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Debating Reform in Colonial India

in Colonial India both modern Indian social history and Social and Religious Reform: The modern Hinduism. Hindus of British India Imposing some form of categorisation edited by Amiya P Sen; upon the constituents of a complex subject Oxford University Press, is virtually unavoidable. It is certainly New Delhi, 2003; helpful, as long as continually subject to the kind of critical revision that Sen un pp xvii+226, Rs 495.

Debating Reform in Colonial India

Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India

edited by Amiya P Sen; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003; pp xvii+226, Rs 495.


his book is the fourth in OUP’s Debates in Indian History and Societies series, which attempts “an intermeshing of the historical and historiographical”. Amiya P Sen makes plain from the outset that he is not intending to re-narrate the history of social reform but instead will focus on those issues that grew into “passionate, public debates”. This aim has determined the regional scope of the volume, concentrating as it does on those centres where these debates largely took place.

As a specialist in the intellectual and religious history of Bengal, Sen has engaged closely with the concept of “revivalism” in his earlier writings, particularly in his Hindu Revivalism in Bengal, 18721905 (1993). There he explained that he had avoided the terms “reformer” or “revivalist”, because of “serious theoretical problems”. In Social and Religious Reform, he has returned at greater length to these and related theoretical problems, which also encompass the use of other broad identity labels such as “liberal”, “orthodox”, “reactionary” and “conservative”. Although contested, these widely employed labels, which define different positions in relationship to social and religious reform, have taken on the status of quasi-technical terms in the study of both modern Indian social history and modern Hinduism.

Imposing some form of categorisation upon the constituents of a complex subject is virtually unavoidable. It is certainly helpful, as long as continually subject to the kind of critical revision that Sen undertakes in this study. When applied to human enterprises, such classifications are likely to characterise the key agents and the thrust of their programmes and related movements. As Sen demonstrates in this admirable study of Hindu attitudes to social and religious reform during the period of British rule, the key agents in this instance could on occasion be less than consistent. The priorities of policymakers were also susceptible to change. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there has been much discussion of the identification of prominent Hindus from Rammohan Roy to Gandhi as “reformers” or “revivalists”. Both reformer and revivalist, moreover, have been used in a pejorative manner. For example, Swami Vivekananda, although committed to the gradual transformation of certain aspects of Hindu society, rejected being labelled a reformer. He directed his own use of this term against those he felt were attempting to destroy the fabric of Hindu society, driven by an uncritical admiration of the west. In his classic study, Modern Religious Movements in India (1915), the missionary-scholar, John N Farqhuar, deployed the term “revivalist” against those he accused of standing against the progress of Christian mission and opposing British rule in India. These designations, together with their various nuances, are embedded in the debates that raged between Hindus in late colonial India on the contentious issue

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 of social and religious reform and in commentaries, scholarly or otherwise, on these debates which stretch back over a century. One of the many valuable functions fulfilled by Sen’s study is that, while shedding considerable light on how such labels have been used, it also encourages fresh consideration of typological classifications found in relatively recent, influential studies of social and religious reform by Kenneth W Jones and Bhikhu Parekh. Sen notes the ways in which both reveal limitations when tested against historical knowledge of the thinkers and movements they claim to encompass and explain. He makes the point that this difficulty is likely to increase as fresh information comes to light as, for example, in the case of the extent of the early exposure of the Swaminarayan movement to missionary Christianity.

Debates about Reform

Social and Religious Reform is a wellorganised and coherent volume. Part one serves as a critical introduction to the readings that make up part two of the book. The introduction is divided into five subsections: “Social and Religious Reform: Conceptual Nuances”, “The Debate over Strategies”, “The Typologies of Reform and Revival”, “Imperatives within Reform” and “Debates in History, Debates on History: Situating ‘Renaissance’, ‘Reform’, and Social Change in Modern India”. In the first of these sections, Sen refers to Hindus as admiring and yet sharply sceptical of British rule. He argues that the debates about reform, which took place at that time, stimulated a “deep reflexivity about their tradition”, observing that this activity was more critical for modern Hindus than those of earlier periods. Sen’s book is, in effect, an extended exploration of that introspection and ways in which it has been analysed. The concept of reform is presented as a “specific reading” of the need for change during the period of British rule and thus not to be equated simply with “change”.

