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Moral Languages from Colonial Punjab (The Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyahs)

Moral Languages from Colonial Punjab (The Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyahs)
Item Code: NAL382
Author: Bob Van Der Linden
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9788173047596
Pages: 267
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 475 gms
About the Book

After its annexation in 1849, the Punjab became the most important strategic and agricultural province of British India. Within a few decades, much changed in the region, including the intellectual horizons of the Punjabi elite. This monograph tells the comparative socio-intellectual history of the Singh Sabha (Sikh), Arya Samaj (Hindu) and Ahmadiyah (Muslim) voluntary reform movements.

As a new contribution to the field, the term 'moral languages' is introduced to discuss the reformers' redefined traditions that emerged in response to Western reason and Christianity. Underwriting the Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah moral languages was the fundamental process of strengthening doctrine, conduct, and ritual through a dialogic process in which readings of the traditional literature (often as interpreted by European Orientalist scholars) were combined with an understanding that frequently invoked the authority of science.

In particular this volume argues that the secular-religious binary opposition, which has been so dominantly in existence since the European Enlightenment, hides more than it shows. Significant to the social consciousness of the Punjabi reformers was the partial overlap with the British civilizing mission's underlying notion of improvement. The term moral languages emphasizes that since the nineteenth-century religion is nothing more than morality motivated and spread through modern institutions and practices. Hence, the Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah moral languages are discussed in terms of modern traditions based on rational knowledge and practices that became vital to the struggle for authority and status in the context of an emergent liberal public sphere and processes of state formation.

This timely book will be of great interest to scholars of British Punjab, South Asian colonial history and comparative religion.


About the Author

Bob van der Linden (Ph.D., Amsterdam University, 2004) is a modern South Asia historian. He has recently published on the relationship between music and empire in Britain and India.



Upon the whole then, we cannot avoid recognizing in the people of Hindostan, a race of men lamentably degenerate and base; retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation; yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right, governed by malevolent and licentious passions, strongly exemplifying the effects produced on society by a great and general corruption of manners, and sunk in misery by their vices, in a country peculiarly calculated by its natural advantages, to promote the prosperity of its inhabitants.

CHARLES GRANT in Observations on the State of Society Among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, Particularly with Respect to Morals and on the Means of Improving it (1797).

For the majority of Europeans in the early centuries of overseas expansion, the most decisive distinction between them and the people they encountered was not material so much as one of religion. They were Christians, while with very few exceptions the others were heathens. Accordingly, in European accounts much more space was devoted to pointing out differences in beliefs and practices than to explanations or comparisons of scientific and technological prowess (as would happen later in the name of improvement, progress and development, if not evolution). Increasingly Europeans began to identify differing degrees of heathen depravity, though these were 'more difficult to substantiate and compare than the quality of housing, the size of ships and the volume of trade'. Yet idolatry was idolatry. The devil was the same in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Hence, whereas India once often was seen as a land of marvels, by the nineteenth century, most Englishmen (scandalized by such customs as child marriage and widow burning) viewed its people as benighted heathens fit for the civilizing mission and conversion. It was only in early modern times, that the category religion came to be applied universally to all faiths. As a definable entity, religion, described both for its own essence and for the results it produces on society, belongs almost entirely to nineteenth century Western scholarship. Yet a terminology associated with the Western study of religion was imposed on non-Western cultures. Undeniably important to this were processes of modern state formation which officially meant a separation between the religious and the secular (in the Western context, the separation between church and state). But what is religious and what is secular? The use of the category religion to explain human ideas and practices in many places in the world is puzzling. Is it not true that most of what happened under its banner has been very down to earth: economic, political, often totalitarian, xenophobic and generally dependent on charismatic leaders? Whatever the case, the categories religion and secularism, much influenced by the European secular critique of religion since the Enlightenment, have to be handled with care.

In 1962, Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his classic, The Meaning and End of Religion, recommended the use of the categories tradition, community and faith instead of religion-being a word he found so muddled in meaning and so modern in coinage as to be useless for any comparative historical study. Twenty years later, however, in Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad argued that in scholarship the use of such terms as those mentioned by Cantwell Smith is not the answer. On the contrary, Asad stressed that these comprehensive concepts always have to be unpacked into their heterogeneous and historically specific elements, reflecting local power relations. All the same, he refers only to the discipline of history and assuming that the study of the latter excludes as W.H. Mcleod put it 'the need for a spiritual interpretation in research’,I suggest that in the end there are only the categories of tradition and history. The idea of religion and morality as distinct remains peculiar to the West. South Asian languages, for example, do not have words for religion meaning 'a single uniform and centralized community of believers'. For centuries (and often to the present, if only from the participant's point of view) people in the subcontinent enacted their rituals, pilgrimages and acts of piety without objectifying religion into an exclusive entity. Thus there are words for 'faith, rites, piety, beliefs and gods, but not for an overarching community of believers'. As Harjot Oberoi rightly stressed:

At most, Indian languages yield the word panth, a sort of moral collective of believers. But then any tradition could be made up of several conflicting panths, and the word does not exactly fit a uniform, centralized, religious community possessing a fixed canon and well- demarcated social and cultural boundaries.

