Indian and Sri Lankan Armed Forces
Posted on February 1st, 2016

Janaka Perera

This relates to the January 27th article titled ‘Coup attempt that nearly ignited a religious war’ in the Lanka Web of January 27.  Since a reader in his comment on the piece has apparently misunderstood what I wrote I need to clarify the point I made on the Indian Army.

There is no question that the British colonial masters modeled the Indian military on British lines. The fact however is that the Indians who formed that army and later the Indian Navy and Air Force were recruited from the same warrior tribes which were active in India until the British occupation. That they served a foreign ruler thereafter and what they did in Ceylon is NOT the issue here.

The fact of the matter is that the Sikhs continued to be Sikhs under the British, wore turbans and believed in Sikhism. The same applied to Rajput, Maratha, Gurkha, Punjabi and others in the military then as now.  Many among them joined the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose after Malaya and Singapore fell to the Japanese during World War II.  It is for the same reason that some Indian Navy personnel staged a anti-British mutiny on the eve of India’s independence (the first Indian mutiny was in 1857).  It is also for the same reason that a large majority of Indians gave a heroes’ welcome to the returning soldiers of the Indian National Army who were charged with treason by the British but were later acquitted since the charge could not be maintained.

The point I wish to make here is NOT what the Indian troops did or did not do under the British but their attitude to their own country after the British left, in contrast to the strongly pro-Western attitude of the Ceylon Army top brass in the immediate post-independence years.

The Indian Army had its origins in the years after the Indian uprising of 1857, often called the Indian Mutiny by British historians, when in 1858 the Crown took over direct rule of British India from the East India Company. Before 1858, the company controlled the precursor units of the Indian Army and paid them with company profits. These operated alongside units of the British Army, funded by the British government in London.

After the 1857 mutiny, recruitment switched to what the British called the ‘martial races’ as mentioned above.

Sri Lanka had no such warrior tribes at the time the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815.  All those who fought in defence of the kingdom until then were volunteers who in peacetime were engaged in other fields, although they had training in weaponry and martial arts. These facts can be obtained from various historical sources including Robert Knox’s account of 17th Century Ceylon.

Therefore it was easy for the British in Sri Lanka to create an entirely new military known as the Ceylon Defence Force, which later included the Ceylon Light Infantry, Ceylon Garrison Artillery and the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Reserve.  The military top brass at the time were of course all Europeans, as in India.  The others, especially officers, were mostly Burghers and Christians (both Sinhala and Tamil).


At independence, Sri Lanka inherited from the British a military establishment that was neither ethnically nor religiously representative of the population at large. Minorities, for example, were heavily overrepresented in the officer corps. Christians, who comprised about eight percent of the population, accounted for about 50 percent of all officers. Ethnically, Tamils and Burghers, who together comprised less than 20 percent of the population, accounted for 40 percent of the officer corps. This unbalanced representation was the result of a number of deliberate policies and incidental developments under the British.(

This same ‘tradition’ continued after independence until the coup attempt of January 27th 1962.

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