Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
The official religious policy of the East India Company was one of neutrality towards the native religions. This was a continuation of the policy followed by the Muslim rulers during the medieval period. Their reason for continuing this policy was the belief that the earlier Portuguese rule had come to an end because of attempts to forcibly convert the Indian people to Christianity. As a result of this concern, the Company government prohibited both the entry of missionaries into the territories under their control and any attempts at conversion of their subjects to Christianity.1 However, in 1793 two English missionaries, William Carey and John Thomas, both Baptists, set out to India with the clear intention of starting a mission. In view of the ban on missionary activity they settled down in the Danish Colony of Serampore, north of Calcutta. William Carey, along with two other missionaries, Joshua Marshman and William Ward established the Serampore mission in 1799.2 These three missionaries who were to play a major role in the renaissance of Bengal were known as the 'Serampore Trio'.
The Serampore missionaries were the first evangelical Baptist missionaries in India. They were followed later by other missionary groups belonging to different Protestant denominations. Before the arrival of the Serampore missionaries, several centuries earlier, there were Christian missions in the Portuguese territory of Goa, and also on the Malabar coast. The work of the earlier missionaries was limited both geographically and in terms of the number of conversions to Christianity. Thus the major attempt at proselytisation began during the nineteenth century with the establishment of the first Baptist mission in Serampore.
The main aim of the missionaries was converting the native heathans to Christianity, which they considered as the nobler object. It was as an adjunct to this major activity that the missionaries began their work of social reform and social service. The main missionary attack against the native religions of Islam and Hinduism was aimed at a variety of superstitious religious practices. The criticism of the missionaries was particularly directed against the Hindus who believed in idol worship and in several gods and observed a variety of practices, some of which like the sati created a moral revulsion in the minds of the missionaries. The proselytisation work of the missionaries did not succeed much. Firstly, the preaching of Christianity was based on a negative approach. It involved crude and harsh criticism of the religious convictions, superstitions and practices of the local people. Secondly, the age-old resilience of Hinduism to adapt itself to changing times by first permitting protestant sects to emerge and then later absorbing these, also was a major factor.
A direct result of the proselytisation activities of the Serampore missionaries was the birth of the Brahmo Samaj under the leadership of Rammohun Roy. The Brahmo Samaj absorbed the best of Christian ethics and shed the earlier orthodox religious practices such as idol worship and caste discriminations, which were the main targets of the missionary attacks. While the Serampore and other missionary groups who spread out in different parts of the then Bengal province and southern India failed in their evangelical work, they achieved great success in the spheres of social reform and social work. In these two areas they made a lasting contribution, which is acknowledged even today by discriminating and fairminded historians.3
In the area of social reform, the earliest attempt by the Serampore missionaries was to prevent the infanticide at the small island of Ganga Saugor, near Calcutta. A superstition prevailed whereby childless women took a vow that if they had two or more children, they would offer one child to the river Ganga.4 According to the statistics compiled by the Serampore missionaries every year about 100 children were drowned in the river. The missionaries appealed to the Governor-General in Calcutta. They were successful in this venture as the Company government banned the practice quickly. It may be noted that this was not only the first successful attempt in social reform by the missionaries, it was also the beginning of an approach to social reform. For introducing social reform they appealed to the government to pass legislation or issue an executive order preventing an obnoxious or inhuman social-religious practice. In order to persuade the government to act they collected information about the incidence of the particular problem by their own efforts or from other sources, and thus anticipated the later technique of social survey.
