ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Beyond the Civilizing Mission: Missionaries, Adivasis, and the Raj in Colonial Eastern India, c. 1845-1900


Chandra Uday - Georgetown University in Qatar, Doha, Qatar


38 – Adivasis and Adivasi Studies


 Postcolonial historians have tended to share, somewhat uneasily, with the Hindu Right a particular view of Christian missions as handmaidens of empire in British India. Subaltern Studies, too, maintained a conspicuous silence on missions, which is surprising because subalterns in colonial India converted to Christianity in fairly large numbers. Beyond South Asia, the Comaroffs famously argued that Christian missions in southern Africa contributed to the ‘colonization of consciousness’ there. Recently, however, such settled historical truths are starting to be unsettled. Historians such as Sangeeta Dasgupta, Rupa Viswanath, and David Mosse have questioned the easy equation of missions with empire in South Asia. This paper builds on their work by focusing on everyday interactions between Lutheran and Jesuit missionaries and Adivasi communities in colonial Jharkhand. These interactions, I argue, cannot be simply viewed in isolation from the political economy of agrarian change in this region. From the mid-nineteenth century, Christianity emerged as a powerful political-theological resource for those forest-dwelling groups that the Raj christened “tribes” in an ongoing war over property rights with upper-caste Hindu zamindars. German and Belgian missionaries entered the arena of agrarian conflict, often against their will and sometimes against the Raj. At the same time, the missionary interest in codifying Adivasi languages led to the articulation of a new politics of difference.