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Response to Review of The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity

I thank Dr Chandra Mallampalli for his comments, and I am grateful for the opportunity that his criticisms offer for re-stating my aims in writing The Making of Indian Secularism. Dr Mallampalli chides me for writing a book that is overly ambitious, insufficiently coherent, and inadequately novel, and which does not present enough evidence in support of its arguments. In spite of the ‘flashes of insight’ that he kindly concedes, these are fairly damning criticisms – hence I must attempt to answer them.

Dr Mallampalli begins by tackling the key word in the title – secularism. Indeed, as he notes, there is a widespread belief that the Indian interpretation of this term is distinctive, especially in that it does not conform to ‘classic’ forms of secularism, as for example practiced in the USA. However, the intellectual discomfiture which engendered my project arose partly from the impression that this belief was neither based on rigorous definition nor on systematic comparison – what indeed does the architectural metaphor of ‘wall of separation’ or the mathematical one of ‘equidistance’ mean in sociological, institutional-legal and intellectual terms? Recent scholarship has not only multiplied examples of the historically contingent boundaries drawn between religious belief and public life in different countries (1), it has also revealed that ‘secularism’ is a notoriously difficult quantity to define – with constant slippages between sociological observation and normative agendas. While doing the research and writing for this book, I was inspired by José Casanova’s effort to refine the ‘specialization of institutions’ theory of secularization using case studies of highly public and politicized religiosity (one of these being in the USA) (2), but also by Talal Asad, who has queried the normative basis of secularization theory, and sketched out the social imagination underlying the ‘secular’ agenda, which assumes, nay recommends, that religion be a separable quantity from the rest of social life.(3) What appears to be emerging from some very vigorous recent debates on the subject is the idea that secularism cannot simply be understood as the absence of religion nor as religious toleration, but that it is in fact a characteristically modern way of conceiving of and governing, or wishing to govern religion – a project that has its own ‘thick texture of affinities, prejudices, and attachments’.(4) I have tried to see whether one can combine a description of institutional and legal change with that of cultural transformation, and explain why any such extant combination came into being – that is, provide a historical explanation of secular governance and the politics of secularism in one country.

In this effort, I have not been greatly assisted by scholarship on South Asia – and so I do wonder why Dr Mallampalli believes me to be following ‘important trends in Indian historiography’. I may be wrong in my assessment, but from some of his comments he does appear to reflect what I see as a lacuna in the normally highly theoretically-aware field of Indian historiography. I am referring in particular to his worry about the difficulty of talking about secularism in a multi-religious society, and his suggestion that I should develop my very nascent interest in Mughal governance to find explanations for phenomenon that I believe are distinctly modern.

Dr Mallampalli chides me for failing to distinguish my contribution from that of Gauri Viswanathan, whose seminal work pointed to the use of secularism as an imperial legitimating device, and the complicity of Christian missionaries in such imperial projects. Indeed, Viswanathan’s work has irredeemably complicated our understanding of secularism as an ideology of toleration and liberty tout court. However, I do disagree with Viswanathan among other things because I think mainstream British religiosity – by which I mean both the legal establishment of the Church of England, the support of the Liberals for establishment, and Evangelical politics, not missionaries alone – had much more to do with the shaping of the corresponding laws and politics in colonial India than British secularism. It would appear that Dr Mallampalli did not understand this part of my argument, just as he appears to have missed the eight footnotes and six pages where I discuss Viswanathan’s work, beginning with the introduction itself. It may be that this omission arose out of Dr Mallampalli’s concentration on those parts of my book which overlapped with his own work, to the neglect of its overall argument.

 Given this omission, I think it may be useful to state simply what The Making of Indian Secularism argues. It argues that the governance of religion took a particular shape in colonial India as a result of political debates and contests in which Christians – British, Indian and others – played key roles, and also that a very diverse and divided body of people came to see themselves and be seen as the community of Indian Christians as a result of those contests. Dr Mallampalli and I work on closely related and overlapping fields – we are both interested in religion, imperial governance, identity formation and minorities. But what these keywords do not reveal is that we have very different understandings of what it is to be a community, especially a minority community. While we both agree that becoming a minority involves a process of reification, I argue that this is a process not simply of imposition and opportunism, but also of negotiation and creativity. More importantly, I argue that under certain conditions, such as those provided by British imperial rule in India, a minority can destabilize assumptions, alter social behaviour and change the course of governance affecting the entire society – and not the said minority of people alone.

For example, being a Christian in early colonial India was not just to be ‘in limbo’, it was in addition to be caught up in an international network of power and affect, such that an unenthusiastic convert to Christianity may find her pre-teenage son refusing to live with her and her kinsmen refusing to allow her custody of her child, but also have the privilege of inciting a minor philosophical brawl among amateur British judges in colonial Bombay – about the implications of natural law and religious affiliation for parental rights. Positions for and against specific rights claims of Indian Christians – and Indians who were not Christians – were taken from Clapham to Calcutta. Out of these imperial debates emerged not only Christian personal law but also principles for determining the province and legitimacy of reformist legislation, the determination of the jurisdictional boundaries between religion and the state – in short, principles for the modern governance of religion.