Not particularly surprising in pre-modern South Asia therefore, religion was a 'highly localized affair, often even a matter of individual conduct and individual salvation'. Such labels as Hinduism and Sikhism only emerged during the nineteenth century. Obviously the word 'Hinduism' should be scrupulously avoided because there are only multiple Hindu practices. Even so, because of the Singh Sabha movement there is reason for continuing with 'Sikhism', though the term does not apply to earlier patterns of Sikh belief.

All in all, as far as the idea of religion is concerned, it is time to leave behind the secular-religious binary opposition as mainly a creation of the Enlightenment. In its place one could define religion as traditional morality not on the basis of reason or experience but on some final and transcendental source. In this way, tradition stands in opposition to secularism, which has its ultimate point of moral reference in the world of human knowledge and not beyond but equally has its own orthodoxy and includes the idea of history. Then again, and this is crucial, I take secularization to be a neutral process whereby authority passes from a traditional to a secular source but is not anti-religious in intent. These definitions differ from the idea of secularism put forward by Peter van der Veer, 'as a set of arguments in favour of separation of church and state' with 'a genealogy in the Enlightenment' but working out differently in historical formations worldwide. When trying to understand how traditions changed since the nineteenth century that idea certainly remains bounded by the Euro-centric secular-religious binary opposition. Instead, I see tradition as knowledge handed down from generation to generation, often on the basis of sacred texts that are interpreted by the elites in a certain social hierarchy.

In this view, tradition can be religious as well as secular. The canons of Western literary texts, art and classical music for example are taken as sacred by many and are hierarchically interpreted by scholars. Also it could be argued that, despite all the reasonable thinking involved, such secular notions as democracy, liberalism, progress and nationalism have a transcendent dimension, i.e. one that is not based on reason and experience. Any discussion of tradition in history therefore is sensitive and risky because the propagators of cultural canons generally find it problematic to accept change and those in power never like to give it away. Imperative to this study remains the fact that because of the fast societal changes during the colonial period there emerged a social consciousness among Indian elites that undermined the traditional status quo. On the basis of rationally redefined traditions, these elites formed moral identities in order to confront the fast changing world around them. By relying on their own individual reason and invoking the authority of science, Indian elites secularized their traditions.



In 1859, John Beames became District Officer of one of the smallest districts of colonial Punjab, Gujrat. He was also stationed in the districts of Ambala and Ludhiana and remained for two years in the region. In his memoirs he wrote vividly about the times when the colonial administration was still frail:

I looked out and found myself in a tumble-down building of red-brick-not plastered as houses in India mostly are-the British administration in the Punjab was then still so newly established that there had been no time for refinements and luxuries such as plaster. Buildings were hastily run up to serve the emergencies of the moment, and if they tumbled down again as hastily, it did not matter-they were professedly only temporary.

The European part of Gujrat was small, not yet a civil or military lines:

In the European station there were only five houses and a few public buildings. The society was correspondingly small, consisting of Major Adams, the Deputy Commissioner and his wife and child, Major Terence O'Brien, a jolly little fat, round Irishman with a strong Cork brogue (he called his native place 'Cyark') and his wife, a sickly half-caste, and child, and my humble self. There were also two half-caste clerks and their families. For doctor we had a Bengali who spoke English well.

As far as John Lawrence, the famous first Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, was concerned, the ideal district officer was a hard, active man in boots and breeches, who almost lived in the saddle, worked all day and nearly all night, ate and drank when and where he could, had no family ties, no wife or children to hamper him, and whose whole establishment consisted of a camp bed, an odd table and chair or so and a small box of clothes such as could be slung on a camel.

Lawrence was a sort of popular hero but intensely disliked by those who served under him. One of Beames' comrades from the East India Company training college in Haileybury, the then Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana, G.R. Elsmie, suffered a great deal under John Lawrence's command:

Elsmie imprudently brought a piano to the Punjab with him. Such a refinement was unpardonable, and poor Elsmie was moved five times from one end of the Punjab to the other in the course of two years. 'I'll smash his piano for him', John Lawrence was reported to have said, when he first heard of such a degradation as a Punjab officer having a piano.

The playing of an instrument certainly did not accord with Lawrence's view of an ideal district officer because it was an indication of the lack of grit he expected from his staff. Hence in 1864, when John Lawrence was Viceroy of India, the Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, Robert Montgomery, wrote a word of warning, while offering Elsmie a job as judge in Simla:

Simla is full of important people, and there is none so shrewd amongst them all as Sir John Lawrence. I do not think he would like you to take part in theatricals. They are hardly fitting the grave sobriety of a Judge, and I shall be glad to hear you eschew them as an actor.