The next major issue of social reform which engaged much of the time, energy and resources of the Serampore missionaries was the practice of sati in Bengal. The burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband was an ancient custom which was widely practised among some of the higher castes in Bengal, Rajasthan and even in the south. The Muslim rulers had tried to prevent it, but did not succeed. ‘Albuquerque was bold enough to prohibit suttee within Portuguese India in 1510.’5 The Danes, the Dutch and the French had prohibited sati in their settlements in Bengal much before the East India Company took action against it.6 There is a controversy about whether the Company's rule in some way contributed to the increasing incidence of this practice or not.7 At any rate, it is widely admitted that the practice of sati was quite common in Bengal during the Company's rule and it attracted the reforming zeal of the Serampore Trio. While the Serampore missionaries had achieved an easy success in persuading the Company government in their first attempt at social reform, they found it an extremely difficult task when it came to making them agree to ban the practice of sati. The Company government was understandably cautious and unwilling to be persuaded or pressurised into acting on a matter which might create unfavourable reactions among the native people. This cautious approach was not merely the logical corollary of the official policy of religious neutrality. The memory of the mutiny in Vellore was fresh in the minds of the Company administrators and they were not willing to risk another rebellion among the native population.8 Thus, the missionaries had to fight hard and long, before they could succeed in compelling the Government to act on this issue. In this difficult task, the missionaries followed their earlier approach augmented by some new approaches. They collected statistics regarding the number of cases of sati taking place within 30 miles of Calcutta. According to Carey's sources, there were 438 cases of sati in the city of Calcutta and its neighbourhood alone in 1803.9 Later, another estimate was made by Buchanan according to which in 1813 there were 10,000 cases of sati annually in the country.10 This is considered an exaggerated estimate.11
Apart from highlighting the magnitude of the problem by the compilation of statistics, the missionaries continued to appeal to the Christian conscience of the rulers in India and their masters in England. Being equipped by then with a printing press and weekly journals in Bengali and English, the Serampore missionaries made effective use of these in their social reform work, especially sati. Through the pages of their journals and the publications of tracts, they argued against the practice of sati on religious and moral grounds. In this endeavour they received valuable support by the emerging new elites of Calcutta, under the leadership of Rammohun Roy. The work of the reformers, whether the missionaries or the indigenous reformers, in relation to sati brought forth one more method of social reform which was to be a familiar feature of subsequent social reform activities by the Indian reformers. This was the recourse to submitting memorials to the Government requesting for their intervention in passing legislation to deal with the social problem. The memorials were signed by a substantial number of people who were sympathetic to the cause that was being advocated by the reformers. This approach, which was called 'petition politics' was first used by the leaders of the Dharma Sabha to oppose prohibition of sati and later adopted by Rammohun Roy during the campaign for the abolition of sati.12 It is worth noting, however, that petitioning of the government by the public was advocated by the missionaries much earlier, though, it was put in practice for the first time during the campaign against sati by Rammohun Roy and others.
While the campaign against sati was the most celebrated of the reform activities of the Serampore missionaries, they were not content with the success on this issue. Their Christian conscience continued to spur them on to newer issues of social reform. The missionaries campaigned against kulinism through their journals and publications. Polygamy among the kulin Brahmins of Bengal was another superstitious social practice which caused considerable misery to several young widows. There was a belief among the lower castes in Bengal that by marrying their daughters to a kulin Brahmin they received religious benefit. This resulted in a large number of girls being married to sons of kulin Brahmins at an young age, as was common in those days.13 It also meant as many widows when the man died.
Self-torture by some Hindus, such as 'swinging in a circle while suspended from posts with metal hooks inserted in the fleshy part of the back and then, sometimes falling upon upright iron spikes and other sadistic tortures' soon attracted the attention of the missionaries.14 Though the act was claimed to be voluntary, the missionaries believed, with some justification, that out of misery and wretchedness many people were compelled to indulge in these practices at the behest of their masters. The missionaries gave protection in their mission premises to those who escaped from performing these practices against their will, and also urged governmental aid for the unwilling victims.
Another practice which disturbed the missionaries was what was known as the 'Ghat murders'. There was a common belief among the native population in Bengal that if those who were sick and dying were to die on the banks of the holy river, they would go to heaven. Here is a vivid description as recorded by one of the Serampore Trio:
When a person is on the point of death his relations carry him on his bed, or on a litter to the Ganges ... some persons are carried many miles to the river; and this practice is often attended with very cruel circumstances; a person in his last agonies is dragged from his bed and friends, and carried, in the coldest or the hottest weather, from whatever distance, to the river side, where he lies, if a poor man, in the open air, day and night, till he expires.15
As early as 1802 Carey had advocated the outlawing of this practice. Aided by other missionaries and by Rammohun Roy, who is reported to have exclaimed 'It is murder' and through the propaganda in their journals, the Serampore Trio were able to force the reluctant government to intervene in preventing this practice.
