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DISHONOURED BY HISTORY: ‘Criminal Tribes’ and British Colonial Policy by Meena Radhakrishna. Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2001.

BRANDED BY LAW: Looking at India’s Denotified Tribes by Dilip D’Souza. Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2001.

THE rule of law has often been considered one of the great gifts or benefits of the colonial government to this subcontinent. The first volume under review considers how this was the cornerstone of British policy. As far back as 1881, W.W. Hunter surveying England’s Work in India, envisioned: ‘a more secure, more prosperous India, where roads, railways, bridges, canals, schools and hospitals had been built; famines tackled; thugi, dakaiti and predatory castes suppressed; trade developed; barbaric social practices like widow-burning and infanticide abolished (p. 1).

But the real test of any rule of law cannot be in the good intentions of the legislator or such visionary ideals. It has to be sought in the way a law is operationalised and implemented, and finally in the effect it has on those it impacts. Often the good intentions of the legislator have only paved the way to hell for victims of their laws! For a law must be ethically legitimated not by intentions or due process, but by what it actually achieves in a society, whether this be unintended consequences or anticipated effects.

The Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) was meant to suppress the ‘predatory castes’ for this vision of a secure and prosperous country. And yet, ironically, it was precisely these hapless nomads, stigmatised and stereotyped by this act, who became its most helpless victims while those for whose protection this law was enacted become the cynical ‘predators’. The law was first enacted in North India in 1871, in Bengal in 1876, and then spread to the rest of the county until finally it was made applicable to the Madras Presidency in 1911. This act was to apply to 150 notified castes of ‘hereditary criminals’ within the Hindu system. Later, other communities were added to the list. However, in India this was not based on the notion of genetically transmitted crime but rather as a community profession passed on from one generation to the next.

Precisely because the notion of hereditary criminal was grounded in social rather than genetic transmission, the reform and rehabilitation of these groups was sought through a policy of social engineering which was rather quaintly called ‘criminocurology’ by the Salvation Army that was placed in charge of many of the settlements for these so called ‘Criminal Tribes’ (CTs). The official intention then of the legislation was not so much punitive and retributive as preventative and remedial. It was all part of the ‘civilizing’ mission of the colonial raj. The Criminal Tribes Act provides a window through which we can examine how such good intentions of the government work themselves out into an oppressive hell for those it was supposed to benefit.

For the relationship between itinerant and sedentary communities has always been not just problematic but bound together in a kind of mutual antagonism. The author does well to refer to the way gypsies were dealt with in England to provide an insight into the colonial government’s approach to nomads in this subcontinent. ‘Vagrancy, wanderlust, lack of stability and general purpose in life, restlessness and aimlessness – these are the accusations that plague all itinerant communities’ (p. 10). Nomadic communities are notoriously difficult to control and govern, to administer or tax. In fact, in England ‘all laws relating to the gypsies were to protect the settled communities from itinerant ones and never the other ways around’ (p. 11).

But as David Mayall in his Gypsy Travellers in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge 1988) has pointed out, they were also romanticised in imagination and valued for some of the services and skills they provided. We find the same sort of ambiguity in colonial fiction and poetry with regard to Indian banjaras and others, who were feared and shunned as ferocious criminals and yet eulogised for their supposedly healthy outdoor life and independent spirit. Some of the stylised pictorial representations are eloquent evidence of this. Myth-making of this kind only underlines the discomforting suspicion with which such people are viewed, and how it served to legitimate the way they were treated.

An important player in this sordid drama was not just the government but the Salvation Army that served more as a self-conscious imperial agency rather than the evangelical sect it portrayed itself to be. It had a significant role to play in criminal legislation in Britain and all over the empire. The various schemes visualised by William Booth, its founder, in his rather pompous proposals, In Darkest England, The Way Out: A Study of Poverty and Vice in England and a Scheme by the Salvaion Army for Reclamation of Criminals and Prevention of Crime, laid out a regime in 1890 for ‘the starving, the criminal, the lunatics, the paupers, the hopeless, the drunkards and the harlots’ (p. 17) which became models that influenced British administration elsewhere as well. One can see from this background that the category of criminal tribe was not a sudden development though there are, as Sandria Freitag emphasises, certain ‘leaps of legal logic ...whereby the crimes of a few were cited to establish the guilt of many.’ This served vested interests that were never quite officially articulated.

