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Mainstream, VOL LV No 35 August 19, 2017

Christian Contribution to the Freedom Struggle

Sunday 20 August 2017, by Ambrose Pinto


As we celebrate 70 years of India’s indepen-dence the Christian community has reasons to legitimately feel proud of its contribution to the nation. Both prior and after independence 2.3 per cent of India’s population of Christians have in a significant and unique way contributed to its development. In fact the contribution may be far beyond its numbers both in quality and quantity. In every field of India’s development especially in the realm of the development of the poor the Church has been and is playing a pivotal role. Certain groups in India may malign the community and yet for an objective thinker the facts speak and the reality cannot be hidden.

Community is Insecure

In spite of its major contribution in the fields of education, health and social sector 70 years after independence the community finds itself in insecurity due to the politics of hate and vicious propaganda. And what is unfortunate is that those who attack the community have hardly been in the forefront of India’s freedom struggle and have been absent in the developmental struggles of the tribals and the Dalits. What is evident is that there is a hidden agenda in framing the community. Unlike the Sangh, which was never a part of the freedom struggle, the Christian community was active in aligning with forces that fought for the freedom of the country. Yet for the Sangh Parivar Christianity is a foreign religion and the religion poses a threat to the unity and integrity of the nation. What is not highlighted is it is the Sangh Privar that poses a major threat for India’s unity and integrity with its doctrine of caste, racism, hate and violence.

In Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar excoriates those Indians who are not Hindus, while claiming that the “hostile elements within the country pose a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside”.1 Golwalkar’s main targets were Muslims, Christians, and Communists. A long chapter in Golwalkar’s book challenges the patriotism of all these three groups, and talks of their “future aggressive designs” on the country. What are the future designs? Large number of Hindus, the Sangh propagates, will be converted through aggressive proselytisation and the religion will pose a threat to Hindus. The fact is the story of Christianity in India is a story of dismal failure as far as increase in numbers. The community has witnessed a decline since independence. But for the Sangh Parivar the Bunch of Thoughts is their gospel and it this gospel that the Sangh is preaching and implementing in a democratic India with false propaganda against the community. On the other hand, it is the Sangh Parivar that has aggressively spread Hindutva consciousness among indigenous communities in the country and made the Dalits, who were outside the caste system, and tribals, who were never associated with Hinduism, Hindus.

Christianity is Not Western

That Christianity is a Western religion is another accusation without basis. The birth place of Jesus was not in Europe but in the Middle East. Against the accusation that Christians aligned with the British in converting India into Christianity one can argue that the early missionaries and the colonisers had no relationships. British rulers were not Christians though their faith may have been. Their mission was not to convert but to create colonies across the world. They came with an economic mission and not a religious one. Neither the Church of South India nor the Indian Christians received any favour from the British.

In fact in the West, including the UK, the Church and the state were declared separate and right from the start the colonisers refused to promote religion. They were even worried that their economic mission would fail if they have to align with the missionary project. If the prime mission of the British and other colonisers was conversion, the country should have had many more Christians than a mere 2.3 per cent. It is simply surprising how gullible ordinary citizens can be to believe in such wide and wild propaganda.

Christianity in India was and is nationalistic

The Church of course was as nationalist as any other progressive groups and had aligned with all progressive elements. They were surely not a part of the colonial conspiracy. In fact, right from the beginning Christianity did not take the believers out of their national moorings but the religion provided the followers an altruistic philosophy to work for the poor and the deprived. It is in this mission of working for the poor that several Christians stood against the colonial philosophy of loot and plunder of the country’s resources.

Even the European clergy did not vibrate with the exploitative mission of the colonisers. The very first one to oppose the British rule was a fully British Christian Priest, Charles Freer Andrews (February 12, 1871-April 5, 1940), a priest of the Church of England, a missionary, an educator and social reformer who became a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and was identified with the cause of India’s independence. It was said that it was he who was responsible in convincing Gandhi to return to India from South Africa, where Gandhi was leading civil rights struggle. The Priest by 1906 had become involved in the activities of the Indian National Congress and he helped to resolve the 1913 cotton workers’ strike in Madras.2

There were Christian missionaries who had given full support to the nationalist cause to the embarrassment and indignation of the British colonial government. Among these missionaries the more well known names are: Stanley Jones, J. C. Winslow, Varrier Elwin, Ralph Richard Keithahn and Ernest Forrester-Paton. Some missionaries were even deported from India for their support to the freedom struggle.