Debates about social and religious reform in 19th and early 20th century India have had a long reach. This is no less true of the reciprocal way in which our understanding of the structure of these debates informs in turn, our understanding of Hinduism and Indian society more generally. Sen draws attention to the way in which “the impact-response schema” interpretation of Indian social and religious reform as a mere reflex to the challenge of the west has been questioned, and with this, assumptions about the replication in India of a western-style “renaissance”. This significant shift in historiographic interpretation is illustrated by a reading from Barun De, and it would have been interesting to have seen additional, more recent examples of historical questioning of the meaning of the “renaissance” in the context of 19th century India. Another debate raised by Sen’s introduction points towards the question as to whether the bhakti tradition provided an egalitarian and reforming impulse that manifested itself more fully during the 19th century. Respecting his distinction between “reform”, as a specific reading of a need for change in British India, and “change” as this took place in pre-modern India, Sen views appreciations of ‘bhaktas’ as paradigmatic reformers as the consequence of present-day perceptions. Such judgments, however, have been made by 19th-century Hindu thinkers, for example, Vivekananda, and have been picked up by contemporary social critics, such as Madhu Kishwar. The early ‘sants’ and bhaktas fall outside the period covered by Sen’s study. Their use by later Hindus in debates about reform, and the way in which this has been treated by historians and social scientists, however, might provide an agenda for a future study.

Voices of Reform

The readings in part two are arranged under the same five headings introduced in part one and are drawn from the public domain. As Sen explains, we lack reliable documentation relating to contributions by ordinary individuals and unnamed families.

The focus on “reform” permits the inclusion of a range of readings that do not simply mirror those found in general readers on modern Hinduism, often dominated by examples from Bengal. Sen acknowledges that change frequently depended on the moral courage of individuals and that practical results were not always greatest in the areas thought to be most “liberal”. The sections ‘The Debate over Strategies’, ‘The Typologies of Reform and Revival’ and ‘Imperatives within Social Reform’ make particularly interesting reading because of the range of voices. The participation of women in the debates is represented by extracts from the speeches and writings of Sister Nivedita and Sarojini Naidu and the reference to Pandita Ramabai in part one. Hindu perspectives are supplemented by those of British administrators and scholars. Thus, for example, Sen is able to demonstrate through reference to a letter of H H Wilson how Orientalists on occasion unwittingly upheld the very patriarchal norms that women social critics, such as Pandita Ramabai, were attempting to challenge. It is perhaps in part two that readers less familiar with the history and literature of Indian social and religious reform would have appreciated more biographical and chronological information to supplement the brief details supplied about some of the personalities in part one. All compilers of readers, however, have to make judgments about whether to sacrifice readings to accommodate more background information, and all the chosen readings bring something of value to this study.

Perhaps unconsciously echoing in a sense Barun De’s reference to an earlier style of historical writing that glorified 19th century reform movements and Hindu revivalists, a number of recent studies of Hinduism have warned against the dangers of excessive concentration upon the thinkers and movements popularly associated with “modern Hinduism”. They have urged students outside India, in particular, not to neglect the beliefs and practices more representative of the majority of Hindus in India from the 19th century to the present. In making this valid point, however, authors of these works have come close on occasion to adopting a dismissive attitude to the authenticity and achievements of this cluster of 19th and early 20th-century Hindu thinkers and movements. Amiya P Sen’s study is a timely reminder of the importance of debates that reflect a central preoccupation within this very distinctive strand of the Hindu religious tradition. This book, written by an historian who has already made a major contribution to our understanding of this field, has much to offer to all with a general interest in this area. For students, it brings together an authoritative critical introduction with a rich variety of related readings in a compact volume. Scholars, moreover, will find that part one in particular makes a notable contribution to the development of more reliable historiographical methods with which to explore the dynamics of Hindu social and religious change in British India.



Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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