British Raj And The Defaming of India Since The 1800s (I)
2021 is the birth centenary year of the noted Gandhian thinker Dharampal (1). Dharampal is well known for having conducted extensive archival research in Britain and India, and for having published several books later on. His extensive efforts led to a revisiting of conventional views of society, polity, science & technology, and culture, especially at the heyday of British colonial rule in India. The view propagated by colonial historiography in the 1800’s was of a society which was poor and lacking in vitality in virtually every aspect of social life, be it economy, polity, or culture. Dharampal used documents generated by the British themselves during the 1700’s and 1800’s and later lodged in various repositories across the United Kingdom, to make the case for a reasonably prosperous and functioning India before the onset of British colonial rule in the late 1700’s
Dharampal’s archival research also yielded documents which highlighted the rationale behind Indological research initiated by Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India in 1784 (2).His ‘Despoliation and Defaming of India’ (1999) presents three important British statements on India made in the early 1800’s which shaped colonial institutions and the views and conduct of those who managed India, till the transfer of power in 1947.In this three-part series of essays I will summarise the chapters in ‘Despoliation and Defaming of India’ (3), pertaining to the three statements referred to above. A working definition of Hinduphobia was developed in 2021 at a conference held at Rutgers University. One of its markers is a derogatory attitude towards Hinduism, with an attempt to reduce the entirety of Sanatana Dharma to a regressive and oppressive tradition (4).
Were the views of these three influential British officials Hinduphobic? Does the administrative machinery in India still carry traces of these views? Do the sentiments of these British luminaries from the 1800’s still color studies on India in academia and on reporting of India in the media?
The East India Company Act 1813, also known as the Charter Act 1813, is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It originally renewed the charter issued to the British East India Company by Elizabeth I in 1600. The Act was amended to expressly assert the sovereignty of the Crown over British India and licensed Christian missionaries to propagate the imperial English culture through the dissemination of the English language, and to preach the English version of the Christian religion. Prior to this, official approval for missionary activity was not granted on the premise that, if exposed to Christianity, Indians might have felt threatened. This would then imperil British commercial interests (5).
The debate on missionary activity in India was held in the British House of Commons over several sittings in June-July 1813. The chief architect of the debate was William Wilberforce. Remembered for his campaign to abolish the slave trade, he was also an evangelist. In fact, he had unsuccessfully campaigned during the 1793 renewal of the British East India Company’s charter for inclusion of clauses requiring the Company to provide chaplains and to commit to ‘religious improvement’ (euphemism for Christianizing) of Indians (6)
In his speech on June 22 1813, Wilberforce argued for a distinct ordination of missionaries who would be trained and empowered to perform the offices of the church in foreign countries. He said that very different qualifications would be required in men who would probably be cast amongst “barbarians”. He was confident that once the minds of the natives of Hindostan were enlightened, it would be impossible for them to continue to be enslaved by the ‘monstrous system of follies and superstitions’, under the yoke of which they were supposed to be groaning.
He proclaimed that while he was not speaking from personal observations (as he had never visited India), he was making his speech after conducting a diligent study. He asserted that in the work of conversion, he abjured all ideas of compulsion. He was confident of the effects of reason and of the superiority of the principles of Christianity to make men good and happy. He pleaded with his fellow parliamentarians to take note that immense regions with a population of about sixty million had providentially come under British dominion. He asserted that Indians were deeply sunk in the lowest depths of moral and social wretchedness and degradation, because of their religious superstitions. He called upon the humanity of the British Parliament to communicate to these wretched beings those blessed truths (about Christianity) which would improve their understanding, elevate their minds and promote their temporal well-being, as well as ensure their spiritual salvation .
He then addressed those on the floor of the House who were of the view that while the views and practices of the “natives of Hindostan” appeared to be unreasonable, their conversion (to Christianity) was utterly impracticable. He referred to (what were in his opinion) reforms successfully introduced in various existing systems, which were conceived to be equally unchangeable. He mentioned of the changes in judicial and military systems and of the mighty change introduced around 1793, wherein the British Government granted to all classes of landholders hereditary property in their estates, a privilege which (according to him) was until then unknown in Asia. He also talked of the rents paid to the Government, which as sovereign of the country, was proprietor of the soil throughout India.
He next focused on those who were of the view that conversion of “Hindoos” to Christianity, even if feasible was not desirable. For them, he argued, Hindu principles and morals were as good, if not better. Any attempts at conversion were superfluous. Wilberforce claimed that all nations on which the light of Christianity had not shone were in a state of grossest moral darkness. The nations of India had, from the very earliest times, groaned under the double yoke of political and religious despotism, he said. Because of this, morals and manners of the natives of India were what could be expected from those who were guided by ‘dark degrading superstitions’.
