South Asian Warfare Research Paper

This sample South Asian Warfare Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

South Asia’s first recorded civilization utilized citadels and walled cities almost five thousand years ago, indicating a need for military protection. Warfare has been a constant in its history ever since, whether states fought to establish regional empires or foreign armies invaded to colonize. The region may not have achieved political stability yet; India and Pakistan have fought four wars since being partitioned from British India in 1947.

Throughout most of its long history, South Asia has consisted of a multitude of states, all vying against one another for power, territory, and domination. At times, certain states have expanded outward from their core areas to form India-wide or regional empires, such as the Maurya Empire (c. 324–c. 200 BCE), the Cola Empire (850–1279 CE), or Vijayanagara (c. 1346–1565 CE). South Asian empires have also been erected by foreign invaders, as in the case of the dynasties of the Delhi sultanate (1192–1526), the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), and the British (c. 1850– 1947). All these contests have involved warfare.

2600 BCE–1720s CE

Very little is known of the military aspects of the first recorded South Asian civilization—the Harappan civilization (c. 2500–1900 BCE)—since its script has not yet been deciphered. That it possessed citadels and walled cities seems to indicate a need for military protection. The Harappans had rudimentary bronze weaponry, mostly swords, spearheads, and arrowheads. Most probably, their enemies were not formidable in terms of either ability or numbers. Although it was initially thought that the Harappan civilization was destroyed by the invading Indo-Aryan tribes, current research posits that environmental factors caused its demise around 1900 BCE.

The Coming of the Indo-Aryans

From about 1500 BCE, seminomadic, pastoralist, and Sanskrit-speaking Aryan tribespeople began penetrating South Asia from the northwest. Although they possessed sophisticated military technology in the form of the light two-wheeled war chariot, the incoming Aryans were not a disciplined army led by a great leader on a campaign of swift conquest. Indeed, the Aryan “conquest” was more of a migration, measured in generations rather than in years. The numerous Aryan tribes—about forty are mentioned in the Rig Veda, a sacred text dating from the second millennium BCE, if not earlier—were not peaceful. They were in constant conflict with one another, mostly over cattle, which was how they measured relative wealth and power. (The ancient Sanskrit word for fighting literally means “to search for cows.”) The mythical conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, which forms the central narrative of the epic Mahabharata, has a factual kernel, probably originating as a tribal war over cattle and land in what is now northern Punjab.

When not fighting amongst themselves, the Aryan tribes fought the indigenous Dasas. We know that the Dasas had many forts, because the Rig Veda often refers to Indra, the main Aryan god, as Purandaradasa—“destroyer of the Dasa forts.” Dasa forts may well have been wooden, for Aryan hymns often call upon Agni, the fire god, to help defeat the Dasas. In the Rig Veda, a war between two Aryan tribal groupings was won by a King Sudasa, whose name indicates that some Dasas had already been assimilated into Aryan culture. Evidence of Aryan attempts to invade and settle peninsular India is contained in the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, which tells the story of the Aryan Prince Rama’s expedition to Lanka (Sri Lanka) to rescue his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the evil demon king, Ravana. Rama was aided by the monkey-god Hanuman; some see in Hanuman and his people a reference to the aboriginal tribes or the Dravidian peoples of southern India.

By 500 BCE, the mixing of the Aryan and indigenous peoples had resulted in the distinctive varna (caste) social pattern, which most resembled the estates or orders of medieval Europe, and set the template for what became Hinduism. Here, the second-ranking Kshatriyas were the varna of warriors and kings. Yet, throughout the traditional period, considerable social mobility existed, especially in warfare. Lower varna men fought in the Mauryan armies, alongside charioteers and elephants, and by the eleventh century, it was not uncommon for men from the lowest Vaishya (merchant) or Shudra (labourer) varnas to assume Kshatriya or Rajput (literally, “son of a king”) status through military service. Indian peasantry supplemented their agrarian incomes by soldiering, which was seen as an honorable profession. A military labor market, mediated by military entrepreneurs known as Jama’dars, became a feature of precolonial India.

