- Gender, Religion, and Infanticide in Colonial India, 1870–1906
In October 1870, a scathing editorial in the Derby Mercury proclaimed that “infanticide is almost as common in England as it is in India” (“Baby-Farmers”). This was a damning statement. Since the eighteenth century, the murder of female infants in India—alongside the subject of sati (widow-burning)—had acted as a cipher, conjuring images of unbridled violence, ignorance, and depravity for British readers (see Mani; Major). Such images of “savagery” across the empire were increasingly used during the nineteenth century to emphasize perceived moral and physical failings among the British working classes, with commentators likening “unrespectable” urban and rural communities to the inhabitants of Africa and Asia (see Thorne, Congregational; “Religion”). These rhetorical parallels also served to spur on campaigns to eradicate what were perceived as “heathen” customs in the colonies. From the early nineteenth century onward, missionaries had taken a leading role in attempting to stamp out infanticide in India, arguing that only by acting in concert with religious educators would the secular government be able to eliminate these acts (see Cormack; Peggs). This tallied neatly with widespread perceptions that faith and custom were inextricably linked in India for both Hindus and Muslims (Metcalf 133). Many in the colonial administration shared this view, one author arguing that “it is only divine revelation which proves itself adequate to the preservation of the equilibrium of perfect morality” (Wilson 10). A number of different strategies were deployed to eradicate the practice during the early and mid-nineteenth century, with varying degrees of success (Bhatnagar et al.). The eventual eradication of female infanticide (that is, the murder of female infants) remained a key aim for missionaries in the late nineteenth century. One Bristol-based cleric—who, like many Western critics, wrongly believed that female infanticide was sanctioned in practice (if perhaps not in theological doctrine) by both Hinduism and Islam1—even claimed in 1886 that eliminating infanticide in British colonies was the ultimate goal for which to strive, stressing that Christianity had “century after century come into victorious conflict with that damnable form of cruelty” (“Christianity”).
Yet to claim that only Christianity could prevent Indian child-murder ignored the fact that infanticide could, and did, happen in Christian Britain and Ireland (Arnot; Farrell; Grey, “Discourses”; “Women’s”). Indeed, scholars have noted that Victorian Britain and Ireland experienced a parallel “infanticide [End Page 107] panic.” Concerns that sexual immorality—with infanticide as the most gruesome result of such misconduct—had reached epidemic levels were regularly featured in the press, in parliamentary papers, and in medical, legal, and social science journals. Thus, while Padma Anagol’s work on infanticide in the Bombay Presidency demonstrates that the construction of the infanticidal woman in late nineteenth-century India was a product of colonial racism combined with Indian (and, indeed, Hindu) sexism, this view should be nuanced by the fact that a nearly identical but more sympathetic discourse regarding the crime and its perpetrator was applied to white women by the British judicial system.
Foregrounding the importance of the cultural and social interaction between colony and metropole and the traffic of ideas and influences across Britain and the empire as illustrated by Catherine Hall, this article interrogates why and how religious discourses and the cultural and legal understanding of infanticide committed “back home” were intimately linked to debates about infanticide in India. British commentators vocally singled out female infanticide as a specifically Hindu and high-caste crime (in defiance of all evidence to the contrary), while failing either to fully acknowledge the parallels between non-sex-specific child homicides in Britain and India or to successfully eradicate the selective killing of daughters in south Asia. Individual commentators on child homicide in the United Kingdom in this period might well touch on religious imagery in their writing and stress the redemptive power of Christianity to influence those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Yet an essay from 1866 written by Scottish cleric Rev. Henry Humble, canon of St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth, seems to have been unique in offering a specifically theological approach to understanding and eliminating infanticide and sexual immorality...