The Mahar Movement's Military Component
Richard B. White
Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, is famous for being "the most highly educated Untouchable in India." His education, encouraged and financed largely by the Gaikwad of Baroda, led to his role as the Untouchable's chief spokesman, the founder of a political party for Untouchables, and the moving spirit behind organizations, schools, and colleges established for their uplift. One of Ambedkar's final acts was the initiation of a Buddhist conversion movement that ultimately attracted more than 3 million Untouchable adherents.
This part of Ambedkar's story is well-known. However, his family's military service in the British Raj is not widely acknowledged for creating an environment that laid the foundation for his later success. Eleanor Zelliot, an expert on Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar movement, maintains, "[T]he hundred year period of Mahar recruitment into British armies may well have been the single most important factor, aside from economic reasons, in producing the Mahar movement." This article examines the importance of military service in improving the social status of Ambedkar's caste, the Mahars of Maharashtra. The focus is on their relationship with the British.
The Mahars benefited from their participation in the British Army in a number of ways. First, military service became "a significant part of caste élan and mythology." The first section provides the historical evidence they use to establish their credentials as a caste with martial traditions. The paper's second section details the advantages, especially education, that accrued from military service and discusses their access to the government that otherwise was unavailable to Untouchables. The final section discusses the British decision to recruit only "martial races," in which the Mahars were not included, for the British Indian Army and the Mahars' efforts to gain reinstatement in the Army. The article does not focus exclusively on Dr. Ambedkar, but uses him as a point of reference for many of the examples given.
Early Military Participation
Eleanor Zelliot explains that the British gave Mahars the opportunity to seek different occupations from their traditional role as a village servant. She explains that before the arrival of the British,
Military service provided Mahars with the opportunity to move beyond their traditional social position in the village. In fact, the Mahar tradition of being in armies precedes the British Raj.
The recorded history of the Mahars' military achievements dates back to Shivaji's Army in the 1600s. Cynthia Enloe, a noted sociologist who has written extensively on ethnic-military relationships, states, "The best of all militaries in the eyes of a state elite is one in which the most competent soldiers are also the most politically reliable, because they have the greatest stake in the continuation of the current system." The Mahars met this condition according to descriptions of their loyalty. Colonel V. Longer, author of Forefront Forever: The History of the Mahar Regiment, states:
This sense of loyalty and trustworthiness led Shivaji to include Mahars as a vital component of his army.
Shivaji, leader of the Maratha nation, fought for a Hindu empire, but using Untouchables did not bother him. He "found the Mahars useful, for the wily Maratha chief realized that the best way of obtaining the maximum results was to mix up various castes in his garrison forces." He used the Mahars "to watch the jungles at the foot of the hill forts, act as scouts and [they] kept the forts supplied with wood and fodder." This was the first exposure of the Mahars to an organized army that provided its soldiers with steady pay and benefits. After Shivaji's death, Mahar units continued to serve his descendants throughout the 1700s. Their experience with Shivaji and others encouraged them to seek similar employment as sepoys of the British East India Company.
Ardythe Basham, in her detailed examination of the Mahars and the military, found the perceived early martial history to be an important part of Mahar identity. She concludes, "Whether or not these incidents are historically true, they are widely accepted by the Mahars as part of their tradition, and now form part of the official history of [today's] Mahar Regiment." The Mahars have often used this martial identity, rooted in the 1600s, to legitimate their continued presence in the military.
Mahars began their service with the British in the 1750s. Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on the Indian Army, discusses the importance of Mahars in the Bombay Army in his seminal work, The Indian Army: Contribution to the Development of a Nation. He writes that Mahars were
In addition to the size of the Mahar contingent, they were also praised for their conduct as soldiers. The Mahars rewarded the British with the same loyalty that Shivaji had enjoyed.
