Calcutta Missionary Conference, The

Calcutta Missionary Conference, The was the premier interdenominational body of Protestant missionaries. Believing that such an association was a necessity for influencing Indian and British public opinion and also government policy the Missionaries established it in 1831.

The Calcutta Missionary Conference (CMC) was a forum of the British Protestant Missionary Societies and was dominated by three of them - the Church, the Baptist and the London Missionary Societies. Monthly meetings were held to exchange ideas and experiences, to promote mutual good will and encourage one another in their evangelical efforts.

Following its example missionary conferences were set up in Bombay (1845), Madras (1848), Bangalore (1858) and Lucknow (1887). The CMC, however, remained the most active and best attended among all of them. In 1831 it published the Calcutta Christian Observer, a monthly journal, as its organ. The primary concern of the journal (1834-67) was 'the advocacy of science, literature and Evangelical Christianity'.

The CMC was the first to overcome the gender and race bias. Women engaged in missionary work were enrolled as full members 'with the same status and rights as men'. Some gender issues like the status and condition of Indian women were discussed in the conference. Indian missionaries, pastors and laymen, regularly participated in the conference.

The major significance of the CMC lay in its role as the champion of the Bengal peasants. Contact with the villages made the missionaries active in the mofussil aware of the anomalies of the Colonial land revenue, police and judicial systems. It blamed government policies for the growing misery of peasants and insisted on government initiative for the 'moral and material benefit of dumb millions'.

The First General Conference of Protestant Missionaries in Bengal (4-7 September 1855) was a landmark in the CMC's work. Attended by 47 missionaries from various Societies it ultimately grew into the great World Missionary Conference (Edinburgh, 1910) and was the first step towards the formation of the later global missionary unity.

The General Conference (1855) tried to create public opinion in favour of reforms in the existing agrarian society. Several papers were read in the Conference on the defects of the zamindari and indigo systems. From then on the CMC started a systematic campaign to remove these defects. It also urged the government to remove the corruption in the police and 'irregularity' in the judicial administration.

The CMC considered the bengal tenancy act (1885) a result of its thirty years' agitation in favour of Bengal raiyats, assuming that the Act would give the raiyats 'the three F's - fixity of tenure, fair rent and fair sale; and give them 'the rights and privileges of free men which they have never... had before'.

Extension of mission stations in rural areas made the CMC aware of the adverse effects of the zamindari system on the Christian raiyats. Zamindari oppression greatly increased with the conversion of a large number of Kartabhajas [Karta (God) bhajas (worshippers), a Hindu sect, composed mainly of the 'lower' castes, practising the ideal of the worship of one true God] in Krishnagar, Jessore and Barisal in the 1840s. According to the CMC the zamindars oppressed the converts and also frustrated missionary attempts to build up a self-reliant Christian Community. It, however, avoided any confrontation with the zamindars and sought the cooperation of the land-holders society (1838) and bengal british indian society (1843) for bringing social justice to the raiyats. From 1852 onwards it presented several petitions to the British Parliament and governments of India and Bengal stating the anomalies of the existing land revenue, police and judicial systems and suggesting remedies. It made the peasant question an urgent public issue between 1855 and 1885. These petitions appealed for (i) removal of imperfections of the permanent settlement, (ii) complete survey of zamindari estates to check benami (fictitious) transactions and (iii) reform in the police and judicial systems for, 'protection of the oppressed and justice for all'. The petitioners argued in favour of European 'Settlement' in India believing that it would encourage investment of European capital in agriculture and this would stimulate agriculture and benefit cultivators.

The 'Indigo Crisis', however, made the CMC skeptical about the 'boon' of European Settlement. Its support to the Indigo Peasants revolt (1859-60), the imprisonment of James Long in connection with the Nil Darpan Case (1860) and its staunch support for Long's stand indicated such a change in its thought process. It encouraged the indigo growers to give their evidence against the indigo planters fearlessly before the indigo commission (1860).

The CMC put increasing emphasis on mass education, out of a conviction that those administrative reforms alone would not suffice. Realising that education in a foreign language would touch only a fringe of society, the CMC stressed on mass literacy through the mother tongue. This remained a recurrent theme in missionary thinking. At the General Conference of Foreign Missions (Mildmay, London, 1878), M Mitchell, the former secretary of the CMC, endorsed this view.

This conviction led the CMC to participate actively in the mass education programme sponsored by the Bengal Committee of the Christian Vernacular Education Society (London, 1858). The CMC encouraged the Bengal missionaries to superintend large number of village pathshalas (primary schools) through the Circle System introduced by the Society.

The CMC succeeded in bringing together different missionaries and eliminating inter-church strife. Concentrating mainly on bringing social justice to Bengal peasants it followed a programme that had little connection with the normal missionary task of evangelisation. The CMC was the first ever organisation in India to voice the grievances of the raiyats. Its success was partial, but far more important was its spirit of commitment to popular causes, which could be considered as one of the earliest instances of grass-roots level involvement in the colonial milieu. [Tripti Chaudhuri]

Bibliography GA Oddie, Social Protest in India, British Protestant Missionaries and Social Reform 1850-1900, New Delhi, 1979; Tripti Chaudhuri, 'The Calcutta Missionary Conference: A Voice of protest in the late 19th Century Bengal', Proceedings of the Fifty-Sixth Session of Indian Historical Records Commission, New Delhi, 1998.