The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858

Author: Penelope Carson

Volume Volume 44, Issue 3, 2013, Asian Affairs

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Commerce and conquest are familiar windows onto the East India Company’s tumultuous rise and fall. But in her lucid and deftly researched new volume, Penelope Carson selects religion as her point of reference. From the start, Carson makes clear that “while the focus of the East India Company’s encounter with India was trade, it could not avoid addressing questions of religion”. Unlike Portugal’s Estado da India with its brutal Inquisition, as the Company gained a territorial foothold on the sub-continent it evolved a unique ‘compact’ based on the principle of toleration and non-interference in local religious beliefs.
Confronted with the bewildering array of Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Christian beliefs, the Company chose a pragmatism that combined an awareness of its precarious position in India with a desire to save on costs. When the Company received explicit religious obligations in its 1698 charter to pay for a chaplain on each of its ships over 500 tons, it made sure that its registered tonnage was always below the cut-off point. This same charter also required that ministers were trained in local Indian languages “to enable them to instruct the Gentoos in the Christian religion”, a first sign of British public and political opinion promoting religion alongside or indeed ahead of the interests of trade. For the corporations of the Age of Enlightenment, social responsibility meant religious obligation.
The missionary impulse started early in the 18th century and, from the beginning, the Company’s chief concern was to regulate who was allowed to come to India and with what purpose. As long as they behaved themselves, the Company was prepared to accept missionaries; they could even be useful partners as army padres and educationalists. But it was wary of dissenters whose anti-establishment views encompassed a core belief in human equality that was potentially dynamite in a caste-stratified society. The loss of the American colonies in the 1780s prompted an evangelical drive to re-moralise the British Empire, with the abolition of slavery and conversion of India among its chief tasks. What united these mass campaigns was the character of William Wilberforce, who declared that “this East Indian object is assuredly the greatest that ever interested the heart or engaged the efforts of man”. Wilberforce’s 25-year crusade to force the Company to actively support Christianity combined behind the scenes lobbying with mass mobilisation. But he was defeated at the first attempt in 1793.
The arguments from ‘old India hands’, such as Warren Hastings, who were opposed to such proselytisation were strengthened by the Vellore revolt against the Company in 1806. In part inspired by local concerns that the Company had plans for conversion, Vellore drove the Governor-General, Sir George Barlow, to fear that “preaching Methodists and wild Visionaries will alienate the affections of our Native troops and lead to the loss of India”. This imperial caution, however, faced powerful public opposition in the run-up to the 1813 renewal of the Company’s charter: Parliament received 123 petitions calling for an end to its monopoly, but an extraordinary 908 in favour of promoting Christianity in India. The result was a great British fudge: the introduction of the established Anglican church in India, a modest commitment to “religious and moral improvement” (although the word ‘missionary’ was not mentioned), the retention of the Company’s ability to license missionaries and the first formal recognition of the right of all Indians to “the free exercise of their religion”.
Two decades later, it was William Bentinck’s spell as governor-general (1828–1835) that marked the beginnings of the end of the Company’s ‘compact’. A reformer in a hurry, Bentinck abolished sati – the Hindu practice of wives joining their husband’s funeral pyre – egged on by the activist Human Sacrifice Abolition Society led by Baptist missionaries. He oversaw the implementation of Macaulay’s education policy, removing government funding for Hindu and Muslim establishments and requiring English medium teaching. Added to this, the Board of Control put an end to the Company’s involvement in local religious festivals and temple management – although its longstanding donation to the Jagannath temple persisted until 1858. In Bengal, Bentinck overruled traditional Hindu law which prevented converts to Christianity from inheriting ancestral property, and in a great liberal gesture declared that no-one was to be barred from public office on the basis of religion, race or descent.
All this stirred a reaction, with the formation of new groups among the Indian population, such as the Dharma Sabha, the Sacred Ash Society and the Four Vedas Society, to protest against these encroachments on the established order. In Madras, opponents warned that the new law on Hindu inheritance will “deserve what it will assuredly attain, the hatred and detestation of the oppressed”. By the 1850s, there was a drumbeat of modernising measures that culminated in the great uprising of 1857. The product of an array of military, political, class and regional factors, what gave a gloss of coherence to this disparate slew of revolts was the desire to protect the dharma and deen of the Hindu and Muslim faiths from English interference. As Warren Hastings had foretold almost half a century earlier, it was the belief among large parts of northern India that the Company was meddling in their religions that would spell its doom.
Nick Robins C. 2013
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