Long Reads


S.K.Datta on ‘India and Racial Relationships’[1]

by Margaret Allen

Race was very much on the agenda during the 1920s.

White settlers societies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States had set up ‘The Great White Walls’, which prohibited in varying degrees movement of people of colour across their borders.  During World War One, colonized peoples could hope that Woodrow Wilson’s notion of national self-determination would bring them freedom. However their hopes were dashed with the rejection of the race clause at Versailles. In East Africa, Indians and Africans were campaigning against white privilege.

Scientific Racism ‘was resurgent’ and the importance of white dominance was strongly proclaimed in two widely read works, Lothrop Stoddard The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy (1920) and Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, (1918).[2]

In India, any goodwill from the British government’s moves towards some limited provincial self-government, was dispelled by the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, where troops fired on unarmed civilians, killing up to a thousand and injuring many more. Hostility to British rule increased and Gandhi’s non co-operation movement gathered strength. Indeed around the world colonised peoples were beginning to understand their strength.

Progressives within the Christian missionary movement increasingly saw the need for Indigenous leadership and friendship between Indians and western Christians. Racism needed to be critiqued and rejected. Indeed Joseph Oldham, a key figure in these tendencies within international Christianity explored racial prejudice in his work. Christianity and the Race Problem published in 1924. Oldham had become a ‘close and intimate’ friend of S.K.Datta from their first meeting in Lahore in 1897.[3]

SK Datta courtesy of Records of YMCA International Work in India. Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota. Biographical files, Box 43

S.K. Datta is a figure of great interest to our project, ‘Beyond Empire transnational religious networks & liberal cosmopolitanisms’. Jane Haggis is researching his life and work for the Heurist data base and currently exploring his archives in the British Library. Fiona Paisley has written of his involvement with the Institute of Pacific Relations, see Chapter 5 of Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire:  Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950 Palgrave Pivot, 2017.

Surendra Kumar Datta, an Indian Christian, was a graduate of Lahore University and of Edinburgh, where he had studied medicine. During World War One he was in France with the YMCA working with Indian troops.[4] He was National Secretary of the YMCA of India, Burma and Ceylon from 1919.  Although the more progressive missionaries with whom Datta associated in India were critical of racism and committed to moving towards Indian leadership in Christian institutions and organizations in India, he came up against racism, both within the missionary movement and more generally. Thus his marriage to the Scottish woman, Rena Carswell meant they often found it difficult to get accommodation in both Europe and India.

In 1924, he gave a rather rambling talk to the Annual Meeting of the Lahore Branch of the YMCA at which YMCA members and supporters including British officials were in the audience. Indeed Sir Malcolm Hailey, Governor of Punjab Province and patron of Lahore YMCA was present. He justified his topic, ‘India and Racial Relationships’ by referring to the YMCA’s policy of indigenization, which saw him and K. T. Paul taking on important leadership positions. Furthermore he said within the YMCA ‘our relationships…shall invariably be international.’[5]

Although he spoke of his recent observations about race following his recent trip to Australia, New Zealand and Fji, I will focus here upon his comments about Australia. They can be seen as representing his thinking around that time or at least that that he wished to share with his audience and with readers of the YMCA publication, Young Men of India. I find this talk interesting as a snapshot into Australian attitudes at the time and to the reactions of an educated Indian visitor.

He started talking about Australian Aboriginal people. He noted that he had found Australians quite informal and keen to explain their country to him. Thus while on the long train journey across the Nullarbor Plain, a fellow passenger on seeing an Aboriginal person near the train, clearly felt quite comfortable to make the offensive comment that he was ‘of no use’.  Pondering this observation, based in white arrogance and the assurance of white sovereignty, Datta countered that when visiting a museum,

‘I saw examples of things that these aboriginal [sic] people had created, wonderful devices for catching and trapping birds, for killing small animals, and fishing, and I said to myself, “Probably these people are not as uncivilised, and as not useless as they are made out to be.’

