Raja Rammohan Roy’s image in the Indian public memory is fixed as the father of Indian modernity, the first liberal, and a social reformer. Steeped in the Vedanta, Islam, Unitarian Christian, and imperial liberal tradition, Rammohan fought against the Sati; founded the Brahmo Samaj; advocated for the free press; critiqued the executive overreach of the East India Company; and supported limited colonial settlements. Late historian C A Bayly argued that Rammohan Roy and other liberals of his generation were the early architects of an Indian public sphere. They promoted the concept of India as a unified entity and fashioned a space for civil society distinct from the traditional authority and state power. For Bayly, Rammohan Roy was the first Indian liberal.
A variety of intellectual trends informed Rammohan Roy’s social reformism and liberalism, both indigenous and transnational. Due to the print revolution and improvements in long-distance transport, the modern colonial empire in the 19th century was also the enabler of globalisation. The circulation of people, ideas, and books, however, did not merely follow the metropolis to the colony route but was more complex. Along with a transnational network in which ideas circulated, the print-led public sphere also emerged in colonial Bengal by the early 19th century. Rammohan Roy operated in this context of the transnational network of ideas and a print-based Indian public sphere.
In keeping with the recent turn towards connected, global or transnational histories, this piece would explore the transnational connections of Rammohan Roy and the way he impacted public debates outside of colonial India. Additionally, it would outline the distinct Indian contours of Roy’s liberalism.
The Unitarians were the British Protestant variety of rationalist and dissenting religious grouping. Their shifting and heterodox nature, along with Unitarian values, defies a simple definition. The denomination’s positive principles included freedom of conscience, rationalism, and spirit of tolerance. The negative elements in its defining principles included opposition to the divinity of Jesus, doctrines of atonement, and eternal punishment. Due to its pluralist and individualist nature, the Unitarians faced hostility and threats of persecution. This is what perhaps propelled them to civic activism and electoral politics.
The rational approach to religion informed the Unitarian humanitarianism, which was also reflected in their civic activism. Historian Lynn Zastoupil argues the Unitarians ‘took the lead in lead in founding libraries, literary, scientific, and philosophical societies, art institutions, statistical societies, and mechanics institutes and reading rooms.’ The civic capital generated by their activism soon translated into political capital. The Unitarians disproportionately came to influence British politics, particularly in the years after the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1835. In early 19th century British politics, there also was a Unitarian to Whig pipeline for the reasons explained below.
In terms of ideology, the largely bourgeoisie and heterodox Unitarians emerged as the champion of classical liberal values. The causes included individual liberty, press freedom, free trade, and civil rights for the religious minorities. Rammohan Roy’s embrace of Unitarianism was part of the transnational spread of the sect in Britain, colonial Bengal, and North America. As much as he criticised the distortion in Hinduism brought by the priestly class, Rammohan Roy also engaged in the debate against the Trinitarians, who believed in the holy trinity and divinity of Jesus. The debates against both the Hindu and Christian orthodoxy brought him renown in the West. Rammohan Roy’s emphasis on the scriptural authority, deployment of print capitalism, and his railings against the orthodoxy led many Western observers to compare him to Martin Luther.
Rammohan Roy’s English writings published in Calcutta were soon circulated in Britain, Germany, and North America. He himself sent his published works to North America. In North America, Roy’s writings were published and debated in the New York Review, Analectic Magazine, Christian Register, Boston Observer, North American Review. American Unitarians including Joseph Tuckerman, David Reed (editor of the Christian Register), Henry Ware, and William Channing corresponded directly with the Hindu reformer.
Apart from this direct interface between the colonial Bengal and North America, Rammohan Roy’s ideas reached the American audience in recycled form as well, courtesy the tendency of American editors to republish content from British journals. Roy also figured in private correspondences between the British feminist writer Lucy Aikin and the American Unitarian William Channing. According to historian Lynn Zastoupil, he became a celebrity on three continents for his heterodox views of Christianity.
