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Bangladesh Army History - Colonial Origins

The military history of Bangladesh before independence is part of that of the Indian subcontinent, particularly of British India and then of Pakistan from 1947 through 1971. The period having the greatest influence on the military establishments of the subcontinent began with the arrival of the Europeans at the start of the sixteenth century and, more particularly, Queen Elizabeth I's granting of a charter to the British East India Company in 1600.

As European settlements were established, locals were employed as guards to protect company trading posts and participate in ceremonials. As the number of trading posts increased, these guards were more formally organized into companies led by British officers. Three independent forces emerged and became known as presidency armies and the troops as sepoys (a corruption of the Hindi sipahi, or soldier). Regular British troops also were incorporated into the presidency armies. In 1748 the three armies were grouped under a single commander in chief and organized, armed, uniformed, and trained by British officers.

Initially a regiment contained seven officers of from ten to twenty-five years' standing, and four young officers. There was great intimacy and cordiality between them and the men, and great devotion on the part of the latter, which they displayed in many small ways. They played with and fondled the little English children—in opposition to strong religious prejudice, they would carry a favorite officer to the grave — or, when an officer's tent arrived late on the ground on a march, a couple of dozen among them would voluntarily hasten to pitch it, and relieve its owner from the sun's rays. As religion had not much influence in those days, the officers gained good-will by in a measure encouraging, and by attending and joining in the religious pastimes and solemnities of the men—the Hoolee, the Moharram, the Dosarra, &c., and sometimes by contributing to the expenses of these festivals as well as of the dancing girls, who were employed on some of these occasions. The inferior tone of morality of the day promoted this intercourse. The officers contributed from their not overflowing means to the petty expenses of the men in cleaning their accoutrements, and even formed a fund to alter and fit their ill-made clothing.

The rapid expansion of British control of the Indian subcontinent during the early nineteenth century was accompanied by mounting resistance. The low-caste soldiers of Madras mutinied owing to their religious feelings having been violated by causing them to wear peaks to their caps made of bullock's hide, and by interference with their caste marks on the forehead. Political, social, religious, and ethnic tensions led to four eruptions in the army in the years between 1844 and 1857, although these incidents were considered minor by the British authorities. The Indian army, not of thousands but of hundreds of thousands, is held in check by a few hundred British officers, and by the presence of a few thousand British soldiers.

The Bengal government extended from the Indus to Arracan, a space comprising about 25 degrees of longitude, or some 1700 miles, with a breadth varying from five to ten degrees of latitude. To guard and protect this immense tract, the regular native force consists of 74 regiments of native infantry, one of which is composed of Goorkhas, besides the regiment of sappers and miners and the regiment of Kelat Ghiljee, and ten regiments of native cavalry, exclusive of the Governor-General's body-guard. There are four troops, or batteries of six guns each, of native horse artillery, which are excellent troops, and eighteen companies of native foot artillery.

The European corps took no share in the rough ordinary duties of the service. Unless when in front of the enemy they underwent no exposure from the climate, from the debilitating hot winds and feverish rains. They were lodged, fed, and paid in a manner unknown to other soldiers, and to them in particular were applicable the taunts levelled at Indian armies in regard to their comforts and prodigious marching establishments. This attractive mode of "soldiering" was nevertheless true economy, we might almost add a necessity, for it preserved the health of the costly and valuable European soldier.

The native regular cavalry amounted to about 5000 men. They enjoyed the same degree of inaction and repose as the European soldiers, without however participating in the same luxurious style of treatment. Their duties were comprised in marching from station to station at the periodical relief. The cavalry soldier was said to belong in general to a higher class than his infantry comrade. The Hindoos and Mahommedans were nearly equally divided, the preponderance being in favor of the former, who were nearly all of high caste, Rajpoots and Brahmans. The Indian cavalry was beautifully mounted.

The regular infantry amounted to between 55,000 and 60,000 men, of whom 8000 or 10,000 may be considered non-effective from sickness and leave of absence. On it then devolved all the rough work of the service, all the duties involving fatigue and exposure, from the Indus to the Irawaddy; the small outpost duty; the escorts for treasure and for ordnance stores; the escorts with European regiments on a march, to take the day sentry duty; escorts with the Governor-General; escorts with the Commander-inchief; the station guard duty, guards to the general, guards to the brigadier, to the division adjutant-general. If a small chief was refractory, a wing of a regiment of infantry would march and frighten him into order. If a landholder would not pay his rent or revenue, a couple of companies would forthwith bring him to reason.

All this disjunction conduced to destroy efficiency in the men. It was habitual to place native soldiers on guard for a week, sometimes even for a month, without a relief, to the total destruction of all discipline, all prompt, active obedience, which is the soul of discipline, and of all drill and parade duties. In short, the Sepoys hardly had fair play. The Sepoys were overwhelmed with duties that did not belong to them — civil duties. The officers and men were defective in discipline. They were overwhelmed with petty details, they were under officered, clothed in a manner irksome to them, and they were harassed by drill in a foreign language.

