Indian Army’s uniform over the years as it readies for a new one - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 5 January 2022

Indian Army’s uniform over the years as it readies for a new one

Former Bengal Lancers in ceremonial dress uniform. The new, NIFT designed disruptive pattern battle dress debuts on January 15


By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 6th Jan 22


On January 15, the new combat uniform of the Indian Army will make its debut appearance during the annual Army Day parade in New Delhi. The new uniform has been designed by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), in partnership with the Indian Army.


Like most army combat uniforms, this one has been designed to serve two requirements: First, protection against harsh climatic conditions, including extreme heat and cold. Second, the need to provide soldiers’ outfits with field camouflage, so as to increase his battlefield survivability.


The tradition of military field uniforms was brought to India through the British East India Company, which carved up the country into three separate Presidencies – the Bengal Presidency, Bombay Presidency and Madras Presidency.


The British East India Company instituted separate dress uniforms and combat uniforms for each of the three presidencies. The sepoy (sipahi) soldiers who served the British were put into uniforms that were, as per British tradition, partly red. However, their uniforms were also embroidered with coloured trimmings of red (Bengal Presidency), grey (Bombay Presidency) and yellow (Madras Presidency).


While these splashes of colour were especially visible in ceremonial dress uniform and mess dress uniform, each presidency’s daily combat dress uniform also often bore edgings of their respective colours.


In times of dire emergency, such as when Indian troops in Meerut rose in rebellion on May 10, 1857 after the British introduced cartridges lubricated with the fat of cows and pigs, it became essential for the British to quickly raise uniformed forces to quell the mutiny. The method adopted in the Punjab was to raise cavalry units called risalas. This method, known as the “silladar” system, recruited soldiers who brought along their own weapons, equipment and horses. Instead of a salary, these fighters were permitted to keep the loot that came their way. Since there was no time to arrange for uniforms for these ad hoc soldiers, they were identified by ad hoc methods, such as coloured sashes or turbans.


For example, one of the most effective and feared silladar units, known as Hodson’s Horse after its founder, Major WSR Hodson, required its soldiers to wear scarlet cummerbunds (waist sashes) and turbans to identify itself in battle. With one British officer observing that the unit’s scarlet accoutrements made it look like a flight of flamingos as it galloped into battle, the unit adopted the nom de guerre of “The Flamingos”. This unit, now an armoured tank regiment, still bears that informal appellation.


After 1857,  the armies of the three Presidencies of the East India Company devolved to the British Crown and, in successive waves of restructuring, were allotted formal uniforms. However, in several cases, the army retained in its uniforms reminders of excellence and of ethnic origin, such as the khukri – a deadly curved knife that Gurkha soldiers carry even today on their belts. 


With the division of the Indian Army into the Indian and Pakistani armies in 1947, there were major changes to the uniforms each army wore. While these were relatively limited in the Indian Army’s uniforms, which retained olive green as the basic colour of its uniform, the Pakistan Army uniforms underwent major changes with the basic colour of its uniform being changed to khaki. Changes were also made in the rank badges and unit insignia, with the British crown being replaced by the crescent in the Pakistan Army and by the Ashoka emblem in the Indian Army.


The Indian Army made its next round of major changes in uniform after the 1962 war, when it found its clothing and equipment utterly inadequate for functioning and fighting in the high mountains of Ladakh and the North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). Indian soldiers’ cotton uniforms and cotton fibre jerseys were replaced by clothing that was better equipped for those Himalayan altitudes.


The Indian Army’s next qualitative jump began with the Siachen Glacier face-off in 1984, when Indian soldiers occupied the frozen heights of the Saltoro Ridge that towers above the glacier. Indian units in the glacier were introduced to Austrian alpine clothing and climbing equipment and, to this day, India buys its extreme cold weather clothing (ECWC) from European alpine suppliers. Only on December 27, 2021 did the Defence Research & Development Organisation chief hand over technology for manufacturing ECWC to five Indian companies in New Delhi.


In 1980, the Indian Army made its next big change in uniforms, replacing the old cotton olive green combat dress with “disruptive pattern” battle dress that provided an inbuilt element of camouflage to the soldier. 


With the latest changes, an open tender is planned to be issued to both private and public sector companies for manufacturing and supplying the new disruptive pattern battle dress uniform (BDU). To ensure security, tight restrictions would be imposed on the manufacture and supply of this BDU and on who would be allowed to wear it.


