The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity
New York, NY, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, ISBN: 9780230220058; 320pp.; Price: £65.00
Date accessed: 9 June, 2023
Since the 1980s, secularism in India has been a topic of heated contestation. Advocates for a Hindu nation deride what they call ‘pseudo-secularism’, claiming that it privileges Muslim and Christian minorities against the interests of India’s Hindu majority. Religious minorities, however, consistently appeal to India’s secular constitution to secure their rights. But how exactly is secularism defined in a region as religiously diverse as India? Scholars often point to India’s distinctive interpretation of secularism. Instead of connoting the removal of religion from public life or the ‘strict wall of separation’ of religion and state, Indian secularism, they say, ensures the state’s equal support for or equidistance from all religions.
This distinction, widely noted as it is, does little to explain the history that produced Indian secularism. This volume seeks to provide such a history. Nandini Chatterjee brings a new set of players into the story, namely, Christians. She contends that Christians in India, as small in number as they are, ‘played a disproportionately significant role in shaping Indian secularism, under the specific conditions created by British imperial rule …’ (p. 2). Focusing chiefly on the role of Protestant missionaries and their converts, the book crosses a vast terrain in which Christians made their mark on the meaning of Indian secularism. This includes the realms of education, personal laws, endowments and politics.
These venues clearly generated debates about the state’s role in religious matters. In some instances, Christians advocated state withdrawal from religious affairs (for instance, from the state’s management of Hindu charitable endowments, pp. 59–61), while in others they advocated greater involvement (as with religious education). But were such episodes an essential aspect of an ‘Indian history of secularism’ (p. 5)? Following important trends in Indian historiography, Chatterjee attempts to trace local routes to secularism without imbibing into the idea that secularism is derived from Europe’s history. But this is a tall order, considering the book’s heavy focus on Protestant Christianity. In the author’s view, what exactly constitutes a local history of secularism in India, and how does she build the case that Protestantism profoundly shaped it?
There is, of course, a history of secularism in India that predates British rule. Patterns of state building that involved eclectic, cross-confessional alliances were a central aspect of Indo-Islamic state building and bear elements of the secularism championed by the modern Indian state. Chatterjee touches on Mughal practices in her treatment of Christian personal laws (pp. 85–8). The book’s opening discussion of secularism, however, could have done a better job of referencing pre-colonial practices that may also be termed ‘secular’.
An important contribution of the book concerns policies surrounding mission colleges in India, in particular, the prestigious St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi. In recent years, St. Stephen’s has been in the news because of attempts by its current principal, Valson Thampu, to re-assert the college’s Christian roots. As a Minority Educational Institution (MEI), St. Stephen’s can claim a degree of regulatory authority over its own affairs and its admission policies; but as an institution that receives state funds, it cannot impart religious instruction to its students and is entitled to reserve up to half of its admissions for Christian students.
Chatterjee first describes the origins of the college in the Anglican Cambridge Brotherhood and how the college later emerged as ‘the leading public school of India’ (p. 113), albeit, one having little to do with Christian instruction and having relatively few Christian students. Her book locates the story of St. Stephen’s within a longer history of educational controversy in British India tracing back to the early 19th century. At issue were the relationship between mission colleges and the colonial state, and whether these colleges should be able to impart religious instruction to non-Christian students seeking a secular education. The first chapter of the book describes these controversies in some detail. It pays special attention to educational entrepreneurs, their religious agendas, and how, under the sway of utilitarianism, the colonial state employed their services to promote the public good.
The trajectory of St. Stephen’s from its original Christian vision to a college with elite status, but having little to do with Christianity is not unique to India. George Marsden has explored a similar path taken by America’s Ivy League schools in The Soul of the American University.(1)This book describes a steady decline of religious influence among universities that once called themselves ‘Christian’. Chatterjee does bring a comparative dimension to her study, but it is focused, understandably, on concurrent educational policies of Britain and India.
