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Travancore and the Missionary Impact

by Siddhartha S. Bhadrakumar

posted in News and Society

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Despite its prosaic title the book' Missionaries and a Hindu State' covering the kingdom of Travancore from 1858-1936 by Koji Kawashima explores the colonial experience. While the case study is of Travancore this book might be equally relevant about the colonial experience of South India.
His central theme is about how the missionaries impacted a traditional and static society from the prism of the unfolding colonial reality that was unfolding in South Asia. While he would like us to believe that the missionary impact fostered social modernization, I think modernization was only surface deep and didn't change deeply ingrained social attitudes. As somebody residing in the area under consideration, I would say attitudes of castes etc continue to be deeply engrained in social attitudes and no real 'modernization' has taken place in social attitudes. Social empowerment of the so-called lower castes has prevented the more blatant practices of casteism or 'tindal' being practiced. However that doesn't mean that this de facto apartheid system has died out. Rather such tendencies remain dormant in the psyche of the so-called upper castes. It would be more appropriate to compare it with a slumbering beast.
While the missionaries provided opportunities to those who lacked them before, that doesn't mean that they 'modernized' society. When the impetus to social change is not indigenous it cannot be said to have any lasting impact. It can at best be described as having a superficial impact. Rather what happens in such circumstances is that a change of historical forces, such as the arrival of independence and the end of British rule in 1947, leads dormant social impulses to resurface in far from attractive forms and with a greater vehemence. We can see this today all over India in terms of inter- caste and inter-communal violence.
The author would also seem to suggest that the Travancore kingdom was an independent entity. In fact it was semi-independent and under British tutelage. It wasn't an independent agent of history. The Travancore kingdom can at best be described as having being subordinate to the larger British colonial enterprise in South Asia at the time. Nor can we agree that the missionary impact was not a part of this colonial enterprise. In fact it went in tandem with it. It was a subsidiary activity of the British Raj. It cannot be denied that the missionaries wouldn't have got the opportunities that they did if an alien despotism in terms of the 'British Raj' were not ruling the region.
What is striking about this book is that it focuses attention on Hindu-Christian relations through the paradigm of a so-called Hindu state as compared to the dialectic in independent India where the focus has largely shifted to Hindu-Muslim relations in the context of independence and Partition. It's a different matter that the 'outsider' in that framework is also an 'insider', unlike the terms of the Hindu-Christian alchemy which clearly represents an external superimposition onto a native polity.
Similarly we are left to ponder the exact meaning of independence and colonialism in the context of an interdependent and globalized world. Therefore while the terms of reference might be a bit dated the essential proposition of social conflict and religion as an agency or intermediary in that conflict remains relevant to the present. Moreover the biggest bonus of all is that Kawashima is neither Indian nor British and therefore brings no 'historical baggage' to this subject.
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