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The Brink

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.

Shail Mayaram’s The Secret Life of Another Indian Nationalism: Transitions from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana is a welcome revelation. The Secret Life chronicles ‘the making of the modern ultra-nationalist Hindu self’ and concerns three transitory moments in Indian nationalism: the first involves vernacular orientalism that helped comprise the field of vernacular nationalism; the second produces a new analytic distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva; and the third is the growth of Hindu nationalism as a social movement and its decline in the Merwara cultural region. Mayaram argues that ultra-nationalism did not spontaneously emerge in the 1980s; rather, the publication of works such as Colonel James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han (1829-32) had a stimulating effect on vernacular nationalism. “In its aftermath,” she contends, “the fields of literature and history both became sites of national devotion.”[1] Mayaram writes that one of the concerns in the discussion of interreligious conflict in India concerns the origin of images of the Hindu Self and Muslim Other. During the colonial period a small elite, influenced by European and colonial writing, crafted popular history in the forms of historical novels, caste histories, and brave accounts of Indians who confronted foreign invaders.[2] Three figures that Colonel James Tod wrote about—Prithviraj, Padmini, and Pratap—captured the nationalist imaginary and became ‘Hindu’ figures confronting three ‘Muslim’ ones (twelfth-century Ghurid Sultan Muhammad Ghuri, fourteenth-century Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji, and sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar).[3]

As I read The Secret Life, I was admittedly embarrassed at how long I had failed to pause and consider the historical similarities linking Sudan and India, given my own research for Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan. As the British Empire “played a diabolical role resorting to partition in four troubled regions, Ireland, India, Palestine and Cyprus and fostered identity politics,”[4] the British can also be (and have been) blamed for bifurcating Sudan and artificially encouraging a non-Muslim and non-Arab culture in southern Sudan. One can frame the narratives of both Indian nationalism and southern Sudanese nationalism as freedom struggles against external colonizers (whether British or Northern Sudanese, respectively), both contexts have witnessed a diversity of nationalisms subject to different logics. There have been a variety of Indian nationalisms ranging from the anti-religious Dravidian nationalism to the theological (Christian) Naga nationalism.[5] In the Sudan, anti-government Sudanese nationalist movements included the socialist ‘New Sudan’ strand and theologically-infused liberationist political thought. If Gandhi’s assassination represented the confrontation of “two competing values of loyalty and truth to the nation,”[6] the First Sudanese Civil War similarly witnessed competing understandings among Protestants and Catholics of what dutiful Christian citizenship meant within the context of an Islamizing government. Should citizens render to Caesar (the Protestant line), or follow God by defying the state like Catholic priests-turned-soldiers Saturnino Lohure and Angelo Tutuo?[7] Finally, India’s postcolonial history has—like Sudan’s—been drawn along religious and regional fractures. India’s 1947 independence resulted in the Partition, i.e. the creation of the Muslim-majority Pakistan to India’s northwest and northeast borders. Relations between those two postcolonial states have been tense, with three wars waged between the two countries in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971.[8] After Sudan achieved independence in 1956, the country experienced two devastating civil wars largely drawn along the regional lines that the former British administration had established and enforced. The belligerents were largely divided by race (Arab and Black) and religion (Islam and Christianity/indigenous religions).

Given the historical dynamics shared by Sudan and India, there are several elements from Mayaram’s text that compel me to pause and reflect. How, for instance, can the politicized Muslim-Hindu binary in India be placed in conversation with the Christian-Muslim dichotomy in Sudan? By comparing the experiences of post-Partition Pakistani Hindus with post-independence South Sudanese Muslims, one could begin such inquiry with an approach that immediately challenges national identities that are seemingly inseparable from faith communities. How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work? Here candidates’ invocations of history, elementary and secondary school curriculums, and public discourse concerning monuments and memorials can provide particularly useful fodder (see recent American history, for example). And—perhaps most importantly for this forum—how can religious diversity be reconciled with healthy, pluralistic democracies? A question of this magnitude warrants an interdisciplinary approach that is comprehensive and nuance, integrating methodologies that are historical, sociological, and anthropological (not to mention tools from other disciplines). The source base needed to pursue this line of questioning would demand sources that are human and inanimate, historical and contemporary, secular and religious.

One element that runs across both my book and Mayaram’s is the diversity of sources used to craft each analysis. Mayaram, who used both British and Indian archives, as well as the cultural and oral archives to which she also had access, wrote that “both official archives and local non-institutional ‘archives’ house collections with a wherewithal of local histories and pamphlets, newsletters and magazines that tell us much about the shaping of vernacular nationalism and popular history.”[9] Similarly, in investigating the ways that thinkers in Sudan reconciled the Bible with their evolving political contexts, my research methodology included interviewing lay and ecclesiastical figures and visits to university, Church, and government archives on three continents. Both Indian Nationalism and Chosen Peoples show the benefits—nay, the necessity—of engaging a wide swath of primary sources to comprehensively chart the range of religious politics in formerly colonized spaces. Furthermore, such research methodology is needed if future studies in historical political theology will be untethered to the limitations of metropolitan archives. Diverse sources are needed in order to understand how people who are marginalized in institutional archives—namely women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and/or uneducated—have animated their political expressions with religious power, defined state sovereignty with an eye to spiritual subjectivity, and challenged the terms of the modern world order with epistemologies that transcend the bounds of the nation-state. Another element linking our Indian and Sudanese contexts under study concerns the implications of popular history. Correctly noting that “popular history has many uses,” Mayaram posits that in India two such uses include 1) that it creates belonging by constituting a unified Hindu political community divided by caste, language, religious and regional diversity by ascertaining a Muslim/Christian Other and 2) that it supports the notion of a glamorous, pre-conquest past.[10] And yet, if popular history has proven to have such constructive purposes, others have arguably had a deleterious effect. After referring to the problem of the colonization of the Indian mind, Mayaram asserts that “two ideas, in particular, played havoc in the subcontinent. The idea of History and of Religion, both in the upper case.”[11] Together, these two statements have forced me to reconsider the utility and harm of the political theology that I have investigated in southern Sudan.

[1] Shail Mayaram, The Secret Life of Another Indian Nationalism: Transitions from the Pax Britannica to the Pax Americana. Cambridge University Press, 2022; xiii (quotes from this page), 37.

[2] Mayaram, Secret Life, 32, 48.

[3] Mayaram, Secret Life, 45.

[4] Marayam, Secret Life, xiii.

[5] Marayam, Secret Life, xiv, 3.

[6] Mayaram, Secret Life, 86.

[7] For more on contrasting Catholic and Protestant approaches to the Sudanese state during the First Sudanese Civil War, see Roland Werner, William Anderson, and Andrew Wheeler, Day of Devastation Day of Contentment: The History of the Sudanese Church across 2000 Years. Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2000 (first reprint 2001): 370-372 and Christopher Tounsel, “Render to Caesar”: Missionary Thought and the Sudanese State, 1946-1964’ Social Sciences and Missions 31 (2018): 341-374.

[8] Alisdair Rogers, Noel Castree, and Rob Kitchin, ‘India,’ in A Dictionary of Human Geography. Oxford University Press, 2013; Christopher Candland, ‘India,’ in The Oxford Companion to International Relations. Oxford University Press, 2014.

[9] Mayaram, Secret Life, xix.

[10] Mayaram, Secret Life, 123.

[11] Mayaram, Secret Life, xiii.

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

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