The chapter on St. Stephen’s College (chapter four) and the scaffolding provided by her earlier treatment of educational controversies (chapter one) could have provided a tangible and innovative launching point for an exploration of Christians and secularism in India. In fact, had the author merely offered an institutional history of St. Stephen’s, she would have made a most timely and original contribution to the field. The author, however, was far more ambitious than this. Her book covers a wide range of topics, some of which have been treated extensively in previous work. Instead of bringing her main argument into sharper focus, the breadth of the study has had the effect of diluting its core ideas and diminishing the book’s coherence.
It is no easy task for an historian to present a new argument based on sources as heavily consulted as those from which Chatterjee draws. To avoid redundancy, an author must draw new insights from already consulted material or make fresh claims about old topics. She may judiciously distinguish her work from previous contributions with reasoned arguments. Another path, though, is to dismiss the work of others with a sentence or two or simply relegate them to endnotes without engaging them in any depth. Regrettably, Chatterjee’s book tilts toward the latter. Chatterjee, for instance, states ‘it is my argument in [italics added] that to understand British response to Indian religions, it is important to remain aware of the evolving relationship between the Church of England with the British nation-state, a process, we might say, that created ‘Anglicans’ as a religious community comparable to Methodists, Baptists, Catholics and so on’ (p. 16). She adopts this comparative lens for her discussion of both education and personal law.
It was Gauri Viswanathan, however, who had long before Chatterjee stressed the importance of reading modern Indian and British histories together, especially when discussing religious minorities and secular nationhood. Employing Edward Said’s notion of a ‘cross-current’ and adopting his suggestion that we read histories ‘contrapuntally’, Viswanathan explored laws in England that endowed religious minorities with citizenship and educational policies in India that helped incorporate Indian subjects into the imperial regime. Both, according to Viswanathan, belonged to the single, colonizing project of secular nationhood.(2) In light of the striking parity to her own aims, one might expect Chatterjee to have engaged with Viswanathan more extensively, but instead she dismisses Viswanathan’s work in a sentence (p. 76).
In her discussion of personal laws, Chatterjee highlights the tension between a universal law (anchored in beliefs about natural law) and religious laws. She ties the story of Christians in India to a quest for the universal, which ultimately retreated into claims of a particular community. ‘The historical role of the Indian Christians’, she writes, ‘was not just to expose the hollowness of the unsubstantiated universal but also to incite a quest for making it more substantive’ (p. 94). The novelty of Chatterjee’s contributions to this discussion lies in her careful treatment of 18th- century developments and the transition from Mughal to East India Company legal frameworks. Her chapter begins by discussing how European belief in a universal law grew increasingly unstable as commercial empires confronted peoples of other races and creeds in the colonies. Should colonial regimes allow ‘natives’ to observe their own customs and laws? If so, how would information be gathered to discern the content of those laws? Race and religion interacted in ways that vexed colonial officials, especially when members of a race did not adhere to their presumed religion or law.
The question of which law to apply to ‘native Christians’ was particularly troublesome. Because of their radically diverse practices and because their doctrine taught no personal law, formulating laws of marriage or inheritance was no simple task. Whereas colonial officials had been envisioning laws for marriage, divorce and inheritance for decades, they did not consolidate Christian personal laws until after the Rebellion of 1857 and the establishment of the High Courts in 1862 (whereby Company and Crown courts were integrated).
In my own work, I have explained the establishment of a Christian body of personal laws in terms of the colonial state’s quest for legal uniformity and stability. An official knowledge about conversion and about an Indian Christian community sought to address the legal ambiguity of India’s Christian population (unlike Hindus and Muslims, they had no personal law). This official knowledge was tied not only to laws of marriage, inheritance, etc., but also to understandings derived from case law.(3) Ultimately, Christian laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance came to be modeled after English law on account of the belief that Christianity was a European religion. I did not conclude, as Chatterjee claims, that the creation of Christian personal laws was ‘arbitrary’ (76).
