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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

India and the Imperial World

India is the glue holding our case studies together, although geographically the chapters range across the British Empire, from Australia to London and beyond, to the USA and Japan. This reflects India’s importance as one of the earliest, most important and most populous of British possessions: the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ in what was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the most extensive and powerful European empire. By the start of our period in the 1860s, India had just been brought under crown rule following the violent suppression of the Great Rebellion of 1857. India lay at the centre of a complex ‘contact zone’ that, thanks to the very practices of colonial governance and political economy, spread to Fiji, the Caribbean, South Africa, Australia and Britain itself. India inspired the imperial imaginations of missionary societies, trading companies, officialdom and intellectuals, not only in terms of wealth, power and souls but as a civilisational entity whose culture appeared radically different from the norms of European civility. By 1950, the Indian subcontinent had gained its independence from Britain following an extended nationalist struggle which involved the forging of a range of new transnational connections extending beyond the borders of the empire.

The large Indian diaspora, initiated by pre-colonial trading relationships with the East coast of Africa, spread widely by means of the indentured labour system, initiated by the British in 1834 in order to provide servile and economical labour to plantations, largely within in British colonies.21 The growing demands of expatriate Indians for better if not equal rights in the colonies to which they had been transported, and for an end to the system of indenture, created global networks, from Fiji and India to South Africa and the Caribbean. Leading members of the Indian nationalist movement were involved in these campaigns. Indeed, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) built his early political career and ideas about Satyagraha or non-violent resistance, through participation in these campaigns as a young lawyer in South Africa during the period 18931914.

By 1860, colonial Indians were also deeply enmeshed in re-imagining themselves across the many fault-lines of contact. A new political community or nation was beginning to be articulated in anti-colonial nationalism by social groups who were themselves produced out of the interstices of colonial rule and imperial economy. A deep sense of the ancient lineage of Indian civilisation made ‘tradition’ and ‘reform’ the centrifuge through which Indian colonial society struggled against imperial rule and racism, and for a new sense of Indian modernity.22 The Indian National Congress (INC), founded in 1885, took the lead in driving anti-colonial struggles to achieve independence, by 1906 adopting self-rule as its goal, achieved if necessary by direct action. This political strategy was fuelled by British recalcitrance, repression and even violence in the face of nationalist demands and political action.

Throughout this struggle for independence, Indian nationalists forged alliances and friendships internationally, not only with other colonised or racially oppressed peoples such as African Americans, but also with

Europeans who supported their cause, including British women and men. The contact zone of imperial missions was perhaps surprising ground for what Leela Gandhi insightfully refers to as ‘affective communities of anticolonial thought’ but as Chapter 4 in this volume discusses, such communities could be enduring and effective.23

‘India’ exerted a powerful influence on the Western imagination, intellectually through the work of orientalist scholarship and in popular culture through the exoticisation of Indian bodies, practices and beliefs. On the one hand, a strict East versus West binary was constructed that, on the other, invited a romantic pre-occupation with bringing spiritual harmony through melding this binary. Earlier in the nineteenth century, transcendentalism was, perhaps, the first popularisation of ‘Eastern religion’ as a fruitful source of spiritual ideas to offset the hyper-materialism industrialisation seemed to demand. Theosophy was one of the more influential outgrowths of this search for meaning similarly drawing on ‘Eastern spirituality’ to proselytise universal spiritual truths that would harmonise ‘east’ with ‘west’. It is no coincidence that both Transcendentalism and Theosophy appear in several of the case studies in this book. Less well explored are the ways in which imperial Christianity engaged with, and was re-shaped by, these countervocabularies of faith, identity and nation. Indeed, as the case studies in this volume demonstrate, faith and spirituality, including Christianity, were core components of new cosmopolitan thought zones in this period. Drawing on recent discussions of non-Western cosmopolitanisms, we discuss how new forms of cosmopolitanisms were generated within and between secular and religious encounters.24

From the late eighteenth century, British missionaries sought to convert Indians to Christianity, harnessing their evangelical zeal to imperialism under the protection of British colonial rule.25 They were resoundingly unsuccessful in this ambition, with the number of conversions in India small given the resources devoted to this cause over 150 years. Arguably missionaries exerted far more influence in setting up schools and hospitals than they did in direct proselytising. Schools gave access to new cultural capitals of language and knowledge useful in the developing colonial capitalist political economy. Western medicine, often only accessible through medical missions given the paucity of investment by the colonial state in such matters of well-being, were valued by Indians of all religious and political persuasions.

Indian resistance to the persuasions of evangelical Christianity was rooted in the complex social formations of religion, politics and economy that shaped Indian society, through caste and other mechanisms of social differentiation and governmentality. However, the vocal castigation of Indian belief systems as heathen and practices of caste, child marriage and suttee (widow burning) as barbaric, at the same time as British colonial administrators entrenched a Brahminised version of Hinduism in juridical and legislative systems, invited a complex response from Indians of all faiths. As Chapter 2 discusses, one such reaction within Hinduism was the Brahmo Samaj (1865-) and the Arya Samaj (1875-). These reformers were able to relate to those fringe elements of European religious thought such as the Unitarians and Theosophists, who exhibited more open and egalitarian behaviours than mainstream imperial Christianity.

By the early twentieth century, Indian Christians themselves were becoming highly critical of the racialised arrogance of missionaries, pointing out the marked contradictions between Christian teachings and such behaviour. More progressive missionaries were themselves questioning old ways. In the following decades, progressive missions fostered indigenous leadership, and greater respect for religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism.26 Some came to see the call for home rule, even full independence, as an eventual and desirable destiny for this greatest of British colonies.

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