The racist colonial discourse of the British Raj often described the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between the colonizer and the colonized as a gap between the “civilized” and the “savage,” “logical adult” and the “irrational child,” and the “manly Englishman” and the “effeminate Hindu.” This last stereotype became a justification of British colonial rule in India. The British determined that since Indian men were weak, lacking in both the physical and mental ability to defend their nation, the British were justified in protecting India.
The popularity of the idea of Hindu men being effete in British colonial literature can be traced back to the 18th century, with ill-founded theories of climatic influences in which oppressive heat and humidity were considered to be the main reason for lack of manliness, resolve and courage among Hindu men. Like many other British colonialists, Robert Orme, British historian in the eighteenth century, concluded that along with the inhospitable climate, the staple diet of rice, an “easily digestible” food obtained with minimum labour, was “the only proper one for such an effeminate race.” In their efforts to glorify the Raj, British imperialist rhetoric often constructed English colonialists as heroes who, by defeating the natives, would create order out of chaos and disorder in India. From a British standpoint,
Indian men, especially upper caste Hindus, were effeminate men who had been vanquished and turned into British subjects. James Mill wrote in The History of British India in the early 19th century that the Hindus were endowed with some unique characteristics at the core of which lay effeminacy and dishonesty. According to Mill, since Hindus could not deal with the “manliness and courage of our ancestors,” the vanquished Hindus with their “slavish and dastardly spirit” were ready to use “deceit and perfidy” to achieve their goals.
British colonial discourse was replete with images of Hindus as being weak and ineffectual who were devoid of any form of masculinity. Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote about the effeminacy of Hindus in blatantly racist terms: “The dark, slender, and timid Hindoo [sic] shrank from a conflict with the strong muscle and resolute spirit of the fair race, which dwelt beyond the passes.”
Sir George MacMunn, the author of The Martial Races of India, ridiculed Gandhi, wondering how some Hindus, namely Rajputs, turned out to be brave Indian warriors when Hindus in general were such weaklings: “Who and what are the martial races of India, how do they come, and in what crucible, on what anvil’s [sic] hot with pain spring the soldiers of India, whom surely Baba Ghandi [sic] never fathered?” MacMunn chastised Gandhi and the “mass of (Indian) people (who) have neither martial aptitude nor physical courage, the courage that we should talk of colloquially as ‘guts.’ ”
He blamed the “varying religions, early marriage, premature brides, and juvenile eroticism” of Hindus for their lack of martial spirit. Similarly, among British colonial representation of Hindus, the most common construction of the effeteness of Indians was the Bengali babu who worked for the British bureaucracy. In fact, it was the Bengali babu (often spelled as baboo to suggest a link with the primate) who was the butt of crude, vulgar and blatant racist attacks by English men and women in their writings.
It was the Bengali man’s “extraordinary effeminacy” as displayed by his diminutive physique, flowing dhoti that resembled a woman’s dress, and worship of goddesses that best explained for the British colonialists why he, and by extension, India, needed to be guided by the strong, assertive hand of the superior masculine English race. Rudyard Kipling frequently depicted the Bengali civil servant as a fool who, when confronted with crisis, would inevitably flee the scene and left the “real” men to salvage the situation.
Macaulay seems to have dwelt considerably on the effeteness of Bengali babus. In one of his essays, he described a Bengali babu thus: “The physical organization of the Bengalee [sic] is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid. 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 unfavorable. . . . [He] would see his country overrun, his house laid in ashes, his children murdered or dishonoured, without having the spirit to strike one blow.”
In another essay, Macaulay described the Bengalis in the most denigrating ways: “Whatever the Bengali does he does languidly. His favourite pursuits are sedentary. He shrinks from bodily exertion; and though voluble in dispute, and singularly pertinacious in the war of chicane he seldom engages in personal conflict, and scarcely ever enlists as a soldier. There never perhaps existed a people so thoroughly fitted by habit for a foreign yoke.”
Very much akin to Macaulay, George Warrington Steevens’ depiction of the Bengali is not only overtly racist but also dehumanizing: “By his legs you shall know the Bengali … The Bengali’s leg is either skin and bone, the same size all the way down, with knobs for knees, or else it is very fat and globular, also turning in at the knees, with round thighs like a woman’s.
The Bengali’s leg is a leg of a slave.” British colonialists did not spare the Hindus from South India, who were also portrayed as non-martial by them. General Frederick Sleigh Roberts, for example, writing about South Indian Hindus, concluded that the “ancient military spirit had died in them, as it had died in the ordinary Hindustani of Bengal and Mahratta of Bombay, and that they could no longer with safety be pitted against warlike races, or employed outside the limits of South India.”
Similarly, Sir O’Moore Creah considered South Indian Hindus to be “timid both by religion and habit, servile to their superiors and tyrannical to their inferiors, and quite unwarlike.” Within these examples that are overtly racist, one can see the emergence of a common narrative form.
The British colonial discourse begins with the establishment of the Hindu male as a weak, lazy, cowardly, slave. But not only does the colonial discourse establish a negative construction of Indian males’ character and physicality, it also links this negative construction to military inaction thus, providing a justification for the British colonial rule as the able protector of India. While the British racist ideology endeavoured to construct the Hindu men as effeminate, we must not forget that this ideology was ably challenged by several Indians, notably Bankimchandra, Swami Vivekananda, and Tilak, among others.
The warrior monks in Bankimchandra’s famous nationalist novel Anandamath embodied military valour while Swami Vivekananda sought to construct a Hindu manhood that was a unique combination of Christian manliness and Hindu ideals of spiritual power. Tilak, on the other hand, used Shivaji, who was known for his indomitable courage and military prowess, for his political mobilization.