"Non-martial" Bengali stereotype continues from British era to newly found Pakistan

Last updated: 10 October 2017 From the section Muhammad Ataul Ghani (M. A. G.) Osmani (Bangabir)

'Martial race' concept

There were very few Muslim Bengali soldiers in the Pakistani army. This was mainly due to insistence that the soldiers come from a 'Martial Race'. The British had introduced this concept of dividing the ethnic groups into "Martial" and "Non-Martial" race based on their physical ability to fight in battle. According to the theory certain races are born with a 'military instinct' and that this was inherent in European races, especially the British, but was not true for all the races in India. The martial races, they continued, were brave and well built for fighting and had a more acceptable lifestyle.

It is a notion which the British introduced after observing that the Scottish Highlanders were more fierce in battle than others in Britain.

Punajbis amongst the 'martial races' whilst Bengalis labelled 'non-martial'

Traditionally the soldiers of Bengal were the backbone of the Indian Army. As "native Black troops" they were seen as "fine men" who "would not…disgrace even the Prussian ranks", as Lord Cornwallis had observed in a letter to the Duke of York in 1790.

Nevertheless, the British considered all Hindu men to show signs of effeminacy, or woman-like qualities. By the 19th century the label came to be applied most often to the men of Bengal – the capital of British India and the site of the most extensive contact between the British and the "natives".

The British regarded Gurkhas, Marathas, Rajputs and Sikhs as ‘martial’ races whilst Bengalis were considered amongst the ‘non-martial’ races.

The martial race theory – the notion that some communities are more biologically and culturally suited to military occupations than others – emerged at a time when colonial rule came under increasing challenge by the same section of the Indian middle class population that had once mediated between the British colonial administration and the wider Indian population.

Priya Chacko, author of "Indian Foreign Policy: The Politics of Postcolonial Identity from 1947 to 2004" (2012)

Apparently, hot climate, the Indian diet and the early age of marriage and motherhood were believed to be some of the key contributors to Indian effeminacy.

The experience of Bengal, the area which they conquered first and knew best, powerfully shaped British views of Indian effeminacy. Not only the climate, but much in Bengali dress and customs confirmed this stereotype. The Bengali male’s voluminous dhoti could easily be deprecated as a woman’s dress. Bengalis, perhaps more than those of other regions, were devoted to female deities, among them Kali and Radha, and male devotees assumed the dress and demeanour of women as mark of their submission to the god.

In all of this, of course, the British, knowing little and caring less about Bengali belief, saw what they wished to see. Conquest itself reinforced this gender stereotyping. If not a land of women, for the ‘sturdy’ peasant gained British respect, India was a land ruled by women, or rather womanly men, who ran from battle, and so deserved their subjugation. To be sure, as their conquests reached northern India, the British encountered groups whom they called ‘martial races’. But praise of Punjabi ‘manliness’ did not eradicate the stereotype of Indian effeminacy. It only carved out an exception, which cast the larger Indian, and especially Bengali, 'effeminacy' ever more sharply into relief.

Thomas R. Metcalf, author of "Ideologies of the Raj, Volume 3, Part 4" (1995)

Thomas Macaulay: Bengalis are "feeble even to effeminacy"

One of the key advocators of Bengalis as a physically weaker ‘race’ was British bureaucrat Thomas Macaulay who spent three-and-half years in India as member of the Supreme Council under the East India Company. The Bengali stereotype found most prolific expression in his critique titled “Critical and Historical Essays” published in 1843.

Macaulay observed that Bengalis 'physical organisation' was "feeble even to effeminacy". There had never perhaps existed, Macaulay concluded, “a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign yoke”.

There never perhaps existed a people so thoroughly fitted for a foreign yoke [because] the physical organisation of the Bengali is feeble even to effeminacy... During many ages he has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable... [Moreover] his mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance…

Thomas Macaulay’s damning verdict on the Bengalis

For decades Bengal remained as Macaulay had represented it. In 1899 British journalist G. W. Steveens, an Oxford graduate, one-time Fellow of Pembroke College, and later a special correspondent of the Daily Mail newspaper, explained how to spot a Bengali by “his legs”.