Sympathetic anthropologists like Stephen Fuchs in The Aboriginal Tribes of India, have shown that with loss of their traditional professions and the enclosure of the commons off which they lived, the nomads were in fact left with no other alternative. However, what is too easily left out and forgotten is that these nomads were traders and suppliers of grain and salt in remote areas even when the railways displaced them from the major trading routes. In the Madras Presidency as long as their services were needed their notification was resisted by the government itself (p. 30). It was the privatisation of this trade that finally deprived them of their livelihood. Thus they were first marginalized and later notified by the same government, who then sought to reform and rehabilitate them. Notification by the 1871 CTA required that settlement precede the notification of these communities. Needless to add this was followed more in the breach than in reality.

Thus the historical compulsion behind the CTA was dictated less by the need to contain crime than by the demand for labour to reclaim agricultural land and later to supply textile mills and industrial establishments. In fact, the eagerness of various landed communities and castes, not to mention industrial employers, to have such nomadic tribes declared notified under the act, and then with the help of the government and the police to exploit their labour for private gain, exposes some of the most sinister implications of this act. Even in the Salvation Army settlements, the economic profit from such labour kept the settlement going with its programme to market this ‘damaged labour’ (p. 77). That the settlements were in fact sites for forced labour was at times contested in the courts, but unsuccessfully. Radhakrishnan’s ‘close study of some city settlements run by the government shows that any low caste, vulnerable section of the people could be declared a CT and forced to work in an enterprise; any person including a manager of an enterprise could be made responsible for their control; and any site including an enterprise itself could be declare a CT settlement’ (p. 167).

In one of the most interesting chapters on how these ‘criminal tribes’ were Dishonoured by History, the author reconstructs the historical memory that they internalised from the Salvation Army. In the Stuartpuram settlement in Madras Presidency, the whole community of the Yerukulas would chant recalling their past:

for I am ‘crim’...

I belong to the criminal kind... (p. 148)

and then celebrate their conversion with gratitude:

The Salvation Army now comes to our aid;

With work for the Crim – yes, work for the Crim!...

I am living by industry honestly wrought,

And have changed from the criminal mind! (p. 151)

This was their journey from ‘crimdom to curedom’ under the notorious ‘crimnocurolgy’ to which they were subjected. There were thus only negative recollections of their historic memory before the settlement and now only gratitude for what had been perpetrated on them by the Salvation Army.

The second volume by Dilip D’Souza is a more contemporary account of how a self-fulfilling prophecy has perpetuated the legalised branding and statutory oppression of the now denotified but still nomadic tribes in independent India, even a half century after the end of colonial rule. The reflective descriptions here are based on personal encounters with various groups of these Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) across the country. And though the book has no pretensions to the kind of academic scholarship of Radhakrishnan’s study, its impact is no less shocking.

D’Souza’s reflections invites a review of ‘parallels in the trust’ (p. 137). From the early reports of Lewis and Clark, the explorers of the 19th century American West and their remarks about the ‘savage natives’, to contemporary reports in the New York Times about present day gypsies who have begun wandering over Western Europe after the lifting of the iron curtain, the distrust of itinerant communities is a common phenomenon. Nomads, so different from the settlers, whether rural or urban, whether in industrial or agricultural societies, have been stigmatised in these societies and Branded by Law. It is not just their poverty or misery that marks them out, but the social and legal prejudice that takes away any shred of human dignity they might still cling to.

