One of the best known authorities in the field of Indian religious studies, Rowena Robinson has written widely on the minority religious communities. Initially, her main preoccupation was with popular Christianity and the theme of formation of Christian identities and how they have been articulated, constructed and reconstructed. Focusing on the making of the minorities and the nature of their contemporary shifts and trends in the Indian contexts, her engagement came to be extended crucially to the Indian Muslims, who are the largest minority in India. Like the Christian minority, the Muslim minority in India is characterized by ‘many heterogeneities and distinctions’, but it had a ‘different and difficult past that had traced for it a problematic developmental path’ (p. 13). Though neither Muslims nor Christians can be perceived as homogeneous and single units, they share a common underlying factor as non-Hindu minority religious communities. Both the communities are located outside Hinduism, and against the background of the growing wrong perceptions of the Hindu Right wing—that Christians and Muslims are anti-national—they are positioned firmly on the same side of the fence, facing similar situations in contemporary India.
Engaged with the diverse range and aspects of religions, the book under review attempts to comprehend and amplify the issues concerning Christians and Muslims as minorities and the complex ways in which they are ‘identified, defined and categorised’ in the context of contemporary Indian polity and society. All the essays in this book capture the rich dimensions of Robinson’s scholarly works, mapping the academic terrain treaded by her in pursuit of her ‘ongoing themes on the Muslims and Christians and their place in Indian society in relation to Hindu fundamentalist ideologies; and the policies of conversion and reconversion in contemporary India’(p. 16). She has deftly deployed historical, ethnographic, sociological and anthropological analytical tools while concentrating on the ‘concerns for conversion, violence, patriarchy, and interpersonal recognition across the borders between social entities’ located outside Hinduism. Focusing on the minorities as the first step in approaching the study of India’s religions differently, Robinson’s is a refreshing departure from the existing studies and understanding of Indian Christians and Muslims.
Eleven essays written over two decades have been reproduced in this volume arranged under two heads. The first part deals with Christianity and the second with the Indian Muslims in relation to ethnic violence and conflict. The first four essays emerged out of Robinson’s early research in Goa, focusing specifically on Catholic Christians in Goa and linking them with a number of crucial concerns regarding the study of Christianity in India. These essays reiterate the importance of locating the symbols and ritual practices of a ‘universal’ religion, in their specific local social and historical contexts. The opening essay, ‘The Cross: Contestation and Transformation of a Religious Symbol in Southern Goa’, attempts a socio-historical analysis of the symbol of the cross among Catholics in a village in Goa. Robinson illustrates what the ‘Cross meant for the Portuguese, the way in which this symbol has been appropriated by the converted Catholics in Goa, the transformation it undergoes, and the manner in which it becomes the focus of keen contestation between different social groups’(p. 25). ‘Weaving a Tale of Resistance’, delves into the history of Cuncolim, a small village in Salcete, South Goa, to demonstrate how multiple meanings of resistance came to be woven around a story of martyrdom in which five Jesuits were killed in Cuncolim in 1583. While recounting stories of the events of 1583, Robinson analyses how a converted people with generations of faith behind them recollect their own past and negotiate the memory of the historical moment of their rebellion, throwing light on the manner in which Hindu and Christian elements came to be blended in the popular Catholicism of Cuncolim.
‘Taboo or Veiled Consent? Goan Inquisitorial Edict of 1736’, probes into the various implications of the practices, prohibitions and proscriptions introduced by the famous Inquisitorial Edict of 1736. Combining available historical and ethnological evidences, Robinson explicates why the provisions of the edict did not succeed in full measure. Realizing the futility and the ‘limits’ of the ‘coercive measures of evangelisation’ of the edict, ‘the Portuguese and the missionaries who functioned as a part of their oceanic empire’ had to dilute the intensity of the edict and become lenient in imposing its provisions. The converts, who accepted the new religion not entirely on the missionary terms, came to realize that the new religion could be adapted to their own social and religious needs. As a result, the missionaries tried to ‘forge links with the local practices’ by way of accommodation and compromise rather than an elimination of indigenous ways, without completely giving up their own cultural modes; and the converts struck a balance by retaining indigenous customs and traditions, giving them new meanings and symbols and adapting them in accordance with the new faith.
‘Interrogating Modernity, Gendering “Tradition”: Teatr Tales from Goa’, traces the roots and evolution of constituents of Goan teatr, a modern popular theatrical form that originated in Bombay among groups of migrant Catholic Goans and was also performed in several principal Goan towns. Robinson highlights the rudiments of the tales, themes, concerns, stories, politics, gender relations and morality that went into the making of the teatr tradition in Goa over the decades since its emergence in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and its ramifications while negotiating modernity and tradition. Invoking the themes of the Goan teatr, the essay ‘locates itself within a new-expanding terrain of politics of popular culture, with the representation of women and inter-connections between modernity and tradition, and the construction of self-hood and the projection of otherness’ (p. 94).
‘Journeying through the Social Worlds of Conversion’ looks into the questions of motivation and the understanding of what constitutes conversion to Christianity. Christianity came from different parts of the world with denominational and sectional differences and different impulses, and took root in different parts of India at different points of time. Importantly, Christian communities drawn from distinct social, cultural and economic backgrounds are today unevenly scattered all over India and have become an integral part of India, grounded in their local milieus. Robinson examines the crucial issues in the interconnection between the state, missionaries and the converts, in order to unravel the complex and intricate nature of conversion. She makes it amply clear that neither the missionary project of conversion nor the converts’ adoption of a new religion can be reduced to any single motive. The missionaries did not come under a ‘single perception’ or receive similar treatment from the
varying colonial political regimes such as the Portuguese and the British. Importantly, the converts demonstrated that they were in pursuit of their own destiny. Giving up the indigenous religion and accepting a new faith was not without contestations and conflicts, reconciliations and accommodations that were very much part of the process of Christianity taking root in the local traditions and cultures.
‘Indian Christians: Trajectories of development’ attempts to provide a comprehensive account of the uneven socio-economic development within the Christian religious community and brings to the limelight the regional and other intra-community differences/disparities and their political and social relevance. Though over-all, Christians appear to do better than some other minority communities like Muslims in the areas of literacy, education and employment, there seem to be marked internal ‘differences in the indices for Dalit and tribal Christians from the rest of the population of the community’(p. 165). Several violent attacks in scattered locations in various places in India have been unleashed on Christians over the last several years by the growing Hindu Right wing forces particularly in tribal and rural areas, but the urban areas have not been affected. For the Christians, these militant manifestations of Hindu Right-wing mobilization are sources of anxiety and have raised concern about the security of the community as a whole. Robinson points out that at this critical juncture, as a minority, the Christians have to share and forge their ‘community identity and common concern’ against the confrontation with the Hindu Right wing and its systematic militant manifestations, but this pressing matter should not push the developmental issues such as the problems of the poor, the dalits and the tribals to the back seat; both should receive adequate attention ‘without shelving one or the other’.
The second part of Robinson’s book, consisting of five essays under the head ‘Ethnic Violence and Conflict’, is exclusively devoted to the Indian Muslims, the largest minority in the country. Focusing on the trauma of violence and survival strategies adopted by the Indian Muslims, Robinson raises several important questions related to the construction and reconstruction of Muslim identity and its complex nature while depicting how this identity has been forged and articulated particularly among Muslim survivors of ethnic strife in Mumbai, Baroda, and Ahmedabad in 2003–4, against the background of growing Hindu communal mobilization in contemporary India. ‘Virtual Warfare: The Internet as the New Site for Global Religious Conflict’, analyses internet sites and Right-wing units’ construction of the ideology of Hindutva in the context of a globalizing India; specifically, how the Hindutva project is being shaped and seeped into ‘all kinds of public discourses and into popular culture and religion’ and ‘developed along the lines of fundamentalist or millennial Islamic or Christian movements’ (pp. 19–92). The point to be noted is that the media portrayal of ‘the version of Indian Hindu modernity’ which forcefully resonates its distinctions from Islam and Christianity in an acrimonious manner, is becoming ‘increasingly undemocratic and exclusive’ (p. 208). It is made clear that the Hindu Right is a modern movement with fascist attributes, tending towards the project of reconversion and embarking on a ‘vital political battle’ to appropriate the state machinery for ‘Hinduization of the Indian nation’ (p. 207).
‘Marginalisation and Violence: Concerns for India and Its Muslims’ provides a descriptive analysis of crucial elements that fostered and bolstered the social exclusion, discrimination and marginalization of the Indian Muslims. It explains their insecurity and socio-economic problems against the background of communal conflict and violence, and their implications for the social and economic achievements and ‘deprivation on almost every front’ of the community in contemporary India. Drawing from field work conducted among Muslim survivors of ethnic strife in Mumbai (1992–3), Baroda, and Ahmedabad (2003–4), ‘Boundary Battles: Muslim Women and Community Identity in the Aftermath of Violence’ focuses on questions related to the ‘particular features’ instrumental in the provocation of increasing Hindu-Muslim hostility, communal mobilization, and the resultant communal violence in recent decades in India. The main thrust is to highlight the concerns and predicaments of Muslim women who are the worst hit, and to make an assessment of the ways in which their everyday lives have been impacted. Tracing the attempts made by Muslim women to salvage their lives and mitigate the indignities experienced by them, Robinson unravels the fragility and vulnerability of the Muslim women.
In the penultimate essay, ‘Naata, Nyaya: Friendship and/or Justice on the Border’, Robinson provides a rich dimension to the nuances of Hindu-Muslim syncretism and harmony and the semblance of their ‘cooperative coexistence’, and expresses the need for a fresh understanding of the elements of ‘exclusion and separation’ that ‘disturbed’ the Muslims and the ‘uncertainty in relations between Muslims and their Hindu friends’. She is emphatic that the inter-community ties between the Hindus and Muslims can possibly be built on the basis of friendship provided the Muslims are given their due as equal citizens, as is their just demand. Highlighting the key factors of her wishful thinking and their wider implications in the process of achieving ‘lasting peace’ between communities, Robinson emphatically affirms: ‘This would be friendship, based neither on paternalism nor on the unthinking practices of everyday living. It is friendship that demands engagement, struggle and negotiation, and the acknowledgement of the equality and rightful demands of the Other. It is friendship based on co-responsibility, an ethic of obligation in a moral economy in which each is dependent on the other’ (p. 260).
The last essay, ‘Betwixt Kin and Community: Muslim Women and the Family in the Wake of Ethnic Strife in Western India’, examines the manifold problems faced by the survivors of collective violence. Coping with their battles for everyday survival and justice, their lives are full of hope and despair. An analysis of the modes of survival and the tactics adopted by Muslim women and families of survivors to recover from the after effects of violence indicates that the ‘women bear a double and contradictory burden as survivors of violence. They are usually the bearers of the heaviest burdens of survival and recovery’ (p. 285).
The meticulously researched and highly insightful essays in this book are a seminal contribution to the field of minority studies. This book widens the canvas of study of Christians and Muslims as minorities and their place in Indian society against the background of the rise of the Hindu Right and its political agenda. It also indicates the priorities for research in the area of religious minorities and their ethnic and religious conflicts, survival tactics and coexistence with the Hindu majority, that will contribute to a broader understanding of contemporary Indian polity and society.
Y. Vincent Kumaradoss is a former Professor of History, Madras Christian College, Chennai.