Religion in the Making of a Colonial Public Sphere: South Asia, 1860–1940

AHA Session 257
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room 305 (Hynes Convention Center)
Anne Murphy, University of British Columbia
Rahul Nair, University of Denver

Session Abstract

This panel intends to demonstrate how the ‘sacred’ interrupts, intervenes, and intersects the modern public sphere in colonial South Asia. Conventional understanding of the public sphere assumes a clear distinction between public and private, characterized by the evolution of a secular, public domain of politics as distinct from the private domain where religious beliefs and practices rightfully belong. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned prevalent ideas about the neat separation of religion from the public sphere and has pointed to the often untidy entanglements between religion and politics in the modern world. However, this panel proposes, religion’s presence in the modern public sphere must not simply be viewed as a remainder of tradition into modernity; instead, religious traditions themselves undergo modern transformations in the process of continuing into the present. Primarily, these transformations involve the reorganization of amorphous religious groups into well-defined civil society-like organizations, the reconstruction of religious identities as markers of national identities, the primacy of religion as belief, and the practice of reformed religion. Thus, the sites through which religion emerges as a significant presence in the modern world consist of the religious institution, collective identity, and individual belief. Each of these sites is also a key element in the formation of the modern public sphere, making the claims equating modernity with the disappearance of religion somewhat suspect.

Each paper in this panel investigates one or more of the abovementioned sites where religion makes an appearance in the public domain. Teena Purohit’s paper examines the formation of Muslim identity as it is articulated by Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III—a member of the Muslim League who was equally influential—politically—in claiming separate electorates under colonial government for the Muslims, as he was—discursively—in constructing an ideal Muslim subject as progressive, secular, and non-sectarian. Anne Murphy’s paper investigates debates over the administration of religious sites in colonial Punjab, in the context of all-India debates about the same. Focusing on Sikh religious sites, her paper demonstrates how the State continued to define and enforce administrative boundaries for religious institutions, despite completely withdrawing from the responsibility of direct control. Varuni Bhatia’s paper examines the celebration of a religious festival in the heart of the imperial city of Calcutta to discuss the formation of an affective community that challenged the rational dimensions of the public sphere. M. Raisur Rahman’s paper on the social world of Muslims in the small towns of colonial north India explores the intersections—between religious and secular, public and private, and individual and collective—that mark quotidian life in these provincial spaces.

This panel proposes to dwell upon the notion of sacred in history and society through a truly interdisciplinary perspective. In addition to the discipline of History, the panel brings together historically-minded scholars from related fields of Religious Studies and Literary Studies in order to rigorously investigate, and meaningfully contribute to, the theme of the 2011 Annual Conference of the AHA.

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