ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Christian Socialism and the Santals under Colonialism

An Encounter of Peripheries: Santals, Missionaries and Their Changing Worlds, 1867-1900 by Marine Carrin and Harald Tambs-Lyche

BOOK REVIEW

Christian Socialism and the Santals under Colonialism

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

T
he authors explore the personal trajectories of two Scandinavian evangelists, Lars Olaf Skrefsrud and Hans Peter Borresen, who were active in eastern India, and locate them within the broader transformations in northern Europe, the Victorian empire in India, c olonial Bengal and the Santal communities in the aftermath of the suppressed rising (Hul) of 1855-56. They stress that d espite the colonial circumstance, a translocal solidarity shaped the interaction between the Santals and this specific group of Europeans, repeatedly referred to as “our missionaries” in the book. Their journey from Europe to India is traced by charting their spiritual lineage to the various Protestant sects that gained popularity among farmers and artisans in Europe from the 16th century onwards and contributed to a modernity based on reformed religious ideas, rather than the philosophies of the Enlightenment that dismissed religion. A summary of the changing context and content of Protes tant theologies in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries are o ffered and connected with Bengal in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Bengal is treated as a colonised terrain shaped by the East India Company’s ascendancy and decline, B ritish free-traders and Utilitarians, a c olonial land revenue settlement, western learning, a bha dralok intelligentsia and their search for modernity through experiments in religion. A detailed ethnographic survey of Santals and their changing histories, cosmologies and self- perceptions are incorporated into this narrative and constitute its most absor bing segments.

Christian Socialism

The thread which runs through the monograph, however, is the careers of Skref srud and Borresen. Born in an impoverished family of tenant-farmers in rural Norway in 1840, Lars Olaf Skrefsrud’s world was shaped by socialist campaigns to protect small farmers from eviction and penury, technological innovations in agriculture,

An Encounter of Peripheries: Santals, Missionaries and Their Changing Worlds, 1867-1900 by Marine Carrin and Harald Tambs-Lyche;

(New Delhi: Manohar), 2008; pp 386, Rs 975.

attraction towards mechanisation as a route to agrarian progress, pastoral romanticism, state-sponsored orthodox Protestantism as well as independent but institutionalised Christia nity such as Baptism. Trained as a mecha nic, Skrefsrud was taken to neo-Christian revivalist meetings by his mother from an early age; as a young man, he became an alcoholic and served time in prison during 1858-61. It was here that he turned to religion and taught himself various European languages and contemporary philosophy. Upon his release, instead of joining the march of uprooted Norwegian peasants to the U nited States, he developed interest in another kind of emigration. Armed with recommendations from the prison governor, he joined the Norwegian Missionary Society founded in 1842. The society sent him to Berlin for further training under the guidance of Hans Peter Borresen, a Dane.

The son of a naval carpenter, Borresen had survived on public charity and was no stranger to poverty. The two developed a lasting friendship quickly and entered the local Gossner Missionary Society which urged them to travel to India. The Gossnerians were made up of recruits from central and eastern Europe; they were a lready active in Burma and the Gangetic plains of India. They had converted sections of K abirpanthis who had risen against z amindari oppression and had faced a brutal backlash. Centred on the Chhota nagpur region, the activism of the Gossner Mission had produced the largest C hristian church in eastern India. It was here that Skrefsrud, Borresen and his wife started their proselytising initiative from 1863.

The Santal in the Colony

From the perspective of Santal history, the arrival of these missionaries was located in the accelerating poverty and dispossession

decEMBER 5, 2009

among Santals following the brutal end of the Hul in 1856. The Scandinavians became active among them at a time when they were seeking ways to resist the inroads of brahmanical proprietor caste-classes into their settlements with the tacit support from the colonial administration. The colo

nial state had been interfering with customary Santal rights by leasing out forests and mineral rich land to Europeans and cultivable soil to the permanent settlement landlords. When the Santals had risen against these incursions, they had been brutally suppressed. Their suppor te r s during the rebellion included lower caste exploited “neighbours”. While struggling against destitution, the Santals were positioning their identity and world view in relation to a system of layered exploitation and seeking horizontal friendships. They were makin g distinctions between “enemies” and “neigh bours”, between u pper caste moneylenders and landlords and the propertyless lower castes, b etween themselves as “children of men” and the outsiders or foreigners. Their post-1856 history was marked by the experience of defeat. The defeat meant even greater l andlessness and related migration as labou rers. The creation myths of the S antals, r eworked in the aftermath of the rising, reflected their despair and desperation through an emphasis on a golden age when each clan enjoyed t erritorial possessions.