The Bombay Army fought in several battles, and in most, the Mahars were recognized for their skills. Longer proclaims:
The recorded history of their exploits, especially prior to the mutiny of 1857, supports this effusive adoration. Basham located evidence of Mahar participation in the Second and "Third Anglo-Maratha War, the Second Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Afghan War." The Mahars' exploits in these conflicts form an important part of their military lore.
The Mahar participation in the battle of Koregaon on 1 January 1818 is the most famous, and also the best documented, action involving Mahar soldiers. This battle gave the British the advantage in the Third Anglo-Maratha War. The successful defense of Koregaon by
Mahars dominated Staunton's unit. The Peshwa's troops inexplicably withdrew that evening, despite their overwhelming numbers, giving the British an important victory. The men of the 2/1st Regiment Bombay Native Infantry, including many Mahars, who fought in this battle, were honored for their bravery. The official report to the British Resident at Poona recalls the "heroic valour and enduring fortitude" of the soldiers, the "disciplined intrepidity" and "devoted courage and admirable consistency" of their actions. Further, the action is commemorated by a monument, with the names of twenty-two Mahars killed there, erected at the site of the battle and by a medal issued in 1851. Today, the monument still "serves as a focal point of Mahar heroism." Similar anecdotes are recorded in the written histories of the Mahar Regiment and Bombay Army. All demonstrate that most Mahars soldiers were dedicated and courageous.
In addition to Army units on land, the Mahars formed a vital component of the Bombay Army's Marine Battalion. This unit's history is well documented and provides numerous examples of Mahar actions, including several acts of bravery by Mahars in the battalion. In September 1810, during the Second Maratha War, several Mahars proved their loyalty when captured by the French Navy. The French tried to
The upshot was that they were very roughly treated and some were severely wounded. To the seventeen survivors who reached Bombay a special medal was given and of this number twelve were Mahars.
This is just one of many cases where Mahars distinguished themselves as a part of the Marine Battalion and is another part of the martial history that the Mahars used to legitimize their important role in the British Indian Army. But, in the wake of the 1857 mutiny and threats from Russia, the British reexamined their recruitment policies. The Mahars were a casualty of this new thinking.
The Mahars Delistment
Despite the Mahars' long martial history, the British ceased recruiting them in 1893. The Bombay and the other Presidency Armies were reevaluated following the 1857 mutiny. The Peel Commission first examined class composition of the armies in 1858. One report to the Commission "emphasized that `we cannot practically ignore it (the caste system), so long as the natives socially maintain it.'" This led to the discrimination against the Mahars and other low-caste groups as well as some Brahman castes which were considered unreliable.
General Lord Roberts, while not originating the concept of martial races, was instrumental in implementing a strategy of building "class regiments." Recruiting policies were rewritten, and the Bombay Army "was notified that the Mahars, together with a number of other classes of the Bombay Army, would no longer be recruited to the Army." Lord Roberts recorded his rational in his autobiography, Forty-One Years in India. He writes:
Roberts thought that the first step to making the Indian Army was "to substitute men of the more warlike and hardy races for the Hindustani sepoys of Bengal, the Tamils and Telagus [sic] of Madras, and the so-called Mahrattas [sic] of Bombay." He was convinced that
The Mahars believed that their martial history demonstrated their abilities as warriors, but the British had made their decision. Mahars could only enlist as bandsmen or clerks. This would not provide the same opportunities for promotion, and allow little change in their social status. As expected, the Mahars felt the British had betrayed them after over 100 years of loyal service to the British Raj.
Throughout India, there was controversy about which groups should remain in the Army. The Mahars had support from some British soldiers, including three commanders who recommended their continued service. The commander of the 2nd Grenadiers argued that
'the Parwari [Mahar] is of far better fighting material than the Deccani Mussulman," and suggested that the Marine Battalion might be made a class regiment of Parwaries. The commanding officer of the 9th Bombay Infantry thought that a regiment of Parwaries, especially from the Deccan, would "give a very good account of itself."
