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 a study of Chinese medical missions, John R. Stanley has argued that from the early years of the twentieth century, medical missionaries refused increasingly to act as jack-of-all-trades. Missionaries were, in future, to be the bearers of medical modernity to the 'underdeveloped'. The missionaries could project themselves as being in tune with the nation-building and developmental priorities of the new India. Although the missionary project in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been driven by a desire to save souls for Christ, it had been justified also for its 'civilising' effect. In 1946, the mission lost its only Bhil doctor when Daniel Christian established a private practice in Lusadiya. Margaret Johnson looked after the dispensary at Biladiya for a few months after that, before taking charge of the hospital at Lusadiya from Daniel Christian in June 1942.
In 1925 a British doctor, Frank Read, took charge at Lusadiya. Anyone who wanted to be admitted had to bring their own bed or sleep on the floor. Only after Dr Read had arrived was the mission able to make good this deficiency, as he had some funds that had been donated by supporters in Carlisle, and he used these to purchase iron beds. The Medical Missionary Association in London had given Read equipment for an operating theatre, which included surgical instruments, an operating table and a microscope. L. B. Butcher decided that Read should be transferred to another, larger medical mission where he could gain experience from the other doctors. In a letter to London of August 1932, Butcher wrote that although the mission would like a doctor from England to replace Read, the need was not urgent given the financial situation at that time.
Mission medicine was made possible by European colonialism, and it inevitably shared some of its characteristics. In the case of the mission to the Bhils, C. S. Thompson distanced himself from the British-officered Mewar Bhil Corps (MBC) in the 1880s so as not to be associated with its punitive raids on the Bhils. In contrast to official colonial medicine, mission medicine sought to situate itself very strongly within non-European social and institutional milieus as a form of day-to-day practice. Christians were required to make use of the services of mission medical workers and accept their allopathic remedies. The mental transformation that the missionaries demanded was therefore secular only to a degree, for it also involved a radical restructuring of belief about the supernatural in the process of healing.
Paul Johnson and Margaret Johnson, who took charge of the Bhil mission in 1942, came mentally prepared for the transfer of power from the British to an independent Indian government. They were the ones who steered the mission through the period of transition in the late 1940s. Margaret Johnson had trained to become a medical missionary because she had doubted the value of missionary work that focused only on conversion. There was a considerable opposition to the missionaries by nationalists, particularly in the pre-independence period. When Paul Johnson visited Modasa town during the Quit India protest of 1942, he found a strike in progress in this small British-ruled enclave. From 1957 onwards, the medical side of the mission published its own separate annual report, previously its affairs had been included in the general Bhil mission report.
In 1964, a special meeting of the World Council of Churches was convened at Tubingen in Germany to discuss the role of the medical mission in the postcolonial era. Lesslie Newbigin, a former bishop of the Church of South India, recalled how medical missionaries working in remote villages had once been at the forefront of the evangelical battle against 'the forces of evil'. In his contribution to the debate, Erling Kayser, a Norwegian who had served as a medical missionary in Indonesia, pointed out what he saw as an even deeper problem. Newbigin took it as a given that modern biomedicine was superior to indigenous systems that were associated with paganism. In many respects, biomedical treatment has vindicated the approach that had been favoured by Dr Daniel Christian, namely that of providing small-scale local biomedical facilities run by Bhils for Bhils as a community service.
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.
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.
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.