Sikh Military

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Sikhs have a long history of military service. Whether in the British Indian Army or the post-independence Indian Army, Sikhs have always been disproportionately represented martially.

Initially identified by the British as a "martial race" and specifically targeted for recruitment due to the belief that they had greater war-like characteristics than most other Indian peoples, the Sikhs have provided the backbone of the Indian military since the late 19th century. While it may not have been accurate to mark Sikhs as particularly more war-like than any other ethnic group, it's undeniable that Sikh troops have consistently proved their mettle.

In 1862, Punjabi infantry units made up approximately 20 percent of the Indian military. By 1914, almost half of the Indian military was drawn from Punjab. At the turn of the 20th century, over a quarter of Punjabi troops were Sikhs while only six percent of Punjab's populations was Sikh. At the beginning of WWI, 35,000 of the 161,000 troops in the British Indian Army were Sikh. This 22 percent of troops was drawn from the mere two percent of the Indian population which was Sikh. These Sikh troops would go on to make both great sacrifices on the battlefield and a global name for themselves.

The average Indian battalion had 764 troops, yet in November 1914 the 47th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment had only 385 men left. In 1915, The Second Battle of Ypres saw the first successful large-scale use of chemical warfare. While ultimately the involved German troops lost the battle to the Canadians, Sikh troops were utilized by the British in a charge against entrenched German forces. Over 78 percent of the 47th Battalion of the Sikh Regiment died during the battle. Other Sikh battalions also suffered horrible losses, as for instance the 14th Sikh which lost 371 men in Gallipoli. Despite these severe tolls, Sikhs maintained their courage. Soldier Indar Singh wrote home from the Somme: "It is quite impossible that I should return alive. Don't be grieved at my death, because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior's clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die." Likely these Sikhs were emboldened by their dedication to their faith. While in the field, they were allowed to erect temporary Gurdwaras (or temples), observe the birthdays of the Gurus, use traditional Sikh weapons such as quoits and sabres, and even carry the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib, before their marching battalions and into battle.

Sikh bravery continued undaunted in WWII, as they helped to swell the Indian Army's ranks from 189,000 at the onset of the war to over 2.5 million at the end of the war. Over 300,000 Sikhs volunteered for military service, with most joining combat arms specialties. As always, the Sikh military contingent was vastly disproportionate to the tiny Sikh population, yet Sikhs were happy to sacrifice for the good of others and their legendary courage made them the welcome mainstay of the British Indian Army.

As just two examples of the frequently referenced Sikh courage, consider Naik Gian Singh and Lieutenant Karamjeet Singh Judge. The former cleared several foxholes singlehandedly, continuing even while severely wounded. The latter was mortally wounded in the process of wiping out ten enemy bunkers. Both were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honor afforded by the British military. In all, six Sikhs received Victoria Crosses during WWII. In the words of British General Sir Frank Messervy, who was commissioned in the Indian Army, "We that live on can never forget those comrades who in giving their lives gave so much that is good to the story of the Sikh regiment. No living glory can transcend that of their supreme sacrifice, may they rest in peace. In the last two world wars, 83,005 turban wearing Sikh soldiers were killed and 109,045 were wounded. They all died or were wounded for the freedom of Britain and the world, and during shell fire, with no other protection but the turban, the symbol of their faith."

Sikhs first found representation in the U.S. military in Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and received an honorable discharge at the end of WWI. Another significant Sikh member of the U.S. armed forces is Ravi Singh, who previously served as a 2nd Lieutenant and successfully lobbied President Reagan's administration to allow him to wear his religiously mandated turban, or dastaar, while at a U.S. military academy. Other Sikh-Americans currently in the armed forces include Colonels Sekhon and G.B. Singh, who are presently serving in the United States Army, Ranbir Kaur of the CA National Guard and Navdeep Singh Virk, the first South Asian to serve as a U.S. Marine sniper.

Not surprisingly, Sikhs have continued to distinguish themselves militarily since the world wars, particularly in the 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan Wars and the 1999 Kargil Conflict. The Sikh Regiment remains the most decorated in the Indian military, with 14 Maha Vir Chakra (which are equivalent to the American Medal of Honor) and 1674 other gallantry awards to its name. Sikhs, which comprise only 1.9 percent of India's population, also continue to make up a huge part of the Indian military. In 1962, almost 40 percent of the Army's brigadier generals and 45 percent of major generals were Sikhs. A 1991 report estimated that 20 percent of all Indian officers and almost a quarter of Indian Air Force pilots were Sikhs. Indeed, the current Indian Chief of Army Staff is Sikh. J.J. Singh. In the U.S. military, Army Specialist Uday Singh became the first Indian to give his life in Operation Iraqi Freedom in December, 2003.

Sikhs will continue to serve in the Indian military, and armed forces around the world. Their courage is beyond doubt and their mettle faultless, and the world community owes them a debt of gratitude for their oft-overlooked part in the world wars and respect for their tide-turning part in countless other more regional conflicts.