He begged the attention of the House to what they all knew to be an undeniable fact from Halhed’s translation of “Hindoo Laws”. Warren Hastings, the first Governor-General appointed by the East India Company in 1773, had funded the translation of Vivādārṇavasetu (a digest of Hindu Law compiled for him in 21 sections by Indian pundits), to consolidate Company control over India. The translation by N B Halhed, a British Grammarian who working for the East India Company, came to be known as ‘A Code for Gentoo Laws’ (7). Wilberforce asked whether they knew that as per Halhed’s translation, if a ‘Soodra even listened to the sacred books, they condemned him to a cruel death’. While the writings of the pagan philosophers had passages of high moral excellence, the moral opinions and practice of the bulk of the pagan people would appear as depraved and monstrous, he argued.
Wilberforce quoted an account of the native East-Indian character given by J Z Homwell, for some time the Governor of Bengal, in 1760 (8) –‘The Gentoos in general are as dangerous and wicked a people as any race of people in the known world, if not eminently more so, especially the common run of Brahmins. We can truly aver, that during almost five years that we presided in the judicial cutcherry court of Calcutta, never any murder or other atrocious crime came before us, but it was proved in the end, a brahmin was at the bottom of it’.
He included several such quotes as part of his speech, one of the most significant one being an extract from a judicial letter from the court of directors to Bengal, dated April 25, 1806. In the letter, the court directors expressed concern about the widespread perjury they (supposedly) witnessed, which caused them to receive all oral testimony with distrust. The directors remarked on the probable cause of this as follows –‘The little obligation attached by the natives to an oath seems to proceed, in a great degree, from the nature of their superstitions and the degraded character of their deities, as well as the almost entire want of moral instruction among them; and this points to the necessity of other remedies, as well as to the most rigorous punishment of a crime so hurtful to society as perjury’.
Wilberforce insisted that those who held a favourable view of the people of “Hindostan” had either drawn general inferences from positive individual experiences or had developed a bias of some kind. He emphasised that Christianity was the appropriate remedy for those poor degraded beings on whom (Hindu) philosophy has cast its shadow. They, who expressed adulation towards the natives of India, were actually the enemies of the natives. They were recommending a course of action which would keep those miserable beings (natives) bowed down under the heavy yoke which oppressed them. He was the real friend of the natives, as he wanted to raise the poor brutes out of their present degraded state. That is why, he was explaining their real character and the true condition, to the House.
He opined that much of the comforts available in Britain were not only due to their constitution but also due to influence of Christianity. And the low state of the morals among the natives of India were linked to their various institutions. The evils of “Hindostan” pervaded the whole mass of the population. He gave the example of the institution of caste and called it a detestable expedient for keeping the lower orders of the community in an abject state of hopelessness and vassalage. He claimed that the institution of caste was worse than that of slavery, as slaves could escape their bonds. This was to be contrasted with Britain where no member of the free community was naturally precluded from rising into the highest classes in society.
Wilberforce took issue with members of the House who deemed it impossible of making natives acquainted with the truths of Christianity, and of thereby affecting the moral improvement which Christianity would produce. He referred to a statement made by one of the members of the House who had quoted one of the Brahmins as having said that all religions were different expressions of the same truth. Wilberforce made it plain that Christianity had been acknowledged even by avowed sceptics to be favourable to the temporal interests and happiness of man. It was much needed in India.
He referred to the system of polygamy, which prevented “the female sex” in India from possessing that equality to which it is entitled to in every Christian country. He then highlighted infanticide as having been widely practiced since antiquity. Britain was delivered from this detestable crime, but this was continuing in China and India where the light of revelation (of Christianity) had not yet penetrated. He was particularly critical of the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, which he claimed had increased since the country came under British dominion. He quoted a certain Mr Bernier who had related that the widows were always carefully fastened down, sometimes with thick strong ropes, lest on feeling the flames they should attempt to flee. If the widows drew back from the flames, those demons, the Brahmins would thrust them into the fire with their long poles. Wilberforce then pleaded to start considering India a part of the British empire, and its inhabitants as fellow subjects. He said that that he was trying to make the case for introduction of British religion, British morals, and British manners, among the inhabitants of British India.
Wilberforce then alluded to the “obscene and bloody rites of idolatrous ceremonies of the Hindoos”. He said that an intimate acquaintance with the language, books, and institutions of the natives had exposed their foul contents to the disgust of many present in the House. To all who had made it their business to study the nature of idolatrous worship in general, in its superstitious rites, a natural alliance was to be found between obscenity and cruelty. He quoted Dr Carey, a missionary, as having calculated that taking in all the modes of destruction connected with the worship at the temple of Juggernaut (Jagannath) in Orissa, the lives of 100,000 human beings were annually expended in the service of the single idol.
