Bangladesh Table of Contents
The military history of Bangladesh before independence is part of that of the Indian subcontinent, particularly of British India and then of Pakistan from 1947 through 1971. The period having the greatest influence on the military establishments of the subcontinent began with the arrival of the Europeans at the start of the sixteenth century and, more particularly, Queen Elizabeth I's granting of a charter to the British East India Company in 1600 (see European Colonization, 1757-1857 , ch. 1). As European settlements were established, locals were employed as guards to protect company trading posts and participate in ceremonials. As the number of trading posts increased, these guards were more formally organized into companies led by British officers. Three independent forces emerged and became known as presidency armies and the troops as sepoys (a corruption of the Hindi sipahi, or soldier). Regular British troops also were incorporated into the presidency armies. In 1748 the three armies were grouped under a single commander in chief and organized, armed, uniformed, and trained by British officers.
The rapid expansion of British control of the Indian subcontinent during the early nineteenth century was accompanied by mounting resistance. Political, social, religious, and ethnic tensions led to four eruptions in the army in the years between 1844 and 1857, although these incidents were considered minor by the British authorities. The long pent-up discontent of the sepoys then broke into open revolt at Meerut, near Delhi on May 10, 1857, starting the Sepoy Rebellion (see The Uprising of 1857 , ch. 1).
The uprising, regarded by the British as a mutiny but by later South Asian nationalists as the "first war of independence," was largely confined to Bengalis in the British Indian Army, but it grew into a major conflict in northern and central India. The British used loyal Indian troops and reinforcements from Britain to crush the rebellion by 1858. A proclamation by Queen Victoria terminated the British East India Company government, India became a British colony, and the role of Indian military forces was reevaluated. Because the uprising was limited almost entirely to the Bengali troops and to the regions of north-central India and Bengal (see Glossary), the British not only disbanded the Bengali army but also became distrustful of Bengalis and concentrated military recruitment among the more favored Punjabis and Pathans of northwestern India. Additionally, a complete reorganization of the Indian forces followed. By 1895 the army was put under the central authority of the army headquarters at Delhi and was divided into four territorial commands at of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, and Punjab, each commanded by a lieutenant general.
After the 1857-58 uprising, the British developed a recruitment policy that was to shape the Pakistani military and later that of Bangladesh. Recruitment was based on the "martial races" myth, according to which the inhabitants of certain areas or members of certain castes or tribes were reputed to make more fearless and disciplined soldiers than others. Popularization of this concept is usually attributed to Lord Frederick Roberts, commander in chief of the British Indian Army from 1885 to 1893. Roberts believed that the best recruits were found in northwestern India, including the Punjab and parts of what later became West Pakistan. Because recruitment was based on these theories, the period from 1890 to 1914 sometimes is referred to as "the Punjabization of the army." Roberts also favored staffing certain units or subunits with members of the same caste, tribal, or religious group from within the so-called martial races, a practice that became fairly common. These methods produced an apolitical, professional force responsive to British command, but one that accentuated regional and communal distinctions. Nevertheless, the British never organized a combat unit of battalion size or larger that was entirely composed of Muslims. Consequently, when the Muslim majority state of Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, existing British Indian Army formations that were transferred to the new state were severely understrength.
Bengali participation in the military services was much lower than that of other groups, and a number of reasons have been advanced for this fact. In the 1920s, Punjab, with about 20 million people, contributed some 350,000 recruits to the British Indian Army, whereas Bengal, with a population base at least twice as large, contributed only 7,000 recruits during the same period.
Data as of September 1988
Bangladesh Table of Contents