The Christian Roots of India’s Independence: The Untold Story

THIS YEAR MARKS the 75th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. India gained her independence from the British Raj after nearly 200 years of its dominion. Yet paradoxically, it was the British rule that paved the way for India’s freedom. The noted jurist Nani A. Palkhivala maintained: “ . . . paradoxical as it may seem, if India is a free republic today, that is also the consequence of British rule. Indians fought and fought valiantly, to get rid of foreign domination. But it is probable that, up to now, India would not have shaken off the domination of Indian rulers but for the notions of freedom imbibed from the days of British rule.” The catalyst, however, and the major player was the European Christians in India—Evangelicals and protestant missionaries. This is the untold story of the unsung heroes who made modern India.

In the early years of British rule, Indians had no notion of Indian nationhood. There was no national spirit as found in Tagore’s song “Punjab-Sind-Gujarata-Dravita-Bangla” that arouses a spirit of oneness—that spirit arose only in the 20th century after the arrival of Gandhi on the national movement scene. When the British showed up in India, Indians had no idea of her own great Indus-Valley civilization or knew of Ashoka—those were discovered by the British scholars! So much for Indian-ness. And interestingly, the word ‘India’ is not found in any of the ancient Indian scriptures, but found in the Bible!— thus the European explorers’ interest in finding India.

Hindus have always been the majority in India, making up about two-third of India’s population. Yet hinduism did not bring about unity in India. Rather its adherents were divided by the religion for its practice of caste system. Thus there was no spirit of Nationalism in the caste-minded Hindus. Hindu Scholar Ram Mohun Roy clearly came to see the problem in Hindu religion, after coming in contact with Christian faith through missionaries like William Carey. In 1828, he wrote,“ I regret to say that the present system of religion adhered to by the Hindus is not well calculated to promote their political interest. The distinctions of castes introducing innumerable divisions and sub-divisions among them has entirely deprived them of patriotic feeling, and the multitude of religious rites and ceremonies and the laws of purification have totally disqualified them from undertaking any difficult enterprise. It is, I think, necessary that some change should take place in their religion at least for the sake of their political advantage.” Even in the 20th century, the caste system was Gandhi’s biggest challenge to India’s freedom struggle.

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The revolt of 1857 is popularly described as India’s “first war of independence.” But was it? When in 1857 the mutineers revolted against the British, the Indian rebels were not fighting for Indian nationhood. They were simply fighting to end foreign rule. There was no rallying cry of “Bharat mata ki jai.” It was not a war for national freedom. As the eminent historian Bipan Chandra commented of the mutineers, “apart from a commonly shared hatred for alien rule, the rebels had no political perspective or a definite vision of the future. They were all prisoners of the past fighting primarily to regain their lost privileges.”

The very idea of ‘nation’ was alien to the traditional caste-oriented Hindu mind. And nationalism was cultivated in the latter 19th century through the influence of the West—Evangelicals and Western literature. Missionary William Carey (1761-1834), who came to India in 1793, started the first lending library in the sub-continent. Carey introduced the printing press in India and pioneered Newspaper written in oriental language. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-1894)—one of India’s first novelists and writer of the political book Anandmath, which called for Indian nationalism—said, “By reading English, Bengali have learned two new words, Liberty and Independence.”

As early as the 1790s, Evangelicals like Charles Grant (a Civil servant in East India Company and later the Chairman of EIC) and Missionaries like William Carey had argued for India’s reformation under British rule. The Charter Act of 1813, that allowed missionaries to come to India(before which missioanries were prohibited) and obligated the company to reinvest its profit in educating Indians, is a result of the influence of Evangelical politician William Wilberforce(who abolished slavery in England) and Charles Grant. The Charter Act of 1833, co-drafted by Charles Grant Jr. (son of Charles Grant) allowed missionaries to come in without license. Lord Macaulay’s (son of evangelical parents and grew up as one) 1833 Minute on Education brought English education into British policy. The Charter Act of 1853—shaped by three Christians: Charles Trevelyan; Joshua Marshman, Alexander Duff—led to the provision of 1854 Wood’s Despatch, chaired by devout christian Sir Charles Wood. Wood’s Despatch, known as the Magna Carta of English Education in India, led to the establishment of universities in the model of London university in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras in 1857. Thus the freedom fighter Dadabhai Naoroji, the Grand Old Man of India, in his presidential address in Indian National Congress said of the British rule: “We are thoroughly sensible of the numberless blessings conferred upon us, of which the existence of the Congress is a proof in nutshell…But there remain even greater blessings for which we have to be grateful. It is to the British rule we owe the education we possess.”

So was it a coincidence that Indians began to experience “intellectual and cultural turmoil” in the 19th century with the arrival of missionaries and their reforming work in India.  Was it a mere coincidence that the “Indian Renaissance” peaked in the later half of the 19th century after the education revolution of the 30s and the 50s? Was it a coincidence that Ram Mohun Roy, who was shaped by missionaries like Carey and Duff, was the pioneer of “Indian Renaissance”? I think not.  

Historians divide Indian national movement into two phases: 1870s and1900s. Long before Indians began demanding for purna swaraj (in 1920), Charles Grant, Charles Trevelyan and Lord Macaulay had thought of India’s independence. In 1838, Trevelyan wrote: “The existing connexion between two such distant countries as England and India, cannot, in the nature of things, be permanent: no effort of policy can prevent the natives from ultimately regaining their independence. But there are two ways of arriving at this point. One of these is through the medium of revolution; the other through that of reform… The only means at our disposal for preventing [revolution] and securing… the results [of reform] is, to set the natives on a process of European improvement. The natives will have independence, after first learning how to make use of it; and we shall exchange profitable subjects for still more profitable allies…. trained by us to happiness and independence, and endowed with our learning and political institutions, India will remain the proudest monument of British benevolence…”

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Five years earlier in 1833, Lord Macaulay spoke in British Parliament these words: “Are we to keep the people of India ignorant so that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition?.. The path of duty is plain before us: and it is also the path of wisdom, of national prosperity, of national honour… It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by the good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions [of freedom]. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history.”

Long before India awakened to her nationalism, the political context had already been laid by the freedom-loving English Christians. But also, I may add, its fruit. I leave you with this interesting quote by the English mathematician and (atheist) philosopher Bertrand Russell. In his assessment of why Gandhi was successful in his campaign against British rule in India, Russell remarked: “It is doubtful that the method employed by Gandhi would have ever succeeded, except that he was appealing to the conscience of a Christianized people.”

T.A. Shatsang is an educator at an institute in Manipu and can be reached at Views are his own.

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