Datta only caught sight of David Unaipon, the Indigenous polymath at the back at one of his audiences;

 ‘I was sorry I did not meet him. It was one of my regrets. But I was told that man had taken his B. Sc. of the University of Adelaide, and not merely that, but that he had extraordinary genius for inventions, and had himself invented a shearing machine. And I said to myself again, “Are these people so useless?”’[6]

The failure of Datta and Unaipon, both Christians and critics of colonialism, to connect must be one of the might-have-beens of history. Other scholars have explored the productive transnational links of Aboriginal people with other critics of racism and colonialism.[7]

A picture of David Unaipon in his book, ‘Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines’ 1924-1925 IMAGE CREDIT: State Library of NSW

The White Australia policy, which aroused great concern in India, would be of great interest to his audience. In White Australia, he noted that the few Chinese and Indians were ‘filling up the lacunae … undertaking small things that an ordinary white man would not do.’[8]

In his remarks upon Chinese advances through South East Asia and into Australia, he seemed to share the racial thinking abroad in Australia or perhaps he was restating what he had heard. He referred to the movement of the Chinese as ‘the problem of Australia…China has never believed in war, but China has believed in penetration.’ P. 501 He claimed that Australians told him that the Chinese were very hard-working and also trustworthy. He pondered the implications for India, ‘Mind you, if the Indians and the Chinese get into competition, I think the Chinese will go under.’[9]

He found Australians rather paradoxical about race at times. Despite the White Australia policy, he found them courteous and cordial. He had previous experiences of Australians, when working with the Indian YMCA for the Indian troops in wartime France: ‘no other armies had such warm relationships with the Indian soldiers as the Australians.’[10]  

In Australia he had met some of the Indians then resident there. He spoke to a number of Indian Muslims who were working as hawkers serving the needs of people on remote stations and farms. They had been in Australia around 35 years. Some had prospered, having ‘broken away from the ordinary life’ of an Indian labourer. One who had merely been ‘a bricklayer’s boy’ in Lahore, had become quite wealthy. He spoke of his friendly relationships with the farmers who invited him into their homes to share a meal.

Nevertheless they knew as Indians resident in Australia, they had no rights, reporting to Datta, ‘We are nobody, we are of no consideration in this country: the white man is everything: we have no rights.’[11] explored further in my paper ‘I am a British subject’: Indians in Australia claim rights, 1880-1940′History Australia, vol. 15 (3) 2018, 499-518.

These hawkers were very aware of world events, and referring to Ataturk, one commented to him that ‘Allah gave Ghazi Mustafa Pasha a great victory.’[12] Datta read this observation as a response to the fact that ‘the white man is everything’. Datta remarked ‘in the distance in Asia, a light had been kindled, something which had given them new hope.’ As an Indian nationalist, he reflected,

‘We have got to create an India, a glorious India, so that our people when they are abroad will look upon their country as something glorious and look there for inspiration.’[13]

Datta saw the determination of the Australian Labour Movement to protect their standard of living as fundamental to the White Australia policy. Looking at the Eight Hour monument in Melbourne, commemorating the ‘great victory of Labour over Capital’ he saw ‘the roots of the “White Australia” Policy.’[14]

He referred to his meeting with prominent unionist E.J.Holloway. Holloway had just returned from the International Labor Oorganization conference in Geneva where he had been the Australian representative. Holloway reiterated his view about economic competition, telling him, ‘The only thing we have against the Indians and the Chinese is that they put down the wages, and we cannot afford to have that. It is an economic question.’[15]

Nevertheless turning back to the rights of Indians resident in Australia, Datta had asked a Cabinet minister why the Australian government had not honoured the promises made to the visiting Indian envoy, V.S. S. Sastri in 1922 to enfranchise the small number of Indians resident in the country.[16] The opposition of the South African leader General Smuts to such a move was the answer he received. Datta was amazed that Smuts could influence Australian policy. A state Cabinet minister responded to the same question, that if the Indians were enfranchised then the Japanese residents would want the same concession. Datta concluded, ‘At the back of the idea of Australian policy is fear.’[17]


[1] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, Young Men of India, 1924 , vol. xxxv, August, pp. 499-505.