Magadha and the Maurya Empire

Kingdoms had developed on the Gangetic plain by 500 BCE. One of these, Magadha, straddling the Ganges River in modern-day Bihar, was responsible for introducing the war elephant into South Asian warfare. Elephants soon became as important as chariots in South Asian warfare. Besides becoming the traditional mount of rajas, elephants were used to trample and slaughter enemy troops, batter down enemy forts, for transport, and as archery platforms. But elephants were expensive and difficult to maintain, and only the richer Indian polities could afford large numbers of them. Archery was also well developed by 500 BCE. Indian archers used double-curved, composite wood-and-horn bows, which had a range of about 100–120 meters. In battle, archers on foot were shielded by a rank of javelin-armed infantry. The absence of swift horses in South Asia resulted in the transformation of the two-wheeled chariot into the four-wheeled armored chariot carrying many more archers. Thus, though their offensive power increased, their battlefield mobility was impeded. Magadha also developed the catapult.

Magadha became the basis for the Maurya Empire (c. 324–c. 200 BCE ), during which time the Arthasastra, a classic work of Indian statecraft that adopted an amoral, realist approach to war and diplomacy, appeared. Reputedly authored by the philosopher and imperial adviser Kautilya (flourished 300 BCE), it included details on military organization, strategy, tactics, and logistics, and stressed the value of effective espionage and bribery. That the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707; reigned 1658–1707) wanted to abolish the special fund for bribing enemy forts, and that the British under Robert Clive (1725–1774) defeated the forces of the nawab (provincial governor) of Bengal at Palasi (1757) through bribery demonstrates the remarkable continuity of Kautilyan strategies.


Throughout this period, campaigns of the Indian empires, both north and south, were essentially similar. Armies were moving cities, complete with large bazaars to handle supply. War elephants were the most important component until about 1100 CE. They were displaced by the heavy cavalry of the Muslim invaders, who reintroduced the stirrup—originally invented in South Asia in the first century—to warfare there. The stirrup, by anchoring the rider firmly to the horse, made cavalry a true shock weapon, and more useful than elephants in battle.

Siege engines, and after about 1350, large bombards and cannon—which required industrial and financial capacity that only the large empires could sustain—were highly unwieldy, requiring hundreds of pack oxen. This meant that the progress of an imperial army was painfully slow, about 8 kilometers per day even in Mughal times. Given the nine-month-long, monsoon-delimited campaigning season, an imperial army’s typical reach was between 1,080 and 1,200 kilometers. Campaigns were also slowed by the nature of the frontiers, which were imprecise bands of territory between two core areas, inhabited by petty rajas who would either have to be co-opted or subdued before the invading army could proceed. Battles were short and confused affairs, the onus being on individual heroic prowess rather than on disciplined maneuver. If a king or commander were killed or captured, then as in chaturanga, the precursor to chess that was popular among members of the Kshatriya class, his army was considered defeated.

Traditional Indic warfare was land based. The only exception to this was the Colas, who, under Rajaraja I (reigned 985–1014) and his successor Rajendra I (reigned 1014–1044), took to the sea to conquer Sri Lanka and Srivijaya (an empire located on the islands of Sumatra and Java). The strategic vision impelling these seaborne campaigns was the control of Southeast Asian maritime trade.

The Mansabdari System

Traditional Indic polities were segmentary, essentially “military confederation[s] of many chieftains cooperating under the leadership of the biggest among them” (Stein 1980, 55). Loyalty was a problem. The Mughals met this challenge with the mansabdari system, which entailed granting a specified rank to a noble and entitling the noble to revenue from an assigned area of land. Mansabdari ranks carried with them the duty to provide a specifi ed number of cavalrymen for battle. A rank was not hereditary, however, and could be revoked at the emperor’s pleasure. The mansabdari system was an early attempt at creating military professionalism in India.