At length chronic state of disaffection and irritation pervaded the Bengal army. The change which has taken place in the feelings of the Sepoy may be ascribed to three ruling motives. First, the alienation which arose between the officers and the men. Second, the great increase of territory without a corresponding increase of the army, entailing thereby an immense amount of civil and police duties, which separated the men from their regiments, destroy discipline and obedience, and introduce habits of personal independence. Third, a vague fear of a desire or even intention on the part of the Government to subvert Hindooism and caste, which fear is caused by the observation of a gradual change in ideas and institutions.

The alienation from the officers may be ascribed to many causes. Formerly, from the difficulty and expense of returning to Europe, an officer almost looked on India and his regiment as his home, much more at least than he now does; and, as staff appointments were comparatively few, he more rarely thought of Escaping from the daily routine of regimental life. By mid-Century, the ease with which a return to Europe is accomplished, and the multitude of staff appointments, had made a complete change on these two points. The tone of manners and of feelings is consequently more English and more correct: morality had increased, but so too had separation from the natives.

When the Kingdom of Oude was annexed to the British Indian Empire, in 1856, many of the Sepoys comprising the Bengal army who were natives of Oude were aroused to the highest pitch of indignation ; and they succeeded in uniting all the Mohammedan sects in India, with the view of freeing themselves from British power. Circumstances soon occurred which favored the cause of the Mohammedans of India.

It had been rumored among the Hindoos that the British government had resolved to compel all its subjects to embrace the Christian religion and abolish the distinctions of caste which prevail among the Hindoos. Early in 1857 the East India Company armed its Hindoo soldiers with the Enfield rifles, for which cartridges greased with pigs' and cows' fat were used. The Hindoos are forbidden by their religion to taste animal food; and, as the ends of the greased cartridges must be bitten off, the Sepoys believed that by using them they would become defiled, lose their caste and be bound to adopt the religion of their masters. Mohammedan emissaries secretly aroused the dissatisfaction of the Hindoos, for the advancement of their own rebellious schemes.

During the month of April, 1857, many of the regiments composed of Sepoys in the Bengal army manifested a mutinous spirit. The 19th and 34th regiments, the Oude irregular infantry and a part of the 3d light cavalry at Meerut were the first to rise in rebellion. Other Sepoy regiments followed their example; and before long the whole Hindoo portion of the Bengal army, about one hundred and twenty thousand men, stood in armed opposition to the British government. The rebellion was purely a mutiny and not a popular insurrection.

On the 11th of May, 1857, a party of mutineers from Meerut fiendishly massacred all the British residents at Delhi; but a small British force under the gallant Lieutenant Willoughby blew up the arsenal to prevent it from falling into the hands of the rebels.

The Sepoy Rebellion, regarded by the British as a mutiny but by later South Asian nationalists as the "first war of independence," was largely confined to Bengalis in the British Indian Army, but it grew into a major conflict in northern and central India. The British used loyal Indian troops and reinforcements from Britain to crush the rebellion by 1858. A proclamation by Queen Victoria terminated the British East India Company government, India became a British colony, and the role of Indian military forces was reevaluated.

Because the uprising was limited almost entirely to the Bengali troops and to the regions of north-central India and Bengal, the British not only disbanded the Bengali army but also became distrustful of Bengalis and concentrated military recruitment among the more favored Punjabis and Pathans of northwestern India. Additionally, a complete reorganization of the Indian forces followed. By 1895 the army was put under the central authority of the army headquarters at Delhi and was divided into four territorial commands at of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, and Punjab, each commanded by a lieutenant general.

After the 1857-58 uprising, the British developed a recruitment policy that was to shape the Pakistani military and later that of Bangladesh. Recruitment was based on the "martial races" myth, according to which the inhabitants of certain areas or members of certain castes or tribes were reputed to make more fearless and disciplined soldiers than others. Popularization of this concept is usually attributed to Lord Frederick Roberts, commander in chief of the British Indian Army from 1885 to 1893. Roberts believed that the best recruits were found in northwestern India, including the Punjab and parts of what later became West Pakistan.

Because recruitment was based on these theories, the period from 1890 to 1914 sometimes is referred to as "the Punjabization of the army." Roberts also favored staffing certain units or subunits with members of the same caste, tribal, or religious group from within the so-called martial races, a practice that became fairly common. These methods produced an apolitical, professional force responsive to British command, but one that accentuated regional and communal distinctions. Nevertheless, the British never organized a combat unit of battalion size or larger that was entirely composed of Muslims. Consequently, when the Muslim majority state of Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, existing British Indian Army formations that were transferred to the new state were severely understrength.

Bengali participation in the military services was much lower than that of other groups, and a number of reasons have been advanced for this fact. In the 1920s, Punjab, with about 20 million people, contributed some 350,000 recruits to the British Indian Army, whereas Bengal, with a population base at least twice as large, contributed only 7,000 recruits during the same period.

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Page last modified: 23-05-2012 16:09:39 ZULU