The Commanding officer of the 19th Bombay Infantry stated that:
However, their assistance was not enough to overcome the sentiments of Lord Roberts and other senior officers of the British Indian Army.
Longer provides an excellent commentary on the impact of the decision on the Mahars. He writes:
The Mahars would continue to fight for the right to re-enlist in the Indian Army. They were loath to lose the benefits that the military provided. Furthermore, the education provided to the soldiers had created an educated cadre that would transfer their skills into political action. However, there were few Mahars left in the Army by the beginning of World War I.
Benefits Of Military Service
Eleanor Zelliot notes that the "emergence of Mahar leaders and a new spirit of militancy in the 19th century was due in large measure to the influence of education acquired in the military." The result was that
The Mahars' ability to work among the British exposed them to Western ways, and helped them to realize that their status as Untouchables did not keep them from working in successful and satisfying occupations. They aggressively used the advantages provided by their relationship with the British.
Military service provided important benefits to its soldiers. The benefits include "pay and pensions, access to education and/or specialized training, preferential access to employment, enhanced social status, and personal satisfaction." For the Mahars, the access to education and increased social status was the most important benefits. The best example of their results was Dr. Ambedkar. Zelliot writes that Ambedkar's experiences were "[f]ree from the traditional village role, his early life was spent among educated ex-army men, imbued with the pride of soldiers and acquainted with a more sophisticated Hinduism than that found in the village." In fact, Ambedkar extends much of the credit for the start of the movement to improve the Untouchables' place in society to contact with the British Army. He maintained:
It is indisputable that this access to education was helpful to Ambedkar, and therefore, to all of India's Untouchable communities.
Ambedkar's family had extensive links to the military. Additionally, his mother's "father and her six uncles were all Subedar Majors in the Army," the highest rank that Indians could hold. Ambedkar's father also was a Subhedar Major and
Undoubtedly, the accomplishments of this family were exceptional. Nonetheless, the availability of education had a positive effect on all members of Mahars in the military, including women. Consequently, Basham concludes, "The loss of this education option with the loss of their right of enlistment was therefore a real blow, not merely the loss of a theoretical benefit which few actually received." The quality of life for soldiers and their families suffered because of the loss of educational opportunities available through participation in the military.
Mahars joined the military with the intent of improving their social status. They were successful in this regard. As Basham explains:
After growing up in this environment of equality it was a shock for the Untouchables to travel and live in situations away from the military cantonments.
Ambedkar's biographer, Dhananjay Keer, writes of young Ambedkar's shock the first time he travelled outside the military environment while he was in school. He and his brother were travelling to meet his father in a distant village. At the railway station, they hired a bullock cart to take them to the village, but
This was Ambedkar's first experience that forced him to confront his status as an Untouchable. Life in the military cantonment had sheltered him from the prejudice and discrimination for the early part of his life.
After retirement, there was a period of adjustment for Mahars who lived outside the cantonment. Basham concludes:
The important point is, even after retirement, Mahars with a military background still had access to the British government. The retired military officers were an effective lobby for Mahar rights.
Retired officers also created a group of political leaders with access to the Indian government. This was especially true near military cantonments in Poona, Satara and Ahmednagar. Basham relates an incident where Mahar children were not being offered equal educational opportunities. Local caste Hindus and low-level British education officials refused the Mahar demands for Mahar boys to be integrated into classes with caste-Hindu boys. The dispute was resolved in favor of the Mahars. Basham argues that this demonstrates
Clearly, the type of access available to the soldiers, active or retired, was unavailable to most Untouchables
All the benefits the Mahars received were the result of their ability to develop a link with the British. This helped them overcome the obstacles erected by the Hindu social system. Zelliot observes:
Such an exposure socialized them sufficiently early to the new political order so that when new opportunities and alternatives became available, they were found prepared to use them more effectively than those groups which did not have this opportunity. Following the delistment of 1893, the Mahars would need all the access and knowledge they had gained to overcome the impact of being refused service in the Army.