By his legs you shall know the Bengali. The leg of a free man is straight or a little bandy, so that he can stand on it solidly…The Bengali’s leg is either skin and bones; the same size all the way down, with knocking knobs for knees, or else it is very fat or globular, also turning in at the knees, with round thighs like a woman’s. The Bengali’s leg is the leg of a slave.

British journalist G. W. Steveens’ crude observation (1899)

  • Thomas Macaulay ()
  • George Warrington (G. W.) Steveens ()

British heighten concept of "non-martial", weaker Bengali after failed Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58

The colonial classification of non-martial Bengali reached its zenith after the first foiled Independence War of India in 1858, known more popularly as the "Sepoy Mutiny" or "Sepoy Revolt" of 1857-58.

The rebellion was staged by sepoys (soldiers) of eastern India, predominantly Bengalis, and was on the verge of crushing the British presence in India. However, the situation took a sharp turn at the last moment as the British brought reinforcement in the shape of Punjabi troops from Punjab. They defeated the Bengali freedom fighters and recaptured the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.

It is well understood that the colonial masters were furious at the Bengalis who would fight only for a patriotic cause, unlike the Punjabis who were engaged as mercenaries and fought for money even against their own country. Since then, the Bengalis were degraded as a "non-martial race" and were punished not only by stopping their recruitment in the army but also by depriving them of other privileges and preferences.

Syed Ahmed Mortada

Once the backbone of British Indian army, Bengalis now prohibited from joining

The period of heightened agitation resulted in rapid reorganising of the ethnic composition of the Indian Army which centred around loyalty and disloyalty displayed by different sections of the native population. The Sepoy Mutiny provided the British rulers with the perfect opportunity to justify the selective recruitment of the officers to the Indian Army.

The British shifted their recruitment from Bengal and raised fresh battalions mainly from the Punjab and Nepal. There was a dramatic fall in recruitment from the traditional areas in the east and south of India and a rise in recruitment from the north and the west. Recruitment of Bengalis was prohibited. Almost overnight, formerly known as the backbone of the colonial army, the Bengalis became defined as "feeble, even to effeminacy" for whom "courage, independence, veracity are qualities to which his constitution and his situation are equally unfavourable" as Thomas Macaulay had scathingly observed. Those from southern India were declared to "fall short, as a race in possessing the courage and military instincts", and Punjab was anointed "the home of the most martial races of India" concluded Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army 1885-1893. Though the idea of a martial race in India pre-dates the British presence there, Lord Roberts can be cited as being responsible for the introduction of a policy of fostering so-called martial races.

  • Frederick Roberts ()

Such was the obsession of the British with the martial races theory that they codified in through a series of official recruiting handbooks for the Indian Army. In these manuals Indians appeared not as individuals but as specimens. Photographs of suitable recruit types were included, the ideal measurements and physique were described in great detail.

The British saw some of their favourite martial races, particularly Rajputs and Punjabis, as the descendants of the Aryan invaders. Caste and tribe were often equated with race. In the case of the Rajputs, for example, it was held that they had maintained their Aryan racial ‘purity’ through strict adherence to the caste system. Colonial recruiting strategies, therefore, favoured those groups who followed restrictive marriage practises and who thus promised to be racially pure.

Muzammil Quraishi, author of "Muslims and Crime: A Comparative Study" (2005)

Amongst the Bengalis the urban middle class, educated Bengali were excluded in favour of peasants from rural localities. Peasants were considered politically conservative and less likely than city-dwellers to question authority. The urban middle class was presented stereotypically as "effeminate, sly and scheming".

Service in the Indian Army in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, in the main, restricted to the following groups:

  • Pathans from the NW Frontier districts and the independent tribal regions
  • Baluchis and Brahuis from Kalat and British Baluchistan
  • Sikhs, Jats, Dogras, and Muslims from the Punjab
  • Garhwalis, Kumaonis, and Gurkhas from the Himalayan regions
  • Rajputs, Brahmans, and Muslims from Delhi and Hindustan regions
  • Rajputs, Jats, Mers, and Muslims from Rajasthan and central India
  • Marathas and Deccani Muslims from Western India
  • Christians, Untouchables, Tamils, and Muslims from Southern India

It was the colonial Army that consolidated Sikhism as a separate religion and the Sikh as a separate identity.

