S.K. Datta, British (Indian) Delegate to the IPR
The YWCA and YMCA in Asia provided a key site for collective agency between modern individuals interested in Christian ecumenical and secular collaboration. Indeed, it was through these networks that a delegate from India was selected for inclusion in the British delegation to the IPR in 1929. The American progressive Edward Carter, the leader of the YMCA in India during the first years of the century had written to Sir Frederick Whyte at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, just as the IPR was taking shape in 1925, to remind him, that even though India was not ‘one of the countries bordering on the Pacific ... the relations of India, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Strait Settlement are essentially a problem of the Pacific’. He recommended the inclusion of Indians on British delegations, with perhaps one a moderate and the other a more radical supporter of self-rule.28
Several years later, an Indian delegate was finally selected. Surendra Kumar Datta, who joined the British delegation of 1929, had been the national secretary of the YMCAs of India, Burma and Ceylon for a number of years, the president of the All India Conference of Indian Christians held in 1925, and a member of the Indian (or Imperial) Legislative Assembly. His 1908 training manual for young leaders titled The Desire of India had emphasised the ignorance and poverty embedded within the caste system and set out a trenchant critique of what he saw as a lack of regard for human life in India which, in his view, could only be overcome by adopting a progressive Christian approach to improving the standard of living, life expectancy and education among the masses.29 Reflecting his commitment to educational reform, in 1917 Datta had contributed to an advisory committee on ‘the educational needs of the mass movement’ in India for the National Missionary Council in India.30 His educational writing included ‘India and Race Relationships’ for The Young Men of India in 1924,31 and he had participated in the education- focussed International Missionary Council conferences at Lake Mohonk, NewYork, in 1921 and in Jerusalem in 1928.32 According to the American John L. Mott, a leading figure in the YMCA and World Student Christian Federation, the latter conference promoted the role of Christianity in secular progress and the force for good of ‘interdenominational cooperation’ between the ‘various lands and races’.33 Christian education towards social change had been pivotal to the Jerusalem International Missionary Conference in 1928, on the basis that Christian ‘faith’ would unite progressively minded people otherwise divided by religious or cultural belief.34
Datta had visited Australia in 1923 to study the YMCA and Student Christian Movement in that country and ‘their reaction to the Christianising of the countries of Asia’. When asked about Gandhi, who was currently in jail for his leadership of the non-cooperative movement, Datta acknowledged Gandhi’s popularity but added that, as a representative of the YMCA of India, an organisation which had no political affiliation, he supported membership of the British Commonwealth as the best outcome for his people. Datta explained further that he was influenced in this position by the Round Table group in England that promoted a ‘Federated Commonwealth of free peoples’. At this point in his life he expressed adherence to a moderate nationalist position: he asserted that the British Empire had been a ‘force for peace, goodwill and concord in the world’, while arguing that it would now be ofthe ‘highest interest ofIndia to win for herself a place in this Commonwealth of free nations’.35 Datta was later to adopt an increasingly radical political position, participating along with Gandhi as a representative of the Indian National Congress on the
Minorities Committee at the Second Round Table on India at Chatham House in 1931.
By the time of the IPR conference in 1929, Datta was married to an Irish woman, Rena Carswell. Carswell was already known for her ‘Christian work among girls’ in India by the time they met and in 1920 she had been elected ‘Chairman of the Student Departments’ at the Seventh Quadrennial Conference of the YWCA of India, Burma and Ceylon held in Ranchi, India.36 Rena Datta continued to be active as an educationalist after her marriage, running the boarding house at Forman Christian College in Lahore while her husband worked as headmaster of that, the first Anglo-vernacular educational institution in India. In 1937 Rena Datta attended the All-India Women’s Conference in Nagpur, indicating her support for social reform through improving Indian women’s health and family life.37