There are of course exceptional success stories of heroic individuals that have transcended their situation and escaped their circumstances. But these exceptions leave the real tragedy of these people untouched; if anything it sets their situation in even more stark relief. It is only when we are willing to accept that birth need not be destiny will we be able to exorcise the demon of prejudice from our caste ridden society. As one of their more educated leaders of these DNTs remarked: ‘A country that looks after all its people will advance. But we are not that way, so we won’t’ (p. 17). We are all vulnerable to prejudice, either guilty of it or victims it. If we can but see our own future in the present of these people, we might find the resources we need to change.

In 1949 the criminal tribes were denotified and their rehabiliation recommended. Between 1950 and 1952 the Criminal Tribes Act was finally abolished. But this was a change in name only; the provisions of the act are still in force and have actually now been legalised under a new Habitual Offenders Prevention Act. The harshness of such legislation is appalling and yet it is not repealed. We need to recall that only till recently the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA) which had lapsed is now being revived with a new Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO). The terrorist is of course only the latest ‘criminal tribe’ that we are trying to deal with by penal measures rather than by addressing the root of the problem.

It is precisely this continuity between the pre- and post-colonial state that needs to be exposed. The plight of the DNTs in the country today is stark testimony to this. Hence turning the spotlight on our colonial past should be but a first step in the long haul of breaking with it. Already a DNT Rights Action Group (DNTRAG) has been formed to agitate for their rights. It certainly will not be an easy task as both these volumes under review demonstrate so forcefully. It is the not unfamiliar case of first victimising a community and then blaming the victim while the victimisers plead not guilty. But the truth of the matter is otherwise. For ‘we have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us!’

Rudolf C. Heredia


UNTOUCHABLE PASTS: Religion, Identity and Power Among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1850 by Saurabh Dube. Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2001.

UNTOUCHABLE Pasts is an account of the formation and history of the satnami community in Chhattisgarh. It is also about the varied meanings of Hinduism seen from a lower caste perspective, and the meaning of caste when it simultaneously serves to define religious belief or sect.

Satnampanth was founded in the early 19th century by Guru Ghasidas of Girod village. Although the vast majority of satnamis were drawn from the chamar caste (traditionally leatherworkers, but also agriculturists) making the name satnami virtually synonymous with the caste, it was also open to other castes. Conversely, not all chamars joined Satnampanth.

Dube’s account opens with a discussion of the Maratha revenue system and the institutionalization of the gaontia and malguzari system. Gaontias were charged with the responsibility of conveying a fixed revenue and it was therefore in their interest to settle new villages or extend old ones in order to increase their own revenues. An important feature of the agrarian system was the institution of lakhabata or the periodic redistribution of land. In the hands of upper caste gaontias, lakhabata could mean the dispossession of chamars from fertile lands, while when practiced within a satnami village, it could be an effective tool to maintain egalitarian relations. It was in this context of Maratha discrimination towards lower castes, growing brahminical dominance and adverse changes in the revenue system that Satnampanth – which simultaneously challenged the ritual and economic power of the upper castes –was established. Chapter four continues with an account of the agrarian context within which satnamis lived, the demands for begar (forced labour) and women by the gaontias and government officials.

While Satnampanth rejected Hindu gods, temples and priests in favour of one true formless god or Satnam, access to whom was to be mediated by the Guru, it also functioned within the ritual hierarchy of purity and pollution – for instance, in its eschewing of meat, liquor and tobacco as impure, and its rejection of the traditional caste occupation of leather work. At the same time, the continued discrimination the satnamis faced – e.g. in the refusal by other service castes like barbers and washermen to work for them – was ‘turned into designs of assertion’ through the creation of an organizational structure that meant that they were more or less self-sufficient. In addition to the Guru at the head of the panth, there were mahants who regulated community action over a specified region (ranging from 5 to 500 villages), a diwan who accompanied and advised the Guru on his visits to his flock (visits known as ramat), a bhandari who was the representative of the Guru in the village and acted as priest and a sathidar, who performed service functions for the satnamis akin to those performed by the barber for other castes.

The satnamis were further distinguished by certain symbolic markers, such as a kanthi (wooden beads) and later, the janeu (sacred thread). Satnami villages also ran a white flag.