...A colonial official noted that Sikhs in the Indian Army have been studiously nationalised or encouraged to regard themselves as a totally distinct and separate nation. Their national pride has been fostered by every available means. Sikh as a martial race was not discovered, it was created.

Mahmud claims the martial race theory was instrumental in the construction of a separate identity

However, rather contradictorily, Macaulay also acknowledged that the “effeminate Bengali” could also emerge as a figure of threat if he wanted to.

With all his softness the Bengali is by no means placable in his enmities, or prone to pity…Nor does he lack a certain kind of courage which is often wanting in his masters.


A further colonial practice centred upon logistic considerations. With the emergence of Czarist Russia and the perceived threat to colonial India, the British felt it was necessary to strengthen their frontiers between the subcontinent and Central Asia. The Punjab was the chosen location for such strengthening projects. The Punjab was restructured to fit the martial races theory as a suitable place for soldiers through the most extensive form of socio-economic and demographic engineering attempted by the British in South Asia.

It was only when Britain got involved in First World War in August 1914 that the recruitment of Bengalis into the army resumed – after a gap of nearly 60 years. By that time the damage had been done.

The British colonial stereotype was to have a profound and devastating impact on the role of Bengalis in newly formed Pakistan.

Osmani & co fight against the "Non-Martial Bengali" stereotype

The hope with which Osmani joined the Pakistan Army was soon shattered. He realised that people of East Pakistan were victims of discrimination. Even though they made up 56% of Pakistan's population, Bengalis represented only 5% in the army and 15% in the civil service. Only 30% of the national budget was allocated for East Pakistan. So while West Pakistan flourished in the new country, the eastern wing became starved of progress.

Bengalis beat Pakistanis in boxing, considered a "man's sport"

Bengal regiments always had an edge in swimming and football but the Punjabis did not consider these as martial sports. Boxing, of course, was a martial sport.

In 1949, 1st EBR defeated the 3rd and 8th Punjab regiment in boxing - knocking out Punjab regiment in eight bouts and defeating them in the remaining three bouts on points. This was a rude shock for Punjabi Pakistani hierarchy. They began to devise different conspiracies in order to prevent any more Bengali battalion to be raised, and instead propagated mixing the two existing regiments of 1st EBR and 2nd EBR. However, Bengali officers, including senior officers like Colonel Osmani and Lieutenant Colonel Khwaja Wasiuddin, vehemently opposed the idea.

The Punjabis always considered themselves as a white-coloured martial race. They treated the Bengalis, particularly the Bengal regiments, with a tilt of disdain, not only in cadre service, but also in sports and games. It was General Osmani who enthused the 1st East Bengal Regiment with such a standard of training and military activities that they proved themselves in every field.

Syed Ahmed Mortada

Osmani's and Lt. General Khwaja Wasiuddin's drive to increase Bengali numbers in the army

Following his tenure with the regiment Osmani was placed in GHQ. When the high command of the Pakistan Army decided to implement their scheme of mixing the Bengal regiments Osmani voiced his rejection vehemently. Other junior Bengali officers joined him but they were only a few. The only heavyweight who was lending his support to the Bengali cause was Lieutenant General Khwaja Wasiuddin whose support had the desired effect. He was also a good friend of Osmani.

Osmani had served alongside (then) Brigadier Wasiuddin in 1959 at the GHQ in Rawalpindi GHQ, where Wasiuddin was working on the idea of creating Bengal Artillery Regiments and he shared a cordial relationship with Osmani.

Wikipedia - M. A. G. Osmani

  • Khwaja Wasiuddin ()

Following the forced retirement of Major-General Ishfaquk Majid in 1961 Lieutenant General Khwaja Wasiuddin became the senior most Bengali serving in the Pakistani Army. He was also the highest ranking Bengali officer. His father Khwaja Shahabuddin was the governor of North-west Frontier Province of Pakistan and a minister in the central cabinet. His mother Farhat Banu was a niece of Nawab Sir Salimullah and a member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly in 1937. His first wife was his cousin Zafar Bano, daughter of Khwaja Nazimuddin who became the Prime Minister of Pakistan following Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination. But they split after 10 years of marriage and Lt. General Wasiuddin re-married, this time to a Punjabi named Waheeda, daughter of of Karim Bakhsh and Begum Umtool Hafeez.

