Gujarat’s contribution to India’s defence forces continues to be noteworthy
Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)
Mirza Ghalib’s pithy ‘Sau pusht se hai pesha e aaba sipahgari’ (for 100 generations, our profession has been soldiery) phrase may not be entirely applicable to traditionally maritime Gujarat where the sea is never more than a hundred miles (160 km) away from the state’s furthest land boundaries. On the contrary, Gujarat has, since Harappan times, viewed the military as protection for its trade, commerce and prosperity from invaders. Post-Independence, the state has done its bit for national security and now plans to improve its contribution.
Human settlement in Gujarat goes back to the Stone Age and there is documented evidence of the later Harappa civilisation that existed over 4,000 years ago. Ruins at Dholavira (Kutch) and Lothal (Kathiawar) reveal a vibrant trading society with military forts such as at Dholavira protecting its trade/commerce.
The known history of Gujarat begins in the 3rd century BCE with the Maurya dynasty, followed by the Shakas, Guptas, Maitrakas, Gurjara-Pratiharas, Solankis and Vaghelas. Many centuries later, in 1299, Alauddin Khilji came to power, followed by Ahmad Shah, who founded Ahmedabad in 1411. The Mughal rule continued in Gujarat till the British took over. Throughout forts were necessary to protect trade and commerce, and today, ruins of many such forts can be found in Gujarat. For instance, the Solanki Fort near Baroda, the marvellously restored Surat Fort built by Khudawand Khan in 1546 to protect India’s strategic western gateway, Surat Port — then the world’s richest port — from invading hordes, are some of the glorious instances.
Today, Gujarat, with its 1,596-km coastline, encompasses the Kathiawar Peninsula (Saurashtra), Kutch as well as surrounding areas on the mainland. Bounded by Pakistan, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, Gujarat also shares borders with the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and surrounds the territory of Daman and Diu. Earlier part of Bombay State, Gujarat came into existence in 1960 after being separated from Maharashtra. Its diverse population includes Rajputs, Muslims, Parsis and ethnic tribes.
Gujarat’s vast medley of 435 princely states have been around for ages, with Bhavnagar, for instance, dating back to 1240, Palanpur to the early 14th century, Rajpipla to 1460 and Baroda to the 17th century. During the British Raj, 18 of these princely states were ‘salute states’ of which Baroda was accorded a hereditary salute of 21 guns (along with Patiala and Hyderabad). Some other important gun states were Idar, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar (Navanagar), Dhrangadhra-Halvad, Porbandar, Rajpipla, Morvi, Baria, Dharampur, Limbdi and Rajkot.
As per eminent scholar K.K. Shastri, the warrior castes in the erstwhile princely states were Chavadas, Chauhans, Chudasamas, Gohilas, Jadejas, Jhalas, Parmars, Rathods, Rehyars, Sarvaiyas, Sisodias, Solankis, and Vaghelas. There were also local groups/ tribes like Mhers and Rabaris (Porbandar), Patanwadia Kolis (Kutch/Mahi River), Meenas and Sodhas (Kutch), Kolis who were spread all over and Jhuts (North Gujarat). While Gujaratis were enlisted as soldiers, soldiers were mainly recruited from outside the state.
The Gujarati DNA
From the above, what clearly demands understanding is the Gujarati DNA. A recent (2008-2012) International 1000 Genomes Project using archaeogenetics (study of ancient DNA using various molecular genetics/ DNA resources) has analysed the genomes of at least one thousand anonymous participants from a number of different ethnic groups, including Gujaratis. They have concluded that they carry predominantly Ancestral North Indian (West Eurasian) genes.
The study shows that Gujaratis and Rajasthanis (among others) are genetically part of Western South Asia. Gujaratis have the closest Ancestry Markers (AMids) with the Burisho people of Hunza (considered Alexander the Great’s lost legions by some researchers) and Nagar Haveli. It is speculated that Gujarat is a derivation of ‘Gurjar’; invaders who in 8th CE founded the Gurjar-Pratihara Empire.
The deduction stares the reader in the face: Gujaratis are no different from the ‘martial classes’ — that supremely unscientific, fixed and convenient theory the British ruthlessly exploited to suit their Raj interests. Let us briefly look at the theory.
British Martial Classes Theory
First propounded by East India Company (EIC) historian Robert Orme, the theory propagated selective enlistment of Indian soldiery. The Military Regulations of 1765 confined recruitment for the Bengal Army to Rajputs/ Telugus/ Muslims from certain occupations because they possessed soldiering instincts.
In 1795, Colonel Floyd declared that good recruits could not be obtained from the ‘Deep South’ since they lacked size and looks. HT Princep, an EIC elite, claimed in 1835 that recruitment be restricted to high caste, intelligent ‘Purbiyas’ (Easterners from Oudh/Bihar) and Central Provinces recruits because other Indians lacked physical and mental strength.
It was, however, Lt Gen. Frederick Roberts as C-in-C India (1885-1893) who firmly laid the keel of this pseudo-ethnological ‘martial class ideology’ across the Bengal/ Bombay/ Madras Presidency armies. He retained the basic paradigm but added criteria like geography, climate, food, occupation, religion and frontier. This led to changes in identification of martial groups (the Purbiyas were discarded for being intelligent; hence scheming).
