Pioneering reformer

Print edition : February 22, 2103
A concise, informative and lucid account of Rammohun Roy’s life and times.

AMIYA P. SEN’s short biography treats the life and work of Rammohun Roy (1772/1774-1833), the pioneering figure of social reform in early colonial India and the founder of the Brahmo Movement. During the 60 years of Rammohun’s life, the social order of Bengal and the rest of India was altered dramatically as colonialism imposed itself upon urban centres and rural hinterlands.

Rammohun belonged to the second generation of the colonised Bengali Hindu gentry that were formed under Company rule and were deliberately confined to the world of land ownership and early civic professions. Historians of colonial Bengal have pointed out that this second generation of “babus” sought avenues within the colonial system for productive investment of their wealth. While they regarded the British bourgeoisie as the pinnacle of “development”, they found the gateway to embourgeoisment blocked by the colonisers.

Becoming increasingly critical of the East India Company’s rampant extortions and glaring misrule, they aligned themselves, unwittingly, with the shift in colonial policy to one-way free trade which replaced the Company’s monopoly hold over India’s trade, commerce and production.

Rammohun Roy was one of the early reformist figures representing intelligentsia-formation in the colonial world with a liberal-internationalist outlook. As a member of the bhadralok (gentry), he belonged to that segment of the proprietor classes which was branching out to the professional world of colonial law. With the fragmentation of landholdings under the workings of the Permanent Settlement Act (1793) in Bengal, legal disputes over landed private property mounted and free traders criticised Company governance. Law thereby became a crucial site of debate, socio-political action as well as livelihood. Existing research shows Rammohun’s life and activism were marked by these conditions; his endeavours revealed the paradoxes and contradictions wrought by colonialism.

The author traces Rammohun’s origins as a “self-conscious” reformer who became gradually entrenched in the colonial modernity of Calcutta. The author points out that during his life time Rammohun spent only 15 years in the city. Yet, they constituted the most significant phase of his life as a controversial writer, reformer and campaigner.

During the mid-1810s, when Rammohun came to reside in the colonial metropolis on a permanent basis, the upper-caste urban Hindu gentry, deriving its wealth from absentee landlordism and limited share-trading, were divided into socially orthodox and liberal-reformist positions. However, on material questions relating to government policies on land rent, education of boys and other issues, the factions often converged.

As the foremost advocate of liberal social reform in this milieu, Rammohun was active in the colonial public sphere; he associated with and frequented printing presses, voluntary associations, debating societies, modern schools, older centres of Brahminical and Islamic scholastic learning, libraries and orientalist institutions set up by the colonial state. Though Rammohun had a syncretic intellectual training during his early years, he disengaged from radical rationalist views incorporated from branches of Islamic thought and became almost exclusively preoccupied with Hindu and Christian traditions.

In this sense, he embodied the epistemological and social transition from what had remained of the pre-colonial era to a world of colonial subjecthood. His insistence on English learning for boys belonging to the gentry during his later years matched his attachment to the ascendant free-trading lobby of colonial capital and growing distance from the world of Perso-Arabic scholarship even if his social contact with Muslims continued.

The author draws our attention to the difficulties of excavating the early life of Rammohun Roy. He analyses the material offered by the early biographers, many of whom were Rammohun’s British contemporaries. Their English language works were based on first-hand information but made no use of Bengali sources available at the time and emphasised Rammohun’s religious thinking. Later biographical exercises by Brahmo intellectuals, Bengali reformers and literary critics, especially the efforts of Brajendranath Bandopadhyay (1891-1952), revealed more of his early life.

Rammohun came from an affluent Brahmin family, his great-grandfather, grandfather and father having worked for the Mughal and Nawabi administrations of pre-colonial Bengal. As a child born in a family of upper-caste administrators, Rammohun acquired the knowledge of Sanskrit, Persian and property management. Though his father and elder brother were imprisoned as defaulters for failing to pay land tax to the colonial government, Rammohun successfully engaged in leasing land and inherited substantial paternal property. He also dealt in the Company’s stocks and shares and made money from usury. During brief spells, Rammohun found employment in the East India Company’s legal and administrative apparatus, working under John Digby, who became his friend and was among the first to write his biographical sketch. By 1814, he was rich, and his income from different sources enabled him to acquire houses in Calcutta. Later, he was to become embroiled in several property-related legal and intra-familial disputes, including a bitter feud with his mother, who accused him of apostasy.

He began moving away from idol worship from 1803-04, his ideas finding resonance among Muslim and Christian contemporaries as well as a tiny segment of the Bengali Hindu gentry. Aiming to establish a reformed religion for Hindus that combined ethical practical actions with spiritual adoration of God as a divine monotheistic entity, he set up a public religious body, Atmiya Sabha (1815). It advocated congregational practice derived from Semitic religions and the Upanishads. This tendency would culminate in the formation of the Brahmo Sabha (1828). Spearheading of the reformist challenge to Sati pitted Rammohun against the Hindu conservatives. Burning the Hindu widow at the funeral pyre of her husband and its justification as a ritualistic practice on scriptural grounds were generally linked with retaining patriarchal control of property in many households of the upper-caste Bengali gentry.

The non-interventionist approach of the colonial state, which only observed and recorded the Sati murders, was changed by the campaign of Rammohun and his friends.

Rammohun’s views on gender, education, law, economy and polity were guided by a liberal-reformist logic of bourgeois modernity. While engaging in religious debates with Christian missionaries, he supported their efforts to spread Western learning. He advocated absorption of the Dayabhaga school of law, a characteristic of Hindu Bengal, into colonial law so that the difference between ancestral and acquired property could be retained. He opposed the racist content of the proposed Jury Act of 1826. While criticising the brutalities and excesses of the zamindars, he was an advocate of the zamindari system, the basis of the class to which he belonged.

He wanted removal of all restrictions on the entry of British free traders, mistakenly hoping they would assist wealthy Indians to become capitalist entrepreneurs through “honest labour and good management”. This was not to happen; free trade would destroy the livelihoods of millions and tie the Bengali Hindu gentry more firmly and precariously to the world of land ownership and mostly low-paid jobs.

Though Rammohun believed that India should be governed by the British Parliament, he opposed Company rule and acted as the legal representative of the Mughal emperor, pleading for increased pensions on his behalf. Rammohun thought the political control which England exercised over India was temporary and could equip high-ranking Indians as well as India as a country to belong in a modern world guided by liberal-bourgeois laws and unfettered commercial and industrial development.

He could not develop an understanding of or comprehend what the complex of colonialism and capitalism stood for. His political views were liberal-constitutionalist in their orientations. He opposed aristocratic despotism and popular government, supporting the Bolivarian liberal-republicanism in Central America and the liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe in France; he saw them as successful experiments which had defeated the forces of absolutism and mercantilism that threatened “liberty”, while effectively keeping the masses out of power.

The monograph draws on a wide range of primary sources, is a welcome addition to the existing biographical literature on Rammohun Roy, and helps dispel many myths surrounding him. The critical perspective may have been enhanced if the subtle and nuanced insights on Rammohun from Sumit Sarkar, Sourin Bhattacharya, Himani Bannerjee and other senior scholars had been incorporated.

Secondary works in Bengali on Rammohun, including rigorous studies by Prabhat Mukhopadhyay and Dilip Biswas, are not listed in the notes and appendix. Despite these aspects, the strength of the book lies in the concise, informative and lucid account of Rammohun’s life and times offered by the author. It will interest students of history and general readers.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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