Ethnicity and Gender

Historian Sinha's New Book Shows How the English and Bengalis Viewed Each Other in Colonial India

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

For Britons in 19th-century India, the distinctions separating them from the Bengalis under their rule went farther than skin color. The Englishman appeared the highest ideal of masculinity, possessing a love for sports, a chivalrous regard for women, and an equal reverence for play and work, while the Bengali was regarded as effeminate, bookish, overly serious, lustful and lacking in self-discipline.

While this attitude underpinned much of the British presence in India, says Assoc. Prof. Mrinalini Sinha (History), its implications were far broader. In her recent book, Colonial Masculinity: The "Manly Englishman" and the "Effeminate Bengali" in the Late 19th Century , Sinha details four major controversies which reveal how Britain's perceptions of race and gender not only influenced their treatment of Indian society, but affected their own as well.

Sinha also sees the topic as providing a new context for illuminating many contemporary discussions about culture and society.

"There is a lot of discord over the idea of cultural diversity - should one study more European history or Asian or African?" Sinha explained. "But a study of India is as much a study of Great Britain; theirs are shared histories in many ways."

Assoc. Prof. Mrinalini Sinha (History)-"When you can illustrate through some very specific anecdotes the theory embodied in Colonial Masculinity, it becomes quite understandable. I find that students are very interested and enthusiastic about the issues raised by the British-Bengali experience." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

As one example of the role of "colonial masculinity," Sinha analyzes the debate over the Ilbert Bill, which would have given native officials limited criminal jurisdiction over British subjects living in Indian country towns. Opponents claimed Bengali civil servants had many "feminine" traits which were unnatural for men, especially those aspiring to hold positions of authority.

Ironically, Sinha notes, the Ilbert Bill also provoked an unforeseen level of political mobilization on the part of white women in India, creating tension within British society, which had largely viewed such activity as improper for women.

This tension became even more apparent over the next few decades, Sinha said, as the British women's suffrage movement evolved. Imperialists viewed their concept of womanhood as universal and said Britain would lose the respect of its colonies should it grant women the right to vote. But, Sinha says, Indian men fighting for voting rights agreed that both sexes should be granted suffrage.

Britain's colonial masculinity effected another ironic twist in the controversy over a proposal to raise the age of consent for sexual intercourse, which had bearing on the custom of child-marriage, particularly in Bengal. Trying to muster opposition to the bill, which made sexual intercourse with a wife under 12 punishable as rape, orthodox Hindus appealed in what Sinha calls "universal patriarchal language" to the British belief in the husbands' "natural rights" that guaranteed them complete sexual access to their wives. The measure prompted such strong disagreement in both countries that after its passage the British viceroy issued an executive order essentially negating its effectiveness.

"The bill's opponents were appealing to something Britons believed in: a husband's total control of his wife," Sinha said. "It was a shrewd and effective strategy, since it connected with the perception of a growing crisis in British masculinity because of feminist challenges during the previous decade."

Years later, these dynamics were still at work during India's final push for full independence, Sinha said, and personalized by Mohandas Gandhi. His non-violent practices cultivated an image which suggested more feminine traits, she said, and in doing so confused and frustrated the British.

Sinha points out that Gandhi's philosophy found a following in the West, notably with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., thereby recasting colonial masculinity into a new setting. Even today, she adds, the discussion over black men's social and familial roles echoes the integration of gender into nationalist and imperialist politics as seen a century earlier on another continent.

"When you can illustrate through some very specific anecdotes the theory embodied in Colonial Masculinity , it becomes quite understandable," Sinha said. "I find that students are very interested and enthusiastic about the issues raised by the British-Bengali experience."

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