When the Scandinavian missionaries entered this world in the 1860s, they too were experiencing anxieties over territorial integrity. The idea of a Scandinavian federation connecting the Danes, the Swedes and the Nor wegians was facing severe challen ges from the Prussian monarchy, intent on unifying Germany and expanding the borders of the realm. Skrefsrud and the Borresens’ sympathies were with the idea of a federation. They started working among Santals by engaging with issues of land reform and b y offering school education. Though the schools were run with “Prussian discipline” and “with more punishment than reward”, they attracted pupils as Santals sought ways of improving their prevalent material conditions. Mean while, an institutional shift in Skrefsrud’s and Borresen’s support network had taken place: they had left the Gossnerians and become close to the Baptists. The latter already enjoyed some f ollo wing among the Santals on the

vol xliv no 49

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

border of Bengal and Bihar, and raised vision, men such as Skrefsru d and Borresen, funds from Britain. were overtaken by this curren t.

MANOHAR

Despite initial resistance, the famine of 1873-74 prompted many Santals to respond to Skrefsrud and the Borresens; this resulted in “mass conversions”. Skrefsrud and Borresen became famous in evangelical circles and they visited Britain and continental Europe to raise funds for their evangelical network. They were also lauded by mercantile groups in Scandinavia though Britain remained their principal source of funds. The Scottish bourgeois circles, with growing commercial interests in eastern India, displayed a great deal of enthusiasm in their work. Metropolitan support encouraged Skrefsrud, Borresen and their colleagues to consolidate the work of the Santal Mission between 1874 and 1877. The conversion of chiefs and the separation of Christians from non-Christians to create a distinct Santal Christian community identity b ecame priorities. In the 1880s, land was a cquired and a colony was set up in Assam where Santal converts were encouraged to settle as cultivators. Skrefsrud and B orresen wished to generate a self- sufficient community, free of hunger, indebtedness and dispossession.

Ultimate Failure

Many Santals, however, died in the process of migration or ended up in tea plantations as cheap labour. The ethical values of a paternalist communitarian exi stence could not protect them. Chotrae, a veteran of the 1855 uprising and a convert, was to criticise Skrefsrud for underestimating the power of European plantation-owners and for a “missionary ignorance of Santal psychology”. The ultimate failure of the Scandinavians to sustain their communitarian vision of a Santal utopia, ruled by puritan values of industry and prosperity, was also rooted in the changing c ontours of Victorian evangelism. During the 1880s, Skrefsrud and Borresen secured even greater support and funding from the proprietor classes of Scandinavia. D espite scandalous accusations and factional strife directed against him, Skrefsrud also earned the approval of socialist non believers and liberals in his n ative Norway. From the 1890s, the tide turned against the kind of evangelism they had espo used. A more conservative spirit came to dominate late-Victorian missionary a cti vities. Those who advo cated a “simpler” communitarian

The authors offer rigorous empirical insight into the little-known world of Scandinavian missionaries and their role in shaping Santal agency from the 1860s to the 1890s. This history is related to changes in Santal identity and struggles in the course of the 20th century as well as the paradoxical appropriation of Skrefsrud, who was critical of many aspects of his country, into Norwegian national mytho logy. The wealth of data gathered from a rich collection of Santal Christian writings and explorations into changing self- perceptions of the Santals following their defeat in 1856, makes this work an essential and useful reading for those c oncerned with the histories and struggles of the o ppressed. The publication of this monograph in the backdrop of rising v iolence against religious minorities and the m anipulation of adivasis by state and nonstate forces is a timely reminder that the repeated demands for redistributive j ustice from below cannot be erased or i gnored.

