Church, Mahatma and the missionary position

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Church, Mahatma and the missionary position

Sunday, 13 July 2014 | Kanchan Gupta

Gandhi's unique contribution to India's freedom movement, as also to freedom struggles in oppressed nations across the world, satyagraha, was considered “un-Christian” by a majority of Protestant missionaries

Some years ago, while researching the Goa Inquisition, I had chanced upon material about the attitude of Christian missionaries towards Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma. Those notes resurfaced while I was clearing out the accumulated, fraying papers in my study; they make for interesting reading, especially when Gandhi is being touted by Christian missionaries as an ‘Apostle of Peace’, one of their own, in an effort to silence their critics. Yet, there was a time when missionaries loathed Gandhi and held him in contempt, and not all who did so were of foreign origin.

For Christian missionaries, Gandhi was an “extraordinary casuist”... Unless stopped, his views would become a “dangerous phenomenon of present day politics in India”... His teachings can lead to “chaos and anarchy only”... His politics will lead to “mischievous consequences”.

These words have been taken from history. From cold print. From journals published by Christian missionaries. Journals that still exist as evidence of missionaries willingly allowing themselves to be used as instruments of British rule in India. And the target of their ire is Mahatma Gandhi, whom the Church now describes as an “apostle of peace” because it suits its social, political and cultural agenda.

Gandhi’s arrival on the scene had greatly charged the nationalist movement and expanded the spread and scope of the struggle against British colonial rule. Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful resistance to colonial rule had found expression in the non-cooperation agitation. This in turn set alarm bells ringing — the colonial establishment, including the Church, was quick to realise Gandhi’s potential. It retaliated in full force, using its arsenal, including missionaries and their publications.

In September 1919, the Christian Missionary Review fired the first salvo. A year later, the Christian Missionary Review dropped all niceties and described Gandhi as an “extraordinary casuist”, an “unscrupulous and irresponsible demagogue” responsible for the disturbances in Punjab the previous year. Urging India’s colonial masters to “adequately” deal with Gandhi’s “egotistical mysticism”, the Christian Missionary Review said that unless put down, Gandhi and his nationalism would emerge as “one of the dangerous phenomena of present day politics in India.”

In fact, the murderous attitude of the British in Punjab and the terrible fallout of the Rowlatt Act, found ample support among the missionaries. Bishop Henry Whitehead not only supported the Act but went on to denigrate the nationalist agitation against the Act as a “striking illustration of the incapacity of a large section of Indian politicians to face facts and realities, or to understand the first principles of civilised Government.” We all know of the action of the “civilised Government” so ardently backed by the missionaries — the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.

Indeed, Marcella Sherwood, speaking on behalf of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society and Reverend Canon Guildford, speaking on behalf of the Church Missionary Society, lauded General Reginald Dyer’s brutality, saying it was “justified by its results”. The Christian Missionary Review, describing Gen Dyer as a “brave man”, said, absurdly though, that his action was “the only means of saving life”. Another missionary publication, rather disingenuously named The Young Men of India, heaped praise on Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant Governor of Punjab during those terrible days of bloodshed and brutality by a ruthless colonial administration, saying that he was “the strongest and best ruler the country has had in modern times”. The Harvest Field, also a missionary journal, was quick to point out that during the nationalist uprising against the Rowlatt Act, Indian Christians were not found “wanting in loyalty to the (British) Government”. The International Review of Missions was clear in its pronouncement that the means and methods adopted by the British to put down the uprising in Punjab were neither un-Christian nor a blot on British rule.

It is important that we understand the import of the missionaries’ view of the nationalist uprising against the Rowlatt Act, their justification of the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, their unrestrained praise for Gen Dyer. Those who saw nothing wrong with drenching the ground of Jallianwala Bagh with the blood of Indian nationalists, those who saw nothing “un-Christian” about the bloodshed, those who found “loyalty to the British” in the cowardice of Indian Christians, could not but have derided Gandhi and his non-violence.

For, Gandhi’s unique contribution to India’s freedom movement, as also to freedom struggles in oppressed nations across the world, satyagraha, was considered “un-Christian” by a majority of Protestant missionaries. The Christian Missionary Review describing Gandhi’s agenda as dangerous, predicted that it would lead to violence, chaos and anarchy.

This view was seconded by The Young Men of India. Commenting on Gandhi’s freedom campaign fashioned around the philosophy of satyagraha, in March 1920, The Young Men of India wrote: “Though Mr Gandhi may have satisfied his conscience as to its morality, to plain common sense it means playing with fire, with the certainty that if used with masses of Indian people, the fire will become a conflagration.” The Harvest Field, in its May 1921 issue, put on record its belief that “Mr Gandhi’s teachings” would result in “chaos and anarchy only”. Gandhi, it said, had brought a “sword to his beloved land.” “We have no animus against the man”, said the Madras Christian College Magazine in October, 1921 — the best way to rubbish a person, to inflict the most grievous wound, is to preface the attack with “we have nothing against the man” — “but we have always regarded the doctrines he has been preaching and the policy he has advocated as pernicious.” The Magazine, of course, had a pious purpose behind its attack: “To save India from the mischievous consequences that must follow from their (Gandhi’s doctrines) adoption.” Such concern! Such piety!

But that was not all. The Madras Christian College Magazine went on to offer a homily. All those who want “peace and sobriety of life and progress”, it urged, should reject the “sophistry of non-violence”. let us recall these words today when the current president of the Congress pays tribute to Gandhi as an apostle of non-violence.

By 1922, the Madras Christian College Magazine had dropped all pretensions. It declared that there was nothing “positive or constructive” about Gandhi’s programme of satyagraha and that his role till then had been “negative throughout”. Gandhi, the Madras Christian College Magazine added with a sweeping flourish, was “an anarchist at heart, prone to mental confusion”.

In her book, The Attitude of British Protestant Missionaries Towards Nationalism in India, Elizabeth Susan Alexander, offers an explanation for such vile diatribe against Gandhi as articulated by the missionary publications: “British officials came to accept missionaries as partners in the ‘noble’ task of shouldering the ‘white man’s burden’. British officials defended their support of Christian missionaries as being in the interest of their rule, for missionaries were used as instruments of their policies of reform. Missionary activities were seen to have lucrative results for British commercial interests.”

lucrative results now accrue to the Christian West which funds missionaries and evangelists.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)

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