Even so, it should be clear that the staunch Protestant evangelical John Lawrence was influential, but not typical of the British in India. On the contrary, British civilians, 'who had been accustomed to the more civilized conditions of the older and more settled provinces, objected strongly to being turned into homeless, vagrant governing-machines' by this rough and coarse man, who believed that 'personal government was the only form of rule which the rude and simple Punjabis could understand'. After Lawrence's death in 1879, Lieutenant-Governor Charles Aitchison unveiled a massive bronze statue of him on the Mall road in Lahore, holding a sword in one hand, a pen in the other and carrying the inscription: 'Will you be governed by pen or by sword? Choose!'. By then, however, already much had changed. Now the colonial administration was mostly manned by Punjabis and reached deep into rural society. Moreover, Lahore not only had become the headquarters of an important economic and strategic region but, indeed, also the place where since 1884 pianos could be ordered from C. Steiert & Co.

Unquestionably the establishment of the Pax Britannica heavily influenced Punjabi minds. The aim of this study is to learn how traditions changed during the colonial interaction in late nineteenth century Punjab. Though in general the ideas and values assertively propagated by British civil servants and army- men were crucial, I will argue that it was Protestant missionary activity that influenced the making of modern Punjabi identities. Within a few decades of the coming of Christian missionaries, Islamic, Sikh and Hindu traditions were redefined by numerous reform movements through modern institutions and practices. Because the Sikh tradition originated in Punjab and Hindu practices and Islam had specific histories in the region, this gives us an unparalleled opportunity for a comparative historical study about the making of modern South Asian identities. I limit myself, however, to three reform movements, the Singh Sabha (Sikh), the Arya Samaj (Hindu) and the Ahmadiyah (Muslim). Surprisingly, these movements have hitherto not been discussed as similar products of the same regional colonial culture, albeit coming from within three by that time often overlapping Punjabi greater traditions.

From 1873 onwards (the year that the Amritsar Singh Sabha was established), Singh Sabhaites, Arya Samajis and Ahmadiyahs started to define themselves through what I call moral languages. Being minor groups, they created (often with support of the British) bodies of moral knowledge, that was supposed to be eternal. By doing this, they largely rejected the identities existing in Punjabi popular culture at the time. For undeniably the ideas propagated by the Singh Sabhaites, Arya Samajis and Ahmadiyahs did not mesh well with those existing within the larger polytheistic traditions that covered a wide spectrum of beliefs and ritual practices. Instead, the elitist reformers favoured uniformity and homogeneity. To achieve their goal they organized themselves into voluntary movements, opened up educational and other institutions, and appropriated modern modes of communication. What is more, these newly created identities increasingly became crucial in the struggle for authority and status in a fast changing society. Following rivalry between elites for jobs in the administration and urban professions during the 1880s, they provided a useful means of elbowing out adversaries and so became a 'means for individuals and groups to control others or resist such control, for changing society or for blocking change, for affirming or suppressing cultural identities'.

On the whole, I will investigate the dynamics of the Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah moral languages not only 'in a utilitarian way, as the creation of technical terms for precise practical purposes', but especially also 'in a symbolic way, as the expression of a growing group self-consciousness and of a growing sense of distance from the rest of society'. Identities depend on stereotypes of the self and the other, exaggerate whatever makes one community distinct from others, and forge solidarity in the course of conflict with others. The Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah moral languages are no exception. Most reformers saw the world in black and white and hence public meetings often ended up in polemic if not in violence. Most essential to these moral languages remains the dialogue with Western reason which overall led to a stress on rationality in the language used for moral, literary, political or other purposes. Underwriting the moral languages was the fundamental process of strengthening doctrine, conduct and ritual through a dialogic process in which readings of the traditional literature (often as interpreted by European Orientalist scholars) were combined with an understanding that often invoked the authority of science. As a result, there was a growing tendency to treat the Granth Sahib, Vedas and Koran at par with the Bible as scriptures. I examine the Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah self-definitions in the context of a newly emerging liberal public sphere to which the hierarchical system of authority set-up by the Anglo-Indian colonial state provided the backbone. Hence, importantly, I question some assumptions about the colonial state and the public sphere. By using the label Anglo-Indian colonial state, I follow the idea that nineteenth century South Asia found itself in a complicated flux dominated by the interaction between two dynamic civilizations: the regional one and the British imported version of European civilization. On the one hand, the British unleashed different policies following the changes happening in South Asia, Great Britain, and the rest of the world (of Empire), which had effects they could not anticipate. On the other hand, a complex process of responses generated actions of all kinds and in turn influenced the policies of the British (both in Britain and within the Empire). There were closely related worldwide economic, social, political and cultural transformations in which people participated and contributed, not simply as the objects or victims of the successes of others, but by being actively, independently and creatively 'involved in establishing the structures of oppression and exploitation in both India and Great Britain at the same time’. In this way the two civilizations constantly reconstituted each other.