The Fight For Re-enlistment
The Mahars did not give up their positions in the Army easily. The British decision of Mahar "[d]elistment in 1893 had been a severe blow to them as a community, not only threatening their economic status, but also (in their view) giving official sanction to caste Hindu discrimination against them." Overcoming both of these threats was the focus of two different efforts to petition the Government of India to reconsider its decision between 1894 and the start of the first World War.
The Mahars used two different strategies to influence the government; with both they tried to regain enlistment privileges in the army and an improved social status. Zelliot maintains that these efforts "illustrate the importance of army service to the Mahars. This was clearly the beginning of their efforts to induce government to intervene on their behalf, and their questioning of their traditional inferior status." In both instances, the movement was led by educated, former military officers.
The first organized attempt was in April 1895. Some of the details of the petition drive presented by Zelliot and Basham are speculative. Basham, who has completed the most recent study, states it was originally presented to the Viceroy, but was later returned for resubmission through the Bombay Government. It appears that the petition was submitted by Gopal Baba Walangkar, a retired military officer, on behalf of the Anarya Doshpariharak Mandali, the non-Aryan committee for the rightings of wrongs, an Untouchable organization. Dr. Ambedkar, following the death of his father, found a copy of the petition in his papers. Ambedkar "believed that his father had obtained the assistance of Justice M. B. Ranade in preparing the petition." The petition compares Mahar actions to those of the higher castes and requests reinstatement in the military.
The petition's pleas were simple. The Mahars believed that, in 1859, the Government had declared that the castes who fought loyally for the British were to be given due preference for military enlistment. Therefore, they demanded:
The case they presented for reinstatement was more complicated than their demands. Much of their argument attempts to demonstrate that their identification as Untouchables was a mistake.
The 1895 petition argues that the Mahars as a group who are actually of the Kshatriya caste. This represents the Mahars attempt to change their position in the caste structure by "Sanskritization." The petition states:
It continues by attacking the legitimacy of the higher castes. It claims, "The so called high caste and pure people's ancestors were as degraded as our people and were used [sic] to eat flesh of cow and beef. They wrote their own religious scriptures." Finally, the petition provides a "creation myth" about the high castes. It maintains:
The document's tenor shows the importance of military service to the Mahars and the use of Sanskritization tactics to show they were at least equal to the alleged high castes.
This campaign was unsuccessful. The Mahars were unaware of the debate "over recruitment policy or the acceptance of Lord Roberts views on martial races" which was the prime component in the British decision. However, Basham shows "the government of India took the petition seriously enough to request information about the Koregaon monument from the government of Bombay (presumably to verify the petitioners' claims). Eighteen months after the initial submission of the petition, the Indian government replied that it was "unable to rescind the orders which have been issued regarding the castes to be admitted to the Bombay Army." Shortly after the turn of the century, a second attempt was organized.
The second major petition was submitted to the government three times between 1904 and 1910. The document's "signatories included forty-two military pensioners" including Dr. Ambedkar's father. Basham's research found that "[s]everal of the signatories had also written letters to newspapers or had signed at least one other petition, suggesting a long-term commitment and a willingness to agitate for change." This petition had a broader base of support than the one in 1895.
This campaign was more sophisticated than the first. The spokesman, Shivram Janba Kamble, spoke English (Walangkar could not). More importantly, the petition's "appeal for consideration was not on the basis of the Mahars' having been demoted from Kshatriyahood, but on the grounds of former service, English justice and human worth." This pragmatic approach attracted greater support than the earlier petition, and used arguments that were later refined by Dr. Ambedkar. In fact, Ambedkar took over leadership of the Mahars from Kamble.