Barrister George Joseph and Titus in the Freedom Struggle

Besides the clergy there were numerous Christians across the county who were involved in the freedom struggle. At the Madras meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1887, out of 607 delegates, 35 were Christians. The Indian Christian community was also represented at the next four sessions of the Congress. The proportion of the Indian Christian delegates to the Congress session was much higher than their proportion in the population. Some of the prominent Christian leaders in the Congress in this period were R.S.N. Subramanian, a prominent barrister from Madras, Kali Charan Banerji from Bengal, G. G. Nath a barrister from Lahore, Peter Paul Pillai of Madras and Madusudan Das, a lawyer from Orissa.3 Barrister George Joseph from Kerala was an active participant in Home Rule movement and closely associated with Annie Besant. Jawaharlal Nehru makes a reference to him in his Autobiography. Accamma Cherian was a freedom fighter from the erstwhile Travancore (Kerala), India. She was popularly known as the Jhansi Rani of Travancore,4 Titusji, another Gandhian, participated in Salt Satyagraha and followed Gandhiji on his March to Dhandi.

The recently demonetised 500 rupee note had an image of the historic Dandi Salt March by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930 that triggered the wider Civil Disobedience Movement leading to India’s freedom from the British. The sculpture shows ten Indian people following Gandhi on his path-breaking civil disobedience protest. Among the marchers that would change India’s destiny was Shri Thevarthundiyil Titus. Titus hadjoined Mahatma Gandhi in Sabarmati Ashram and after his marriage his wife Annamma too joined the Sabarmati Ashram and had donated her gold wedding ornaments to the ashram.

When Mahatma Gandhi decided to break the salt law, Titus was one of the 78 people he chose to accompany him. At the civil disobedience movement Titus burnt the British clothes (foreign clothes) in Kottayam and gave a fiery speech to thousands of Keralites. Gandhiji had visited his house. In the freedom and pro-democracy movement in Travancore in the 1930s and 1940s, prominent Christian leaders like T.M. Varghese, A.J. John, Anne Mascarenes and Akkamma Cherian were pioneering forces. Philoppose Elanjikkal John (1903-1955) was another prominent member of the Travencore State Congress.5

Kumarappa, Paul Ramasamy, Venkal and Tubbs

Some of the other outstanding Christians of Indian origin who took part in the freedom struggle were Dr. J. C. Kumarappa who was a veteran Congress leader. He was one of the close associates of Gandhi, strong supporter of Satya-graha, and encouraged Christian participation in the national movement. A regular writer for Young India he landed up as its editor. His fiery writings earned him one-and-a-half years of rigorous imprisonment in 1931. During the ‘Quit India’ Movement, he had a hand in the underground activities in Bombay along with his Congress colleagues. These secret sabotage activities led to his arrest. He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years of rigorous imprisonment for three charges and sent to Jabalpur Central Jail until 1945.

Paul Ramasamy, born in 1906, was another important Christian who took part in the freedom struggle. In 1930 he joined the freedom movement during the Salt Satyagraha days. He picketed the Bishop Heber College, Thiruchirappalli. He was arrested and sentenced to six months of imprisonment and was kept at Thiruchirapalli and Alipuram jails.

Venkal Chakkarai (1880) participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement. Arthur Jaya-kumar says that when the Non-Co-operation Movement was started in 1920, there were Indian Christians in the whole of India who took part in it. The All India Conference of Indian Christians held at Lucknow in 1922 had made a reference to some of the Indian Christians who had suffered imprisonment as a result of their involvement in the national movement.

