Speaking on occasion of Presentation of Colours to the Regiment in 1968, Dr Zakir Hussain, then the President of India, had said: “History will record that the name of the Maratha is synonymous with, and second to none in deeds of courage and devotion; the Maratha sepoy is daring and has exhibited qualities of self sacrifice in many a far flung battle field. Your Regiment, during the last two hundred years of existence has added many brilliant chapters to the glorious annals of the Indian Army”. The Maratha Light Infantry, which emerged from the Presidency Army of Bombay in 1768, is one of the oldest regiments of the Indian Army.
Maj. Gen. E. D’Souza, PVSM (Retd) in his Foreword to ‘Valour Enshrined Part I’ has aptly stated: “However brilliant the plan of the commander, in the ultimate analysis it is the men of the regiment on whose performance the final issue depends. The Maratha sepoy has been synonymous with the history of the regiment”.
This article is a tribute to the Maratha sepoy- past and present- and especially to many unknown heroes whose gallantry, courage and devotion to duty went unnoticed. In doing so, let us recollect tributes paid by renowned people throughout our brilliant history.
Generally dark complexioned, of small stature, wiry and careless in appearance, the Maratha sepoy comes from a hard stock and has great endurance. With sterling qualities of quiet courage, grim determination and devotion to duty, his performance in battle has always been commendable.
It was only in the 17th Century that the glory of the Marathas reached unprecedented heights under Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Huen Tsang, the famous Chinese traveler who visited India in 641 AD wrote about the Maratha “Whoever does them a service may count on their gratitude but no one who offends them will escape their vengeance. If anyone insults them they will risk their lives to wipe out the affront. If anyone in trouble appeals to them, forgetful of themselves they will hasten to help him”. Such are theinherent qualities of the Maratha.
‘Seedaseer’ is one of our oldest battle honours won by the Marathas in 1799. It was here that our 1st and 2nd Battalions fought as part of the Bombay Army against Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan, considered as a fierce fighter was no match to the bravery of the Marathas. In this battle, the Marathas held their ground for six hours against repeated counter attacks and when their ammunition was expended, charged on the enemy with such ferocity that Tipu Sultan’s forces were scattered. Lord Richard Wellesley the Governor General wrote in his dispatch, “The conduct and success of the Army of Bombay on that day – 6 March 1799 – has seldom been equaled and never surpassed”.
A classic example of endurance of the Marathas was the 1867-1868 campaign in Abyssinia. Our 1st and 3rd Battalions fought with such determination and tenacity that General Sir Charles Napier, in his address to the battalions said, “You traversed often under a tropical sun or amidst storms of rain and sleet, 400 miles of mountainous and rugged country. You have crossed several ranges of mountains, many steep and precipitous more than 10,000 feet in altitude, where your supplies could not keep pace with you. In four days, you passed the formidable chasm of Bashilo and when, within reach of your enemy though with scanty food and even some of you were for many hours without either food or water, you defeated the army of Theodore, which poured down upon you from its lofty fortress in full confidence of victory”. Sir Charles Napier presented an Abyssinian drum to our 1st Battalion and concluded his talk by saying “with the Bombay soldiers of Mianee and Hyderabad I could walk through all lands. They are active, daring, hardy chaps, worthy of Shivaji himself”.
The First World War saw all our battalions heavily committed. One of the remarks recorded after the battle at Kut-El-Amara- the grimmest of battles ever fought- in which our 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 10th Battalions were engaged, was: “Both in generalship and gallantry, the Battle of Kut-El-Amara will beremembered as one of the most brilliant; possibly the most brilliant fought by the Indian Army”.
A great example of the gallant Marathas of the 5th Battalion at Kut-El- Amara was that out of 800, only 130 returned at the end of the war. Similarly, our 10th Battalion suffered very high casualties at Sharquat. Their indomitable bravery and determination won the praise of the whole army. The Battalion won 6 MCs, 2 DSOs, 10 IOMs, 16 IDSMs and 8 Mention-in-Despatches. No Indian Regiment before or since has gained so many honours in a single action. The action of the 2nd Battalion against Rommel at Tobruk in 1942, was yet another example of the valour of the Marathas.
Under good leadership, the Maratha sepoy has been amongst the best in the World. What can be more conclusive than the words of Field Marshal Bill Slim, the hero of Burma Campaign, who said: “ I have on more than one front in war had Maratha battalions with me and I have never known them fail or be other than first class fighting units, tough cheerful, reliable with a steady morale that did not go up and down like that of some possibly more advertised units. I was always delighted to have Marathas with me”.
It speaks volumes of deep impact made by a Maratha sepoy in the mind of the Theatre Commander, and that too, of the calibre of Field Marshal Slim.
Another great quality of the Maratha sepoy is his adaptability to take on the most difficult and hazardous missions in all types of terrain and weather conditions. In the second World War, General Oliver Leese, who was commanding the Eighth Army in Italy wrote to the Centre Commandant, “It is remarkable and also a tribute to their high discipline and morale, that our Marathas in Italy stood up splendidly to the bitter weather last winter. The condition of intense cold with many weeks of deep snow was such as to try the hardest troops”. Another instance of the Maratha sepoy’s adaptability is the one cited often by Chhatrapati Shahaji Maharaj of Kolhapur. While on a special mission during the Second World War in North Africa, he realised that among Indian troops Marathas had the least amount of casualties other than those in battle. Such is the adaptability of the Maratha sepoy that be it deserts, plains, jungles, mountains or high altitude, he adapts himself to the environment and masters it.
The Marathas have proved that with adequate coaching and practice they can excel in sports. Hockey, swimming, wrestling and boxing are their favourite games. However, our greatest pride is Malkhamb. It is a rare feast to the eye to see the Maratha boys at Malkhamb, which they have performed not only in Gaza and Ceylon to International audiences but also in the rarified atmosphere of Ladakh. The colourful Lezim dance, the rhythmic Gomu dance have won the appreciation of all audiences. After witnessing Malkhamb and the Lezim and Gomu dances at a Maratha Tattoo, a divisional commander remarked “The Marathas do not require any BPET or PPT- not with such a high standard of physical fitness”. This is our Maratha sepoy – ‘Ganpat’ as he is affectionately known. He is not the dashing cavalier and showman one normally associates with soldiery during peace. But watch him perform the unique gymnastics of the Malkhamb. And his deep religious convictions, strong attachments to his land, cold fury when aroused, mark the Maratha sepoy as first class fighting material. He is our pride. Let us salute him. The article was written by the officer while he was posted in the Maratha Light Infantry Regimental Centre