In Britain, it was the Rammohan-Marshman debate that first led the Unitarians to rush to contact the former whom they saw as their own. Unitarians tended to stake claim over celebrity figures, with John Locke, John Milton, and Isaac Newton being the prominent examples. Now, the anti-Sati Hindu reformer provided them with similar opportunity by founding the Calcutta Unitarian Committee and resorting to Unitarian talking points in the debate with Marshman. Rammohan Roy’s interventions in the debate between Trinitarians and Unitarians mattered a great deal which explains his stardom.
For the faithful adherents, he served as the neutral umpire from the Orient who had an unbiased view based on his reading of scriptures. The fact that this unbiased umpire took the side with the Unitarians made him a celebrity in their circles. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw him as the one trophy for Unitarians compared to the thousand trophies of the ‘zealous Trinitarians’. Rammohan Roy’s Unitarian connections would also induct him into the political and reform debates on his visit to Britain. The Unitarian debate is a fascinating demonstration of the circulatory network of exchanges in the 19th century, which was not necessarily limited only to the downward filtration from the metropolis to the periphery. Much the same could be said of Roy’s constitutional liberalism, as shown by C A Bayly.
Transnational Constitutional Liberalism
Between 1820 and 1823, Rammohan Roy hosted several public celebrations in the Calcutta Town Hall for the success of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American liberal revolutions. C A Bayly situated colonial Calcutta’s affair with liberal constitutionalism in the context of post-Napoleonic War years which saw the return of reactionary governments around the globe. The liberals in exile and colonies were spread across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, railing against the old despotism. The reverberations of liberal revolutions and constitutionalism in Cadiz (1812) and Lisbon (1822) also reached the shores of colonial India, particularly in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. For instance, Rammohan Roy was a participant in the August 1822 celebration meeting in Calcutta for the second anniversary of the proclamation of constitutional government in Portugal. The meeting also made references to the ‘les liberales of France’ and the Greek nationalist Alexander Ypsilanti.
Rammohan Roy’s involvement with the global liberal constitutional movement was reciprocated as well. Around 1820, the Spanish liberals reissued the original Cadiz constitution of 1812 which they dedicated to Rammohan Roy. Apart from the mutual display of solidarity, there was another common strand in the Iberian liberal movement and Rammohan Roy’s constitutional liberalism. In both instances, liberals resorted to historicism to find prehistory of their liberal constitutional visions in the past. The Iberian liberals went back to classical figures like Cato and Brutus. Rammohan Roy’s historicism deriving from the itihasa tradition which gave agency to Indians would be discussed later.
During his stay in Britain, the liberal in Roy contributed to the Whig reformist agenda in a way that overturned the subordinated dynamic of the colonised. His visit to Britain coincided with the reform debates culminating in the Reform Act of 1832. In Manchester, writes historian Lynn Zastoupil, he ‘addressed a crowd of factory workers and called on them to support the Whig ministry and reform’. Earlier in June 1830 while en route to Britain, he would come to know of the July Revolution in France. Excited by the liberal moment of the ‘Three Glorious Days’, Roy visited two French frigates anchored in Cape Town which flew revolutionary flags. Later in Britain, C A Bayly mentioned the way Rammohan Roy ‘watched the passage of the Reform Bill with trepidation, stating in 1832 that if it failed in Parliament, he would sever all ties with Britain’.
After the success of the Reform Act in 1832, however, Rammohan Roy soon became disappointed with the Whig liberalism, particularly on the issue of the Irish Coercion Bill. He found a new beacon of liberty in the young republic across the Atlantic. Roy had plans to visit the United States which did not come to fruition though. He died in 1833 in Bristol. Nevertheless, Rammohan Roy’s image as a liberal reformer served as inspiration for the American abolitionists.
In an anonymous pamphlet delivered as the speech to the United States Congress against slavery, the author assumed the identity of Rammohan Roy and paid a moving tribute to the reformer Raja: ‘In closing this address, allow me to assume the name of one of the most enlightened and benevolent of the human race now living, though not a white man, Rammohun Roy.’ Historian Nico Slate argues that the pamphlet writer ‘used the examples of Indians to disprove arguments that legitimated slavery based on race.’ Roy’s connection with Iberian liberals, French revolutionaries, British Whigs, and American abolitionists was indicative of a transnational liberal public sphere that had space for a Bengali Brahmin hailing from colonised Bengal. Roy was an active participant in this global sphere in his later years.
