Monday, 30th October 2017

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Tears for subaltern

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  • Published 12.07.09

The Bengalis were never known for being a particularly war-like people or for their physical prowess either. Our British rulers used to look down on the Bengalis for their timidity and alleged lack of courage. So one can be in for a surprise if one can discover the Bengalee War Memorial in College Square in front of the entrance opposite Mahabodhi Society and the Baptist Mission students hall, a narrow building with Islamic arches giving it a touch of elegance and charm.

But it is difficult to discover. To begin with, it is rather a small and insignificant-looking column — like the Bengalis, I daresay.

And when I went to College Square last week, the memorial was barely visible, surrounded as it was with a number of primary school teachers, apparently on hunger strike. So only the top of the column was visible above the railing covered with posters. The space inside the railing was used to dry clothes but the white marble pedestal was visible.

Inscribed on it were the words: “In memory of members of The 45th Bengalee Regiment who died in the Great War, 1914-1918, To the Glory of God, King and Country.” To serve as a reminder, 1,300,000 Indian troops had fought side by side with the British army in World War I in appalling conditions in countries as far flung as France and Flanders, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Indian soldiers were not allowed to rise as commissioned officers, but £115 million was paid from the Indian exchequer.

The names of the 49 Bengalis who died in action during the battle that exposed the vulnerability of the British are inscribed on the pedestal. The names, ranks (sepoy, subedar, lance naik), regiment number, date of death and districts from which they came are listed here.

The districts are Midnapore, Mymensinh, Murshidabad, Nadia, Calcutta, Jessore, Burdwan, Pabna, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Faridpore, Pabna, 24-Parganas and Tripura (Tipperah). Many of these soldiers were Muslims. It is known that there was an uprising among Muslim soldiers who refused to battle with Islamic countries, but, of course, it was suppressed.

There are two other memorials to subalterns, one of which is visible from the Fort William side of the Maidan and from Vidyasagar Setu. It is difficult to find one’s way to the Lascar War Memorial on Napier Road tucked away inside Hastings adjacent to Navy House. The term lascar means sailor or militiaman from the Indian subcontinent employed on European ships since the first European sailed to India, and is derived from the Persian Lashkar, meaning military camp or army. It was absorbed into Bengali and is still in currency.

This memorial was constructed after the Great War as a tribute to the 896 lascars, seamen of eastern India sailing on merchant ships who were killed as their ships were targets of enemy warships. A monument was erected by shipping and mercantile companies in their memory and was unveiled by the then governor of Bengal, Lord Lytton, on February 6, 1924.

Close to Prinsep Ghat, the four-sided tower with a gilt dome and four small minarets on top reminds one of the victory tower in Chittor. The prow of an ancient vessel projects from each of its sides. Undulating lines beneath these symbolise waves. With chhajjas and trellises it has a distinctly Indian look. The monument is well looked after, has a fencing and garden but had become the victim of neglect. Commodore B.K. Mohanti wrote that when he assumed command of the naval establishment, the monument was in ruins. Prinsep Ghat was being restored at that time, and this inspired B.K. Mohanti to refurbish the memorial. On December 7, 1994, 70 years after its unveiling, the illumination was switched on by the then governor, A.L. Dias.

The third monument is a familiar sight — the Cenotaph opposite the All India Radio building and adjacent to the Netaji statue. This column is simple, dignified and massive and has often been compared with a Lutyens design. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall in London. Apart from the wreath there is no ornamentation. This too was erected by public subscription and was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach.