Questions of Faith: Christianity, Conversion and the Ideological Origins of Political Theology in Colonial India, 1813-1907.


Mou Banerjee

PhD defended at: 

Harvard University


This dissertation examines the heated debates about the political valences of religious conversion in colonial India and explains how religious conversion, especially to Protestant Christianity, emerged as the most spectacular locus of public debate, social reform and anti-colonial resistance in colonial India in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Using the methodologies of micro-history, and sources like vernacular Bengali broadsheets, pamphlets, court cases, probates and newspapers as evidence, this dissertation illustrates the processes through which elite and non-elite Indians formed a complex relationship of overt repudiation and covert fascination with evangelical Christianity.

I argue that the inflammation of public opinion, overwhelming social anxiety and fear regarding conversions to Christianity, stemmed from a deep-rooted tension regarding the place of religious faith, communitarian affiliation and political identity in the social life of the nation. This anxiety far exceeded the statistical significance of conversions - India suffered from a conversion panic more than a conversion crisis. It has been generally argued that it is Islam against which a Hindu majoritarian political identity took shape in British India. However, in my research I contend that in the nineteenth century, it was the native Christian convert who acted as this oppositional “Other” to the Indian communities of faith professing Hinduism or Islam. Using the liminal figure of the Indian Christian convert, I demonstrate the problems inherent in a colonial sociology of knowledge, which insisted on only one religious identity that could be used in claiming certain political, social and economic rights from the colonial state.

The evolution of an Indian genre of sophisticated theological and political apologetics used religious affective imagery to create “imagined communities”. Religious conversion, as an analytical category of public debate, emerged in these negotiations with colonial modernity as a socio-political and legal problem, a struggle to define the contours of hybrid identities and the relationship between personal faith and political allegiances. In doing so, this dissertation unsettles the common assumption in South Asian historiography that religion belonged to the private spiritual domain.

Adopting conversion as the historical lens to examine the newly emergent colonial category of religious minorities, I trace an intellectual and political history of the creation of the Indian political self - a self that emerged through an oppositional relationship with evangelical Christianity and converted Christians. My project therefore puts marginality in religious terms at the center of the nationalism project. The postcolonial genealogy of such conversion panic finds expression in modern day South Asia through the escalating politics of nationalist xenophobia and communal violence directed towards minority communities.