He remarked that a certain American historian had observed that the moral character of a people may be known from the nature and attributes of the objects of its worship. In this respect, “in the adventures of Hindoo deities, one could find every practicable crime. Hindoo divinities were monsters of lust, injustice, wickedness, and cruelty. Their religious and civil systems were radical opposites of those of the British. Hindoo religion was mean, licentious and cruel. That of the British, was pure and sublime. While equality was a vital essence of English Law, Hindoo systems were characterised by inequality. Not only were the Soodras condemned to debasement and humiliation, but also the same inequalities harassed victims in various walks and occupations of life”.
Wilberforce assured the House that the endeavour to communicate benefits of Christian light and moral improvement to Indian subjects, would also likely promote British political interests in India, as it would strengthen the foundations of British government in India. Attempts to convince Hindoos the error of their system and to bring them over to the purer (Christian) faith, would not inflame Hindoo passions. Christian missionaries had been labouring in India for more than a century and no such tumults were heard of. The report published by the missionaries of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1803 suggested that the missionaries were eminently successful. Yet, no insurrection or discontent in that part of the country was heard of. The natives were so tolerant in what concerns their religion, that even the grossest impudence could not rouse them to anger. He referred to “certain publications, offensive to Mahomet, translated from Persian by a native convert,” and printed without the knowledge of missionaries. Although this did not lead to any disturbance of public peace Wilberforce cautioned that in the interaction with Hindoos, their worship should not be interrupted. There should also be no violence against images of Hindoo Gods.
He concluded his speech by appreciating the work of the missionaries at Serampore in Calcutta, who from 1800 onwards had contributed so much towards the translation and dispersion of scriptures in Oriental languages. Incidentally, the Serampore Mission Press was set up in 1800 in Dutch-controlled Serampore, because the East India Company was hostile towards missionary activity (9).
Wilberforce delivered a second speech on the floor of the House of Commons, on the same subject, on July 01, 1813.
He started by defending the missionaries, who were described by certain members of the House as fanatics. Wilberforce asserted that the missionaries possessed an extraordinary union of various contradictory qualities — zeal combined with meekness, and courage with prudence. As men who had quit their native country and devoted themselves for life in a foreign land, they were entitled to at least some common respect, he argued.
Wilberforce then referred to the Vellore Mutiny. It was one of the earliest instances of a large-scale revolt by Indian sepoys against the East India Company and predated the Indian War for Independence of 1857. General Sir John Craddock, Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, had introduced changes around November 1805 in the sepoy dress code. Hindus were prohibited from wearing religious marks on their foreheads while on duty, while Muslims were required to shave their beards. They were ordered to wear a round hat, associated at the time with Europeans and Indian converts to Christianity.
In May 1806, some of the sepoys who protested the new rules were sent to Fort Saint George (now Chennai). Two of them, a Hindu and a Muslim, were given 90 lashes each and dismissed from the army. Also present in the Vellore Fort were the wife and children of Tipu Sultan, who was killed in the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799. On July 10, 1806, the sepoys in Vellore Fort mutinied. Around 200 British troops were either killed or wounded. The flag of the Mysore Sultanate was raised over the fort and Tipu Sultan’s son Fateh Hyder was declared as the king. A British officer who escaped the fort alerted the British force present at Arcot. From there, British troops arrived led by Sir Rollo Gillespie. He was able to quell the rebellion. Thereafter, around 100 Indian soldiers were ordered to stand against the wall and shot dead. In all, around 350 Indian soldiers were killed. The new dress regulations were subsequently abolished (10).
He remarked that among the uneducated and uninformed men (as in the sepoy mutineers in Vellore) there was an extravagant attachment to the exterior symbols of their religious systems. While communicating principles of the purer (Christian) faith, they could be allowed to possess these petty distinctions (external symbols), which need not be attacked. In due course, the converts would be convinced of the falsehood of their old principles and discard the (old) distinctive symbols themselves.
Wilberforce strongly rejected the charge that an increase in missionary activity and circulation of the Holy Scriptures, were the cause for the Vellore Mutiny. In fact, he lamented that the religious observances of officers doing duty with the battalions were so infrequent that many Indian sepoys were unfamiliar with the religion of the English.
He cited two practices held dear by the natives to which the English had successfully introduced improvements. The first reference was to a law issued by Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of India from 1798 to 1805, and also the founder of the Fort William College at Calcutta. The law prohibited (what Wilberforce claimed) the prevailing practice of sacrificing, at the change of every moon, children to the river Ganges. From times immemorial, Indians had such cruel practices, he claimed. question. The passing of the law had not caused any discontent. The second reference was to the custom of murdering female infants, prevalent amongst a tribe of natives in Benares (the Rajkumars of Juanpore). Duncan, later governor of Bombay, had successfully prevailed on the tribe to abstain from such detestable acts, Wilberforce said. He rhetorically asked the House, “How long should the detestable practices of India be allowed to prevail?” He emphasised that it was safe to attempt, by prudent methods, to introduce into India the blessings of Christian truth and moral improvement. The reign of (Christian) light and truth, could substitute (native ways of) darkness and misery, he claimed.