[2] M. Lake and H. Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008), pp. 312-5.

[3] Keith Clements, Faith On The Frontier, A Life Of J.H. Oldham, Edinburgh : T &​ T Clark ; Geneva : WCC Publications, 1999. p. 44

[4] Harald Fischer-Tine, ‘Unparalleled Opportunities’: The Indian Y.M.C.A.’s Army Work Schemes for Imperial Troops During the Great War (1914–1920), The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, August 2018, 1-39.

[5] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 499.

[6] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 500.

[7] J.M Maynard, ‘In the interests of our people’: The influence of Garveyism on the rise of Australian Aboriginal political activism‘, Aboriginal History, 2005, 29 1-22.

[8] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 500.

[9] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 501.

[10] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 502.

[11] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 500.

[12] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 500.

[13] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 501.

[14] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 501.

[15] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 502.

[16] Sastri was lauded by many in his audiences in Australia as a distinguished and eloquent speaker, seeking to hold up the notion of equality across the British Empire and by others as cunning threat to the White Australia policy. See Margaret Allen, ‘The visit of V.S.Sastri’, ms. n.d.

[17] S.K.Datta, ‘India and Racial Relationships’, 503.

Bangladesh Research Visit

by Clare Midgley

I’m just back from a fascinating visit to Dhaka, Bangladesh. This visit was an outcome of our ARC project panel at the International Federation for Research in Women’s History (IFRWH) conference in Vancouver last August. On finding out about the Bengali dimensions of my research, Professor Asha Islam Nayeem, General Secretary of the Bangladesh History Association, invited me to deliver a lecture on my research in the Society’s quarterly lecture series.

I seized this opportunity to visit Dhaka for the first time. I wanted to find out more about the history of the Brahmo Samaj, the monotheistic movement for religious and social reform among Hindus whose transnational inter-faith connections and collaboration on the ‘woman question’ I am studying in connection with the Beyond Empire project. Books about the Brahmo Samaj tend to focus on Kolkata, the city where it was founded, but Dhaka was the hub of the organisation in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and I was keen to learn more about its activities in this region.

Thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Asha and of Dr Zahida Naznin, the Treasurer of the Bangladesh History Association, I was able to make the most of my short visit to Dhaka. I’m very grateful to them both for taking time out of their busy schedules to make my visit rewarding and fun! Asha, who teaches at Dhaka University, is just completing a book (in English) on the history of women’s education in East Bengal. She is a true cosmopolitan, having lived and studied in Britain, the USA and Japan. Her fluency in Japanese and story about learning over 500 Japanese characters put my own faltering attempts to learn Bangla into perspective! Zahida is a senior civil servant in the Education Directorate who has a PhD on women and development in Bangladesh.

Photograph of Dhaka’s traffic supplied by Clare Midgley

Asha and Zahida were ideal guides to Dhaka, which is a great city, but hard to negotiate as a first-time visitor. Thanks to them I did not spend my time trapped in the confines of my luxurious but ultra-high-security hotel! Even the two-hour car rides stuck in the endless traffic jams  also had an expected benefit of time and space to talk, and I feel very happy to have made two wonderful new friends.

It was such a relief to be away from Brexit-mad Britain during the very week when Parliament was voting on Theresa May’s negotiated deal (though I did get some questions about Brexit!). In the global north we still tend to mainly hear bad news stories about the global south, and reporting on Bangladesh has been particularly negative. Thus even a short visit was eye-opening: I was struck by the city’s energy and dynamism, its sociability (no ‘Bowling Alone’ in Dhaka!), the variety of women’s dress in this majority-Muslim nation, and the amount of construction work going on, from high-rise flats to over-passes and a new metro line. Signs in Bangla were everywhere, of course, and I was excited that I could actually read them. This visit has certainly prompted me to take my Bengali-language learning up the next level with my excellent teacher in London, Sahana Bajpaie.

