Monday, January 23, 2006

Race, Sex and Class under the Raj
Imperial Attitudes and Policies and their Critics, 1793-1905
Kenneth Ballhatchet
St. Martin's Press, New Yor, 1980.

Bollywood is the reason I chanced upon this book. To be precise, Bollywood, and Aamir Khan's "Mangal Pandey". Because the last thing one expects of B'wood is accurate historic depiction. So when one hears that Mangal Pandey is backed up with a bit of homework (though there isn't much on the protagonist's life to do much homework anyway, but that's another story) and when one gets to watch in the movie this army of prostitutes-among them the lead woman-exclusively earmarked for certain military regiments, a bit of digging into the lives of the officers of the East India Company becomes necessary.

And that's where I came across Kenneth Ballhatchet's work. In this scholarly piece, Ballhatchet, a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of London, shows the influence that race had on shaping the British conduct in India, especially in the context of sexual mores of its officials. The structured hierarchy within the British society and the distinctions between them and the natives, required interracial sexual conduct to be very tightly controlled, regulated and legitimized. And all this had to be done within a narrow framework so as to allow gratification without upsetting the social equations between the ruler and the ruled.

From the first chapter of the book "Lock Hospitals and Lal Bazars" comes this bit.

Of all the areas of sexual behavior which embarrassed the authorities, relations between British soldiers and Indian women proved the most troubling. The problem was concisely expressed by Dr. W.J. Moore,Surgeon General,Bombay, in 1886.
"For a young man who cannot marry and who cannot attain to the high moral standard required for the repression of physiological natural instincts, there are only two ways of satisfaction, viz., masturbation and mercernary love. The former, as is well known, leads to disorders of both body and mind; the latter, to the fearful dangers of venereal."

Thus were born the Lock hospitals and Lal bazars; the former serving as hospices for "diseased women" to check the spread of venereal disease-the term lock probably implying the force or restraint necessary to confine them, while the latter were the red light or brothel areas for a particular regiment frequented only by its soldiers. The Lal bazar girls were chaperoned by an elderly woman who ensured that her girls were healthy and that those infected were either expelled or sent to hospital. By this practice, inelegantly termed as the "old bawd system", the procuress was paid five rupees a month from the regimental canteen fund and a permanent brothel for each regiment was in place. (Whether or not these women had romances a la Mangal Pandey style is better left to the imaginations of B'wood!!!)

As Lock hospitals and Lal bazars mushroomed all over British India;Berhampore, Cawnpore, Agra, Meerut, Dinapur, Fatehgarh, Satara, Bangalore and Calcutta, so also did campaigns in England and India against this system. The missionaries protested about the lack of morality and the Bishop of Calcutta often complained that the lal bazars had made sinning safe.

With the efficacy of this system under attack, the government pressed for specific proposals on the Lock or Lal bazar. There were reports saying that rather than contain VD, these institutions often increased the spread. Under the reforming governor, William Bentinck, each presidency was asked to submit statistics for each regiment. This started a series of studies from 1820 onwards detailing the incidence of VD among British troops, which is extensively documented in this book.

Amusing episodes abound. For instance when Dr. Burke (the Inspector General of Hospitals for the King's forces in India-fancy title that!!!) observed only four VD patients in the hospital of His Majesty's 11th Light Dragoons, he happily attributed this to the success of the "old bawd system". Three months later this number had swelled to twenty two. Appalled, Burke ordered an enquiry. Sure enough it revealed that the "old bawd" and her "troops" had gone away, as she had not been paid her salary.

With the Mutiny of 1857, also known as the First Indian War of Independence, came the abolition of the East India Company, and the rule of the Britsh Crown. As conditions improved for the British in India, more and more English women came to reside here, hastening the disappearance of lal bazars for regiments. Missionaries, that came into India in droves, too played their part, by voiciferously criticizing British immorality.

A British officer, Major William Palmer, was painted with the two muslim ladies with whom he lived and with this three young children by his 'senior wife', who sits on his right. The celebration of such relationships in paint would have been entirely unacceptable to later generations in British India.

Ironically while the British authorities regulated and facilitated prostitution on a systematic basis to "maintain soldiers' virile energy", there showed a complete turnabout in their approach toward romantic relations between officers and high ranking elite and native women. In this case there were severe restrictions, reprimands and loss of prestige for the men involved. The ruling class had to keep its distance at all costs.


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