Religious Charity, Secular Law, and NGO Regulation India

Erica Bornstein, Associate Professor,
Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


Religious charitable donations in India confer no tax benefits on donors. Outside of secular law, they are of concern to the government and to organizations that aim to make charitable work accountable. This paper looks at the historical relationship between India's secular state and efforts to regulate religious charity -- particularly those that speak to sacred, Hindu conceptions of dān (donation). Exploring the landscape of charitable giving in India where the majority of donation occurs in the context of religious charity, the paper analyses the regulation of religious donations in terms of different legal understanding of charity. It looks at ancient Hindu law, the British colonial Law of Charitable Trusts, Indian Personal Law, and contemporary Tax law, to argue that in different historical periods, religious donation has been defined, categorized, and segregated in secular law. In order to understand what is constituted as religious charity, one must look at the history of secular law in India. The state, both in colonial times and post-independence, has played a formative role in categorizing religious humanitarianism through secular law.


Erica Bornstein is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research interests include philanthropy, charity, humanitarianism, non-governmental organizations, political anthropology, and the anthropology of religion. Bornstein has recently completed an ethnographic monograph titled Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi (Stanford University Press, in press), and is the co-editor with Peter Redfield of Forces of Compassion: Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics (School for Advanced Research Press 2011). Her first book, The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe (Stanford University Press 2005) focused on transnational Christian non-governmental organizations. She has published articles in American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, Ethnos, Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR), and the Journal of Religion in Africa.

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