A Short History of Untouchables in Indian Army and Role of Dr. Ambedkar

mahar regiment

(Note: This essay was written by Bhagwan Das in 2005 on my request. Actually Bhagwan Das proposed to write a book on Untouchables role in Indian Army and he had collected some material also but he could not. It was because Bhagwan Das himself had served in Royal Air Force as Radar Operator and was deployed on Burma border to face Japenese attack during Second Word War. He motivated the Dalit Youth to join army where there are lot of vacancies at officer level. Actually Dr. Ambedkar was also in favour of Dalits joining the army because it has played a very important role in awakening the Dalits.

 He also edited and published a small book under the name “Untouchable Soldier” which was M.A. assignment of Ardyth Basham, a Canadian scholar. This book gives details of Mazhbi and Mahar communities (Untouchable) who were recruited in the Army by the Britishers.  These still survive in the Indian army as Sikh Light Infantry (Sikh L.I.) and Mahar Regiments. I have translated “Untouchable Soldier) as “Achhoot Sainik” in Hindi and Dalit Today Prakshan, Lucknow is going to publish it soon. – S.R. Darapuri I.P.S.(Retd)

I am not going into the history of the development of armed forces in India. Perhaps in the initial stages members of the family fought for property, land etc. Later on the families joined to form regular fighting groups. Bows, arrows, swords, spears, were used before the arrival of the people from western regions who had developed gun powder and explosives. With these new weapons some people or groups of people conquered new lands and created empires.

Army in India

India was divided into various linguistic states and regions. Tamil, Telgu, Kanarrese, Malyalam. Oria, Marathi, Bengali, different dialects of Hindi, Punjabi, Pushtu etc., were spoken in different parts of India.

India produced best kind of cloth which was very popular in Northern region, Europe etc., People from European countries like Britain, France, Porutgal, Spain etc. came to India mainly to set up markets and import cloth, spices etc.  East India Company (British) and similar small groups of traders set up trading companies and to protect their owners and the colonies inhabited by them recruited watchmen and trained them to handle guns and to defend themselves. These forces were hired by some Nawabs and petty rulers especially in the areas near Bengal, Orissa and Madras. France and Spain wound up their business early because they could not compete with the British.

Not many people could come to India from British islands- England, Ireland and Wales. They had to recruit people of Indian origin, professing Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. People belonging to lower castes and Untouchables were not recruited as soldiers in the army of the East India Company. People belonging to higher castes like Rajputs, Jats etc. were recruited in the Indian army. Moslems joined in large numbers because the salaries offered by the East India Company were much higher than that paid by the Hindu and Muslim rulers.

British formulated the theory of “martial” and non-martial races. Most of the soldiers were recruited from the so called martial races. British soldiers were paid higher wages as compared to the Indian soldiers.

Indian soldiers had many grievances and complaints against the British rulers. There were Indians belonging to the upper and ambitious castes and classes of Hindus and Moslems. Somebody started the rumour that the cartridges which began to be supplied in the middle of nineteenth century were smeared with the fats of the pigs and cows and had to be removed by holding the cartridge by teeth. Many people showed resentment and refused to handle the new cartridges. Some British officers withdrew the cartridges and advised the Indian soldiers to smear the cartridges with oil of their choice. Revolt in some areas was withdrawn by the soldiers. But the rumour about the bullets and cartridges being smeared with animal fat spread very quickly especially in the northern region and resulted in killing of many British officers, looting their property, killing traders etc. Who was behind this mutiny, there are different theories and many books have been written. Some people called the mutiny the “First War of Independence’ and some people called it the revolt of the people and struggle for independence. Situation was brought under control and the British took severe action against the rebel soldiers.


Sikhs in the Punjab: Ranjit Singh was the most famous ruler who conquered large areas of Northern India and created the Sikh empire. After his death British made many rulers their friends and allies. Patiala, Nabha, Kalsia, Kapurthala supported the British. British recruited Sikhs in the army and they proved to be very committed and brave soldiers.


Leather workers (Chamars), Sweepers and Scavengers, Butchers (Khatiks) served the British in the cantonments and performed menial duties. They served under the army but were not recruited as soldiers. During mutiny owing to the shortage of soldiers belonging to upper castes British changed their policy and began to recruit the Chamars and Chuhra as soldiers. They raised Mazhbi-Ramdassia Regiment and after giving some training sent them to Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to fight against the rebel soldiers. The British also raised a Mehtar Regiment in the Hindi belt and they were used not only as soldiers but were also employed to punish the upper caste soldiers in Uttar Pradesh (Kanpur) and neighbouring states. After the mutiny these regiments were disbanded but Mazhbi-Ramdassia regiment was allowed to continue.

After the mutiny Britsh changed their policy of recruitment and carefully recruited the people belonging to Sikhs, Muslims etc. In view of the political struggle launched by the upper caste people especially the trading communities, the British changed their policy.

During the First World War (1914-18) against Germany the British again changed their recruitment policy. People belonging to different castes of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs etc., were recruited as soldiers and sent to fight in Europe. Germany was defeated and European politics underwent a change.

WORLD WAR II (1939-1946)

British had introduced some changes in view of the developing political situation in the country.

Gandhi was emerging as a powerful political leader. He was promoting Hinduism and also supporting the fight against ‘communalism’, Germany again started War which soon spread and affected Britain, France, Belgium and other countries of Europe. Britain especially some major industrial centres became easy targets of bombing. Germans did not land in Britain. British shifted some industries to India. Special arrangements were made for manufacturing war material and training people.

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Role

Dr. Ambedkar was appointed as Labour Member in the Viceroy’s Executive Council in 1942. Labour Department did not only deal with problems of Labour, Technical Training and other departments were also transferred under Labour Department. Mr. H.C. Prior. ICS was the Secretary; Brig. A.W.H. Rea was the Director, Technical Training. Khan Bahadur Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani was the Director Publicity and Recruitment. Dr. Ambedkar started many new schemes to train the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes people. Many people were sent to study and undergo training in U.K. in different branches of Engineering and technology under the Bevin Training Scheme. After returning to India these young men held very important posts. Babasaheb also led to the raising of Civil Pioneer Force and semi-military Forces. He also took special interest in raising the Mahar Regiment. Thousands of young men were trained as technicians in the training centre run by the Department of Labour.

Many regiments and soldiers dealt only with technical jobs. Many people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Tribes also joined these departments. Some rose to high positions in the I.E.M.E. and R.E.M.E.

The Labour Department under the control and guidance of Dr. Ambedkar played a very important historical role in the secularization of Indian Army. Many people belonging to these neglected communities also joined Indian Air Force and Royal Indian Army.

Contribution of Dr. Ambedkar as Labour Member in the Government of India introduced certain measures which brought about historical changes in the outlook of the people of India especially among the down-trodden and backward sections of society.

Bhagwan Das was born in an Untouchable family at Jutogh Cantonment, Simla (Himachal Pradesh), India on 23 April 1927. He served in the Royal Indian Air Force during World War II and after demobilisation served in different capacities in various departments of Government of India at Saharanpur, Simla and Delhi. He did M.A. in History (Punjab University) and LL.B from Delhi University. He did research on the ‘Indianisation of the Audit Department from 1840-1915′.  He passed away in 2010




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