Sikhs, Punjabis, Punjabi Muslims, Rajputs, Jats, Pashtuns, Kumaonis, Gurkhas and Garhwalis were considered fine soldiering material with warrior traits derived from being agriculturalists/ yeomen. It was presumed that their dietary habits, religion, physique, climate, biological and societal attributes made them better warriors than people from hot, tropical areas. The existence of frontiers to defend and mountains to climb promoted martial traits as opposed to peace, prosperity and security which led to racial degeneration, they opined. This mind-set excluded south Indian classes, Gujaratis and Bengalis.
Critics point to the irony that the new martial classes comprised groups who had supported the British in 1857 or remained neutral. They wryly note the unseemly haste with which beleaguered Britain inducted ‘non-martial’ classes in both World Wars. One may add that Op Pawan (1987-89) conveyed key lessons for the Indian Army too. The fighting qualities of south Indian troops and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conclusively ended the nonsensical martial classes legacy the British left us with.
Gujarati Defence Forces Personnel
Gen. K.S. Rajendrasinhji Jadeja, DSO, born in the Jamnagar ruling family, was commissioned in 1931 from Sandhurst into 2nd Lancers. He earned his DSO (first Indian so awarded) against the Germans at Mechili, North Africa in 1941. India’s first MA to the US, he was successively appointed as Army Commander Western, Eastern and Southern Commands between 1947 and 1953. C-in-C Army till March 1955, he became the first Army Chief after the President of India was appointed Supreme Commander Defence Forces. He retired in May 1955.
Capt. Dilawarsinhji Dhansinhji from Bhavnagar was commissioned from Sandhurst in 1927 but later opted for his state forces. Also, from Bhavnagar, Maj. Gen. Ghanshyam (Popeye) Singh was commissioned in 1934 from Sandhurst into 16th Light Cavalry. Made a Japanese Prisoner of War (PoW) in Singapore after British capitulation along with good friend Maj. (later Lt Gen.) Harbakhsh Singh, VrC, he later became chairman of the Indo-Canadian Peacekeeping Mission in Indo-China. His son served in Fakhr-e-Hind Poona Horse and an intrepid son-in-law masterminded the climacteric tank Battle of Garibpur, 1971, using Other Indian Classes troops — a slap on ‘Martial Class’ theory.
Surat born ‘topper’ VADM M.P. Awati PVSM, VrC was commissioned in the RIN in 1945, He received the coveted colours of the Indian Navy from the President in 1950. In command of submarine-hunter INS Kamorta and 31 PV Squadron, he was awarded VrC in 1971. Father of circumnavigation/Signals specialist, Awati was an iconic naval officer.
A little-known fact is that some icons across defence forces have strong linkages with Gujarat. The parents of FM SHFJ Manekshaw were from Valsad. Lt Col. A.B. Tarapore, PVC (P); CAS, ACM Aspy Engineer, CAS, ACM FH Major, CNS, Adm Jal Cursetji, Lt Gen AM Sethna, VCOAS, and Lt Gen FN Billimoria, all have family roots in Gujarat. The senior-most serving Gujarati officer today Lt Gen. Asit Mistry, AVSM, SM, VSM is GOC Delhi Area, ex CO and now Colonel of the Maratha Light Infantry Regiment.
Gujaratis have been awarded eight VrCs out of 39 bravery awardees since Independence: Lt NA Sallik (1948), Hav. Sewa Singh (1948), Brig. SC Wadehra (1965), VADM MP Awati, IN, (1971), Maj NK Sharma (1971), Air Cmde NL Trehan (1971), Brig VK Vaid (1971), Gp Capt. NG Junnarkar (1971). It isn’t well known that Gujarat has lost 86 soldiers since 1965 with rather more wounded. Gujarat had 26,656 ESM as on 31 March 2017 and 3,517 ESM widows.
IA Units with Gujarati Connections
On 1 April 1949 the state forces of Kutch/ Baria/ Rajpipla/ Lunawada/ Idar were amalgamated. On 25 January 1950 the amalgamated force was designated as 7th Battalion, The Grenadiers Regiment. Similarly, in 1948, the two principal units of the Baroda Army, 1st and 2nd Infantry, became 20th and 21st Battalion, Maratha Light Infantry. Subsequently, the units were amalgamated as 20th Maratha Light Infantry which later became 10 MECH (Baroda).
Reality Check on Military Recruitment
Gujarati recruitment clearly needs a fillip with recruitment of only 3,199 soldiers in 2015-2018. Besides, in a recent recruitment drive, the percentage of recruits accepted out of 39,000 umeedwars was abysmal. They had issues with wellness, not with motivation, as many hopefuls were tobacco-chewers, affecting their stamina/ other selection parameters.
While cynics maintain that Gujaratis, being prosperous and born entrepreneurs genetically wired for start-ups, do not need to opt for the military, the reality is that they don’t lack in any so-called ‘martial’ parameters with some having performed brilliantly in uniform. Exposed to skilled awareness programmes, they will do their bit for India’s security needs. Sainik School Balachadi/ Jamnagar is a path-breaking institution, with 576 infectiously enthusiastic students (10 girls joining shortly) seeking uniformed careers. The Gujarati has proven that he can be as good at defence as the rest of India.