Not too many Bengalis in Calcutta (Kolkata) know of the Bengali War Memorial in College Square. The marble monument was raised to honour the memory of the soldiers of the 49th Bengali Regiment, the only British Indian Army regiment to consist entirely of ethnic Bengalis, that would go on to serve in the Mesopotamia theatre of WWI.
BENGALIS AT WAR? WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT?!
If you find it difficult to imagine Bengalis going to war, then the British did their brainwashing well. In the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, the British classified Indians into martial and non-martial races. The ostensible reason was that the martial races, fit, well-built and with active lifestyles would be better suited for army recruitment, while the non-martial races were unfit for battle owing to their mostly sedentary lifestyles. But many suggest that what this race theory actually did was prevent recruitment from those areas and those races that had been most active during the Sepoy Mutiny. It was the Bengal Army that had rebelled, and the Punjab Army had been used to crush it. Post the rebellion, Army recruitment was primarily from the North West of India, from the Sikhs, Jats and other ethnic communities.
My Bengali friends in the Indian Army assure me that the martial races theory is pure hogwash. There are plenty of Bengalis in the Indian Army and they are as brave, as fearless and as strong as the next man. One country that was never quite able to overcome the martial races hangover was Pakistan and they paid dearly for it. The West Pakistan Establishment was of the opinion that a single Muslim Pakistani soldier was equal to 10 Hindu Indians, and therefore they could easily overcome the Indian Army’s numerical superiority. However, on the 4 occasions that India and Pakistan have faced off, Pakistan has been dealt stunning defeats. This attitude led to a disproportionately large number of Punjabis and Pashtuns being recruited into the Pakistan Army post partition and this racist bias would eventually get into the politics of the country and would lead to rebellion in East Pakistan, which ultimately broke away in 1971 to form Bangladesh.
49TH BENGALEE – THE BHODROLOK REGIMENT
Of all the reasons that the British had for not recruiting Bengalis into the army, the one that seems most legitimate was the fact that Bengalis at the time had a very high level of political consciousness. Nevertheless, when on the 7th August, 1916, the colonial government announced recruitment for a Bengali Double Company or BDC (nicknamed Bangali Polton) the Bengali bhodrolok (gentleman) responded enthusiastically, hoping that this would mean self-rule at the end of the war. Among the recruits was Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh. Subhas Chandra Bose, known to Indians as Netaji, was rejected due to poor eyesight. On the 1st of July 1917, in Karachi the BDC officially became the 49th Bengal Infantry Regiment, or 49th Bengalee.
Unfortunately for the 49th Bengalee, they were shipped off to Mesopotamia, the most mismanaged theatre of WWI. They would go from Aziziyeh to KuK-el-Amara to Tanuma, near Basra city, ultimately becoming disillusioned. What the British called “seditious ideas” began spreading among the men, along with discontent about ranks and promotions. Subedar Major Shalindranath Basu, the senior-most among the Bengalees, Jamadar R.L. Mukherjee and Subedar A.K. Mitra were in fact, shot by a junior when they were sleeping in their tent! With the signing of the armistice on the 11th of November, 1918, the war came to an end, and the 49th Bengalee was demobilised by the 31st of August, 1920. But by then, the damage had been done. Exposed to new political ideas and the multiculturalism of the army, Nazrul had begun dreaming of a free India. Angry demobilised soldiers came back from war and joined the ranks of Indians who demanded independence. That independence would come 27 years after demobilisation, and after another great war, when the British finally realised that “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate”.
THE BENGALI WAR MEMORIAL OF COLLEGE SQUARE
The white marble column in College Square stands directly in front of the Eastern entrance. It is somewhat small, and surrounded by a metal railing. On top is a pediment. Below it, the British crown maybe be seen, and under that is written 49 Bengalees. Under that are a flower motif and a wreath. At the base, on the Eastern side are the words “In Memory of MEMBERS OF THE 49TH BENGALEE REGIMENT WHO DIED IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-1919 To the Glory of God, King & Country”. The other 3 sides contain the names of the fallen men, their registration numbers, rank, date of death and the places they came from. Apart from Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dacca (Dhaka), the monument also mentions districts such as 24-Parganas, Barisal, Bogra, Burdwan, Chittagong, Faridpore, Jessore, Khulna, Pabna, Midnapore, Mymensinh, Murshidabad, Nadia, and Tipperah (Tripura). In spite of exhaustive enquiries I was unable to find details about the monument itself, such as the name of the sculptor, the person who commissioned it and the date on which it was unveiled. The fact that friends of mine who had gone to College Square many times could not recall having seen the monument is evidence of how little importance Bengalis now attach to this chapter of their history. How strange it must have been for these men, to join someone else’s army, to fight someone else’s war, to travel thousands of miles away from home to die, in some muddy field, or some overcrowded field hospital. And for all that, the only monument to them lies neglected and forgotten. The 49th Bengalee Regiment has been erased from collective memory.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
My thanks to Projjwal Das for accompanying me on this trip.
Calcutta Illustrated – Barry, John
Bhadralok Warrior – Dhaka Tribune, 26th February 2014
Contribution of Bengalis in WW1 – The Daily Star, 18th December 2014
Hellfire Corner At Kut – Outlook Magazine
At War With White History – The Telegraph, 18th May 2014
Kolkata Milestone in Great war trail – The Times of India, 30th January, 2014