In November 1880 the Reverend Charles Thompson arrived at Kherwara, Rajasthan, India, to establish the first Anglican mission to the Bhils, a primitive tribe, by going amongst them as a healer. This book sets out the history of the interaction between the missionaries and the Bhils, a history of missionary medicine, and how certain Bhils forged their own relationship with modernity. During the 1870s, the Church Missionary Society declared its intention to open more missions 'among the non-Aryan hill-people', and the Bishop of Lahore wanted more missions to work amongst the 'aboriginal' Bhils. A great famine that began in 1899 brought radical changes in the mission to the Bhils. After the famine, many of the Bhagats, a local sect, became convinced that the sinless deity was the God of Christians, and they decided to convert en masse to Christianity. The missionaries working amongst the Bhils believed that Satan was in their midst, who was constantly enticing their hard-won converts to relinquish their new faith and revert to their 'heathen' ways. It was argued that 'heathen' beliefs and culture could be attacked only if female missionaries were required to work with native women. Mission work had always been hampered by a lack of funds, and at one time, the hospital at Lusadiya had to dissuade many would-be inpatients from coming for treatment due to lack of beds. The book also deals with the work of the mission in the post-colonial India, which laid more stress to healing than evangelism.
In November 1880 the Reverend Charles Thompson arrived at Kherwara, a small town in the hilly tracts of Mewar State in Rajasthan. He had come there to establish the first Anglican mission to the Bhils, a 'primitive tribe' that inhabited this region of India. There is a certain teleology that suggests that the modernity of the Christian missionary was a retrogressive and relatively transient form of this historical process, for modernity was associated above all with the 'transition from a religious to a secular culture'. From Max Weber onwards, sociologists have declared that secularism is the inevitable outcome of the process set in motion by the Enlightenment and its accompanying revolutions. The 'rule of colonial difference' was imposed in its most blatant form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coinciding with both the consolidation of Social Darwinist theory and missionary activity.
Bhils have disciplined themselves to become good Christians, but it was Christianity on their own terms. This chapter examines their society, their history and their healing practices. C. S. Thompson had come to work amongst the Bhils in 1880 in accordance with a new strategy that the Church Missionary Society (CMS) was adopting at that time in India. The chapter also examines how the Bhils were made to fit into an evolutionary schema. In his report, Thomas Hendley claimed that in general 'The Bhils are a healthy race.' In making this claim, he appears to have been guided more by certain notions current at that time about the 'healthy primitive' than by any reality on the ground. Hendley observed that the Bhils believed that some people, mainly women, had the ability to cause sickness, misfortune or death.
During the 1870s, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) declared its intention to open more missions 'among the non-Aryan hill-people', who it was feared were coming under Hindu influence. The Bishop of Lahore felt that more missions were needed to work amongst the 'aboriginal' Bhils. A new mission to the Gonds of central India had been opened and efforts had been made from time to time to reach the Bhils, particularly in Khandesh, where the society had a base at Malegaon. In the Bhil areas, the thakors established themselves as the patrons of particular Bhil pals, providing support for them when they raided pals that were under the protection of a different thakor. The leader of the Bhil Bhagats, Surmaldas, lived in the village of Lusadiya. This lay within the small estate of the Thakor of Karchha, a Rajput who was a tributary of Idar State.
A great famine that began in 1899 brought radical changes in the mission to the Bhils. C. S. Thompson returned in November 1899 from a stay in Britain to find the Bhil region in the grip of a severe famine. A small number of Bhils migrated to urban centres, where rich merchants were at that time paying for food to be cooked and distributed to the starving in the streets. The missionaries themselves suffered badly during the monsoon period; many had to abandon their relief activities because of sickness. By October the acute stage of famine had passed, and hardly any adults were coming for food to the mission centres. Writing in November 1900, Charles Gill set out his plans to establish the Bhil mission on a much firmer footing. In the initial years, Thompson had carried out almost all of the evangelistic and itinerating work.
In her history of the Bhil mission, Battling and Building amongst the Bhils, Rose Carter recounted an inspiring narrative of conversion. After the famine, she writes, many of the Bhagats became convinced that the sinless deity was the God of Christians, and they decided to convert en masse to Christianity. Like most other Bhils, the Bhagats went hungry in 1899-1900, and a number abandoned their vows and survived, as did others, by robbery, looting and killing cattle and other animals for food. The Bhagats held a meeting soon after, and reached a consensus that the missionaries were most probably those that Surmaldas had prophesied would come to save them after the famine. The opposition to the work of Christian missionaries by caste Hindus was becoming more focused and strident during the first decade of the twentieth century.
W. B. Collins noted that a major reason for the missionaries' popularity amongst the Bhils was that they were providing medical care. Medical work has broken down many barriers, softened thousands of hearts, and drawn the people to the Mission. The crisis during the famine period was caused by starvation made lethal through disease. Food provided the best medicine against this deadly combination, and this the missionaries did their best to provide. Jane Birkett wrote to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) authorities stating that the mission needed a proper hospital. Although there was a cantonment hospital at Kherwara, this was not adequate for their needs, for it was forty-eight kilometres away from Lusadiya and about thirty-five from Biladiya, Bavaliya and Ghoradar. The Thakor of Karchha had been eager to provide land for the new hospital at Lusadiya on condition that he and his family receive free treatment.
Rhodri Hayward has noted how the imperial encounter during the nineteenth century produced a popular stereotype of the 'possessed and demon-haunted natives'. During the eighteenth century, under the influence of Spinoza, Anglican theologians generally held that as God had created nature in its entirety, it made no sense for Him to have created demons also. The Christian deployment of supernatural power was not confined only to the sphere of healing. For the missionaries, the continuing hold of 'the powers of darkness' over the imagination of their flock posed perhaps the greatest obstacle to their evangelical and medical work. Indeed, Arthur Birkett stated in December 1915 that his difficulty in this respect was weighing on him more and more, even to the extent of keeping him awake at night. Birkett had died burdened by doubt as to his abilities to overcome the demons that haunted the minds of the Bhils.
Female missionaries, supported by male Indian assistants, sustained much of the clinical work of the Bhil mission. Although Bhil women did not practise purdah or live in zenanas, the missionaries could see that they had a low social status and were frequently oppressed by their menfolk. The missionaries also tried to impress on Bhil men the need to treat the women of their families with greater consideration. In his report of 1875, Thomas Hendley had noted that as a rule female friends aided mothers in labour. They kept them in a warm hut, 'and even in cases of haemorrhage, apply warm cloths, and administer hot-spiced drinks'. Several feminist scholars have asked more profound questions about the rhetoric of a 'sisterhood of women' in a colonial context. Catherine Hall points out that although white women commonly lamented the suffering of their imagined 'sisters', the black slave women were colonisers.
The 'little empires' were particularly pronounced in the more remote regions of the world where the colonial presence was not otherwise obvious on a day-to-day basis. The 'little empires' that the missionaries presided over began to appear more and more anomalous as the Indian nationalist movement gathered momentum in the years after the First World War. Christian missionaries were seen as an arm of British rule, and they were able to garner support on that basis. Mahatma Gandhi had considerable sympathy for Christianity as a religion, but opposed the missionary agenda of converting people to Christianity. The main reason for the failure of the church to expand was that few Bhils were prepared to stand up to strong community pressure against conversion. The white missionaries continued to believe that amongst a tribal people the church could function only with European leadership.