Native Indian Army

The western countries believe that Indian army became a professional army because of the British. This is wrong. Indians were past masters raising armies and having effective functional organizations since as early as the vedic times.

The origin of the British Indian Army and subsequently the army of independent India lies in the origins of the Presidency Armies, which preceded them. The first purely Indian troops employed by the British were watchmen employed in each of the Presidencies of the British East India Company to protect their trading stations. These were all placed in 1748 under one Commander-in-chief, Major-General Stringer Lawrence who is regarded as the "Father of the Indian Army".

From the mid-eighteenth century, the East India Company began to maintain armies at each of its three main stations, or Presidencies of British India, at Calcutta (Bengal), Madras and Bombay. The Bengal Army, Madras Army, and Bombay Army were quite distinct, each with its own Regiments and cadre of European officers. All three armies contained European regiments in which both the officers and men were Europeans, as well as a larger number of 'Native' regiments, in which the officers were Europeans and the other ranks were Indians. They included Artillery, Cavalry and Infantry regiments and historical sources refer to the 'Native Infantry' or 'N.I.'.

From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, the Crown began to dispatch regiments of the regular British Army to India, to reinforce the Company's armies. These troops were often referred to as 'H.M.'s Regiments' or 'Royal regiments'. By 1824, the size of the combined armies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay was about 200,000 and 16 European regiments. In 1844 the combined average strength of the three armies was 235,446 native and 14,584 European.

The sea played a vital role in colonial era because the European powers began to send their ships to India for trade. The ships of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England fought with each other on their way, in the high seas, more out of trade rivalry than any military significance. The British very cleverly and systematically overcame the French, Dutch and Portuguese to establish themselves to rule over India for almost 200 years.

The first factor was that, Great Britain had established a very strong navy and was considered a great naval power. It gave them the force and mobility to go to any part of the world and build their business. The second was the wealth of India and the desire and greed of the British to prosper at the cost of Indians. The third and the most important factor, which helped them to succeed, was that India was divided among small princely states and there was no single unifying ruler.

The Mughals in the North were a declining power and so were the Marathas in the South. The decision that the Englishmen took to recruit Indians in their force can be considered as the starting point for the development of the present day Indian Army. Obedience, hard work, patience, preparing them to work under any circumstances formed the basic ethos and life of an Army soldier.

Identification of warrior class among Indian Society

Can you imagine a person without physical or mental fitness serving in the military? No. The person has to be physically fit and should fulfill the criteria required by the services. Therefore, the British recruited heavily from what they called as the 'martial races' for service in the colonial army. The Marathas, Mysore army in the South and Bengalis in the East created maximum problems for the British. Also, the Rajputs, Jats and the Gurkhas were used to resist and fight with the Mughals and had the spirit of a warrior.

The British, therefore created a Martial race and named the Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs and Gurkhas as martial race communities. They did not include the South Indians and Bengalis. The British wanted to create a caste difference and recruit only those whom they considered as being loyal to the British Raj and the community.

'Martial race' comprised typically brave and well-built men who had been warriors traditionally suited to the soldiers. Men from these communities had developed qualities. The Bengal Army was among the first to come together to form a impressive unit, with recruits coming mostly from Awadh (present-day Uttar Pradesh). The Hindu upper-caste from the Bengal Native Army had a collective common interest. The Indian troops in the English East India Company's service were recruited as infantrymen and commanded only by the European officers.

The increase in the number of troops became essential between 1763 and 1805 and it is accounted that the Bengal army grew from 6,680 to 64,000 men, the Madras army from 9,000 to 64,000, and the Bombay army from 2,550 to 26,500.

Each Presidency army had a overall commands. For example, the officer who commanded the Bengal army was the commander in chief and so it was for other Presidency armies also. The recruitment of South Indians was required to defend the British Empire against the French and also essential support units such as Engineers, Artillery and cavalry were required. South Indians were recruited for such regiments. This system continued up to the 1857 mutiny. The East India Company with its native Indian army could not defeat the rebellion.

This prompted the Queen of England to establish British rule and have a proper army. Thereafter the British had a relook at their requirement of army and made a policy of recruiting soldiers from the Sikhs, Dogras, Gurkhas and select Muslim communities from Punjab and Baluchistan. These soldiers were also tested in many places including World War I and II.

The Gurkhas were also promised to be taken to England and serve the Queen later. That is why you have Gurkha regiments in today's British army. The British used the word 'Native' to describe Indians and hence we have the word Native Indian Army. The British used this term during the period of recruitment.

Rank Structure in the British Army in India

The rank structures are very much essential to have command and control in the units. Ranks are prestigious to the army. Just as in a factory we have the supervisor and manager, we have ranks in the army. The reasons for having ranks are:

  • Command and control during war & peace.
  • Better administration of Army.
  • Some ranks were created to act as a link between the British officers and the sepoys.

In the British Indian army, the term Sepoy was a designation given to the Indian soldier. They were from the local communities of the Bombay and Madras presidencies. The sepoy in the Bengal army was from high class Brahmin family.

The basic chain of command started with the European captain at the top, followed by subaltern, sergeant majors (also European), under whom were subedars, jamadars, and havildar-naiks (recruiting agents).

The sepoys (native soldiers) in each battalion were divided into ten companies that comprised one subedar, three jamadars, four naiks, two drummers, one trumpeter, and seventy sepoys. Earlier the subedar had commanded an independent company, now his company became one among nine or ten that made up a battalion.