Emasculation of a nation

Colonial Masculinity
February 14, 1997

Colonial and nationalist politics in India in the 1880s and 1890s are studied here by Mrinalini Sinha, "from the uneven and contradictory intersection of various axes of power". Gender, race and imperialism are addressed by examining four separate historical events: the Ilbert Bill (1883), the Native Volunteer movement (1885), the Public Service Commission (1886), and the Age of Consent Bill (1891). The colonial stereotypes of the "masculine" English gentleman and the "feminine" Bengali upper class, the Bengali babus, are historicised by Sinha through an enquiry into images of masculinity, throwing light in the process on the cultural politics of gender as well as on political, cultural and ideological nuances in an imperial social formation that included metropolitan Britain as well as British India.

The chapter on the Native Volunteer Movement of 1885-86, for instance, deals with the racial politics involved in the rejection of the creation of a native volunteer corps as an addition to the Anglo-Indian and Eurasian Volunteer Force in India. (In 1857, the Government of India accepted offers from Anglo-Indians and Eurasians, as well as from the Indian princes, to protect European lives and property in India.) Sinha brings further complexity to bear upon the issues, and on the factors that determined the later Anglo-Indian opposition to natives carrying arms. Among other things, she shows how colonial constructs of masculinity were summoned to contribute to the popular Anglo-Indian defence of government policy ("The babu although a valiant wielder of the pen, is not so handy with the sword"), enabling the alleged effeminacy of educated Indian volunteers to be used to counter Bengali demands to become volunteers.

Similarly, the Public Service Commission of 1886-87, appointed to consider upgrading the positions of Indians in public service, is treated by Sinha as an arena for competing masculinities. The British fear of Bengali and Hindu domination of government service led to a resistance to any modification of the civil service competitive examination. Bengalis were considered morally and physically unfit to govern "virile" Muslim populations. The rule of the "competition baboo" over the "manly Mahratta" was said to be like placing "grasshoppers" in charge of "an army of lions". This sectarian construction of colonial masculinity gave the government the excuse it needed to deny natives more senior positions in the civil administration.

Sinha is masterful in handling the naturally uneven, uncertain and often contradictory nature of her field. But she omits comparisons with the earlier history of Bengal under the East India Company. Although Sinha mentions The Times for accurately historicising the Bengali with its comment that "the old East India Company I left the Bengalie as it found him - a cringing subservient eyeservant I while the Crown I developed the babu into his present state of loquacity and disloyalty", it remains true that the heyday of the babu was in the first half of the century, before the entrepreneurship of wealthy Bengalis gave way to the rush for professional occupations.

In a related point, Sinha notes that the British Orientalists' scholarship on the ancient Indian past "had very little impact on actual race relations in colonial India". As a leading Bengali journalist, Girish Chandra Ghosh, wrote in 1862: "The present race of Anglo-Indians are lamentably ignorantI Jones, Colebrook, Wilson (early Orientalist scholars)... respected our fathers and looked upon us hopefully at least with melancholy interest, as you would look on the heir of a ruined noble. But to the great unwashed abroad today, we are simply niggers - without a past; perhaps, without a future. They do not choose to know us."

Finally, Sinha's neglect of contemporary literature creates a gap in the understanding of the "social" in this otherwise excellent book -where "social" includes "the intersection of the political, economic and ideological" in its "global analytic". Present-day literary theorists abound; Aijaz Ahmed, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Gauri Vishwanathan are all cited. But not Rudyard Kipling. In Kipling's The Head of the District, the writer serves up the head of a Bengali civil servant (chopped off by a fierce Muslim) at the denouement, as punishment for both the Bengali's weak constitution and his Oxford education. Kipling's invective against the educated Bengali here ("Bengali ape", "black Bengali dog", "kala admi" - black man - "unfit to run at the tail of the potter's donkey") was based on theories of masculinity that permitted the Khan to be reassured by his English superior at the end of the story - next time the Government will send a man to administer over you, for you too are men.

Rosinka Chaudhuri has recently completed a D.Phil in English literature, University of Oxford.

Colonial Masculinity: The

Author - Mrinalini Sinha
ISBN - 0 7190 4285 2 and 4653 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 191

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