Rammohan Roy as Indian Liberal and Patriot
In 2019, the long-deceased Roy was at the centre of a Twitter controversy erupted by India’s right-wing ideologues. A section of the assertive Indian right-wing which has come to dominate Twitter saw Roy as the stooge of the Britishers for his opposition to Sati. Late historian C A Bayly would have disagreed though. For Bayly, Roy was a ‘colonial patriot‘ who saw India as a geographically and culturally united entity. As belonging to the first generation of Indian public men, he sought to create an Indian civil society large enough to be able to share power with the Raj. Also, Roy fashioned a uniquely Indian version of liberalism by borrowing from a variety of intellectual traditions and resorting to historicism which gave Indians the agency.
His vision of partnership with the empire reflected in the advocacy of limited colonisation was more a project of fashioning the rights-bearing liberal citizen. It is an altogether different issue that the partnership vision of men like Rammohan Roy and Dwarakanath Tagore did not come to fruition. For Partha Chatterjee, the failure was caused because ‘their liberal European collaborators in the world of the colonial agricultural and financial enterprise were unwilling to accept racial equality—not even in the world of capital, let alone that of citizenship.’
In response to the race-laden theories which asserted European superiority, Roy fashioned an Indian version of liberalism. Historicism played a crucial role here. For example, he resorted to constructing a lineage of constitutionalism rooted in Indian mythology. In his version, Parasurama’s decimation of Kshatriya warriors led to a Montesquieuian division of powers between Brahmins (legislative authority) and the rulers (executive authority). Later, Brahmins’ collusion with rulers led to despotism.
The implication of Roy’s historicism was clear: Hindus sinking into despotism was not an inevitable phenomenon but was based on contingent factors. Thus, contra James Mill, Indians were capable of self-governance. Similarly, in the debate over Jury reforms, both Roy and the Madras liberal Ram Raz evoked the ancient institution of Panchayats to argue for the Indian representation in the juries.
Rammohan Roy’s battle against Sati saw him deploying the rhetoric of a reformer steeped in his religion. In this, he claimed the pedigree of the ninth century scholar Sankara. Historian Jon Wilson has argued that Roy’s ‘attack on Sati employed three tactics, none of which championed legislative action by the colonial state.’ In his discussion with the Governor-General Lord William Bentinck in 1928, Roy advised against colonial legislation to ban Sati and instead relied on civil society activism to fight the tradition.
One of Roy’s arguments against Sati deployed the logic of incentives shaping human actions, so characteristic of the liberal economics canon. Wilson further argues that Rammohan’s conception of the emergence of law in society was very much akin to the Hayekian characterisation of law as opposed to the legislation. According to Wilson, Roy and later Indian liberals, including Tagore fashioned their vision of the Indian civil society (samaj) to criticise the encroachments of the colonial state in the name of reform. However, specific to the Sati issue, the characterisation of Roy’s opposition to legislation and advocacy of civic measures as Indian liberal opposition to the intrusive colonial state would have to contend with Roy’s later defence of Bentick and anti-Sati law in Britain. Wilson doesn’t address the issue in his writings.
I’ve so far attempted to provide a descriptive account of Roy’s engagement in the global liberal movement. How do we though theorise the variety of connections which characterised Rammohan’s public career across three continents? One obvious way would be to resort to the connected or transnational histories which are in fashion these days. Much of the arguments here derive from this genre only. However, I would argue some basic insights from network theory might also come handy in this enterprise.
The nodes (a specific actor/location within a network) in the Rammohan saga would include Roy and Christian debaters in colonial Bengal, Unitarians and Whigs in Britain, and the North American Unitarians. The ties (the channel between nodes) might consist of the journal articles, private letters, reproduced articles, published books as well as the ship voyages. The degree of nodes (number of ties connecting a node to others), and here I am arguing tentatively, would be denser in Calcutta, London, or Boston compared to say Paris or Bristol. A fuller construction of the topography of this network, however, remains outside the purview of this article. The network theory approach differs from the connected or transnational history in the sense that it seeks to capture the quantitative dimension of the phenomenon.
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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.