N.H. Tubbs, the Principal of the Bishop College, Calcutta, had written a confidential letter to his Mission dated February 23, 1921 stating that “a very significant feature of the last months have been the deep interest of Christian students in the national non-co-operation movement”. In 1930 the editor of The Guardian said that a number of Christian young men have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Nirad Biswas and Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya

Nirad Biswas, who later became the Bishop of Assam of the Church of India, Burma and Ceylon (CIBC), joined the national movement in making salt outside Calcutta in 1932. Brahmabandhab Upadhyaya (1861-1907), a Catholic Sadhu and theologian, played a leading role in the Swadeshi Movement. He edited Sandhya, a national journal founded in 1904, and it had a decisive influence on the masses because it was the only vernacular paper in Bengali which boldly advocated complete Indian Nationalism.6

Karnataka Catholics in the Freedom Struggle7

Joachim Alva (1907-1979) was another out-standing personality in the history of the freedom struggle. Influenced by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, he was the pioneer of the youth movement in India. He gave whole-hearted devotion to the national movement and gave up his lucrative job in order to dedicate himself for the freedom struggle. He was also a journalist of high calibre who vigorously advocated the concept of Swadeshi and human brotherhood, especially through his Forum. Mrs Violet Alva (1908-1969) was another personality with abiding nationalist interest. About the involvement of the Alvas in the freedom movement it has been said: “They risked their all, but they served [the country] to the full extent of their ability which they had in plenty.”

Jerome Saldanha, who represented the South Kanara District in the Madras Legislative Council, became a sincere admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhiji visited Mangalore in 1927, Jerome, as the President of South Canara District Congress Committee, presided at the public meeting addressed by the Mahatma. Jerome supported the freedom movement through articulation in writings, especially in Mangalore Magazine. Another supporter of the freedom movement was Maurice Sreshta, a government servant under British Raj, who retired as Post Master General, Ceylon. Following retirement, he was elected to the Madras Legislative Council. As Dr Michael Lobo notes, “Throughout his career, he wished to be identified as Indian and he adopted the surname Sreshta (from a Sanskrit word meaning great)—a daring move for a British civil servant at a time when the other civil servants were, if anything, attempting to anglicize their names.”

Yet another Canara Catholic supporter of the freedom movement was Felix Albuquerque Pai, magnate of the Albuquerque tile factory in Mangalore. Inspired by Gandhiji, he had manufactured salt in defiance of British law (1930). When Jawaharlal Nehru came to Mangalore in 1933, he first landed at the Albuquerque residence at Bolar and was then taken in a procession to Falnir where a public meeting was held, the reception being financed by Felix Pai. The 1930s saw the entry of three Canara couples into the freedom movement—Thomas and Helen Alvares, Cyprian and Alice Alvares and Joachim and Violet Alva. Thomas and Helen Alvares were converted to the cause of freedom by the Mahatma himself, whom they once entertained to tea. So impressed were they by the Mahatma that they decided to give their children Indian first names. Helen herself adopted the name of Alva Devi. She was a great votary of Satyagraha and articulated it through public speeches. Among the other couple Cyprian and Alice, Cyprian was arrested in 1930 during the Wadala Salt Satyagraha and was one of the few freedom fighters. His wife, Alice, joined Quit India Movement with her husband and went underground. But both were arrested in November 1942 and put in separate lock-ups in Bombay.

John Francis Pinto, a Bombay-based Mangalorean Catholic, who was preoccupied in politics, became an admirer of Gandhiji soon after the latter took the lead in the freedom struggle in the early 1920s. Because of his admiration for Gandhi, his donning the Gandhi-cap and his active participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement in the 1930s, he acquired the nickname of “Gandhi Pinto”.

Even M.V. Kamath, an RSS ideologue with little sympathy for Christians, has acknowledged in his autobiography that several Christians took part in the freedom movement and mentions the names of Cyprian Alvares, Joachim Alva, Marcel A.M. D’Souza as Christian freedom fighters. He says: “It is necessary to state that many Roman Catholics I personally know of were very much in the freedom movement and national mainstream.”

Christians in the Indian National Congress

The influence of Christians was impressive in the various sessions of the Indian National Congress right from 1885. Rev. Kalicharan Banerji along with G.C. Nath from Lahore, and Peter Paul Pillai from Madras (present-day Chennai), represented the Indian Christians at the four sessions of the Congress between 1888 and 1891, and became a prominent leader in the Congress in the early years of its formation. In 1889 he vehemently protested the idea of Indian Teachers being prohibited from participating in national movements.