Indian Christians in the Madras Presidency often objected to the heavy-handed enforcement of laws of inheritance (1865) and marriage (1872). The ‘fiction’ invented by the British was that of a monolithic Christian community in India that was intrinsically tied to European civilization. While colonial courts applied Hindu laws more flexibly because of the plurality of castes, they applied Christian laws more rigidly, with rare concessions to local custom. The British allowed certain Muslim communities (e.g., Khojas, Memons, and Bohras) to continue to practice the Hindu law of inheritance, often to the detriment of women in those communities. Contrary to what Chatterjee suggests (p. 76), they could have made similar concessions to certain groups of Christians who continued to observe local inheritance practices.
Chatterjee indicates that from the 18th century, Christians of colonial India claimed distinct inheritance laws as their religious right. It is somewhat odd that this observation would become an occasion for Chatterjee to distinguish her work from mine (p. 77). My work begins in 1863 as stated on the front cover. What can be gathered from both studies is that there were some Christians who wanted personal laws of their own and others who did not like the ones that were eventually applied to them. What we both seem to agree on is that most Christians were in legal limbo until the latter part of the 19th century (p. 94). Whereas Chatterjee, in the interest of a local history, may wish to portray these laws as a response to demands from below, I stress the top-down aspect of marriage and inheritance laws and objections to their enforcement.
In the last section of her book, Chatterjee develops the concept of Christian citizenship. This section discusses theological and political ideas that framed Christian relations to the colonial state and to the nationalist movement. It features the roles of leaders such as K. T. Paul, S. K. Datta, A.T . Pannirselvam, and a cluster of theologians who comprised what was known as the ‘Rethinking Group’. Chatterjee should be credited for taking theological ideas seriously in explaining the political posture of Christians. Had this been a study of Indian Muslims, it would be fitting to explore how Muslims were interpreting millat (local community), quam (nation), and mazhab (faith) in the context of Indian nationalism. It only makes sense that Christian notions of the church, political authority, and salvation would be explored in chapters seven and eight.
This material draws heavily from reports of the Indian Statutory Commission, the All India Conference of Indian Christians (AICC), the Indian Roundtable Conferences (1930–2), and Christian newspapers. These comprise a heavily picked over archive resulting in no small number of theses stacked on the shelves of Union Theological College in Bangalore and articles published in the Indian Church History Review. Chatterjee has done well to redirect this material to secular audiences (that word again). Still, the material has been amply discussed elsewhere and dilutes the book’s core themes.
In sum, The Making of Indian Secularism makes some important contributions to the study of secularism and that of embattled mission schools such as St. Stephen’s. The book needed a better job of editing to correct typos and the occasional awkward or paragraph length sentence (pp. 8, 14, 218). The book, moreover, moves back and forth between the theme of Indian secularism and multiple venues of Christian engagement and reflection, some seeming more relevant than others to the book’s main premise. The relationship of fulfillment theology, for instance, to the shaping of Indian secularism is less than evident. Chatterjee does well to point out that Christians did plead for a universal principle of governance under which they could thrive as a community. The connections to secularism in each chapter, however, needed to be drawn out more clearly and explicitly. The author, after all, claims that Christians shaped Indian secularism, and did not merely appeal to or reflect it. Greater focus on a single venue of Christian intervention, such as the mission college, would have served readers better than the comprehensive undertaking of this book. Still, enough flashes of insight emerge from the chapters to enrich ongoing debates.
- George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York, NY, 1994).Back to (1)
- Gauri Viswanathan, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity and Belief (Princeton, NJ, 1998).Back to (2)
- Chandra Mallampalli, Christians and Public Life in Colonial India: Contending with Marginality (London, 2004).Back to (3)
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.
- See Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, The Politics of Secularism in International Relations (Princeton, NJ, 2008).Back to (1)
- José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, IL, 1994).Back to (2)
- Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Palo Alto, CA, 2003).Back to (3)
- Saba Mahmood, ‘Is critique secular?’, The Immanent Frame, 2008 <http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/03/30/is-critique-secular-2/> [accessed 1 September 2011].Back to (4)
- 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)