Satnami myths, songs and dances (panthi geet, panthi naach) primarily centred around the Gurus, but even as they created their own cosmology, they drew upon existing local beliefs – e.g. in Dulha deo – and Hindu mythology – e.g. stories of Draupadi and the Pandavs which were characteristically transformed or subverted with local meanings. Dube shows how this same strategy was deployed by the Church in the 1930s, whereby Christ was substituted for the true formless God or Satnam, while retaining the structure of satnami bhajans.

One would have liked much more on satnami encounters with Missions both in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than Dube currently has on offer, but perhaps that is another project. What is particularly interesting, however, especially in the light of the Hindu Right’s current project to appropriate mar ginal communities into its fold, is the discussion of Hinduised reform projects, e.g. those instituted by Baba Ramachandra and the Satnami Mahasabha, through boarding houses and the framing of ‘satnami law’ in collaboration with the colonial legal order. Dube’s account of conflicts and divisions over the Guru Gaddi and the myths surrounding these conflicts is fascinating, as is his discussion of how women’s identity, sexuality and rights to property figured in these myths.

Once one gets past the first chapter, replete with terms that are currently fashionable to describe the making of identities – e.g. ‘negotiate, construct, fashion, redefine, transact, configure, appropriate, reproduce, contest’ – this is an excellent book. Dube’s fine-grained ethnographic history deserves to be widely read.

Nandini Sundar


BRAHMABANDHAB UPADHYAY – The Life and Thought of a Revolutionary by Julius J. Lipner. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.

Julius Lipner’s extraordinary biography is about a remarkable man ‘both Christian and Hindu, holy man and savant, prophet and revolutionary nationalist,’ who lived in 19th century Bengal and made a significant contribution to the shaping of modern India. Brahmabandhab Upadhyay was a paradox, an enigma wrought with tensions and ambiguities that besieged his times. A devout Catholic yet a Vedantin, becrossed yet saffron robed, the son of Christ yet the child of Kali, Brahmabandhab led a life torn by conflicts, grappling with a self divided in two worlds and the concomitant pain in attempting to reconcile these divergent universes.

Indubitably patriotic, unorthodox, a Hindu Catholic held askance by both Christians and the Hindus, ‘Upadhyay resists neat pigeon holing... making him hard to evaluate and potentially unattractive to tackle.’ A man enveloped by a ‘prickliness’, ‘apt to be misunderstood,’ but admirable, and one who has been dealt by history selectively, in silence, and relegated to a shadowy presence in the world of scholarship. Lipner’s biography seeks to bring out of the shadow a richly deserving study of a man, ‘uncommonly influential’ as proclaimed by Tagore, a remarkable revolutionary and a forgotten colossus. It seeks to recover and reassess his incalculable impact on the national movement in Bengal, his path-breaking efforts at interreligious dialogue and the significance of his life as a salient marker of battles still to be fought and victories yet to be won. Through his life and work, Lipner seeks to show, ‘the ways in which we ourselves may come to terms with the diverse forces that confronts us in this increasingly cross-cultural world.’

Late 19th century Bengal, a Bengal ‘pregnant with possibilities and anticipation,’ was witnessing the shaping of the nation’s identity through the dialectic of a reconstructed past and an amorphous present. It saw the social regrouping of upper class Bengalis who were caught in this dialectic between past and present, Renaissance and Enlightenment, that created the backdrop of bhadralok activity in colonial Bengal. Initiated by Lord Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement in 1793 and the process of Anglicization spearheaded by the Serampore missionaries, who with their translation of the Bible, brought in their wake the spread of Christianity and the infusion of western ideals, eventually manifested to its climactic end by Thomas Babington Macaulay.