Colonial Warfare, 1720–1947

European penetration of India, which had far-reaching military consequences, began in the 1600s, with the appearance of European trading companies on India’s shores. Initially, the armed forces of the main contenders—the English and the French East India companies—were not a serious threat. But by the 1720s the French, balking at the high cost and low survivability of European soldiery in Asia, were recruiting Indian musketeers, whom they called sepoys, after the Persian word spahi (soldier), and training them in the latest European tactical doctrine of close order drill and volley firing. Battles such as Adyar River in 1746 and Buxar in 1764 proved that small sepoy detachments could defeat much larger Indian hosts. The British copied the French, and both countries took advantage of the political flux resulting from the Mughal Empire’s decline to become players in South Asian geopolitics.

The English proved more successful at this, defeating the French twice (1744–1748 and 1749– 1754). They then turned their attention to defeating the Indian polities, winning wars against Mysore (1767–1769, 1780–1784, 1790–1792, 1799), the Marathas (1775–1782, 1803–1805, 1817–1818), the Gurkhas (1814–1816), and the Sikhs (1845– 1846, 1848–1849). Each of these wars resulted in the widening of the English East India Company’s (EIC’s) territory. The Marathas and the Sikhs were formidable foes who adopted Western tactics and weaponry. To fight them, the EIC tapped into the military labor market to vastly increase the size of their land forces. By 1796 these numbered 57,000 sepoys, bolstered by an additional 13,000 British troops; by 1856 there were 226,352 sepoys and 38,502 British troops. These were distributed amongst the three “presidency” armies of Bengal, Bombay (now Mumbai), and Madras. These armies only cooperated during wartime; otherwise they were fairly autonomous. This autonomy extended to recruitment. While the Bombay and Madras armies recruited Indians of many communities and castes, the Bengal army, which was also the largest, increasingly recruited Brahmans (that is, people of the highest-status varna) of the Gangetic heartland. The EIC ensured that sepoy wages were regularly paid, in contrast to the rather haphazard arrangements obtained in the Indian polities. This increased the incentive for Indians to become EIC sepoys. The EIC state financed its land forces by resorting to military fiscalism: it used its army to accrue territory, the revenue from which was used to finance its army.

The Uprising of 1857–1858

By the mid-nineteenth century, sepoy units were commanded by British officers, with a subordinate Indian officer class acting as a crucial liaison between the British officer and the Indian private soldiers, but effectively barred from higher command. In 1857 the Bengal Army’s Hindu and Muslim sepoys rose up against their British officers. The mutiny was sparked by the fears of the sepoys that the British were conspiring to make them transgress their religion through the introduction of new weaponry lubricated with animal fat, which was forbidden by religious law to both Hindus and Muslims. But the military mutiny quickly became a generalized revolt against the EIC. Cantonment (garrison) towns such as Lucknow and Kanpur became centers of revolt, as did the old imperial city of Delhi, where sepoys gathered with vague ideas of restoring the Mughal Empire. The heavily outnumbered British were caught completely off guard. Had the mutinous sepoys attacked Calcutta (Kolkata), the capital of British India, they might have won. As it was, the British were able to rally, relying on Punjabi sepoys and on reinforcements that arrived by sea. That quelling the uprising took a full two years speaks to its seriousness and to the military prowess of the Indian leaders such as Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai (1835–1858) of Jhansi, and Tantia Topi (c. 1819–1859).

After the “Mutiny,” as the British termed it, the British Crown took over the Indian army. Measures were undertaken to prevent another mutiny. The ratio of British to Indian troops was set at one to three, and recruitment, even in the Bombay and Madras armies, was focused more towards the northwest. The Indian military was thus separated from Indian society. British authorities justified this on the basis of the “martial races” ideology, a mixture of practical concerns and Victorian ethnography, which held that in India, “only certain clans and classes . . . [had] . . . the physical courage necessary for the warrior” (MacMunn 1911, 129). These “martial races” included Sikhs, “Punjabi Musalmans” and Nepali Gurkhas. To further ensure against mutinies, the ethnic composition of army units was strictly monitored.

