Jats: The legacy of the warrior race

Figure 1: Insignia of the present 9th Jat regiment

It is said that in a Jat village, it is nearly impossible to find a single-family that does not have at least one member serving in the armed forces. Since the colonial era, the Jat community has been designated as a “martial race” and to date constitutes a large percentage of the Indian Army. There exists a historical affiliation between the Jat community and the armed forces, and it is this affiliation that is considered to be the pride of any Jat village.

Figure 2: Commemorative Stamp of the Jat regiment

Who are Jats?

In the twenty-first century, over nine million people across the Indian subcontinent belong to the Jat community. Today, the majority of the community resides in the region which is bound by the Himalayan foothills in the north, by the Ganga on the east, the Indus on the west, and by the Deccan Plateau in the south. However, a minority of almost five percent of the Jat population resides in present-day Pakistan.

The Jats form the backbone of the agricultural community, especially in the Gangetic Doab regions of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. Although they have inhabited this region for several centuries, the Jats appear to be distinct from the other agricultural people of the Upper Doab region, both in terms of physical features and cultural practices. There is a popular belief that considers the Jats to be an ancient ethnic community engaged in pastoral practices that migrated to the Doab region during the early Christian period and have gone through several changes to arrive at its present form.

Since the colonial era, the Jats have been considered to be a “martial race”. During the colonial years, the Jats were valued for their strength, valour, and loyalty and were recruited into the army. Even today, a large portion of the Indian Army is made up of soldiers belonging to the Jat community.

Figure 3: ‘Martial Races of India’ Jat of the Indian Army,
Western United Provinces, 1944 (c)
(Source: National Army Museum)

What is a “martial race”?

Figure 4: Jat Sikhs declared as martial race (source: Caravan magazine)

The concept of “martial race” was developed and codified as a scientific theory during the early years of the British Raj. According to the theory of “martial races”, certain ethnic, religious, caste, or social groups were regarded as having more masculine character than others. These groups were considered more suitable for military service and were hence called “martial races.” This theory was formalised in the wake of the sepoy mutiny of 1857. The theory aimed to enable scientific categorisation of the Indian population. Further, it aimed to create a category of loyal people suited for the army. To identify these “martial races,” the British utilised and manipulated pre-existing social categories of caste and religion. The theory of “martial race” enjoyed enormous popularity during the colonial era, and became the fundamental principle in the reorganisation and recruitment strategy of the British Indian Army in the British Raj.

Lieut.-General Sir George MacMunn on Jat Soldiers

MacMunn was a war historian who specialised in the British Indian army.  In his lecture, “The Romance of the martial races of India”, MacMunn lists the various features of a “martial race”. It becomes evident that due to their valour and strength, Jats were indispensable to the British Indian Army, and thus, constituted a large percentage of it.

Figure 5: Sir George MacMunn

Kshatriya – the warrior caste

From a cursory glance at the “martial race” theory it becomes evident that it was highly flawed and contradictory. Simply put, it was in no way “scientific”. However, it did capitalise on the four-fold varna system. The British were interested in the warrior-caste or the Kshatriya who were said to possess loyalty, bravery, and other “martial” ideals.

The idea of “innateness” was a key to the British conception of “martial races.” The idea of “innateness” gave legitimacy to the endeavour of classification in the first place. According to the British, “martial” qualities like stature, bravery, and loyalty could be heritable and thus, was the foundation of the model of innateness. Hence, elements like culture, social practices, and region of origin were treated as genetic factors. This led the British to favour certain religious and caste groups as “martial races.” For instance, Muslims were seen as more “martial” than Hindus. However, communities like the Jats, Rajputs, and Sikhs were Hindu communities possessing “martial qualities.” This could explain why these communities have time and again tried to re-assert their Kshatriya status.

Figure 6: Illustration of the Jat regiment of the British Indian Army

Mythological claims on “Kshatriya-hood”

  1. 1869: Under the patronage of the Raja of Beswa, Angad Sharma proposed an origin theory of the Jat community in his work, Jatthropatti (1869).  He proposed that the Jats are descendants of the Jathra tribe which is mentioned in the Padma Puranas. Related to the Myth of Parasurama and the creation of a new Kshatriya class, by claiming the Jat origin from the Jathara tribe, Angad Sharma aimed at claiming a Kshatriya status for the Jats.
  2. 1883: At the request of the Census officials of 1883 the Pleader of Meerut, Chaudhuri Lahri, proposed another origin theory of the Jat community in his work, “Ethnology of Jats”. He built on Angad Sharma’s theory and argued that the Jats were of foreign origin deriving their name from the mountains of Jathara, which is mentioned in the Mahabharata along with other kingdoms of Kalinga, Kashi, and Aparkashi. Thus, he too lays claim on kshatriya status for the Jat community.
  3. Circa 6th century: in the Deva-Samhita Gorkha Sinha proposes that Jats originated from the Jata (matted locks) of lord Shiva. However, scholars argue that this theory was proposed to bring back into the folds of Hinduism the Jats who had en masse embraced Buddhism.

The rebellious Jats

Figure 7: ‘Bhurtpore. The Breach – The Death of Capt Pitman whilst gallantly leading on H.M. 59th to the Breach’, 1826                                           
 Figure 8: ‘Bhurtpore, The entrance of H.M. 59th into the Breach’, 1826

The question is, how did the British realise that the Jats were warriors? Possibly many were mercenaries but it is much more likely that it is because they fought with the Jats themselves. This brings us to the “siege of Bharatpur.”