Khwaja Wasiuddin rose to the rank of Lieutenant General in the Pakistan Army, having held various senior appointments including that of Director of Artillery and Corps Commander, Multan. Both Osmani and Wasiuddin were in GHQ when they came to know from Khalilur Rahman about Ayub Khan's comment. Both men shared the frustration and disappointment which had been simmering inside every other Bengali officers in the army. They decided to finally do something about it. Lieutenant General Wasiuddin recommended to the Pakistani high command to put the existing regiments through a battery of exercises in West Pakistan to test their adaptability and combat readiness. Thankfully they accepted this proposal and decide to adopt it. Major General K. M. Shaikh was selected as the evaluator of the exercises. Major General Shaikh was an extremely hard taskmaster, cruel and vindictive at times, but he was also an honest upright soldier.

He put the "non-martial Bengalis" on military test and trial, in which 1st East Bengal Regiment had to go through an almost inhumanly difficult military exercise involving survival for 3 days and 3 nights with one blanket and one meal a day, in the extreme cold weather of Punjab. It also included a march carrying on the back of the soldiers all the heavy weapons of an infantry battalion for 19 miles across the mountains of Jhelum over-night in total darkness. These were just two of the many such tests for a month.

After the ordeal for a month, the result was published. It was a pleasant shock for the Bengalis. Major General Shaikh had commented that the Bengali units had performed superbly and the proud Bengali soldiers took in representing East Pakistan was one key component of their success. He recommended against disbanding the units and raising mixed regiments.

It was incredible, unbelievable. General Shaikh congratulated the battalion and wished that every battalion of Pakistan army were of such superb military ability.

What damaged the scheme of GHQ totally was the last part of the report: "I have no doubt in my mind as to how such superb standard was achieved by these Bengali soldiers. It is because they are unmixed and each soldier considers himself an ambassador of East Pakistan. If they are mixed, this feeling will be gone and the loser will be Pakistan army".

Major General Shaikh praises Bengali soldiers but ultimately resorts to old stereotype

  • K. M. Shaikh ()

By then the sentiment of East Pakistanis was gaining momentum and the demand for raising the representation of Bengalis in the army became insurmountable in the 1960s. The nervous GHQ finally yielded to raise the number of Bengali battalions to eight.

Pakistani high command did not increase the number of Bengali units until after 1968, when following a pledge by General Yahya Khan, the number of Bengal regiments were increased to 10 and all new units were ordered to ensure at least 25% Bengali representation among the annual new recruits of the army.

It was Osmani who was accredited with these successes and achievements, having laid the foundation for this spirit of self-sacrifice and exemplary standard of physical fitness and military excellence. That cost him dearly in terms of his career, but Osmani was firm and determined.

Colonel Osmani loses out on promotion for supporting Bengalis

It was September 1968. I went to Army Medical Corps [AMC] Training Centre, Abottabad for training after join Pakistan Army. I did not have adequate knowledge on West Pakistan and the Pakistani people...After reaching Abottabad I sensed that probably their writers did not write anything positive about us. They were carrying frustrating opinion about us. Young or old, almost everybody used to behave very harsh with us. Even they used to doubt our religion and for the first time I heard the criticism that we are the baptised son of low class Hindus. They, particularly the Punjabis used to pester us by referring 'Bengalis like rice', 'Bengalis like banana like monkeys', 'Bengalis eat fish, the insects of water' and what not. At that time more than half of the recruits were the Bengalis undergoing training in AMC Training Centre. We could easily understand the reason why the Punjabis felt the itching.

However, the days were running with a very tough training schedule. All the Bengalis used to refer that every incident should be conveyed to Colonel Osmani, whenever the Bengali people became the victim of discrimination of wrong behaviour. His doors was always open to the Bengalis. Colonel Osmani became an institution of expectation for all.

Lt. Col. Md Aminul Haque