 While a full rebuttal of Dr Mallampalli’s rather detailed discussion of one chapter of my book (on personal status laws in India) would be opaque to all but the specialist – let me point out one or two things. The Indian Succession Act, passed in 1865 was not passed ‘arbitrarily’ (in the sense of high-handedly, without consultation) based on a belief that all Christians were culturally similar to Europeans. Several Parliamentary Papers and legislative department records amply demonstrate that British statesmen possessed substantial understanding of the distinct experiences and problems faced by Indian Christians – especially because the latter had vocal advocates in European missionaries – Catholic and Protestant. In fact, this law was applied to Indian Christians in the belief that it would provide a solution to the long-standing legal problems that apostates from Hinduism and Islam faced. Even after a law passed in 1850 rescinded the punitive aspects of these religion-based laws, especially the clauses involving disinheritance of apostates, estates of Christians proved to be hard to disentangle from Hindu ancestral coparcenery property. Where this was not the problem, many Christian men were very keen to benefit from the provisions of Hindu schools of law and customs that denied property rights to women. The Indian Succession Act was meant to provide a clear law for disposing of the estates of Indian Christians – always assumed to be ‘converts’. And indeed as with those Christian men claiming the benefits of Hindu and customary inheritance laws, male Christian leaders were keen to play on their status as a community of converts in order to enhance the patriarchal potential of the Indian (Christian) Marriage Act.

It is also important to note that the Indian Succession Act did not apply to Indian Christians alone. Its provisions for testamentary succession applied to Parsis – Zoroastrians of Iranian origin and to the very small number of people who married under India’s first civil marriage law (the Special Marriage Act, 1872) – mostly heterodox Hindus known as Brahmos – who categorically rejected the status of a community, minority or otherwise.(5) Neither colonial legislation or adjudication, then, made communities – it is the manner in which people interacted with law that decided the outcome.

In the second section of my book, I examined two sets of Christian educationists and institutions – St. Stephen’s College Delhi, and Agricultural science colleges from Allahabad to Sriniketan –  to examine the institutional setting in which the political and legal interacted with the organizational, theological and personal elements. I did so in order to explain why certain Christian educationists – American, British and Indian – took the views on religious diversity that they did, and how that helped them gain success both in the educational and also the political markets. I argued that especially in the case of Indian Christian leaders, struggling with the ubiquitous racial hierarchy in Christian institutions, their rejection of a confrontational approach to other religions was connected to their need to claim Christianity as their own, and the embracing of Sanskritic Hindu heritage by 19th-century Christian leaders was crucial to this claim. While Dr Mallampalli regrets that I did not limit my entire project to the study of St Stephen’s College and laws relating to education, I think that such a restricted project would not have allowed me to chart the evolution of the public and political culture of Indian Christianity, nor to trace the ecumenical alliances that this culture enabled, nor to uncover the imperatives that motivated the most socially and politically successful of Indian Christian leaders – indeed, many of them Protestants.

Dr Mallampalli agrees with me that theology matters in the shaping of political ideology. He does not however comment on my formulation that the theological stances of Indian Christian church and community leaders were shaped by their experience of institutional racism, and that the tradition of embracing of Sanskritic heritage formed a coherent intellectual basis for the political theology of Indian Christian leaders such as K. T. Paul, who recommended the Vedantic doctrine of nishkama karma (work without obsessing about rewards) as the basis of altruistic, expansive (not defensive, particularist) Christian citizenship.

Dr Mallampalli is not particularly impressed with the research that has gone into the final section of the book, which is on the cultural and political articulation of the community of Indian Christians, and suggests that it merely trawls a ‘heavily picked over archive’ which has been ‘amply discussed elsewhere’. Given that I have not found a single scholarly (‘secular’ in Dr Mallampalli’s language) study of the changing political stances of the All India Conference of Indian Christians – the only nation-wide organisation of Indian Christians – it would have been very useful to see precise references to undergraduate theses or articles in Indian Church History Review that anticipated my argument or significant parts of them. In the absence of such, I may be excused for believing that the third section of The Making of Indian Secularism presents the first political history of Indian Christians at a national level.

Finally, to come to the crux of the matter – given that the crucial protagonists of the story constituted a relatively small number of people in India – can it be plausibly argued that Christians, especially the politically well placed Protestants, were crucial to the shaping of the culture of governance and critique that characterises Indian secularism? I have merely followed the evidence as I found it. I leave it to the reader to decide whether the evidence that I present sustains my argument – and thank both Dr Mallampalli and Reviews in History for enabling this conversation.


  1. See Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, NJ, 2008).Back to (1)
  2. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, IL, 1994).Back to (2)
  3. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Palo Alto, CA, 2003).Back to (3)
  4. Saba Mahmood, ‘Is critique secular?’, The Immanent Frame, 2008 <> [accessed 1 September 2011].Back to (4)
  5. Nandini Chatterjee, ‘English law, Brahmo marriage and the problem of religious difference: civil marriage laws in Britain and India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 52, 3 (2010), 524–52.Back to (5)