The Macaulian enterprise created the Bengali bhadralok, ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ Inspired by Shakespeare and Voltaire, Kant and Hume, Bentham and Mills, inflamed by western notions of law, freedom, citizenship and rights and regaled on Anglo-Saxon literature, history and science, English education, managed to create the ‘syncretic’ mentality of the emerging elite. The new class inspired not only Bengal but the whole of India and became the vanguard of the Indian nationalist movement. The forging of identities and civilizational encounters are replete with inconsistencies and compromises, and Lipner writes that ‘Upadhyay is one fascinating example of this confusing but richly instructive encounter’ when the East met the West in the bhadralok.

Brahmabandhab was born in 1861 in a kulin Brahmin, English educated bhadralok family of Bengal as Bhabanicaran Bandyopadhyay. His father had served the British, an uncle, Kalicaran, had converted to Christianity and other members of the family exhibited a distinct taste for the English way of life. Brahmabandhab was brought up by his grandmother who gave him a taste for rural Bengal and was educated during childhood in Sanskrit tols steeped in scriptural studies.

His formal education was western where he was stirred by English sentiments of machoism and valour as opposed to the effeminate Bengali persona and he was swept by the desire to rescue the emasculated Indian spirit. This mixture of brahminic/English upbringing made him a warrior ascetic, a volatile combination and a cultural encounter that determined the course of his life. He reconciled his brahminic leanings with his kshatriya urges by converting the pen into sword, and through, what Lipner calls, a combative journalism, embarked upon the path of the karmayogi sanyasi.

Lipner maps the life of Brahmabandhab and recovers an intellectual biography by going through the maze of journals founded and edited by him: Harmony, the monthly and weekly Sophia, the Jote, the Twentieth Century, the Svaraj, the Karali and the very popular Sandhya. These journals and Brahmabandhab’s extensive and passionate writings, both theological and political, his letters to various influential journals of the time, like the Bangadarshan and his biographies, particularly the ones written by Swami Animananda (Rewachand Gyanchand, Brahmabandhab’s constant companion) provide Lipner with the materia matrix for reconstructing the life and thoughts of this formidable personage.

Lipner charts the course of Brahmabandhab’s cultural conflicts through a series of theological debates, making this biographical work unique among its genre, as it depicts a life viewed through conceptual categories. The book is a theological exposition based upon interreligious dialogue and it is this, which makes it an outstanding and intellectually exciting work.

Brahmabandhab’s quest for a cultural integration started with his long affiliation to the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj under the benevolent tutelage of Keshabcandra Sen. Like his fellow bhadraloks inculcated in the Macaulian tradition, Brahmabandhab found a space where the ‘civilizing influence of Christian values’ were synthesized with the purity of Vedantic thought and in the company of these liberal, socially oriented westernized Brahmos he embarked upon the path of social transformation. Foremost among his companions was Narendranath Datta, who eventually left the Samaj after meeting Ramakrishna Parmahansa, renounced the world and became better known as Swami Vivekananda.

Brahmabandhab, following the disintegration of the Samaj, was initiated into the Church of New Dispensation and departed for Hyderabad in Sind to establish the Union Academy School. The shift from the Brahmo Samaj was theological, as Brahmabandhab was inclined towards the Trinitarian and orthodox tenets of Christianity as opposed to Keshab’s more Unitarian and ‘degree Christology’ approach. For Keshab, Christ was the ideal Great Man, while to Brahmabandhab, Christ embodied both divinity and humanity: Father, the divine person, Son, the human person and the two united in the Holy Spirit. The Harmony started publication during this time wherein Brahmabandhab began his fascinating journey of attempting to synthesize Christian and Hindu doctrines by affirming traditional Christianity without formally repudiating Brahmoism. The genesis of Brahmabandhab’s cultural conflict was already sown.

In Sind, a chance encounter with Joseph Faa di Bruno’s A Short and Simple Exposition of Catholic Doctrine turned his thoughts deeper towards Christ and the nature of Christianity, a study he pursued relentlessly amid intense public protest and social ostracization. His attraction towards the Trinity and his devotion to the Virgin led to his baptization in 1891 as Theophilus, which literally translated meant Brahmabandhab or the Friend of God.

