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What is meant by ‘Class’?

This is difficult to define but essentially was used by British authorities in India to define those they considered suitable for recruitment into the Indian Army.  

The majority of regiments and battalions of the Indian Army were composed of a mixture of different ‘classes’ and as noted in the Willcox Report, the problem of class composition was the most difficult and complicated of any connected with the Indian Army.  

The term “class”, as used technically by the Indian Army since the third quarter of the last century, means a type of Indian recognised as distinct from others by the Army authorities for purposes of recruitment and organisation.  The basis of the distinction may be differences of race, language, religion, caste, domicile or any two or more of these…..The term “class” is thus not one which has any ethnographical precision: it is fluid and inexact, and represents the results of practical experience in recruiting and organizing Indian manpower rather than of scientific study…..

Within infantry regiments a class company system was adopted so that all those from one particular class were grouped together in a single company but, in most cases, the overall composition of a battalion was of a mixed class basis, with a predominance of one class or another varying from regiment to regiment. 1st Punjab Regiment, for example, numbered half of its manpower as Muslims, with Sikhs forming 1/7th, Rajputs 2/7ths and Jats 1/14th to make up the balance.  2nd Punjab Regiment also numbered half its strength as Muslims with 1/5th being non-Jat Sikhs, 1/10th Ahirs, 1/10th Dogra Rajputs and 1/10th Punjabi Hindus. 

Despite these differences the British Indian Army was secular in nature and those from different religions and classes served and fought shoulder to shoulder with men from other communities.  This professionalism was widely respected by others alongside whom they served and, as one British soldier noted in a letter to the editor of the USI Journal in 1946, “Religious sects and parties may quarrel, but the sepoy has shown that he can sink his differences and fight as an Indian for India.”  Urdu was the lingua franca of the Indian Army since it was a language that could be used as a means of written communication between the British officers and the sepoys. 

As World War I dragged on so the recruitment had to be opened to other areas and classes so that, by the end of the war, the Indian Army consisted of some 1.4 million men drawn from across the sub-continent.  The semi-autonomous Indian Princely States contributed a further 22,000.  In addition to these troops, Indians were recruited into the French Army from the French Indian colonies of Pondicherry and Chandernagore, while others from the Indian diaspora who had settled in the Dominions or other colonies joined their local forces.  A large number of Indian seamen and lascars served on board ships of the Royal Indian Marine and the Royal Navy.  An even larger number, totalling some 40,000 Indian labourers, porters and grass cutters, drawn largely from the remote frontier areas of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, served in the Indian Labour Corps, Porter Corps and Syce Companies in many of the theatres of war, often facing equally hazardous conditions as those of their combatant colleagues. 

Problems of recruitment and training identified during the war were addressed once it was over, but a pressing need for financial savings led to a complete reorganisation of the army, including a significant reduction in the number of combatant troops.  This led to a re-introduction of the earlier ‘martial races’ policy behind recruitment.  Infantry battalions (except Gurkhas) and pioneers were organised into groups of six, one of which became the training battalion for the other five and the class composition of all battalions in a group was made identical. 


At the time of the outbreak of World War 2 there were no all-Muslim regiments or battalions, though that had not always been the case.  The 33rd (Punjabi Mahomedan) Regiment of Bengal Infantry was formed in 1890, tracing its antecedents back to 1857 and the Allahabad Levy.  In 1901 two companies of Jat Sikhs were introduced and the regiment changed its name to 33rd Punjab Infantry.  It later became 3rd Battalion, 16th Punjab Regiment and on independence was allocated to Pakistan.  

There were single-class regiments drawn from other populations.  As well as the Gurkhas, which had always been single-class battalions, the new single-class battalions were formed during World War I from among Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Mazhbi Sikhs and Jat Sikhs.  During World War 2 recruitment was opened up to other classes and battalions were formed from among Assamese, Biharis, Mahars, Chamars, Lingayats and Coorgs. Some of these battalions included Muslims in their number, others did not. One completely Muslim battalion was raised – 1st Afridi Battalion.  


   Willcox, Reorganization of the Army, paragraph 710, p.208


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