In the third annual session of the Congress in 1887, out of 607 participants in the session, 15 were Christians, and among those who addressed the assembly was Madhu Sudhan Das (1848-1934, popularly known as ‘Utkal Gourab’), a well-known leader from the Christian community of Odisha. The number and influence of Indian Christians continued to be impressive in the subsequent sessions of the Congress.

In the Congress session of 1889, among the ten women delegates, three were Christians: Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858-1922), Mrs Triumbuck and Mrs Nikambe.

Christians in Swaraj Movement

In 1930, a major meeting of Indian Christians was held in Bombay where they passed many resolutions; the first resolution they passed was—the desire to win for India complete swaraj. In 1931, on the eve of Mahatma Gandhi’s departure for the Round Table Conference, they submitted a memorandum- their definition of Swaraj- ”We wholeheartedly support the National demand that real political power and responsibility must be transferred without delay and without reservation from the people of England to the people of India. We stand for full freedom, for the unrestrictive authority to direct, in whichever way, we desire the management of our economic and political affairs. We would, however, welcome Indo-British cooperation based on terms of perfect equality, without the surrender of our sovereign rights.”8

At the meeting of the National Council of Churches in India in 1944, the Council adopted a statement on ‘Church and State in Post-War India’ which says: “To the Christian conscience, the present relation between the government and governed in India is by Christian standards fundamentally unsatisfactory, and it is clear that the time has come .when these relations should radically be altered. Imperialism is condemned by Christian conscience, and it is agreed that in India it should be brought immediately to an end.”9

There are records of active Christian partici-pation in the Swaraj Movement (1905), the Non Co-operation Movement (1920), the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930) and the ‘Quit India’ Movement (1942). Since the 1920s, many Christian institutions and organisations that had passed resolutions expressing complete solidarity with the freedom movement. Some of them even took part in massive manifestations against the British colonial government.10 Several students of the institutions of higher education established by the Churches were active in the Swaraj movement and these institutions supported their students.

Christianity and Reform

From the outset, missionaries were shocked at the social evils that persisted in India, including the practice of sati, untouchability, the killing of lepers, and the sacrifice of children. William Carey was active since his arrival in 1793 over issues of infanticide, sati and untouchability. While on the one hand Carey used his connections with those in authority and power to campaign for the outlawing of such practices, on the other hand he employed his publications to educate public opinion on matters of humanitarian concern. By 1814 Ram Mohan Roy joined Carey in the campaign against sati. Armed with accounts of 438 widow burnings, Carey and his Serampre colleagues implored the government to forbid the rite by law. Though at first very little progress was made, due to strong opposition from high caste Hindu leaders, eventually public opinion turned against the orthodox Hindus. In 1829 Lord William Bentinck finally signed an order prohibiting sati in the occupancies of the East India Company.

The Church set up institutions for the mentally challenged and the disabled. Catholic and Protestant Christians have established numerous homes throughout India for the abandoned, the abused, and the exploited. The community fought against the practice of child marriage, whereby alliances are made among Hindus between children as young as five years of age. The solution of the Church was to promote female education. After the ban on Child marriage in 1929, the church then made a concerted effort to promote the approval of widow remarriage. Christian reform efforts also included establishing sanatoriums for tuber-culosis patients and for those who had contracted leprosy.

Rural Development

Rural development was another area that the Church considered important. With the establishment of two agricultural colleges in Allahabad (the Allahabad Agricultural College) and near Salem, Tamil Nadu, efforts were made for “rural reconstruction”.

The Basel Mission, which began its work from its headquarters in Mangalore, is well known for introducing into India the         manufacture of cheap terracotta tiles and other related products to improve village house construction. Such tiles are still popularly known, no matter who produces them, as mission tiles.

Disaster relief is another area in which the community has made an impressive impact. The community pioneered female education. Much of this work was taken up by the wives of early missionaries, and by single women missionaries, of whom there were many. In several villages Christians were the first to provide education and employment doe the downtrodden.

Originators of Modern Education

The other major contribution of the Church to India both prior to and after independence is that generations of young men and women received modern education, many of whom were endowed with the ideals of service, uprightness and rectitude because of the inspiration derived from these. Based on the inspiration of Jesus these institutions were egalitarian and comprised students to be members of a human community. Even today Christian colleges consistently rank among the nation’s best, known for quality education, having educated many generations of India’s non-Christian, as well as Christian, elites and the ordinary.