Slavery has been practised in India since ancient times. It was further strengthened by the practice of Muslim rulers to take the prisoners of war as slaves. Akbar banned it, but he did not succeed in eradicating it. So, on the eve of the British rule, slavery was widely practised in several parts of the country. The Christian missionaries in Bengal led by the Serampore Trio began a crusade against it. So common was slavery in those days, that newspapers carried advertisements offering girls and boys for sale.16 Strangely enough this inhuman practice did not evoke the interest and attention of Rammohun Roy and other Indian reformers who were otherwise very active in many aspects of social reforms like sati, kulinism and widow remarriage. As a result of the campaign by the missionaries, the Company government finally banned slavery in 1843. But this act had no legal validity in the princely states of India.
The problem of slavery was quite serious in the southern part of the country, especially in the princely state of Travancore. In 1853, it is stated that there were l30,000 slaves in the state, of whom 6,000 were sircar slaves (i.e. slaves owned by the state).17 The Christian Mission Society and the London Mission Society were both active proselytisers in this state, especially among the lower castes like shanars, pariahs and puliyas. Despite their internal rivalry the two missions came together to work for the abolition of slavery in the state. During the 1850s they kept up an organised and continual pressure on the state government in a number of ways. They wrote horror stories on slavery in the journals published by other missionary groups in Calcutta and Madras, and these were reproduced later in England.
The two missions also jointly presented a petition in 1847 to the new Maharaja on this issue. For about eight years before this, the missionaries were closely involved in their work with the slaves. They had organised schools for them and pleaded for their economic improvement through employment in the state service. They had also fought for 'civil rights' for the convert slaves and other low caste people. These rights included access to the roads used by high caste people, and permission for the women of these groups to use orhis (wraps). They were forbidden by caste rule to cover their breasts.
The missionaries were not willing to be the passive onlookers in the face of social injustice. They described their role as political missionaries in these matters. They were aggressive, insistent and did not hesitate to make use of the political leverage they had by virtue of their relationship with the British rulers in Madras and their sympathisers in the political circles in England. As a result of their educational and political work, even the oppressed groups in the state had become increasingly assertive. This led to confrontation with the high caste people including the Syrian Christians who were land-owners. The breast-cloth disturbances of 1859 was a culmination of this process. Another area of reform work in which the missionaries succeeded was the abolition of uriam or forced free labour for the state. The state government till then did not have a department for its construction work of roads and buildings. This was accomplished by compelling poor labourers, most of whom belonged to the low castes, to work freely on these projects. The other civil rights for which they campaigned was the right of the low caste people to appear and speak in public buildings and offices.
The missionaries achieved success in all the areas of social reform. Slavery, which was banned in Cochin in April 1855, was abolished in Travancore in June 1855. Uriam was not demanded by 1865 and by 1870 designated public roads could be used by the low caste people. The low castes were also permitted access to most of the cutcherries (offices). However, the discrimination in actual practice continued for many years.
The missionaries were not content with their social reform work alone. They were also the pioneers of social work programmes and services for the local population. They worked for the humane treatment of lepers who supposedly committed voluntary suicide but were either drowned or killed. They succeeded in getting the Government to end this practice also. The missionaries gave shelter to orphan children and other destitutes in their missions and provided education for them in their boarding schools. Particularly after the famines which were quite common during the nineteenth century (and many of these were very severe) the missionaries offered relief to orphans and destitutes. It is true that while providing shelter and succour they had an opportunity to convert these unfortunate people to Christianity. It is reported that as early as 1811, destitutes and orphans were kept in the missionary boarding schools. The Serampore and other missionary groups in India were also the pioneers in providing medical care, based on modern methods of medicine, to the poor and the sick people in the country. Sometimes their own knowledge and skill of the new science of medicine were limited. They also established hospitals for providing medical care.
The missionaries in India were the earliest to initiate programmes of education for women.18 It is well known that traditionally, whether among Hindus or Muslims, women were not permitted to receive education. Notwithstanding the occasional example of some eminent women from among them who were educated and engaged in learned discourse, the general practice was one of discouragement of women, if not outright prohibition from education. The traditional practices which restricted the freedom of girls and women, also came in the way of their education. It is reported that as early as 1817 in one of the missionary schools in Chinsura in Bengal (now in Bangladesh) a few girls were being taught. They were separated from the boys by a screen. But the major impetus for the education of girls came during the 1820s when Miss Cooke arrived in Calcutta at the request of the local unit of the London Mission Society for the express purpose of educating girls who were not willing to learn from male teachers. Miss Cooke who later became Mrs. Wilson, played a very major role in stimulating interest in the education of girls from the higher castes of Calcutta. A section of the higher castes in Calcutta had begun to realise the advantages of modern education for their children and even for the girls. Radha Kant Deb who is painted as an arch reactionary in the popular social reform literature, was one of the leading personalities to lend his support for the cause of girls' education. Miss Cooke not only established schools exclusively for girls, but also visited the houses of the rich families in Calcutta to teach their daughters who were unwilling to attend school.