The 1910 petition was more polite and less argumentative than the 1895 petition. The document states, "We do not aspire to high political privileges and positions, since we are not educationally qualified for them, but humbly seek employment in the lowest grades of the Public Service, in the ranks of Police Sepoys and of soldiers in the Indian Army." It continued:
Despite the reasoned arguments, this petition demands, like the first, were denied. The manpower demands of World War I had a greater effect, and beginning in 1914 Mahars, again, were recruited into the Army and given their own Regiment, the 111 Mahars. The Regiment's three battalions "were formed the toward the end of the war, but they did not see action and their martial qualities were untested." Shortly after the war, the Regiment was disbanded by the British "on the excuse of the economy."
More important, however, is that the petition drives provided an organization for Dr. Ambedkar to use after the war to improve the social status of Untouchables. Basham correctly concludes:
The long association with the military gave Mahars an issue to organize around and the movement then worked to achieve more substantial achievements than just military service.
The 120 years of service in the British military gave the Mahars excellent skills. Basham concludes:
This case study shows how military service has assisted the Mahars to fight the stigma of untouchability. Their positive experiences fighting with Shivaji encouraged them to seek similar opportunities from the British. It is clear, that in their service they received their most tangible benefits. Before delistment, Mahars in the Bombay Army received a steady wage, housing, and education. With this, many were able to retire with a pension, which, often, eliminated the need to return to the traditional Mahar occupations following their military service. These obvious benefits were eliminated following the 1893 decision.
However, military service still influenced Mahar life following delistment. As Basham argues:
Furthermore, the petition drives provided political organizations to press for overcoming the stigma of Untouchability. There were other benefits that were accrued, even if their requests for reinstatement were refused until the beginning of the war. Kamble's work in Poona that formed the base for Ambedkar's later political movements is the best example of this. Therefore, even after military service was taken away from the Mahars, the traditions and accrued benefits continued to be an advantage to this Untouchable community.
A Mahar Regiment was reformed in 1945 and has existed ever since. The ceremonial Colonel of the Regiment is K. V. Krishna Rao, former Chief-of-Staff of the Indian Army and current Governor of Jammu-Kashmir. The preface of the Regimental History states:
The Regiment has taken part in all of India's major military operations since 1947. Just as the Mahars have survived and prospered, so has the Mahars' military legacy.
Basham, Ardythe. "Army Service and Social Mobility: The Mahars of the Bombay Presidency, with Comparisons with the Bene Israel and Black Americans." Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, 1986.
Cohen, Stephen P. The Indian Army: Contribution to the Development of a Nation 2d ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
------. "The Untouchable Soldier: Caste, Politics, and the Indian Army." Journal of Asian Studies 28 (May 1969): 453- 68.
Enloe, Cynthia H. Ethnic Soldiers: State Security in Divided Societies. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Farwell, Byron. Armies of the Raj: From the Mutiny to Independence, 1858- 1947. New York: Norton, 1989.
Keer, Dhananjay. Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission 2d ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1964.
Longer, V. Forefront Forever: The History of the Mahar Regiment. Saugor, India: The Mahar Regimental Center, 1981.
MacMunn, George. The Martial Races of India. London: Sampson, Low, 1933; reprint, Quetta: Abid Bokhari, 1977.
Patwardhan, Sunanda. Change Among India's Harijans. Delhi: Orient Longman, 1973.
Roberts, Frederick S. Forty-One Years in India: From Subaltern to Commander-in-Chief. New York: Longman, Green and Company, 1898.
Thorat, S. P. P. The Regimental History of the Mahar MG Regiment. Dehra Dun: The Army Press, 1954.
Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India, 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Zelliot, Eleanor M. "Dr. Ambedkar and the Mahar Movement." Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1969.
------. "Gandhi and Ambedkar." In The Untouchables in Contemporary India, ed. J. Michael Mahar, 69-96. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1972.
------. "Learning the Use of Political Means: The Mahars of Maharashtra." In Caste in Indian Politics, ed. Rajni Kothari, 29-69. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1970.
This is article is from South Asia Graduate Research Journal