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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Army service and social mobility : the Mahars of the Bombay Presidency, with comparisions with the Bene Israel and Black Americans Basham, Ardythe Maude Roberta


A number of historians have asserted that military service has been an avenue of social mobility for disadvantaged peoples in multicultural societies but few detailed investigations support this assertion. This thesis does so by describing the relationship between army service and social mobility in the case of the Mahars, an untouchable community of Western India, who are compared with the Bene Israel, an Indian Jewish community, and black Americans. The thesis describes and analyses the similarities and differences in the social status and military experiences of each community, and assesses the impact of military service on their social and economic situations. The Mahars and the Bene Israel served in the Indian Army up to 1893, when both groups were declared ineligible for enlistment. The reasons for this, and the struggle of the Mahars to regain their military eligibility, are examined and compared with the relevant period for American blacks, the century from the United States Civil War to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. Comparative military pay and benefits, the general effects of racial and caste prejudice, the "Martial Races" theory, the relationship between military service and citizenship, and the status of soldiers in their non-military environments are discussed at length in order to support the thesis that the Mahars benefited most from military service. They received economic benefits, educational opportunities, leadership experience, enhanced social status, and improved access to official channels. Consequently, they periodically agitated for restoration of the right to enlist, something they did not finally achieve until 1942. The Bene Israel had no racial or caste stigma to overcome, and were least affected by the loss of military employment. Accordingly, they made little effort to regain enlistment status. While American blacks derived similar benefits, these were not of crucial importance for improvement of the position of the entire black population; military service was, however, important in justifying claims to political equality. Whites reinforced their dominance with pseudo-scientific beliefs in their innate racial superiority which they used to limit the participation of the Mahars and blacks in the military. But recognition as soldiers had symbolic as well as practical value in strengthening the claims of Mahars and blacks to equal status in other areas. Primary sources used for the thesis include government documents from the National Archives of India, the Maharashtra State Archives, the United Services Institution of India, and the India Office Library. Regimental and other military histories, interviews, and a variety of cultural history sources, as well as the standard monographic materials, have also been used.

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