South Asian Forces Abroad

During the late nineteenth century, South Asian warfare centered on the Indo-Afghan frontier, the scene of the “Great Game,” a rivalry between the Russian and British empires. Over twenty campaigns and the Second Afghan War (1878–1880) were fought in largely fruitless attempts to control the area’s tribes. During this time the cost of the Indian army, which amounted to about 30 percent of the Indian budget, was entirely borne by Indians. Indian forces also participated in military efforts in many parts of the British Empire, mainly in Africa and Asia.

This overseas deployment was greatly increased during World War I (1914–1918), in which India, as a British imperial possession, was committed to the Allies. The unified Indian army’s Meerut and Lahore divisions, as Britain’s strategic reserve, were deployed on the western front (France) in 1914– 1915. Sepoys also saw action in the disastrous Mesopotamian campaign (1915–1916), in east Africa (1915–1918), and in Palestine (1917–1918). The prospect of fighting their Ottoman coreligionists caused Muslim sepoys at Singapore to mutiny in 1915. Sepoy recruitment skyrocketed, reaching ten thousand men a month by 1915. By 1918 India had recruited 1.4 million men for the Allied war effort, many from classes previously deemed “unmartial.” In 1917 Indians were allowed into the Indian army’s officer corps, which had, until then, been “ . . . properly reserved for the governing race” (Sundaram 2002, 75).

After World War I, the army reverted to its frontier warfare role. It was also used to disperse Indian nationalist disturbances, most notoriously at Amritsar in 1919. Some sepoys’ refusal to fire on nationalist demonstrators at Meerut in 1930 indicates that they were becoming nationalist themselves. This period also witnessed the setting up of officer training for Indians in India itself. The British strongly preferred “martial-race” Indians (such as Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims) as officers, and posted them to only 7.5 percent of the army.

During World War II the Indian army again ballooned—to 2.2 million men—and men from nonmartial groups were recruited in increasing numbers, though Indian nationalists resented being once again dragged into war without being consulted. Though the Indian army fought in the North African and Italian campaigns, its most significant deployments were in Malaya in 1941–1942 and in Myanmar (Burma) in 1941–1945. Malaya was a harsh battleground for the Indian army, which was ill-trained and ill-equipped for jungle warfare; forty-five thousand Indian jawans (soldiers) were captured by the Japanese. Out of this group was formed the Indian National Army (INA), a force allied to the Japanese, whose aim was to gain Indian independence from Britain. Though not a significant military threat, the very existence of such a force was further proof of the upwelling of nationalist feelings in the military, and of the fact that, once the war was over, jawans would not stand for continued British rule. After shattering defeats, the Indian army overhauled itself in 1943–1944, and met and defeated the Japanese invasion of northeastern India in 1944. Whereas in 1939 there were only eleven Indian majors, by 1945, 40 percent of the Army’s officers were Indian, and there were Indian brigadiers.

South Asian Warfare since 1947

The partition of British India into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the partition of the old Indian army, endemic warfare between the two new states (centered mainly around the border area of Kashmir), and differing models of civil-military relations. Broadly, the army was divided on a two-to-one ratio, with two units going to India for every one going to Pakistan. Partition gave Pakistan most of the cantonments and training facilities, but it gave India the war industries. Between 1947 and 1999, India and Pakistan fought four wars, one of which, in 1971, led to the independence of East Pakistan as the nation of Bangladesh. Two of the wars have been stalemates and two have been Indian victories. These wars have been short, reflecting the immense cost of modern warfare for developing countries. Insurgency still continues in Kashmir, which has been unofficially partitioned. Though the military officers of both countries are still mostly drawn from the “martial races,” their civil-military relations are radically different. Whereas the Indian military has been effectively subordinated to the civilian democratic government, Pakistan has been subjected to long periods of military rule (1958–1972, 1977–1988; 1998–2007). Though both countries now possess nuclear weapons, India is reasonably stable. Pakistan, however, is being assailed by the Taliban on one side, and its own army’s Inter- Services-Intelligence agency on the other, and it is dangerously close to becoming a failed state, which could threaten the stability and security of the entire region.


