they were extremely well paid by Nepali standards.
The various Gurkha welfare organisations launched a campaign, adopted by Joanna Lumley (UK media star) for parity in Gurkha TACOS with British soldiers and the right to abode in the UK. This campaign was successful and had the precise effect that the UK Army suspected it would have:
Increased social problems in the UK as Gurkha families settle in the UK
Lessening of the inflow of capital into Nepal as Gurkhas choose to bring families into the UK and retired Gurkhas move to the UK rather then take their pensions and settle in Nepal.
Bringing Gurkha soldiers TACOS in line with UK soldiers has caused manning and career management issues leading to redundancies.
At a time of a shrinking Army it is hard to justify maintaining Gurkha battalions when we are losing British battalions; Gurkhas are no longer the cheaper option.
I have served with Gurkhas, they are great, but like all soldiers have their strengths and their weaknesses. I can amplify on any of the points above, but my feeling is that the change to the Gurkha system has severely threatened their long term viability in the British Army.

I am largely an Anglophile, but I don’t romanticize the Raj. Or maybe I do. Who ever knows with me? One day I think one thing, the next day I think another. The oral history in my family regarding the time of the “britishers” is uncomfortable to recount. Half-whispered and half-remembered family mythology as oral history: “She never went into that town by herself, Madhu. No one knew why. She never wanted to be around them alone.” What does this mean? Is it true; is it exaggerated; was it a small incident or something too horrible to imagine? But no-one knows or dwells on it. It’s the past and the past is over. The general feeling is, “why think about it?”

6 thoughts on “On The Myth (and non-Myth) of Martial Races”

  1. Nice quote, Lex :)

    (Thank you, internet helper, for fixing the formatting on my post. I swear, I was going to do it myself when I had time!!!! :))

    – Madhu

  2. Here’s another quote:

    The best fighting material undoubtedly comes from the Punjab and
    northern parts of Hindustan; whilst to the South the races are
    degenerate and show few martial traces. A previous history of rough
    times seems to explain the reason for the northern frontier races
    having developed into a hardy people with warlike instincts, or this
    may be due in part to a more rigorous climate and greater difficulty
    in earning a livelihood. I would classify the principal races in the
    Indian Cavalry in the following order for excellence :—

    Jat Sikhs, and others of the same religion.
    Frontier Pathans, Mooltanies. and Baloochies.
    Punjabi Mussalmans, Teewaunas, etc.
    Rangurs from Rhotuck.
    Mynpoori Chowhans.
    Rajpoots from Rajpootana.
    Jats, and a few other races of less note.

    Some excellent men are obtained from the Maharattas, Delhi Mussalmans,
    Brahmins, Poorbeas of sorts, and Dekkanis, but none of these races can
    be classed as a whole as furnishing good fighting material.

    The Goorkhas from Nepaul probably take the first place for excellence
    as Soldiers in the Indian Army, but their reputation has been gained
    in the Infantry, and they hold no place in the Cavalry.

    Second Prize Essay on the Organization and Employment of Native Cavalry by Capt. A. Masters, Journal of the United ServiceInstitution of India, Vol. XIX, No. 81 (1890).

  3. There’s no such things as martial races but there are definitely martial cultures. In fact, it is the normal pattern in human history that in polycultural societies that different subcultures/ethnic-groups will specialize and one of those specializations is military. You saw this in Rome, Ancient China, Ancient India, all the colonial European empires and America.

    I think the British were simply doing what empires have done for millennia i.e. hiring soldier from military specialist cultures that were previously marginalized. Throughout history, the best soldiers have come from mountain peoples or those who live in the saddle on the plains/deserts.

    These cultural specializations can echo for centuries after the conditions that originally evolved them have faded away. In America, something like two-thirds of all army Medal of Honor winners are of Scots-Irish descent. Germans are over represented in the officer ranks. Well into the 20th century the naval officer core was overwhelmingly of New England English stock. In fact, most countries fit this pattern. Even mono-cultures, you tend to find historically economically marginalized regions providing disproportionate numbers of soldiers.

    Therefore, I don’t find it odd at all that even in modern India and Pakistan that the same patterns of ethnic service remain. Individuals whose fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc where warriors just come equipped with a mental toolkit to be soldiers themselves.

    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.

    That is rather the perception in America today. It is the college educated who avoid military service and the uneducated, rednecks who seek it out. Little has changed. So, I think that Dr. Jeffrey Greenhut is wrong. The “uneducated and backward” peoples were exactly those most likely to either have military skills or to be highly motivated to obtain them. As people’s marginalized by the majority of Indian cultures, they had no particular loyalty them and were more loyal to the British. By contrast, the “intelligent and educated” most likely did not have martial skills and usually had other opportunities other than being lower-level soldiers in the British Army. They were also the people most likely to see themselves as India’s rightful ruling class and therefore more likely to challenge the British. Again, this is just the Imperial dynamic of seeking allies in the marginalized people of a region.

    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.

    I doubt the British designation actually means much. Prior to industrialization, the warriors was the masculine ideal in the vast majority of human cultures. All the more so in military specializing cultures.

    (How much violence against women has been perpetrated in the service of the myth of Jat or Pathan/Pashtun martial masculinity?)

    I don’t think there is any proven correlation between martial cultures and wife beating. There is probably an inverse correlation as military discipline focuses primarily on stopping the individual from fighting instead of instigating it. Many martial cultures enforce powerful codes of honor which would shame those who act rashly or against inferiors. All men everywhere are physically more powerful than women and in most cultures, men are more productive and therefore have economic dominance as well. That’s all it takes to provoke domestic abuse.

    The Pakistan Army has always been psyched to believe that “one Pakistani is equal to ten Indians”.

    The Imperial Japanese were taught the same thing. Armies use that ploy when they are out manned and/or outgunned. They pretty much have to in order to maintain morale especially if they have aggressive intent.

    I doubt Pakistan’s blunders can be traced to a practice of the British empire. They’re real problem is a lack of democracy and general internal cohesion. That reduces accountability and that shows up institutionally as poor training, bad logistics and inability to admit error or learn from mistakes. The Pakistani are doomed to lose any military conflict because their social/political/cultural system simply doesn’t provide the toolkit necessary to train, support and command a large modern military.

  4. “… there are martial cultures.” This is beyond any reasonable dispute. The British successfully ruled a gigantic territory and population with a tiny commitment of manpower. They did not have the luxury of indulging in mythical thinking. They were empiricists because they had to be. They used the poor and tough and rural groups as a club over the head over the head of the relatively richer and more sophisticated groups. For the former group British rule was a good deal, with prestige and income and a chance to gain glory and victory in war. For the latter it was an affront to their pride and an obstacle to their own chance to rule and exploit or plunder their neighbors as they had done for centuries, or to develop the country their own advantage rather than Britain’s. Further the smaller scale and more primitive conditions of warfare in the 19th C required troops to have a certain character. The mass warfare of the 20th C with it’s demand for many technically skilled troops undercut much of the rationale for limiting recruiting to the martial races. In fact, the Indian Army in WW2 was the largest all volunteer army in history, and the huge manloer demands opened up enlistment to many groups which were not considered to be “martial”. Of course, this also meant arming masses of people who were nit particularly loyal to British rule, which hastened its end. The British correctly decided that defeating Japanese imperialism was worth doing even though it accelerated the end if their own. As Shannon correctly notes, it is no surprise that the modern Indian Army still derives most of it’s troops from it’s traditional recruiting grounds, now that the era of mass mobilizations is over. This is true everywhere, very much including the USA.

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