Establishing schools for girls and encouraging them to take advantage of those schools became a major activity of missionaries in Bengal and southern India. By the end of 1920s education for girls was quite widespread among the missionary schools and was even becoming popular among the enlightened sections of the local population. As one observer has rightly remarked, 'In conceiving the idea of providing education for the female population of India, the missionaries were, therefore, not only pioneers, but pioneers faced with a powerful opposition.19 It is all the more creditable that despite such opposition, the missionaries continued to work for female education and achieved a good measure of success.
The missionaries in India were also the pioneers of adult education. This however, did not begin as a deliberate programme. Often it began quite informally, incidental to their educational activities for the children. The parents of school- going children were invited by the missionaries to visit their schools. The curiosity aroused among the parents while watching the examinations or seeing the books of their children at home created a desire in some of them for education. The missionaries capitalised on these side-effects of their school programme for the children and started organising classes for adults in the evenings. Soon adult schools began to appear in 1820s. In the Nagercoil area, under the auspices of the Christian Mission Society, a school for adults was established by the Indians themselves. The idea gradually spread to other areas where missionaries were operating.
What is most remarkable among the missionary activities, is perhaps their contribution in pioneering modern education in India. During the early years of Company rule, the government followed a policy of encouraging the traditional system of education by establishing a madrasah for the Muslims in Calcutta and a Sanskrit vidyalaya for Hindus in Varanasi. These were to serve as centres of higher learning for the native population. However, the. College of Fort William in Calcutta, which was established in 1800 by Governor-General Wellesley for the training of the Company's officers, became a centre for learning which contributed in many ways to the Bengal renaissance. It may be noted here that William Carey was appointed as a lecturer in the College of Fort William, which he used to advantage in furthering the causes that were dear to him and his colleagues. The Company government did little to provide modern education for the native population. For a long time, the provision of elementary school facilities to the native population, especially in the interiors for the lower castes and the poor people, was a responsibility willingly accepted by the Christian missionaries. The missionaries were even attacked by some Europeans in London and India for catering to the lower castes and ignoring the higher castes. This is indicative of the social conditions of the time and bears testimony to the contribution made by the early Christian missionaries to the education of the disadvantaged rural population in India. Following Macaulay's Note on the introduction of modern education in India, the Company established schools and thus began to provide educational facilities in Bengal during the 1930s. Even then, a major proportion of pupils continued to be in the missionary schools. What motivated the missionaries to introduce a western-oriented education in India? Ingham observes: 'While legislative action might be the speediest remedy for the more blatant evils of Indian society, the missionaries soon became aware that education rather than legislation was necessary to make the Indians themselves desire reform.’20 In this task of creating a strong desire among Indians for reform through modern education the missionaries succeeded very well. The emergence of an increasing number of new elites in the Indian society following the introduction of modern education contributed significantly to the birth of a number of indigenous movements of religious and social reforms. Perhaps, the greatest contribution of missonaries to the modernisation of India was that of a new ideology based on individualism. Assessing the contribution of evangelical Protestant Christian missionaries, Daniel Potts concludes:
The Protestant Christian tradition at the time was particularly obsessed with the importance of the individual; his rights; his freedom to read his own Scriptures and to decide for himself the path his life should take. The vigour and vitality of the Baptists in particular and dissenting Protestants in general stirred the air, filling it with new vision and idealism. 21
It was Buddha in the fifth century B.C. who made the first major contribution to individualism in the Indian society by advocating religion-based on individual experience which Dumont has called as the emergence of outwardly individual.22 For the second time in Indian history, another major contribution to individualism, both religious and social, was made by the Protestant Christian missionaries through their educational institutions which exposed the minds of the emerging new elites to the influence of powerful theories of liberty and equality.
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