Those within the system have had no complaints about subtle conversions these institutions do, as alleged by the affiliates of the Sangh Parivar. Accompanying the schools came printing presses, which were helpful in the dissemination of literature of all kinds. India remains indebted to the missionaries for the production of textbooks, dictionaries, and grammars, and for their zealous pursuit of educational advancement.

Christians and Health Care 

The field of medicine is another area in which Christians have made a significant contribution to the welfare and the common good of India. In the nineteenth century medical establishments of various kinds were created throughout India, set up by almost every missionary society. Two have been internationally recognised. The first, the Christian Medical College Hospital, Ludhiana, was founded by Dr Edith Brown in 1893; the other, the Christian Medical College Hospital, Vellore, grew out of Dr Ida Scudder’s roadside clinics, first begun in 1895. In time both of these hospitals added to their facilities, becoming the first government-recognised medical colleges for women and subsequently for men. Lakhs of people were saved and restored to normal health by these hospitals set up by the Church-affiliated organisations.

At the level of villages it is the Church that worked with primary health care centers in several remote areas to heal the sick and the suffering. Even today the presence of the Church in remote corners of the country continuing the healing mission of Jesus is viewed by all.

Christians and Tribals

If the tribals of the North-East have acquired a dignity and a sense of identity the country should express its gratitude to the Church’s mission. There are people who accuse the Church of encouraging insurgency in the region. Not only is it a blatant lie but points to the inadequacy of governments after governments to address the grievances of the people. The Church can be made a scapegoat. The real issue is the tribals of North-East have come of age and they have been able to articulate largely due to Christian education.

Similarly the tribals of Jharkand can boast of a Church of their own, thanks to the initiatives of the Church. There are several Dalit leaders who have been able to make a national mark as a result of education in the institutions of the Church.


Though the Christian community is very small in number its contribution to nation-building through its numerous social, theological, academic and educational institutions have been immense. The institutions of the Church ushered in modernity in India. The institutions of the Church were so organised that they did succeed where others had failed in modernizing those who studied in them. The central contribution of Christians was not so much to make converts to religion but converts to modernity. The community surely has its role in the creation of “true ‘modern’ Indians”, the builders of the new India with an outlook of rationality and humanism.

Besides serving the country in various capacities and services — armed forces and civil services, education and police, science and administration, sports and medicine, social service and politics, there is no field that Christians have been absent. The community has been actively involved in several grassroots movements, civil society and non-governmental organisations. Nobody can accuse the Church of being foreign if they have eyes to see. No doubt foreign grants and aid has been received by groups in the Church to serve the poor constructively and to empower marginalised communities. That service of the Church needs to be appreciated than found fault with.

While prior to independence most of the Christian social initiatives were pioneered by foreign missionaries, Indian Christians have carried on and even multiplied the legacy handed down to them after independence.11

Thus patriotism continues to be a Christian virtue. The Indian Christians have in the past identified themselves with the Indian national movement and demonstrated their deepest concern for the cause. In fact, they were among the prominent persons who pioneered and shaped the goals of Indian nationalism. After independence the community has been equally active in education the young with the ideas of secularism, universalism and egalitarianism.

Those who oppose the Church are primarily those who are opposed to the idea of India of the framers of the Constitution. While the egalitarian ideas of Christianity are in conso-nance with the Constitution of India, they are not in harmony with the values of India’s Hindu caste-order.

The Church has contributed indirectly in producing elites and the ordinary who have challenged the domination of the dominant castes in social and political system. It is precisely because of this legacy that the community has been under attack by the forces of feudalism and tradition. 


1. and_National_Movements



1. Golwalkar, M.S., Bunch of Thoughts.


3. H. C. Perumalil and E.R. Hambye, Christianity in India: A History in Ecumenical Perspective (Alleppey: Prakasham Publications, 1972), 278.

3. Wikipedia.


6. 1&secid=238

7. icip ation_of_Ma ngalorean_Catholics_in_the_Indian_Independence_Movement


9. Ibid.



Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal of St. Aloysius Degree College, Bangalore.

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