Dr Muntassir Mamoon, Dr Clare Midgley and Dr Zahida Naznin in his library

On the first day of my visit Asha and Zahida took me to meet Professor Muntassir Mamoon, who has written the standard history of the Brahmo Samaj in Eastern Bengal. The fact that I did not even know about this book, which is in Bengali, brought home to me the limits of my knowledge as a western scholar with rudimentary language skills beyond English. Books in English published by western presses continue to get the lion’s share of international attention, to the detriment of the development of truly cosmopolitan scholarly perspectives. I was privileged to visit Professor Mamoon’s amazing private library cum museum, and I was able to learn more from him about the history of the Brahmo Samaj in East Bengal, including their efforts for women’s education and the activities of prominent women. Monorama Majumdar, for example, caused a sensation by becoming the religious preacher for the Brahmo Samaj at Barishal in 1881.

Dr Clare Midgley and Dr Asha Islam Nayeem in front of Jagannath University

The following day Asha took me to meet members of the history department at Jagannath University, the oldest higher education institution in Dhaka where I was also introduced to the Vice-Chancellor and photographed for a press release. The University has recently moved into postgraduate education, and it is organising an international conference on State and Society in South Asia this March (details from: [email protected]).

Brahmo Samaj mandir exterior

Two members of the History Department kindly escorted us to the mandir (place of worship) of the Brahmo Samaj, on the edge of the bustling Old City. The environment, with a peaceful garden with flowers providing respite from the bustle of the street, reminded me of the grounds of the Ramakrishna Mission in Kolkata, where I had stayed on my visit to that city. The mandir is a beautiful building, constructed in 1869, when the movement was in the midst of a major revival. It was a privilege to be shown round by the current Secretary of the organisation. Like the mandirs of the Brahmo Samaj which I visited in Kolkata, the interior is very plain, rather like a British nonconformist chapel, with no religious images – in complete contrast to orthodox Hindu temples. Women originally sat separately in the gallery, but I need to find out whether this practice was maintained in Dhaka or whether, as in Kolkata, it was abandoned following a campaign by the more radical wing of the movement.

Brahmo Samaj mandir interior

Sadly, I found out that the extensive library of the Dhaka Brahmo Samaj had been destroyed in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, when Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. A memorial on the campus of Dhaka University commemorates the contributions of women, peasants and students to the struggle.

Dr Clare Midgley at the Memorial to the Independence War, Dhaka University

The following day I had the opportunity to see some of the most famous historic sites of Dhaka, and to learn more about the history of the city in the company of Zahida and her family. Among the portraits of famous Bangladeshis that we saw was one of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, author of Sultana’s Dream (1905), a Muslim feminist utopian novella set in a world turned upside down where women rule and men are kept in seclusion! This was a really fun day out, including a proper Bengali lunch in the Officer’s Club, which is open to senior civil servants. Zahida and her husband also took me to visit the branches of the Education Directorate where they worked, and I gained some interesting insights into the efforts being made to develop education provision in Bangladesh. They are moving away from final school examinations towards continuous assessment and were surprised to hear that in England there have been recent moves in the opposite direction!

Dr Clare Midgley and Dr Zahida Naznin in front of a portrait of poet Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

On the final day of my visit I delivered my lecture ‘Creating Cosmotopia: Rammohun Roy, William Adam and the Calcutta Unitarian Committee’ to an enthusiastic audience of around 80 staff and students at Dhaka University. This lecture was a development of the talk I delivered as part of the ARC project symposium on ‘Cosmotopias: Past and Present’ at Sheffield Hallam University in December 2017, and I’m currently preparing it for publication as an article. William Adam was a Scot who went out to India as a Baptist missionary but who was then ‘converted’ to Unitarianism by Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement, much to the horror of his former missionary colleagues. The lecture provided a good opportunity to meet with members of the history department at the university, including Professor Sonia Amin, President of the Bangladesh committee of the IFRWH and author of the pathbreaking study, The World of Muslim Women in Colonial Bengal, 1876-1939 (Leiden: Brill, 1996). Sonia and I are putting together a panel proposal for the Women’s History Network Conference in London this September.

Dr Clare Midgley giving a lecture at Dhaka University