  1. Basham, A. L. (1954). The wonder that was India: A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims. London: Collins.
  2. Cohen, S. P. (1991). The Indian army: Its contribution to the development of a nation (2nd ed.). Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  3. Economic and Political Weekly. (2008). 1857: Essays from Economic and Political Weekly. Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman.
  4. Gaylor, J. (1992). Sons of John company: The Indian and Pakistani armies, 1903–1991. Tonbridge Wells, U.K.: Spellmount.
  5. Gommans, J. J. L. (2002). Mughal warfare: Indian frontiers and the high roads to empire. London: Routledge.
  6. Gommans, J. J. L., & Kolff, D. H. A. (Eds.). (2001). Warfare and weaponry in South Asia, 1000–1800. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  7. Gupta, P. S., & Deshpande, A. (Eds.). (2002). The British Raj and its Indian armed forces, 1857–1939. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  8. Harfield, A. (1990). The Indian army of the empress, 1861–1903. Tonbridge Wells, U.K.: Spellmount.
  9. Heathcote, T. A. (1995). The military in British India: The development of British land forces in South Asia, 1600–1947. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press.
  10. (1990). The Arthashastra (L. N. Rangarajan, Trans. & Ed.). Delhi: Penguin.
  11. Kolff, D. H. A. (1990). Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy: The ethnohistory of the military labour market in Hindustan, 1450–1850. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Kukreja, V. (1991). Civil-military relations in South Asia: Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. London: Sage.
  13. Longer, V. (1974). Red coats to olive green: The Indian army, 1600–1974. Mumbai, India: Allied.
  14. MacMunn, G.F. (1911). The armies of India. London, U.K.: Adam & Charles Black.
  15. Marston, D. P. (2003). Phoenix from the ashes: The Indian army in the Burma campaign. London: Praeger.
  16. Marston, D. P., & Sundaram, C. S. (Eds.). (2007). A military history of India and South Asia from the East India Company to the nuclear era. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.
  17. Mason, P. (1974). A matter of honour: An account of the Indian army, its officers, and men. London: Macmillan.
  18. Menezes, S. L. (1993). Fidelity and honour: The Indian army from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century. New Delhi: Viking Penguin.
  19. Moreman, T. R. (1998). The army in India and the development of frontier warfare, 1849–1947. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.
  20. Nath, R. (1990). Military leadership in India: Vedic period to Indo-Pak wars. New Delhi: Lancers Books.
  21. Pande, S. R. (1970). From sepoy to subedar: Being the life and adventures of Subedar Sita Ram, a native officer of the Bengal army, written and related by himself (J. Lunt, Ed.). London: Macmillan.
  22. Peers, D. M. (1995). Between Mars and mammon: Colonial armies and the garrison state in India, 1819–1835. London: I. B. Tauris.
  23. Praval, K. C. (1987). Indian army after independence. New Delhi: Lancer International.
  24. Roberts, F. S. (1898). Forty-one years in India: From subaltern to field marshal. London: Macmillan.
  25. Rosen, S. P. (1996). Societies and military power: India and its armies. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  26. Roy, K. (Ed.). (2006). War and society in colonial India, 1807– 1945. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  27. Sarkar, J. N.(1984). The art of war in medieval India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.
  28. Sen, L. P. (1969). Slender was the thread. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
  29. Stanley, P. (1998). White mutiny: British military culture in India. New York: New York University Press.
  30. Stein, B. (1980). Peasant state and society in medieval south India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  31. Sundaram, C. S. (1995). A paper tiger: The Indian National Army in battle, 1944–45. War & Society, 13(1), 35–59.
  32. Sundaram, C. S. (2002). Reviving a “dead letter”: Military Indianization and the ideology of Anglo-India, 1885-1891. In P. S. Gupta & A. Deshpande (Eds.), The British Raj and its Indian armed forces, 1857-1939. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  33. Sundaram, C. S. (2006). Seditious letters and steel helmets: Disaffection among Indian troops in Singapore and Hong Kong, 1940-41, and the formation of the Indian National Army. In K. Roy (Ed.), War and society in colonial India, 1807–1945, (pp. 126–160). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  34. Tan, T. Y. (2005). The garrison state: The military, government, and society in colonial Punjab. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom research paper on political science and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655