Throughout his life, Brahmabandhab sought to establish himself as a Hindu-Catholic and to create an indigenized Christianity in India. This perhaps was his seminal contribution to the future of cross culturalism and interreligious dialogue, setting him apart from his bhadralok compatriots who were more prone to striking a discord rather than a balance between their schizoid selves. Lipner takes us through a fascinating myriad of theological debate, which occupied Brahmabandhab’s thoughts, and his battles with the clergy in India, in his efforts to establish an Indian church.

Remaining within the framework of western philosophical and theological categories, Brahmabandhab advocated a rationalist theism to convince and influence the educated Hindus of his time of a monotheistic God based on natural theology. This rationalist theism would prepare the grounds for the reception of the Gospel in India. Lipner writes that in the 19th century, the Catholic church in Europe had turned towards a revised Thomism to counter the empiricist challenge of the Enlightenment which held the natural sciences and mathematics to be the only truth based upon a verifiable evidence.

The revised path of the church viewed God through the natural light of reason while revealing himself supernaturally. Thus reason was enriched and enlightened by the revealed truth of Trinity. Brahmabandhab adopted this neo-Thomistic philosophy of ‘reason enlightened by faith’ and envisioned an omniscient, omnipotent, blissful saccidananda God, who was revealed by the natural light of reason and upon which the supernatural truths of Catholic religion could be superimposed. In Brahmabandhab’s mind, the Sat-Cit-Ananda or the Being-Consciousness-Bliss triad of Vedantic Hinduism corresponded to the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit of the Trinity. The Trinity was thus perceived through Vedantic sensibilities. Lipner points out that Brahmabandhab’s lengthy treatise on the natural/supernatural distinction was expounded by the vigorous use of reason and was therefore unable to evade the framework of western cultural categories. To that extent Brahmabandhab could not escape the colonization of the mind.

Brahmabandhab gradually moved away from moulding the Hindu for the Gospel towards ‘reconstructing his Catholic commitments on a Hindu basis.’ He repudiated the Advaitic concept of maya and karma, dismissed polytheism and the Puranic texts as libidinous and sexual, exchanged ‘powder and shot’ with Annie Besant on theosophy and rendered inadequate Brahmoism, Vivekananda’s neo-Vedantism and Dayanand’s Arya Samajic world view. Instead, Vedic philosophy began to appear to him as the acme of Hindu religious thought.

In Europe, Thomas had built a rational base by constructing a Greco-Aristotlian platform upon which to place the supernatural edifice of Christ. Brahmabandhab saw himself as Aquinas reincarnated by seeking to build a Vedic theist platform upon which the Catholic doctrine of revelation could be superimposed. Catholic theology completed Vedic theology. By this time, in Brahmabandhab’s mind, the languages of Thomism and the Vedas had fused. Lipner writes that during this phase Brahmabandhab was poverty-stricken, eking an existence dependant on alms but his ‘mind, soul and body dedicated to his cause, heart aflame, he strove to forge ahead.’

The experiment of fusing Hindu and Christian doctrines was extended to his activities as an educationist. He established the Sarasvat Ayatan, a school with an education that tempered Hindu thought while providing the edge of western, scientific rationalism. The school closed down due to lack of funds and like most of his enterprises, though original, ended in failure. What is perhaps more significant, the model of the Sarasvat Ayatan was carried forward to Santiniketan at the behest of Rabindranath Tagore, where Brahmabandhab after setting up the school, taught for a while along with Animananda.

Brahmabandhab’s destination was to create an Indian Christianity. The church in India was synonymous with colonization, dressed in western ‘clothing’ and alienated from national thought. This westernized, denationalized church had to be rebuilt on the platform of Hindu life, rooted in its history and culture, based on the one-centered varnashram code and free from the European disease of greed and unbridled ambition.

