Princely States' contribution to the Indian Army

Original Post Credit: Airavat Singh’s Blog, Horses & Swords on Blogspot


The first Indian officers, recruited into the Indian Army under the British in 1905, came from aristocratic families. They were Zorawar Singh of Bhavnagar Princely State, Wali-ud-din Khan of Paigah in Hyderabad, Kanwar Amar Singh of Kanota in Jaipur, and Aga Kassim Shah nephew of the Aga Khan. Although enjoying internal autonomy, the princely states were not completely disconnected from the changes occurring in British India. Their military forces in particular mirrored the organization of the Indian Army, and after Independence, were merged into the infantry and cavalry regiments of that army on the basis of their common recruitment areas.

The cavalry unit shown above, the Bhavnagar Imperial Service Lancers, depicts the modern, lightly armed, and compact cavalry formations introduced by the East India Company (EIC). Most of the princely states could not afford to maintain such cavalry units, and fewer still had artillery units, but all of them had some form of infantry.

Eastern India

The EIC troops predominantly comprised soldiers recruited from Eastern India till the 1857 revolt. Subsequently, recruitment for the Indian Army was shifted to Northern and Western India. The Eastern States Agency comprised princely states like Cooch Behar (in West Bengal), Mayurbhanj (in Orissa), Tripura in the North-East, Surguja (in Chhattisgarh), and many others. These states had very modest-sized armies, but some of them also contributed men and material to the Imperial Service Troops. For example, Manipur sent a double company of Manipuri soldiers and a corps of labourers to take part in WWI, while the 1st Tripura Bir Bikram Manikya Rifles and the Tripura Mahabir Legion were part of the Burma campaign in 1943.

During the Second World War, the Bihar Regiment was raised to recruit men from Eastern India, and the Assam Regiment to take in men from the North-East. However, after Independence they did not absorb any of the state forces units from their respective regions. The small armies of all these princely states in Eastern India were simply disbanded. Communist and other militant movements in these parts claim to have taken recruits and arms from some of these disbanded armies.

Southern India

Another point of expansion for the British power was Southern India, centering around the Madras Presidency. Initially, local troops were recruited into the EIC forces here, but later stress was placed on getting soldiers from Northern and Western India. Towards Independence, only the Madras Regiment recruited its men from south of the River Krishna.

After independence, the infantry battalions of Mysore, Travancore, and Cochin princely states were amalgamated into the Madras Regiment. The 1st Travancore Nair Infantry, tracing its origins to 1741 and the Battle of Colachel, became the 9th battalion of the Madras Regiment, while the 2nd Travancore Nair Infantry became the 16th battalion. An infantry battalion from the Cochin State Forces became the 17th battalion. The 1st battalion Mysore State Infantry formed the core of the 18th battalion, but men from the other two battalions of the State Forces were also amalgamated.

There were other princely states scattered across the northern part of the Indian Peninsula, but in terms of size and population the largest was Hyderabad. Despite the agreement on Partition, Pakistan and elements in Britain encouraged Hyderabad princely state to chase the mirage of independent existence, leading to conflict with India. The Hyderabad State Forces had Deccani Muslims, Marathas, and mercenary Arabs in their ranks, but for the most part followed the recruiting pattern of the Indian Army, and comprised men from Northern India, Rajputs, Jats, Ahirs, and Kumaonis, the last of whom came to replace Hindustani Muslims.

Following the success of Operation Polo and the annexation of Hyderabad into the Indian Union, all the fifteen battalions of the Hyderabad State Forces were disbanded except for the 2nd Hyderabad Infantry. This unit traced its history to 1853 when it was raised by Raja Rameshwar Rao I of Wanaparthi estate in Hyderabad. It was re-designated as the 22nd battalion of the Maratha Light Infantry and became a part of the Indian Army. Volunteers from the other disbanded battalions also joined this unit, which carried the honours of Hyderabad, and still has a unit composition of 50% Muslim and 50% Maratha. Two other units of the Maratha Light Infantry came from princely states; the Kolhapur Rajaram Rifles became the 19th battalion, while the 20th battalion came from the Baroda State Forces, even though Baroda was in Gujarat.

