Recruitment to the militaries in South Asian countries appears to be dependent on the following factors: the political reliability of the recruits; the dependence of the recruits on State patronage for survival; nationalistic impulses and compulsions; and of course the fighting abilities of the recruits.

During British rule, the Indian army recruited from communities which were loyal to the British. In the early phase, the Muslims were politically suspect as they were smarting under loss of power which they enjoyed under Muslim rulers. The British, therefore, recruited from the Hindu upper castes from the Gangetic plain, who felt politically deprived under Muslim rule.

However, in the 1857 mutiny in the Indian army, Hindu upper caste troops and the decaying Muslim ruling class made common cause against the British, whose unbridled ambition and Victorian arrogance hurt both. The revolt resulted in the British looking for recruits from the Sikhs and Gurkhas who sided with them during the mutiny.

The 19th.Century saw the emergence of the Victorian dichotomy between “martial and non-martial races”. Based on the fighting abilities of the ethnic groups and their loyalty to the British, the army designated some groups as martial (such as Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, the Baloch, Rajputs from Rajasthan, Jats, Dogras, Gurkhas and the Marathas) and restricted recruitment to them.

The British were able to be selective because the political system under their rule was not democratic. However, during World War II, many more men were needed urgently, and the army had to open its doors to recruits from every corner of India.

After independence in 1947, democratic Indian governments were eager to broad-base the army for political reasons. But it was difficult to bring about change. In the 1950s, 50% of the top brass came from Punjab according to Steven Wilkinson’s book, Army and Nation. By the 1970s, India had in fact doubled the number of "martial class" regiments. Muslims recruitment virtually ceased, partly because the Punjabi Muslims and the Baloch were on the Pakistan side of partitioned India, and partly because of Muslim separatism made them suspect though this was not acknowledged.


In Pakistan, the army was naturally dominated by the Punjabi Muslims, who the British had hailed as the “backbone of the Indian army.” Bengali Muslims from East Pakistan were kept out partly because they lacked political power (despite their numbers) and partly because Bengalis were not considered “martial”. In 1955, 894 officers were Punjabis while East Pakistani Bengalis were only 14.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the tiny community of Malays (only 40,189 as per the 2012 census) had an overwhelming presence in the island’s military and police in the colonial period. This was due to the trust the Dutch and the British had in this non-local, immigrant group in the context of the sullen hostility of the local Sinhalese community to Europeans.

B.A. Hussainmiya in his book Orang Regimen: The Malays of the Ceylon Rifle Regiment says that the Malays were brought to the island from the Dutch settlement in Batavia (Indonesia) to guard the settlements of the Dutch East India Company Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC. The Malays were the single largest component of the VOC’s army. As the territorial ambitions of the Dutch grew, Batavia sent troops annually apart from reinforcements sent in times of war, Hussainmiya notes.

Malay troops took part in all Dutch campaigns against the Portuguese in Galle (1640); Colombo (1655-56); and Jaffna (1658). In 1658, a Malay force under its own Malay commander, went along with Dutch commander Rycklof van Goens, to attack the Portuguese on the Malabar coast in Kerala. In 1680, Christopher Schweitzer wrote that the Malays were “very nimble and active in leaping and fencing” and that the Cingulayans (native Sinhalese) were “mightily afraid” of them.

During the Kandyan wars in which the Kandyans employed guerilla tactics, the Dutch cleverly threw the Malays into the front as they could take on the Kandyans in close combat with their kris knives and short swords. In 1795-96, when the British attacked the Dutch in the coastal districts, the Malays were the only ones to offer any resistance, Hussaimiya points out.

In 1795, the Malays led by Jaya Bangsa made a daring attack on the British in Trincomalee, spiked their guns and killed several artillery men. They ambushed British troops as they landed in Beruwela, south of Colombo, and pushed them back into the sea. The Malays also attacked the British camp in Mutuwal north of Colombo, with deadly “kisses and adder tongued daggers.”

The British were so impressed, that when they took over the Maritime provinces from the Dutch in 1796, they made Malays a “permanent source of military manpower”. In 1802, Governor Frederic North sent Malays to fight against the Polygar rebels in Tamil Nadu. “They distinguished themselves by their active and indefatigable intrepidity,” North wrote to the Secretary of State in London.

North formed a “Malay Corps” with 1200 men and 22 European officers. The Corps was given the King’s Commission on 23/April/1801. On May 31, 1803, North presented the Corps its colors. At the function held in Gale Face Esplanade in Colombo, North said he had great pleasure “in presenting these Colors, not to a new Levy, but to a regiment whose past service is an earnest of future glory.” The Governor formed a Malay Boy’s Regiment to catch them young.

In a bid to attract more Malays, North offered Malays from the East Indies and the Malaya Peninsula good pay and free passage for the family. If a Malay was killed in battle, the government would look after his family, he said. In 1813, Governor Robert Brownrigg recruited Malays from Java with the help of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British Lt.Governor of Java.

The expanded Malay contingent helped the British defeat Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, the last Sri Lankan king and capture him in 1815. Incidentally, Wickramarajasinghe recruited his bodyguards from the Malay community and not the Sinhalese, whose loyalty he suspected. In 1818, the Malays helped the British suppress a serious rebellion in Uva province.

By 1827, peace had been fully established in Sri Lanka. The government amalgamated three separate native regiments into one regiment and called it the Ceylon Rifle Regiment (CRR). The wholly Malay First Ceylon Regiment was expanded to include African Roman Catholic Kaffirs and Hindu Sepoys from South India. But this was disliked by the Muslim Malays who felt the loss of exclusivity. To placate them the army issued rifles only to Malays. But this was in vain.

In 1833, the newly established police force majorly attracted the Malays partly because it was better paying. According to Hussainmiya, in 1833, nine of the ten police sergeants were Malays and 75% of the constables were Malay. According to Tuan M. Zameer Careem, every police station had become a “Malayu kampong” (Malay village). The first Ceylonese police officer who died during the course of his duties was a Malay constable named Sabhan. He died in 1864 in an attempt to apprehend the celebrated highway bandit Saradiel.

Seeing no need for an army, Governor William Gregory disbanded the Ceylon Rifle Regiment on August 15, 1873 and replaced it with a Volunteer Force of British planters and others. Subsequently, minority Tamils and Burghers (partly European) and mainly Christian, joined the volunteer corps because they were pro-British and the British trusted them. The Malays continued to keep away from military service.

After independence in 1948, political patronage shifted wholesale to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, affecting the composition of the army and the police. Brig.T.S.B.Sally was the lone Malay to rise to the highest position in the army and that too as an Acting Commander. However, the war against the Tamil Tigers in the 1980s and 1990s led to an expansion of the army and police, and a few Malays came to hold important commands. In the police, three Malays rose to the level of Deputy Inspectors General.