Wilberforce contended that for the Empire in India to be secure, Indians needed to be persuaded that the maintenance of the Empire was connected with their own well-being. The English should endeavour to establish gradually in India: English laws, institutions, mannerisms and their (Christian) religion. This would strengthen the Empire in India both morally and politically. He was confident that after the exchanging its dark bloody superstitions for the genial influence of Christian light and truth, the Indian community would experience an increase of civil order and domestic comforts. They would then be bound to the English by ties of gratitude.
He pleaded that the British government should give licenses to qualified persons to go to India and render this greatest of all services, improving the religion and morals of their fellow East Indian subjects. There would be no compulsion or authority. Christianity, he said, had been called the ‘law of liberty’. Compulsion and Christianity were at variance with each other. He was confident that as the real condition of the Asiatic subjects became more generally known to the (British) public, there would be widespread support of the efforts to diffuse Christianity in those vast regions in India, where degrading superstitions prevailed. He and his associates in this great cause, were animated with determination. They would persist till they were successful or till the cause came to appear as unattainable.
Wilberforce was critical of those members (in the House of Commons) who had attempted to reconcile respect for Christianity with reverence for the Hindoo religion. He emphasised that Christianity, in its theology and morals, abjured and condemned the Hindoo religion. He expressed some satisfaction that most of the members in the House who wanted to expressly forbid efforts of missionaries were doing so on prudential grounds. All were on the same page wishing alike for diffusion of Christianity in India, only differing as to the mode of accomplishing this.
He concluded his speech by saying that the question in its true basis was, could the religion of Brahma and Vishnoo be acknowledged as the system in their Asiatic dominions, when Christianity was the religion of the British Empire in Europe. A decision on this question would impact the religious and moral interests, as well as the temporal wellbeing of 60 million of their fellow creatures (in India).
The House of Commons adopted the following clause in 1813:
‘Resolved, that it is the duty of this country to promote the interest and happiness of the native inhabitants of the British dominions in India, as may tend to the introduction among them of useful knowledge and of religion and m oral improvement. That, in the furtherance of the above objects, sufficient facilities shall be afforded by law, to persons desiring of going to, and remaining in India for the purpose of accomplishing those benevolent designs’ (11).
The wording of the clause carefully camouflaged the purpose and programme of Christianisation, both by persuasion and coercive means. It was in the context of this wording that post-1850 British reports on India were stated to be on India’s ‘material and moral improvement’.
The clause was soon made into policy and led to the formation of Ecclesiastical Departments at Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and in due course, in other Indian provincial departments. Their function was to financially and administratively look after the formally established (c. 1816) Church of England establishments in India. These were abolished in 1948.
Shri Dharampal, after his extensive archival research, observed that this debate was one of the high points of British interest in India during the nearly 200 years of British-India encounter. Despite some differing views, the overall picture which emerged from this debate was of Indian people being, ‘deeply sunk, and by their religious superstitions fast bound, in the lowest depths of moral and social wretchedness and degradation’. Further it was said that ‘in short, they have all vices of savage life’ but ‘without any of its virtues’. The long debate was less about the Christianisation of India and more about painting India’s past and its people in the darkest possible hues.
After its use by William Wilberforce, Shri Dharampal highlighted that such arguments were used in the early and mid-1800’s by James Mill, T.B. Macaulay, and Karl Marx. These will be explored in subsequent essays in this series. Of course, there would be numerous other instances worldwide of the use of this argument. What Wilberforce said became the accepted image of Indian people and has been presented time and again over the past 200 years.
Sincere thanks to Professor Dr. Gita Dharampal, for granting permission to publish summaries of the various chapters from Shri Dharampal’s ‘Despoliation and Defaming of India’.
1. Shri Dharampal. Centenary Celebrations 2021-23
2. Dharampal,G. "In the Footsteps of Hind Waraj: The Oeuvre of teh Historian and Political
Thinker Dharampal — 4". Center for Indic Studies, July 25, 2021.
3. Despoliation and Defaming of India.
4. Hinduamerican. Hinduphobia.
5. Wikipedia. Charter Act of 1813.
6. Wikipedia. William Wilberforce.
7. Wikipedia. Gentoo Code.
8. Wikipedia. John Zephaniah Holwell.
9. Wikipedia. Serampore Mission Press.
10. Wikipedia. Vellore mutiny.
Byjus. NCERT Notes Vellore mutiny 1806.
11. Dharampal. Vol XIV. SOME DOCUMENTS ON CHRISTIANISATION OF INDIA
AND ALTERATIONS IN STRATEGIES: C. 1700-1900. May 2000