It was in the year 1796 when the East India Company decided to raise the first European-styled native/Indian cavalry regiment in the Army of Bengal. Well, that marked the birth of the modern-age Cavalry in the Indian Army. Back, then, India had been divided into three presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras, and each had its own army. “Once the first cavalry was formed, it was followed by the formation of many more cavalries in each presidency. By the end of 1857, which is almost 61 years post the inception of the first cavalry, the East India Company had 10 such regiments in the Bengal Army, three in Bombay Army and 8 in Madras Army,” explained Colonel Ajay Ahlawat.
Now, each such regiment comprised of only 24 British Officer and as many as 400 Indians formed the cavalrymen. Initially, the troops belonging to the allies of the East India Company were relied upon to fulfil the role of the light cavalry. “However, in the early 19th century, the Britishers had their own units called the Local Horse, of which the Skinner’s Horse Regiment was one unit. These were the irregular units but they often outperformed the regular units of the British cavalries. During the revolt of 1857, almost every regular cavalry of the Bengal Army was disbanded. This in a way paved the way for the irregular regiments to become the nucleus of the Indian or Native Cavalry and predictably, the Skinner’s Regiment became the first regiment of the Bengal Cavalry,” explained Colonel Ajay Ahlawat.
An analysis to explain, why the irregular regiment outperformed the existing cavalries, can be summed up as:
- In irregular regiments, the officers of native origin or Indians were given higher position and authority in comparison to the Indians recruited in the regular cavalries, where often a Britisher would outrank the Indian. However, in the irregular units, an Indian could even rise up to the position of a squadron commander.
- Also, the weapons and clothing of these regiments suited the nature and customs of the natives recruited as cavalrymen.
- To initiate a feeling of togetherness and loyalty, the Irregular Cavalry regiments often used to have the Regimental Darbars, which was presided over by the commandant and was attended by all ranks. This was a weekly affair, during which each member of the Unit had the freedom to talk, share opinions and discuss matters related to the regiment and its performance, irrespective of their origin.
“The Irregular Calvary Regiment also called the Silladar System, was based on the Silladars or arm bearers. The word silladar was used to refer to the Indian or native cavalryman in the Regiment. Initially, the recruit in this regiment had to provide his own horse, attendant, camp equipment etc. later the government began to furnish all this, in order to bring uniformity in the cavalry,” said Col Ajay Ahlawat.
All Silladars were paid more than the cavalryman who had his horses and equipment supplied by the British government. Also, if the horse of the SIlladar was killed during a war, then the government was supposed to compensate him. In case the Silladar’s horse became unfit or got infected with any disease then it became the duty of the government to make arrangements for the replacement of the horse.
“Another interesting aspect of this system was that the position or rank enjoyed by the Silladar was supposedly owned by him, which upon his death could be transferred to his son. This rank owned by the Silladar was called the asami. The owner of the asami was even entitled to sell of his position or rent out his position. Those recruited under such understandings were termed as Bargeers and were entitled to receive about a third of the Silladar’s salary, the remaining two-thirds went to the Silladars. There were about 400 bargeers in the Skinner Regiment,” reveal Col Ajay Ahlawat.
The biggest drawback of this system was the lack of uniformity and the usage of substandard war equipment and horses. Hence the system had to be reformed in the early 19th Century, which transferred the onus of providing horses, uniforms and equipment to the recruits in lieu of money.
“These changes were then incorporated in the Skinners regiment, when Carbines were issued to the regiments, following this; the Horse Chunda Fund was set up in the year 1871. Under this set up a recruit would have to pay a pre-decided amount for the horse and equipment,” elaborated Col Ajay Ahlawat. Interestingly, the recruits had to bear the cost of their own transport and tents, while the Britishers paid Rs 34 per month along with dearness allowance of Rs 5-8. So, it was obvious that the Indian Cavalry were not as well equipped or mounted as the British Cavalry regiments.
“Hence, it was here that the Silladar System broke down completely. For with the number of deads rising during the World War I, it was becoming difficult for the East India Company to provide the equipment and also return the asamis of the dead sowars. Hence post WWI, the silladar system was done away with,” explained Colonel Ajay Ahlawat.