To this end, amid much disapproval from the Indian clergy and the papal representative, Brahmabandhab established a Hindu-Catholic monastery in Madhya Pradesh by the name of Kasthalic Math. The math was manned by five itinerant sannayasins, heads shaven, dressed in saffron, becrossed, begging alms, observing a strict caste code; devout Catholics all, contemplating the ‘triune Saccidanandam’ in a Hindu garb. The math failed as an experiment but Lipner opines that it was more western than indigenous, ‘imitative of western monasteries’ and ‘heavily Thomistic’ in its theological content. Fifty years later, two French monks, Abbe Jules Monchanin and Henri le Saux, continued Brahmabandhab’s legacy of indigenizing the Christian faith by establishing the Saccidananda Ashram in Tamil Nadu, thereby acknowledging the ascetic karmayogi’s pioneering initiatives.

Brahmabandhab’s critique of the West became increasingly strident and bellicose as he got disillusioned with the church and towards the end of his life got deeply involved in national politics. To him, western culture was shallow, dehumanized, engaged in the pursuit of comfort and order, sensuality and the gratification of beauty. Vedic Hinduism, with its one-centeredness which reached its zenith in Sankara’s teaching of non-dualism and the system of varnashram, was superior to western philosophy, and was the weapon which would conquer the foreigner.

His nationalism bordered on militancy as he leapt into the frenzy of the swadeshi movement, with the daily Sandhya playing a pivotal role as the mouthpiece of extremist politics. In his incarnation of militant nationalist, which lasted for three years till his death, Brahmabandhab passionately invoked Kali,

Come, let us dance too with the dancing Kali. Let us watch how Mother’s garland of human heads swings to and fro... Mother’s feet are red, and red your devoted blood: mix red with red – you are to shed much blood together.

Lipner writes that Brahmabandhab needed to assert his Hindu credentials to prove his patriotism and because extremist politics was linked with Hindu revivalism. Yet the question arises, perhaps Brahmabandhab was torn between the allure of the ‘darling dark Mother’ and the healing Grace of the Trinity. Towards the end of his life Brahmabandhab became confused, frustrated, torn between his public image of a nationalist Hindu and his private world as a Christian, where he clutched to Christ, the Sadguru and his ideal God – Person, Narahari.

‘It is almost as if two Upadhyays came into view, alternately merging and separating: one struggling to maintain his socio-religious profile of good work as a Hindu-Catholic, the other increasingly gaining strength as a militant nationalist.’ He was ‘not at home with himself, torn between consuming passions of a changing age, struggling to locate himself amid the uncertainties of the time, he was a poignant symbol of the new India coming to birth.’

Brahmabandhab’s peers, notable luminaries of India, had to reckon with his enigmatic presence. Among them were Kalicaran Banerji, Keshabcandra Sen, Pratapcandra Majumdar, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Debendranath and Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, Aurobindo Ghose and Bipincandra Pal. Ashis Nandy in his Illegitimacy of Nationalism has shown that Tagore was so troubled by Brahmabandhab that, he modelled his heroes on his character in at least three of his political novels, Ghare Baire, Car Adhyay and Gora. Tagore’s differences with and ambivalence towards Brahmabandhab were the externalization of a conflict within the poet’s mind, of attempting to resolve East and West, Hindu and non-Hindu, in so far it is a conflict, which besieged his western educated fellow Indians, victims of colonization, of civilizational interfaces, from wherein emerges a new nation.

Brahmabandhab’s life is a valiant attempt to deal with the moral tensions of cultural encounters, of reconciling selves, secret and real, conscious and unconscious. It was wrecked by suffering, poverty and failure and a parting of ways with his colleagues and peers as a result of his uncompromising principles. A life lived in pain, as most lives are, which twist through the tortuous path of confrontations and change, of hope and challenges. We owe a tremendous debt to Julius Lipner for recovering Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, ‘a Hindu by birth and a Catholic by faith,’ from the lost world of yesteryears and reinstating his flaming, resilient personality in the scholarship of cross culturalism and interreligious discourse.

Sarbani Sarkar


THE EMERGENCE OF HINDU NATIONALISM IN INDIA by John Zavos, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000.