Northern India

The sprawling plains of Punjab, merging into Delhi, and the rugged ranges of the Himalayas were the recruiting ground of the greater portion of the Indian Army. This region also had a number of princely states, of whom the biggest was J&K. The State Forces of Jammu and Kashmir, fought well and withstood many a siege, during the Pakistani invasion of J&K State and were hence merged wholesale as a distinct regiment, the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, into the Indian Army.

The armies of the Sikh princely states of Patiala, Faridkot, Nabha, Kapurthala, and Jind were raised by the founders of these states in the 18th century. The 1st Jind Infantry became the 13th battalion of the Punjab Regiment, the 1st Nabha Akal Infantry became the 14th, the 1st Patiala Rajinder Sikh Infantry became the 15th, and the 2nd Patiala Yadvinder Infantry became the 16th. The 1st Patiala was also involved in the J&K war, when Maharaja Hari Singh sought aid from Maharaja Yadavendra Singh, during the Pakistani invasion. They reached Jammu in November 1947, helping to disarm rioters, and later manning the lines of communication while the J&K army faced the Pakistani invaders.

The newly-created hill state of Uttarakhand east of the Yamuna River, is home to the Gharwali and Kumaoni soldiers. The only sizable princely state here was Tehri, and personnel from the Tehri Garhwal Field Company were merged into the 39th Garhwal Rifles.

Between J&K and Uttarakhand were numerous states like Chamba, Mandi, Suket, Rampur, and Sirmur, all part of the recruiting ground of the Dogra fighting class, which extended into the Jammu region of J&K State. After Independence, personnel from Chamba Infantry, Joginder Infantry (Mandi), Sirmur Rifles, and Suket Infantry became the 16th battalion of the Dogra Regiment.

Western and Central India

The biggest concentration of princely states was in modern Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. These states, particularly in Rajasthan, had indigenous breeds of horses and with their pre-dominantly cavalry forces maintained independence throughout the period of Islamic invasions into India. The infantry remained a neglected branch, but under British rule, these states began fielding battalions drilled and organized along the lines of the Indian army. The entire region, stretching into Central India as well as North India, was the recruiting ground of the Rajput Regiment, the Rajputana Rifles, the Grenadiers Regiment, and the Jat Regiment. Mewar the greatest state in Rajputana contributed the 1st Mewar Infantry, which became the 9th battalion of the Grenadiers Regiment.

Officers and men of the 9 Grenadiers (Mewar) on August 26, 2010, the 707th Chittor Day, remembering the ferocious defence of that famous Rajput fort back in 1303. Seated fourth from left is Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, a lineal descendant of Maharana Hammir, the Rajput ruler who liberated Chittor in 1326. photo from Eternal Mewar

The states of Gwalior and Indore were founded by Marathas but their armies came to be manned by North Indians like Kumaonis and Ahirs. After Independence, the 4th Gwalior Infantry became the 14th Kumaon Regiment while the Indore Infantry was designated as 15th Kumaon. The Bhopal State Forces were recruited from among Punjabi Muslims and after Independence were disbanded. The princely states in Kutch and Saurashtra had an independent existence from the Gujarat plains, which were under British rule. Personnel of the Kutch State Forces and from the princely states in Saurashtra were organized into the 7th Grenadiers. Saurashtra Infantry also became the 18th Rajputana Rifles. The Sawai Man Guards of Jaipur State, was engaged in fighting in the J&K War, and became the 17th battalion of the Rajputana Rifles.

A mounted unit from Bikaner State, the Ganga Risala (Bikaner Camel Corps, was amalgamated with the Jaisalmer Risala raised in 1948 and became the 13th Grenadiers. The Jodhpur Sirdar Infantry, the oldest battalion of the Indian Army tracing its history to the establishment of the Rathor clan in western Rajasthan circa 1212 CE, became the 20th battalion of the Rajput Regiment. The Bikaner Sadul Light Infantry became the 19th battalion.

The Ganga Risala, and other units of the Bikaner State Forces march past Lord Linlithgow and Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner during the Viceroy’s visit to the princely state in 1937.

The contribution of these princely states was not just in men and material; even before their amalgamation, many of these units were fighting in the J&K war or engaged in protecting the border and escorting refugees displaced by partition.

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