The Infantry and its Regimental System

The various infantry regiments are rooted in an identity based on ethnicity and geographical grouping together of soldiers from similar backgrounds and who speak the same or similar language or dialects. Based on the recruit composition, the class composition of the infantry regiments can be Single-Class, Fixed-Class or All-India Class.

Issue 5 - 2020 By Lt General Pradep Bali (Retd)Photo(s): By PIB
The Sikh Light Infantry Regiment Marching Contingent

“Without Fear, without Pity, without Remorse!” — Infantry, the Ultimate

The major component of armies’ world over and down the centuries has been the Infantry. Simply put infantry is a military specialisation that engages in combat on foot though it may also use various modes of transportation. The infantryman bears the main brunt of warfare and there is no denying that battles and wars are ultimately won by infantry by capturing, holding and defending territory. The infantry suffers the highest casualties by far, experiences the maximum stress and discomfort – physical, mental and psychological.

The Indian army traces its roots to the forces raised by the British Presidencies and which evolved through a series of nomenclatures like the sepoy regiments, the native infantry and finally adopted regimental identities. These were all amalgamated into the British Indian Army in the 19th century post 1857. The Indian Army succeeded the British Indian Army after independence in 1947. Post the Second World War, this army had been considerably reduced in numbers and was further depleted due to its partitioning between India and Pakistan. At this juncture the major portion of the army comprised of several infantry regiments, each consisting of a number of infantry battalions. While some new regiments were also raised at this time, the major expansion of the army took place post 1962.

Class Based Composition

The British moulded the British Indian army somewhat on the pattern of British and European land forces. Ethnic groups like the Sikhs, Rajputs, Kumaonis, Garhwalis, Gurkhas, Dogras, Assamese were recruited into infantry battalions which were part of regiments deriving their names from these ethnic groups and communities. Thus the various infantry regiments are rooted in an identity based on ethnicity and geographical grouping together of soldiers from similar backgrounds and who speak the same or similar language or dialects. In a multi lingual and multi cultural country like ours this composition seeks to arrive at a workable system. The names of the Regiments are not to be mixed with or mistaken for the political divisions and boundaries of various states of the union of India. Based on the recruit composition the class composition of the infantry regiments can be Single-Class, in which all recruits are from a particular ethnic or geographic group like Dogras, Sikhs, Jats, Garhwalis; Fixed-Class in which recruitment is in a fixed percentage from two or more ethnic or geographic groups like Punjab, Rajputana Rifles, Rajputs, Kumaonis and Grenadiers; All-India Class - these are regiments raised post-independence and contain a heterogeneous mix from all over the country, examples are Guards, Parachute Regiment and Mechanised Infantry.


A better understanding of the regimental system, with a class composition spreading across different states and its all-powerful impact and effect on the soldier, is amply illustrated by a few examples. The Punjab Regiment draws its troops from the states of Punjab, Himachal, J&K and Haryana, yet the over-arching identity of these soldiers is “Punjabis”. The Madras regiment is populated by recruits from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra and Telangana, yet their collective identity is “Madrasis”. Similarly the Bihar Regiment is populated not only by troops from the state of Bihar but also from Jharkhand and Orissa. This is a fine point whose subtlety has to be understood in the right perspective and not mixed up with the narrow understanding of political identities based on regional and sub-regional boundaries and linguistic identities.

Gallantry and Fortitude

Post-independence the first clarion call to battle was answered gloriously by the infantry of the Indian army on October 27, 1947, when 1 Sikh landed at Srinagar airfield to defend Kashmir from the Pakistan army, masquerading as tribal invaders and indulging in loot, pillage and mayhem. Incidentally, this day is celebrated as the Infantry Day.

Indian army has fought four wars with Pakistan including the limited war in Kargil and one major war with China in 1962. Infantry, rightly called the Queen of battle, has been the prima donna in all these operations. The valour and gallantry displayed by various battalions of different regiments during these battles is indeed legendary and will remain the motivational beacon of our army for posterity. The leadership and bravery of Maj Somnath Sharma, the first recipient of the Param Vir Chakra for the battle of Shela Teng, the awe-inspiring bravado of Major Shaitan Singh at Rezang-La, the raw courage of CQMH Abdul Hamid at Khem Karan, the valour of Lance Naik Albert Ekka in the battle of Hilli in Bangladesh and the deathdefying heroism of Capt Vikram Batra on the icy heights at Kargil, are but a few examples of the guts and glory which have been the hallmark of the Indian Infantry in battle.

Different parts of India have been embroiled in insurgency and afflicted by the scourge of militants and terrorists. Some of our states in the North East and Jammu & Kashmir, have been severely affected by indigenous as well as foreign instigated unrest, requiring the deployment of the Army. The counter insurgency operations carried out with great success in these areas are primarily infantry-centric. Various units of the infantry as well as troops serving with the two para-military forces tasked with counter insurgency, the Assam Rifles and the Rashtriya Rifles, have distinguished themselves in these operations. While the Assam Rifles and Rashtriya Rifles do have a percentage of officers and soldiers from other arms and services, the bulk is from the infantry and they carry out primarily infantry operations.

Another area where the infantry of the Indian army has earned fame and distinction internationally is in the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations across the globe. Once again, the composition of our contingents deployed on these missions has been mainly from the infantry. India has the distinction of being one of the largest contributors for peace keeping operations and its soldiers have earned great respect and acclaim while providing a leadership role in quelling turbulence and restoring normalcy in foreign countries.

The orthodoxy of force projection considers naval power as the main instrument for it. However, India’s intervention in Sri Lanka was a primarily infantry operation carried out by battalions of different infantry regiments. Again, India’s assistance to Bhutan against Chinese aggression at Doklam in 2017, was provided by infantry battalions. These two examples from opposite ends of the sub continent, from a tropical to a Himalayan battlefield, demonstrate the great flexibility of the infantry making it the most useful weapon in varied climes and geographies. This suppleness comes from the approach of the infantryman who is willing to bring his soldiering skills to bear on the task at hand and fight with his unit anywhere and anytime.

The Ultimate Motivation

What makes a soldier fight and stake his life in mortal combat? The simple answer is “Naam, Namak and Nishan”. “Naam” is the good name of the unit and regiment, “Namak” is the loyalty and fidelity to the nation and the unit, “Nishan” is the emblem or flag of the unit. All three are the essence of the regimental system, which has stood the test of time in numerous wars and conflicts. Simply put, the regimental system is the greatest motivator in the Indian army and especially in the infantry. The uniqueness of regimental accoutrements, badges, lanyards and shoulder flashes, imbibe a young soldier with the martial traditions of the regiment. The most desirable traits in a unit and an individual soldier are those of Esprit-de-Corps, bonding, cohesion, motivation and izzat. All these stem from the regimental system, which is the backbone of the infantry and the Indian army.

How the regimental system raises a soldier to deeds of great daring and valour in the line of duty, is best illustrated by this quote from the military historian Phillip Mason, “Men may come to the colours for pay, but it is not for the pay alone that they win the Victoria Cross”.

While the character of war is evolving, the nature of war remains unchanged. Similarly, while the infantry is re-equipping and re-organising as per the requirements of the modern day battlefield, to play a more potent role in the enhanced lethality of war, the essence of its soldiering remains moored in the regimental system and this imbibes it with a unique sense of identity. In the ultimate analysis it is this sense of identity and belonging that generates the camaraderie so very essential to the profession of arms.