Defending Hinduism during the 1950s: The South African Hindu Maha Sabha and Religious Instruction at Schools

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Seminar Date
September 16, 2009
This paper is concerned with debates and tensions over the issue of religion during the 1950s when the South African Hindu Maha Sabha (Maha Sabha) decided to approach the Natal Education Department (NED) to allow Hindu religious instruction in select Indian primary schools throughout the province of Natal. While important to the Maha Sabha, this move was controversial and attracted strong opposition from many quarters. Reformers sought to promote a “monolithic Hinduism” and recreate it; however, given the heterogeneity of South African Hindus, who were divided by class, caste, language, region of origin, and the presence of Christian and Muslim Indians, many critical voices feared that the teaching of religion at school would foster division within the “Indian community”, which was considered anathema when it was necessary to unite against the racist policies of the white minority apartheid government. In accord with recent perspectives of treating identity as fluid, multifaceted and mediated through particular historical contexts,1 this study seeks to addresses a number of issues: Why did the Maha Sabha consider it necessary to provide a common Hindu instruction at school to produce “good South African citizens”?2 What were the reasons put forward to legitimize Hindu reform? What was the influence of other religious faiths in the shaping of Hindu reform? What does the religion-at-school debate tell us about Indian (Hindu) identities during the 1950s and the ways in which these were “negotiated”?
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