Historical Overview



The origin of the Indian Army goes back to the beginning of the British rule over India. During the last 250 years, it has undergone many changes, accomplished many feats and fought countless battles at home and abroad on different continents. It has been a unique organisation, vastly different in its ethos and traditions from the other armies of the world. Winston Churchill referred to the over two million strong Indian Army during the World War-II, as the largest volunteer army known to history. Even today at around 1.2 million personnel, the Indian Army it is one of the largest volunteer armies in the world. Like the caste system, which permeates our society, the theory of martial races has influenced the composition of the Indian Army. Though this theory has long been officially discarded it continues to survive, albeit on a gradually reducing scale. The regimental ethos based on regional and class affinity often reinforced by heredity, has always been a strong motivating factor for the soldiers of this army. This was an important ingredient of their high morale at a time when they did not have a nationalistic cause to serve.

This Army, while greatly influencing the course of political developments in its own country, has never participated in politics. It is one of the few apolitical armies in the world to not have a Cromwell or a Napoleon trying to acquire political power. Raised by a foreign power to serve its commercial and imperial interests, the Indian Army did not have a nationalistic cause to serve for the first 200 years, but it was never a mercenary army. Its soldiers did not enlist for money to sell their loyalty to the highest bidder. They joined the Army, because they considered fighting an honourable profession and they fought for their honour which included that of the family, community, region and regiment. The concept of nationhood was non-existent in 18th Century India. Thus many Indians enlisted in the Army of a foreign power and had no hesitation in fighting under their flag against their own countrymen and contributing to the establishment of British Imperial rule over India. However this duty got compensated by the action of many of them in the Great Revolution of 1857. The first spark of nationalism in the country in the modern period under British rule was lit by the Indian soldier. The revolution was thus essentially an affair of the Army. Even though the revolution failed, it became a source of inspiration for the subsequent generations in the freedom struggle. It is noteworthy that notwithstanding the Jallianwala Bagh incident, the Army was sparingly used against the freedom fighters. Terrorism or the non-violent struggle for freedom were mostly contained by the civil administration, using police for the purpose.

When the Army had to be called out, it was more like the British Army in India than the Indian Army. In 1930, the Garhwalis refused to open fire on the Red Shirts during the non-cooperation movement. They were court-martialled for mutiny but their action was applauded by the nation. Indian soldiers served all over the world during the British regime. They fought from China in the East to France and Africa in the West. They fought bravely during during the First and Second World Wars. The tales of their valour have been spread worldwide. The secret of success of the Indian Army has been its unflinching sense of duty, discipline and traditions of valour. During the Second World War, the emergence of the Indian National Army (INA) from the ranks of Indian Army prisoners with the Japanese, under the leadership of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, to fight for Indian independence became a major development. In military terms, the contribution of the Indian National Army was limited but its political and psychological impact was tremendous.

After the war, the mutinies of the Army, Navy and Air Force at Bombay, Jabalpur and Karachi respectively, convinced a militarily and economically exhausted Britain that she could not rely on the Indian Army to uphold her imperial rule on India. This became an important factor in influencing her decision to quit. Thus the Indian Army, made a silent but significant contribution to the independence of India. Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, in his farewell speech on 21 March 1947, five months before Independence, said, "I believe that the stability of the Indian Army may perhaps be a deciding factor in the future of India." Later events more than justified this belief.  At the time of Independence, the Indian Army had to undergo a major surgical operation with many Muslim Officers leaving for the newly created state of Pakistan. The senior ranks in the Army were all held by the British Officers and they left for home. They were replaced by Indian Army Officers with much less experience. Besides there were other problems too. Most of the Army personnel were from North-India and the families of many had been uprooted from their homes a result of partition and were living in refugee camps. Their pay was slashed considerably just before independence and they accepted these cuts in a most disciplined manner. There were no representations nor any case was filed in any court of law. It was against this background that the Army was called upon to tackle the unprecedented carnage and the movement of millions of refugees in Punjab. The civil administration had collapsed. The Army was the only credible instrument available with the State to restore order. Within a couple of months after independence, normalcy was restored in riot-ravaged Punjab.

