THE MARATHA LIGHT INFANTRY – Maratha valour is often associated with Shivaji, the illustrious king, whose saga remains a very important motivational symbol for the regiment. It is for this reason that the war cry of the regiment is a clarion call to the soldiers, in the name of the great warrior. The sound of ‘Shri Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja Ki Jai’, is one resounding cry that continues to motivate soldiers and strikes fear in the enemies of the country.
Shivaji’s physical prowess has been recorded in his ability to defeat and kill a seemingly stronger adversary in Afzal Khan. Similarly, his guile is illustrated by his escape from the Mughal prison. These characteristics continue to best describe the Maratha soldier even today. The lean frame of the soldiers and their rustic simplicity obfuscates their tremendous physical capacity, stamina, resilience and grit in the face of adversity. There are numerous examples of dogged resistance and strong character of soldiers, which has led to the eventual defeat of the enemy.
These characteristics when combined with their adeptness at guerrilla warfare, have created a capacity that has notched up a series of victories on the battlefield. It is this lineage, which inspires the regiment since its raising in the eighteenth century.
The Maratha Light Infantry is one of the oldest regiments of the Indian Army. Raised on 04 August 1768, as the Second Bombay Sepoys, the Regiment has a glorious past. The battalions of the Regiment served both within and beyond India, distinguishing themselves in combat. These units, which were part of the East India Company, participated in many historic battles, to include Seedaseer and Seringapatnam.
The battle performance of the battalions was described as “seldom equalled and never surpassed” by Lord Wellesley, on account of their achievements.
The Regiment fought in areas as far-flung as China, Kahun, Middle East and the Abyssinian campaign. During the Peninsular War of the eighteenth century, special lightly armed troops, noted for their courage, were used for swift encircling movements to outflank the enemy. It was not without reason that General Sir Charles Napier praised the fighting prowess of the Marathas and said, “with the Bombay soldiers of Mainee and Hyderabad, I could walk through all lands. They are active, daring, hardy chaps, worthy of Shivaji himself.”
The achievements of the men, who gave the regiment the place of pride it holds, have collectively contributed to creating a unique and envious record not only on the battlefield but also in various facets of soldiering. These achievements make the Regiment distinct, in ways beyond the obvious, and provides an interesting perspective of life in uniform over the ages.
The Regiment is 247 years old and is the fifth in the order of seniority amongst all the regiments of the Indian Army. It has given the army and its regiments distinguished leadership that remains a benchmark even today. Not only did it give the country a Chief of Army Staff in
General J.J. Singh, he was also accompanied by two army commanders at the same time. The Regiment also had the distinction of giving the army a VCOAS. This leadership was also experienced over-seas when Lt Gen Satish Nambiar commanded the United Nations Protection Force in erstwhile Yugoslavia. The Regiment has also given Colonels of the Regiment to the Assam Regiment and Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. The Limca Book of Records highlights eight Lieutenant Generals of the Regiment serving simultaneously, as a unique achievement till date.
The Regiment has been at the forefront of forging ties with the sister services as well. Bonds of camaraderie and friendship forged on the battlefield were welded together through affiliations with the INS Mumbai, 20 Squadron Indian Air Force and Indian Coast Guard Air Station, Daman. This has seen officers and men participate in training and social events regularly and has contributed to a deeper understanding of each other’s working conditions.
The Regiment has continued to maintain its linkages with Kolhapur, Baroda and Hyderabad state forces that have traditionally been affiliated with the Marathas. These bonds have only strengthened over the years and remain a source of inspiration and an emotional connection with the legacy of the land that has produced sterling fighting qualities.
These affiliations have been nurtured with the evolution of the army and its role. The 109 and 101 Territorial Army battalions continue to strengthen the roots of the regiment in Kolhapur and Pune, even as they carry out onerous responsibilities in counter-insurgency operations. The Regiment also contributes to 17, 27, 41 and 56 Rashtriya Rifles battalions, which are one of the highest number linked with any regiment of the Army. Their contribution to peace and stability in difficult areas has been commendable. The Regiment prides itself in being the only one to have provided two Parachute (Special Forces) battalions, 2 and 21 Para (SF), which have distinguished themselves and created a history worth emulating. These linkages extend to 10 Mechanised Infantry, which is the erstwhile 20 Maratha LI and 34 and 36 Medium Regiments of the artillery.