  1. 1. the silladari system was a feudal throwback from the mughal and maratha armies - sivaji was not entirely happy with the feudal nature of silladari where loyalty was to the trooper's silladar and gradually had this replaced with bargirs - 2/3 of his mounted men were bargirs whose loyalty was directly to him. a silladar [a local grandee] came in with forty to fifty of his men who owed him allegiance, the silladar was responsible for mounting, arming his force; this was modified by the east indian company and was the basis for raising many of the irregular mounted troops known as 'horse', hence the 16th light cavalry, eight light cavalry were included in the army list as regular cavalry, while the irregulars were distinguished by their appellation of 'horse'. this was the system under which jacob raised his risala the scinde horse to police the sind, baluch territories, and similarly the central india horse - again to police the badlands of bundelkhand. the former were part of the bombay army, while the latter of the bengal army. your understanding of silladari as peculiar to the risalas mustered in punjab [from western jat peasantry to contain the easter oudh brahmins] may be part of the fanciful mythology in the officers mess at 4 horse. even sivaji recognized that loot and plunder was inimical to discipline, and this would not have been lost on hodson, a rugby [school] and cambridge tripos man. in fact at the time of hodson's death just a year after he put together his horse, his successor daly found only 16,000 rupees in the regimental chest while 1,20,000 had been drawn from the treasury. true the men came in with ideas of rich rewards awaiting them on the gangetic plain, but this is much like today with young fellows at IMA, OTA dreaming that post commissioning will be mess parties, golf, DSOI, swank, pomp and ceremony, free rations, orderlies, shooting partridge, beer and scotch, and BPET with a pistol at the waist.

    2. both 9th and 10th bengal cavalry [renumbered from 1st and 2nd hodson's horse, older name restored as hodson's horse in 1901, and then as amalgamated as 4th duke of cambridge's own lancers in 1922] wore salmon coloured clothing from 1861 to 1874 to change to blue with red facings, 9th adopted white facings [trimming is for motor cars and little girls frocks] in 1887. this earlier salmon coloured achkan, kurta, led to their being referred as flamingos. flamingos are pink not red, smoked salmon is pink.

  2. 3. olive green was introduced with the burma ops of the 1939-45 war, prior to this the indian army was kitted in khaki, and this continued as the colour of uniforms to the west of lahore, especially on the nwfp. a soldier would have looked pretty silly wearing OG in waziristan. india continued with OG, and pakistan with khaki of their terrain.

    4. khukris are not worn at the belt, soldiers have always worn swords, bayonets at their waist, like wise the khukri, and can hardly be called a knife but more like a machete, khukris are the bill-hooks of the nepali peasant working in his field clearing underbrush, and to defend himself from possible leopard attack.

    5. could not figure out the connection between the new fabric pattern for field service kit and your banging on about cavalry troopers, fables around your 4 horse sowars being feared, effective. no regiment of the indian army infantry, cavalry were ever deployed, employed as shock troops, [gurkhas were, but they are from nepal] our martial races were simply cannon fodder to soften the enemy and parade ground show troops to thrill admirers of the empire. even the wilkinson manufactured 1908 pattern [colonel fox design] sword was the IP modification - with smaller, slighter grip for the smaller jat, dogra, rajput hand compared to the average european's bigger palm, stronger hand - indian landed high status peasantry usually have low caste and dalit labour doing the actual work of the cultivator. hodson's got its notoriety owing to the brutal murder by william raikes hodson, personally with his sabre, of all the members of bahadur shah zafar's immediate family of the zenana, including women and children, a day after hodson had with audacious precocity obtained the surrender of zafar shah himself. this horrible act was condemned and caused bitter controversy for many years and has been said to be the reason for the regiment being well more well known than other indian cavalry. william raikes' father was a christian priest, divine of the church of england. the picture of tank crew in costume with lances may not be indicative of any uniform according to DSR dress regulations current. these fanciful costumes are put together from unit funds garnered from CSD canteen profits, soda water budget, and similar winkles. anyway the soldiers in the picture are rather poor specimens of sikh jats and dogras, nothing martial about them, can't imagine any of them being able to complete a khud race or even the oxfam 100 km trail walker outside bangaloor. soldiers need to look like soldiers, hard, fit, confident, something no national institute of fashion design will know about. used as they are to mannequins on the ramp.

  3. 6. apparently all this brouhaha is more about armed police such as the central industrial security force, railway protection force, and probably even post office watch and ward chowkidars wearing 'commando' style costumes and the great desi public conflating them with our bravehearts. journalists, television 9pm warriors routinely refer to police constabulary as jawans, troopers, and since police forces do manage to attract more soldierly looking taller, healthier looking young men than the fauj at its recruitment rallies the resentment must rancour.


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