Saturday, March 22, 2014

"...abundance of everything but izzat"

At the end of the day everything boils down to izzat. And izzat is tied up with how your women behave. If the castes inter-mingle the position of the elites become untenable.

During British rule it was clear that the Englishman was the top caste in India. One of the most important ways to preserve their reputation was to never never allow white women to come into contact with the darkies. However World War I created a crisis that was not easily resolved. And ultimately the lost British prestige was the starting point for the movement for independence.

“If you want any French women, there are plenty here and they are very good looking,” wrote a rather excited young soldier to a friend in the Punjab. He was not alone. From the first deployment of the Indian Expeditionary Force to France in 1914, the Indians proved extremely popular with European ladies and the feeling was often mutual. Their presence in large numbers (some 90,000 Indians were deployed to the theatre), their distinctive appearance and good manners made them a magnet for local women. 

When these same sepoys were invalided to Britain, as many were for treatment and convalescence, their reception was much the same. In seaside towns along the south coast, where most of the hospitals for Indians were located, convalescent sepoys and their Indian carers were objects of fascination for the English ladies. “Brighton is covered with girls who make a lot of the natives,” wrote a British hospital orderly to his wife in the spring of 1915, adding that, “They are to be seen arm in arm with ward servants and are very fond of coloured people.”

The reaction of the Indians varied. “The women have no modesty,” wrote Surjan Singh, a patient in Brighton’s Kitchener Hospital, “but walk with the men who please them most.” Another patient declared in a letter to his brother, “There are lots of women to be had. They write letters to us to come to their house and have food with them, and that we can get a woman. I am very much confused in mind.” But most had fewer reservations: “I am very happy in this place,” wrote one Sikh patient, with obvious enthusiasm.

It goes without saying that the military authorities were not best pleased with this situation. Foremost in their minds was the thought that sexual and even romantic relationships between British women and Indians would dim­inish the izzat—dignity—of the Raj. Sepoys’ letters referring to the ready availability of white women were usually censored and, for the same reasons, female English or European nurses were almost never employed in Indian hospitals in either Britain or France. British commanders and senior politicians knew well that liaisons between Indian soldiers and white women could wreck the carefully constructed mythology of racial distinctiveness.

But British women, in India at least, were generally beyond the reach of Indian men, for they tended to be of the “better sort”—the wives of officers and administrators, or perhaps pious missionaries. Encountering a white woman who did not fit the constructed image of the self-disciplined, morally upright memsahib was obviously as much a revelation to Indians as much as it was a worry for the British elite.  Most of the women attracted to Indian soldiers in France and Britain were from the working or lower middle classes. They showed little in the way of prejudice towards Indians and their familiarity was clearly unsettling to those further up the social scale. Commanders feared that this familiarity would undermine the sedulously constructed barriers and hierarchies that separated troops drawn from the colonies from white British troops. Moreover, it shook the very foundations of Empire. Would Indians—indeed those on whom the British ultimately depended to police their Empire—ever see the British in the same light again? The mask of racial distinctiveness was slipping forever and drastic action needed to be taken.

The military authorities in Britain and France were now determined to do all that they could to prevent un-trammelled liaisons between Indian soldi­ers and European women. In the spring of 1915, the commandant of the Kitch­ener Hospital in Brighton, Colonel Bruce Seton, ordered all Indian hospital staff to remain within the compound. The same was true of patients, with the exception of a few convalescent officers and warrant officers, who were sometimes issued with restricted passes to visit the town. But as Seton readily acknowledged, the confinement of some 600 Indian patients and staff within the hospital area was “no easy matter”. The brick walls had to be supplemented with barbed-wire palings and a police guard was placed around the perimeter. Similar precautions were taken elsewhere in England and, as far as possible, in France.

These restrictions were deeply resented by soldiers who had grown accustomed to a measure of freedom. “They do not let us out to the bazaars,” protested one patient to a comrade in the 40th Pathans. “They do not let the French or English girls talk to us, nor do they let us talk to them. The English have become very bad. They have become dogs. Our Indian soldiers are very much oppressed, but they can do nothing. There is abundance of everything but there is no izzat.”

In one notable case, this anger found an outlet in violence. An Indian Sub-Assistant Surgeon, who had been working in a hospital along the coast in Bournemouth, burst into Seton’s office and attempted to shoot him with his revolver. He missed and was subjected to seven years’ rigorous imprisonment. 


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