No sooner has this been done, the Army was called upon to defend J&K against an armed invasion first from Phatan rebels in October 1947 and then in 1948 from the Pakistan Army. Military operations in Jammu & Kashmir, in the most difficult terrain and at forbidding heights raged from October 1947 to January 1949, ended in a proud victory for the Indian Army and Pakistan failed to achieve its objectives. However, a cease-fire was accepted by India which enabled Pakistan to hold portions of Jammu & Kashmir state. These areas under Pakistan's occupation are called Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK). In the wake of independence the question of integrating over 500 Indian States into the Union of India posed a major problem. The Army constituted the final sanction behind Sardar Vallabhai Patel's moves for integration. Where, this could not be achieved through diplomatic negotiations, the Indian Army had to be employed to enforce the nation's will, as happened in Junagarh, Hyderabad and Goa.

On 15 January 1948, General K.M. Cariappa became the first Indian Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. January 15, is now celebrated every year in India, as Army Day. On this occasion the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) takes the salute at the Army Day Parade in the Delhi cantonment. The first decade or more after independence was an era in which India's moral authority stood very high in all chanceries of the world. The Indian Army was employed on tasks to promote international peace in Korea, Gaza, Lebanon and Congo on behalf of the United Nations and earned great honour for the country. China's belligerence in 1962 shook the nation. This was defeat, pure and simple, born of short-sightedness and bad decision. India was outclassed and outsmarted by masters of real geopolitik. This rude awakening in the Himalayas, caused the failure of the political & military leadership and brought about a great national humiliation.

The Army however soon recovered from this trauma. The glorified battles of the war with Pakistan three years later in 1965, helped partly to heal wounds. But honour was not really restored till the resounding victory in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, with tales of impossible victories won in places like Longewala with scores of Pakistani tanks destroyed. A decisive victory like this, had not taken place in centuries. Today India is at the cross-roads. In some spheres, we have creditable progress, but in many others there has been alarming deterioration and are facing mounting crisis. Divisive and secessionist forces have been increasingly asserting themselves. Various contradictions in our society not only persist but have accentuated. The Army cannot remain totally isolated from these developments. The Sikh problem had its repercussions in the mutiny of some Sikh soldiers. The Gorkhaland problem may have ramifications amongst the Gorkha soldiers, if proper care is not taken. The Sikhs and the Gorkhas have been our finest soldiers and their record of loyalty and gallantry should not be allowed to get tarnished.

The Army also has certain organisational and functional problems which must be suitably resolved. Notwithstanding all the difficulties we face as a nation and problems faced by the Army, we can rely on the Indian Army to continue to serve the nation loyally and with a high standard of professionalism and gallantry. This may help the nation in proceeding along the desired path from the present cross-roads. A code of honour has come down to the Jawans from the great commanders and soldiers of the past eras. It is a matter of great pride that whenever India has been attacked, the Army stood by this code of valour, fidelity and honour. The tradition never to surrender has remained ingrained in our fighting men and the Army always has resolute soldiers who are ever ready to do their duty unto death without hesitation.

Ethos of the Indian Army

  • The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first, always and every time.
  • The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next.
  • Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.

Characteristics of the Indian Army

  • Valour. Fearlessness in combat, in the face of the enemy even when fighting at a great disadvantage or facing sure death.
  • Non-discrimination. On account of caste, creed or religion. Total impartiality in performance of duty.
  • Comradeship and brotherhood of the brave. Within the Army regardless of caste, creed or religion.
  • Discipline and integrity. Patriotism, honesty and courage under all circumstances.
  • Spirit of selfless sacrifice. The tradition never to question but to do or die.
  • Fairness and honesty. Even towards the enemy, prisoners or wounded.
  • Fidelity, honour and courage. Stand out as an example to others.
  • Dogged determination. Even in defeat or adverse situations.
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