The siege of Bharatpur took place between 2nd January and 22nd February of 1805 in the princely state of Bharatpur (now in the state of Rajasthan). The siege of Bharatpur was the climax of the long-drawn Second Anglo-Maratha War. The princely state of Bharatpur was the capital of the Jat kingdom. The Maharaja of Bharatpur, Ranajit Singh, rose in rebellion against the British by joining an alliance with the Indore Maharaja Holkar and the Maratha Empire.

Backed by the Maratha Empire and with the help of the formidable fortress of Bharatpur, the Jats were able to put up a strong front against the British forces. The Jats were able to repulse the British forces four times during the long siege. The estimated causalities of the British forces were approximately 3,292. The Jats’ victory was an embarrassing defeat for the British.

This conflict proved the Jats “martial” status long before the sepoy mutiny of 1857. Since the beginning of the siege in 1805 the fortress of Bharatpur remained beyond the British control till 1826. The sudden demise of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, Baldeo Singh, and the accession of his five-year-old son, Maharaja Balwant Singh, deeply destabilised the Jat forces. Between December 1825 and January 1826, British troops led by Lord Combermere surrounded and laid siege to the fortress of Bharatpur. It was only on 18th January 1826 that the British were able to regain control over Bharatpur. However, the long-drawn conflict between the Jats and the British proved to the latter that Jats were a powerful community with formidable warriors. Thus, they began recruiting Jats for the British Indian army in large numbers. 

Figure 9: Gokula of Tilpat

Gokula and the rebellious Jats

The Jats were already a powerful and militarised community long before the arrival of British forces. In fact, the Jats had often revolted against the Mughal regime. Perhaps the most important Jat rebel is Gokula of Tilpat. Gokula entered the scene in the late 1600s when Emperor Aurangzeb attempted to convert Dar-ul-Hurb (Hindustan) to Dar-ul-Islam by imposing dogmatic policies such as the reinstatement of the jizya tax, the demolition of Hindu temples, and forced conversions to Islam. The Jats of the upper Doab region considered themselves to be the defenders of Hindu honour and were infuriated by these policies.  In 1669, Gokula led the 20,000 Jats against the powerful Mughal Empire. The Jat uprising culminated in the battle of Tilpat which shook the foundations of the Mughal Empire. There was a large number of casualties on both sides – the Mughals lost 4000 men, while the Jats lost 5000, and 7000 more were captured. The uprising ended with the capture of Gokula. When Gokula was offered his life if he embraced Islam, the defiant Hindu warrior laughed and embraced death.

The Jat Regiment and World War 1

Figure 10: 10th Jat Regiment of the British Indian Army (Source: britishempire.co.uk)

The Jat Regiment is a part of the infantry of the Indian Army. It is one of the longest-serving and most decorated Regiments. The Regiment claims its origin from the Calcutta Native Militia that was raised in 1795, which later became an infantry battalion of the Bengal Army. The 14th Murray’s Jat Lancer’s was formed in 1857. After 1860, there was a substantial increase in the recruitment of Jats into the British Indian Army. The Class Regiment, The Jats, was initially created in 1897 as an infantry unit from old battalions of the Bengal Army. The 1st Battalion was raised as the 22nd Bengal Native Infantry in 1803. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were raised in 1817 and 1823 respectively. All three battalions had distinguished records of service, including the winning of many honours during World War I.

Figure 11: Jat soldiers during World War I (Source: Brighton Museum)

The Jat Regiment of the British Indian Army played a decisive role in World War 1. Although they were often dismissed as peasant people, the British recognised their strong military tradition. Over 40,000 Jats were recruited into the Indian Army during the First World War.

One such brave Jat soldier was Risaledar Badlu Singh (13 January 1876 – 23 September 1918). Risaledar Badlu Singh was one among very few Indians who were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

Thus, it becomes evident that Jats were important and decorated members of the British Indian Army and played a decisive role in the First World War. However, they still require their due recognition for their role in the war.

Figure 12: Risaledar Badlu Singh

“His valour and initiative were of the highest order.” 

— London Gazette, 27 November 1918.

Risaldar Badlu Singh was the first from 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers (and 9th British Indian) to be honoured with the Victoria Cross.

The Jat regiments in post-independent India

Even after 70 years of independence, the Jat Regiment remains one of the most highly decorated Regiments in the Indian Army. Currently, the regiment has 23 regular battalions, 4 Rashtriya Rifles battalions, and 2 reserve battalions. The battle cry, adopted in 1955, in Hindi, “Jat Balwaan, Jai Bhagwaan” meaning – “Jat is Powerful, Victory be to God!”

In post-independent India, The Jat Regiment has fought in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1947-1948, The Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, and Sri Lanka and Siachen, as well as in the Kargil War of 1991.

The glorious history of the Jat Regiment is in keeping with the motto “Sangathan Wa Veerta”, which means “Unity in Valour”. This truly signifies the spirit and fighting qualities of the Jat soldiers.

Figure 13: Jat Regiment of the Indian Army

Therefore, it becomes evident that the Jat community has played a central role in the history of Colonial and Independent India. The Jat community has played a crucial role in the development of India – from feeding the people as farmers to protecting the people as army men. To date, the Jat community remains the embodiment of strength, bravery, and loyalty.


About the Author

This is Srabondeya Haldar, a third-year History student of Shiv Nadar University currently pursuing a minor in Sociology

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