Christian Conversion, Anglo Indian Law and Loss of Inheritance in Nineteenth Century Bengal

Date and Time

June 27, 2024

3:30 pm to 5:00 pm


Online via Zoom and CPR Conference Room

Dr Mou Banerjee

Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Moderator Dr Namita Wahi

Senior Fellow, CPR & Director, Land Rights Initiative

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The Land Rights Initiative invites you to a talk on:

Christian Conversion, Anglo Indian Law and Loss of Inheritance in Nineteenth Century Bengal

Thursday, 27th June 2024, 3:30 PM IST 

Dr Mou Banerjee,
Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr Namita Wahi, Senior Fellow, CPR & Director, Land Rights Initiative

This event will be held in a hybrid mode at the CPR Conference Room and online over Zoom. Please register below to attend either in-person or via Zoom.

About the talk:
Christian conversions intensified controversies regarding religious faith and personal identity in colonial India, on a social, communitarian and political level. Most Indian intellectuals considered the act of conversion to be an extreme form of religious dissent. But even more so, conversion was seen as an act of betrayal against which the natal community and social networks of the convert had to be vigorously defended. Widespread public panic about Christian conversions gave rise to particular forms of apologetic responses from Indians, which took the form of robust, loud and raucous defense and justification of the merits of one’s own religion in the print media and in discussions of legal rights pertaining to Indians as British subjects. Indians challenged judicial interventions championed by Christian missionaries, such as the Lex Loci Act of 1850, which had been specifically designed to safeguard rights to inheritance of ancestral and patrimonial assets by Christian converts. In order to protect traditional and customary Hindu inheritance processes, which had previously allowed Hindu paterfamilias to alienate properties away from sons who had either fallen from caste or chosen to convert, the Lex Loci was challenged both in the public sphere, in the court of public opinion, but also in the Anglo-Indian civil courts. The legal challenges to the Lex Loci Act were, in other words, designed both to safeguard the rights of Hindus and Muslims against Anglo-Indian judicial activism in favor of Christian converts, and also to punish recalcitrant converted children through expensive and long-drawn-out legal processes.

Focusing on the events surrounding the Great Tagore Will Case, of 1868-1872, in her talk, Dr. Banerjee will examine tensions in Bengal’s elite Hindu society around Christian conversions. This case concerned a legal dispute regarding disinheritance between two of the most influential members of colonial Bengali aristocracy, father and son, and involved properties valued at hundreds of thousands of sterling pounds. Prosonnocoomar, scion of the orthodox Hindu Pathuriaghata branch of the famous Tagore family of Bengal, and the first Indian member of the Viceregal Legislative Council, disinherited his only son and heir, Gyanendramohan Tagore (the first Indian barrister) because he had converted to Christianity in 1851 against his father’s wishes. Prosonnocoomar instead created an entail on his estates in his will and left his property to his nephew, Maharaja Jatindramohan Tagore, in 1868. This will was then immediately contested by his son, and the case moved from the civil court in the Calcutta High Court, to the Privy Council in London. It resulted in a tangled web of family lore that included tales of betrayal, generational curses and reincarnation. The decisions of the courts and the Privy Council in the Great Tagore Will Case ultimately defanged the controversial Lex Loci Act of 1850 and left Christian converts without legal protection and open to punishment through disherision. Using the microhistory of this intimate family dispute, Dr. Banerjee will illustrate how debates on the morality and legality of religious conversions helped to form new legal doctrines in the nineteenth century that in turn transformed filial relations, and hardened religious divides in India.

About the speaker:
Dr. Mou Banerjee is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her academic focus includes the interplay between religion and politics in India, with a particular interest in the evolution of private faith and political identity within the public sphere. Dr. Banerjee’s work critically examines the role of Protestant Christian conversion as a focal point for public debate, social reform, and anti-colonial resistance in colonial India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the catalyst for politicization of religious identities in South Asia. Dr. Banerjee earned her PhD from Harvard University in 2018. Her doctoral dissertation, Questions of Faith: Christianity, Conversion and the Ideological Origins of Political Theology in Colonial India, 1813-1907, received the prestigious Harold K. Gross Dissertation Prize, awarded to the PhD recipient whose dissertation shows the “greatest promise for a distinguished career in historical research.” Dr. Banerjee’s new book, The Disinherited: Christianity and Conversion in Colonial India, is forthcoming from the Harvard University Press in January 2025. Dr. Banerjee’s second monograph will be an intellectual biography of Rammohan Roy. Her scholarship has appeared in multiple academic journals as well as newspapers, such as the Journal of South Asian Studies; Political Theology; the Fletcher Security Review; as well as the Anandabazar Patrika and the Daily Star of Bangladesh.