The major flaws of this monograph lie in the presentation, the critical framework as well as the core argument. The authors prioritise the ethnographic material over history; the resulting exercise in historical anthropology confers a dishevelled, unorganised appearance on the text. The ethnographic segments resemble interpolations and do not blend with the historical narrative. The authors, despite their e ngagements with south Asia from the 1970s, display a curious disregard towards h istoriography by deploying terms such as “Mutiny” and “Bengal Renaissance”. The controversies on subalternist perceptions of “community consciousness” and the problematic projection of colonialism in western academic circles as a mutualist enterprise also seem to have bypassed them. The role of colonial capital and the complexities of class-formations under c olonialism receive scant attention. The broader canvas, derived mostly from secondary sources, to which page after page is devoted, appears impoverished by such significant omissions. The secular protectionist interventions of Iswarchandra V idyasagar, who was turning his attention away from bhadralok society in the late 19th century, are ignored even while treating the liberal reformist and neo-conservative

NEW ARRIV A LS
for our complete catalogue please write to us at: IN THE DAYS OF CAGES Aparna Lanjewar Bose 978-81-7304-848-7, 2010, 143p. Rs. 280 MODERNITY AND ITS AGENCIES Young Movements in the History of the South Touraj Atabaki (ed) 978-81-7304-841-8, 2010, 189p. Rs. 475 SCIENCE AND SOCIETY IN INDIA 1750-2000 Arun Bandopadhyay (ed) 978-81-7304-854-8, 2010, 387p. Rs. 975 DESCRIPTIVE TOPOGRAPHICAL CATALOGUE OF ORISSAN INSCRIPTIONS Snigdha Tripathy 978-81-7304-840-1, 2010, 1186p. Rs. 4000 THE COLLECTED WORKS OF LALA LAJPAT RAI VOLUME 13 B.R. Nanda (ed) 978-81-7304-846-3, 2010, 463p. Rs. 700 (Earlier volumes are also available) ISLAM IN SOUTH ASIA Vol. VI: Soundings on Partition and Its Aftermath Mushirul Hasan (ed) 978-81-7304-827-2, 2010, 369p. Rs. 950 (Earlier volumes are also available) STUDIES ON THE CARVAKA/ LOKAYATA Ramkrishna Bhattacharya 978-81-7304-852-4, 2010, 251p. Rs. 750 STUDIES IN THE KASIKAVRTTI THE SECTION ON PRATYASHARAS Critical Edition, Translation and Other Contributions Pascale Haag and Vincenzo Vergiani 978-81-7304-851-7, 2010, 274p. Rs. 800
MANOHAR PUBLISHERS & DISTRIBUTORS 4753/23, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-2 Phones: 2328 4848, 2328 9100, 2327 5162 Fax: (011) 2326 5162 email: sales@manoharbooks.com Website: www.manoharbooks.com

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
decEMBER 5, 2009 vol xliv no 49

BOOK REVIEW

drives of the bhadralok intelligentsia and their impact on the Santals.

The authors trace the theological lineages of Skrefsrud to reformed and institutionalised Protestant sects; they link his political leanings with the developing s ocial-democratic values and movements in Europe in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. The suppressed heterodox sects of early modern Europe, such as the Anabaptists who stood for more radical programmes of redistributive justice, are not treated in the discussions on religious dissent. The anti-imperialists of the second international, who broke with the social imperialism of European social-democracy on the eve of the first world war, do not appear in the narrative either. One wonders then if Skrefsrud and Borresen, despite their marginal lives in Norway and Denmark, were not representative of the undigested

-

-

and alienated poor who could be reconciled with and reabsorbed by the social mainstream of the metropole through various hegemonic ideologies, including the visions of a Scandinavian federation and saving the souls of “heathens” in distant lands.

From the account provided by the authors it would seem the two missionaries were on good terms with the colonial autho rities and bourgeois circles in Britain and Scandinavia; Skrefsrud even joined the Masonic Lodge in Calcutta to gain e ntry into influential circles. His stress on conversion of Santal chiefs and close cooperation with local British magistrates, including an advice in the late 1870s to whip and imprison the Kherwar rebels, demonstrated a desire to participate within existing structures of hierarchy and authority. The schooling of Borresen’s daughter in Europe, rather than among the S antal children her mother taught with a puritanical zeal, also seems to suggest conformity with contemporary attitudes among white expatriates in the colony. F inally, can protectionist paternalistic concern be equated with radical solida rity? The former tendency seems to have given birth to a plethora of non- governmental agencies that promote the values of industry and micro-level entrepreneurship among the unorganised and the dispossessed in the imperialised world. What it has not produced is “an e ncounter of the peripheries”. Perhaps a separate work on Chotrae, the veteran rebel and Christian critic who probably saw the “Son of Man” from Europe find an echo among the Santal “Children of Men”, needs to be written?

Suchetana Chattopadhyay (suchetana. chattopadhyay@gmail.com) teaches history at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

-

-

-

--

-–

-

decEMBER 5, 2009 vol xliv no 49

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top