In the field of sports, the Regiment has produced some of the finest sportsmen in the country, who have won medals at the Olympics, Asian and National championships. The Regiment achieved a distinguished record when it contributed three members of the 1960 Rome Olympics hockey squad to include Major Shantaram Jadhav, Subedar Shankar Laxman and Naik Vishwas Patil. Regimental wrestlers have won numerous awards at Commonwealth, Asian and National games, reinforcing the traditional wrestling heritage of the Marathas. These achievements have also been witnessed in shooting championships at the national level.
The sporting prowess of the Regiment has been accompanied by equally unique achievements in adventure sports. The resilience of the Maratha soldier and the steadfast spirit has been in evidence through the achievements of Colonel HS Chauhan (Retired), President Indian Mountaineering Foundation, who is a veteran in the field of mountaineering, with numerous firsts to his credit. His distinguished achievements have since been emulated by Colonel Saurabh Singh Shekhawat, one of the most decorated officers of the army, Lt Col I.S. Thapa, Major DJ Singh and members of their team who scaled Mount Everest as part of the expedition which was primarily selected from the Regiment. The regimental white water rafting team has also matched the mountaineers, participating in national and international events over the years.
The Marathas have been known for their unique marching style, given the light infantry traditions. This entailed a faster speed of marching and movement. Despite this differentiation, which was considered a limitation for normal marching speeds of 120 steps a minute, the Regiment has won the best marching contingent twice at the Republic Day parade. The contingent also had the unique privilege of marching during theFrench Bastille day in 2009, scripting history on foreign soil.
In addition to the achievements on and off the battlefield, the Regiment has contributed to the political evolution of the country, with Major Sudhir Sawant being elected as a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and Colonel D.K. Sherawat having been elected to the Delhi State assembly.
The Regiment is also unique as the Regimental Centre at Belgaum has won a battle honour “Sharquat”, when it was active as a battalion- the 114 Mahrattas.
The uniqueness of every regiment is often best illustrated, at least from the perspective of appearance, through the uniform, accoutrements and its symbols. The hackle worn on the cap is illustrative of the historical association of the Regiment. The Bombay Army during 1788 was reorganised into the 1st and 2nd Brigades. Red plumes adorned the headgear of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Brigade and green hackles were a standard part of the British Army Light Infantry regiments around 1797. The Marathas and the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry fought alongside each other in the Mesopotamia war as part of the same brigade. As a symbol of this association, the green portion was added to the red and so emerged the Maratha Light Infantry red and green hackle.
‘Malkhamb’ is a regimental speciality, which embodies the best of physical prowess and the rich cultural heritage of Maharashtra. This was started as an exercise by the Maratha Admiral, Kanhoji Angre to keep sailors physically fit. The mast of the ships was utilised for exacting gymnastic movements and postures, which continue to be performed by soldiers of all Maratha battalions even today. Similarly, ‘Lezim’, which was performed to welcome victorious armies in the past, is still done with great gusto in battalions for celebrating cultural events and achievements in all spheres of soldiering.
The regimental flag owes its lineage to the colours of 114 Mahrattas, the battalion which eventually became the Regimental Centre. The motto of the regiment is Duty, Honour, Courage, best exemplifying the spirit and approach of the soldiers to the profession of arms. Light infantrymen drew inspiration from American sharpshooters. The bugle horn was used to control the movement of troops. Thereby came the bugle with cords on the Light Infantry cap badge. When India gained independence, the Ashoka lions and the national emblem, replaced British crown atop the badge.
The Regiment also had a unique lanyard around the neck with ends in both front pockets. This was changed to the original lanyard in 2002, which is worn on the left shoulder. 5 Maratha LI is the only battalion which wears a blue lanyard on the right shoulder, unlike the green one worn by the rest of the Regiment, as an honour bestowed upon it.
Around the mid-eighteenth century, the need for swift manoeuvres was felt. Thus, the light infantryman was trained to move swiftly. Drill movements also incorporated this aspect, which saw the marching speed being stepped up to 140 steps per minute.
The regimental march past is in honour to the capture of Sinhgarh by Shivaji’s lieutenant, Tanaji Malusare. The march is appropriately titled: Sinhgarh and has been composed and arranged by Subedar A.P. James. Incidentally, 04 February is celebrated as Maratha Day to commemorate the capture of Kondana fort, which was renamed as Sinhgarh, to enshrine the valour of Tanaji Malusare. This subsequently led to the capture of six more forts by Shivaji, heralding his ascent.
Col Vivek Chadha (Retd), commanded 1 Maratha LI and is presently Research Fellow at IDSA,