In my view, the creation of an Anglo-Indian colonial state simultaneously was accompanied by the emergence of a public sphere as part of a larger configuration of socio-economic change. As such, I take the formation of both state and public sphere as interrelated and, consequently, query the notion of a neutral, not participating, state in Indian society, as argued for example by Sandria Freitag:

Through the institutions of the state, the British Raj established a structure of rule that interfered, even though it would not participate, in an extraordinary range of activities related to the public arena. Yet where earlier the ruler had fully participated in public arena activity to establish his legitimacy, the imperial state had now withdrawn. In its place it had deputed certain local power-holders to act as its intermediaries.

Or as put more bluntly by Gyan Pandey:

... one may note the radically altered nature of the state-and not just of policies, or even politics as a whole-under colonialism. This state is not only far more modern, powerful, centralized and interventionist than any state that had existed before in the sub-continent. It is also far more self-consciously 'neutral' standing above society, and not really part of it than any previous state, a position that no previous state had especially claimed or desired.

Undoubtedly the Anglo-Indian colonial state was something new. Officially ruled from London, as the centerpiece of the British Empire the centralized colonial state claimed absolute authority but even so could not execute its policies without interacting with (i.e. being part of) South Asian society. Like European states, the colonial state functioned through intermediaries, was more bureaucratic and therefore perhaps could be called more impersonal than any of the earlier states, but that does not mean it was neutral and standing above it all. On the contrary, state institutions and actions were at the heart of what happened in modern South Asia. Yet to come back to my use of the term Anglo-Indian colonial state, while one should certainly not suppress the political and military domination of both the colonial and post-colonial states in South Asia, I stress that power is very rarely a one-way process and that consent is needed as power does not descend from above. It rises from below, from within society. Also the position of a neutral colonial state taken by Freitag, Pandey and others remains much similar to the official rhetoric of British colonial policy as put forward in Queen Victoria's 1858 Proclamation (see Chapter Two). It is likewise comparable to the idea of secularism as propagated since 1947 by the independent Indian state. Also the idea of a neutral Anglo-Indian colonial state fits in with a long existing mode of thinking that views states in terms of their sovereignty instead of their military, legal, educational and bureaucratic institutions and practices acted out in the public sphere. The Anglo-Indian colonial state functioned on the basis of human agency, often with pre-planned results but, importantly, many times also with unintended consequences. The latter in particular should always be kept in mind when aiming to write history without drawing too easy conclusions in hindsight. This book follows the idea that the processes of state formation took place simultaneously with the emergence of a liberal public sphere, all together with fast changes in socio-economic circumstances. This option at the same time questions the idea of the public sphere as a corollary to the state, as put forward by Sandria Freitag. In the newly emerging liberal public sphere, dominant state institutions and practices continually interacted, competed and often overlapped with voluntary ones.




  Preface 7
  Tradition, Rationality and Social Consciousness 15
  Part I: The Social Process  
  (The Creation of a Liberal Public Sphere Under the Pax Britannica)  
1 Authority, State And The Civilizing Mission 37
  A Fertile Region at the Afghan Border 37
  Authority reaching the Roots of Rural Society 41
  Three Greater Traditions and Punjabi Popular Culture 47
  Shaping Nature and Communities 53
  Conclusion 60
2 A Subculture Of Punjabi Public Men 67
  Protestant Evangelicalism and Punjabi Voluntary Movements 67
  Anglo-Vernacular Education and Print Culture 76
  The Brahmo Samaj and Anjuman-i-Punjab in Lahore 83
  Conclusion 92
  Part II: The Intellectual Texture  
  (The Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj and Ahmadiyah Moral Languages Stirring the Public Mind)  
3 Tradition, Rationality And Reform 101
  Criticizing Tradition and Society 101
  Defining Doctrine, Conduct and Ritual 112
  Invoking the Authority of Science 122
  Conclusion 131
4 Strengthening Identity Through Language, History And Patriarchy 142
  Vernacular Language Politics 142
  Writing Moral Histories 150
  Directing the Ideal Punjabi Women 159
  Conclusion 170
5 Community, Government And Social Consciousness 180
  Comparative Moral Polemics 180
  Loyalty to the Government and Beyond 189
  Conversion and Social Mobilization 203
  Conclusion 214
6 Conclusion: Moral Languages Over Time And Seas 225
  Secularization and Cultural Dialogue 225
  Moral Languages in Diaspora and World History 231
  Key Dates 241
  Glossary 243
  Bibliography 245
  Index 261


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