EVER since the results of the 1989 parliamentary elections made apparent that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had finally arrived, Hindu nationalism has been increasingly attracting the attention of serious researchers. Several scholarly studies of the BJP and its mother organisation, the RSS, have meanwhile appeared to enrich our understanding of the phenomenon. Most of them, however, have focused their attention on the RSS, BJP and its precursor, Bharatiya Jan Sangh. J.A. Curran’s study of the RSS, published as early as 1951, was a pioneer in this field and still remains largely valid for its perceptive analysis of the RSS’ long term strategy of refashioning India into a Hindu nation.

John Zavos has adopted a different methodological approach, making the organising principle behind the Hindutva project the focus of his study. He is primarily interested in understanding the processes, both ideological and organisational, that led to the formation of an organisation like the RSS in 1925. While most other studies are concerned with the period following the founding of the RSS, Zavos looks into the 75 odd years that preceded the event. What he offers is really the prehistory of Hindu nationalism.

Zavos is not entirely happy with the way terms such as Hindu nationalism and Hindu communalism are used interchangeably. He makes a fine – to some it may look as laboured – distinction between the two. In his view, Hindu nationalism ‘provides the ideological tools for the development and extension’ of Hindu communalism. In other words, Hindu nationalism is an ideology that imagines or constructs a community on the basis of a common culture while Hindu communalism is a discursive framework that aligns the various interests of this community and pits it against the ‘other’, most notably the Muslims.

Zavos is entitled to his theoretical excesses but a lay reader would not find them particularly insightful as a methodological tool. The RSS makes the relationship clear when it calls its ideology ‘cultural nationalism’. Since K.B. Hedgewar had adopted the ‘confrontational strategy’ of supervising the playing of music before mosques in Nagpur, sparking off the infamous Ganesh Peth riots around the time when he founded the RSS, the identity between Hindu nationalist thought and Hindu communalist practice gets established from the very beginning and one does not have to take recourse to exceedingly sophisticated theoretical analyses to find a symbiotic relationship of difference between the two.

The author has treated ‘organisation’ as a key concept that helps fashion the amorphous Hindu community into an ordered, well-defined religious and political group. He has paid special attention to the role played by the Arya Samaj, the various sanatan sabhas and Bharat Dharma Mahamandal during the latter half of the 19th century, and later the Hindu Mahasahba and the RSS. In the run-up to the eventual formation of the RSS, which proved to be the most successful and long-lasting organisation, these organisations played a crucial role. The way the Arya Samaj in the Punjab spread its influence through its pro-Hindu yet anti-caste stance and shuddhi campaign illustrates the process through which Hindu society began to organise itself.

While Zavos does not say it in so many words, there is a suggestion in the book that by adopting the Vedas as canonical books of the Hindus and by making it compulsory for all members to follow the Ten Principles, the Arya Samaj unwittingly contributed to semitisation of the Hindu religion since in a sense it was offering the Hindus both their holy book and the Church. In a way the Samaj acted as a model organising principle for the RSS. However, the latter lacked the transformational radicalism of the former and did not deal with the issue of caste in any significant manner. While Dayanand wanted to impose brahmanical supremacy without its caste component, Hedgewar and his followers were votaries of brahmanism in toto.

Besides Dayanand, Tilak and later V.D. Savarkar too contributed to the process. Savarkar for the first time offered a coherent ideological basis on which the Hindus could be organised to attain their non-religious goals. His book Hindutva was lapped up since it was virtually the manifesto of a resurgent Hindu community eager to establish its hegemony once again.

It would have helped had the author explored why the ideology of Hindu nationalism took so long to take root and what its relationship was with the all inclusive nationalism represented by the Indian National Congress which, with its loose organisational structure, was more akin to Hindu society than the Hindu communalist formations that had a well-defined profile.

Zavos has written a book that fills a long-felt gap. Though one may not entirely agree with his analysis and conclusions one cannot but admire the rich material he has unearthed after painstaking research and the empathy with which he has treated his subject.

Kuldeep Kumar