British Raj and the Defaming of India since the 1800s (III)
Editor’s Note: This is the third in the three-part series of articles summarizing Dharampal’s work on the British origins of demonizing and undermining India and Hindus. Part (I) can be read here, and Part (II) can be read here.
“…It is impossible for us, within our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (1). This is an extract from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous “Minute on Indian Education”, which he presented in February 1835 to Lord William Bentick, the then Governor General of India. Macaulay had landed in India in 1834, as the first Law Member of the Governor General’s Council (2). He was also the president of the General Committee of Public Instruction, at the time (3).
Under the East India Company Act 1813 (also known as the Charter Act 1813), charter issued to the British East India Company was renewed for another twenty years. The Act had a clause under which a sum of one lakh rupees (Rs. 100,000) was to be set aside each year for the revival and improvement of literature and for encouragement to the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of science amongst the inhabitants of British territories in India (4). However, soon after, a difference of opinion arose among the British regarding the mode of education to be imparted to Indians. On one side were the “Anglicists”. According to them, the term “literature” meant “Western literature” and “learned natives” meant “scholars of western literature”. They wanted English to be the medium of instruction. On the other side, were the “Orientalists”. According to them, the term “literature” meant “Indian literature” and “learned natives” meant “scholars of Indian literature”. They wanted Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian to be the medium of instruction (5).
For the disbursement of one lakh rupees set aside each year, a General Committee of Public Instruction (GCPI) was constituted in Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1823 (6). Initially, the majority of its members were Orientalists. The money available was spent mainly on the teaching of Sanskrit and Arabic and on the translation of English works in these languages. In due course, as younger members joined GCPI, they started to increasingly advocate the Anglicist perspective (7). This was the background in which Macaulay, as the President of the GCPI, submitted his Minute to the Governor General’s Council. Macaulay had, however, declined to take any active part in the Committee’s proceedings until the Government had pronounced on the issue (8).
In March 1835, Lord William Bentinck accepted Macaulay’s recommendations (7). The English Education Act 1835 of the Council gave effect to Bentinck’s decision. Going forward, the British were to actively support establishments teaching a Western curriculum with English as the language of instruction. English was also made the court language in 1837 (9). It is generally accepted that this eventually led to English becoming one of the languages of India, rather than only being the language of the British colonialists.
Though, in the “Great Indian Education Debate, Documents relating to the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, 1781-1843”, Zastoupil and Moir write that the British policies implemented after 1839 were a compromise one, in which important orientalist measures were retained. They also mention that Indians actively participated on both sides of the debate (10). One of the documents included in the book is a letter from Raja Rammohun Roy to Lord Amherst, then Governor General, dated December 1823. This letter was written to protest the British decision to open a Sanskrit college in Calcutta. Roy saw a contradiction between the modern scientific spirit of European civilization and its educational policy in India. In Roy’s view, establishing a Sanskrit college did not confirm to the liberal image of the British. Roy was keen for the British to find ways to promote Western sciences and crafts for the benefit of the Indian subjects (11).
In 1842, Lord Ellenborough, then Governor General of India, issued an order called the “Proclamation of the Gates” (12). British troops were to bring back from Ghazni, the sandalwood gates of Somnath Temple which were supposedly taken by Mahmud of Ghazni after his destruction of the temple in 1026 and installed as the doors of his tomb. These were transported to and deposited at Agra Fort (13). It was later found that these gates were made from deodar wood (found in Ghazni) and not sandalwood. The style too suggested that these gates were made at or near Ghazni (14). This led to a debate in the House of Commons in London, in 1843. Macaulay too delivered a speech, as part of this debate.
Dharampal in his book “Despoiling and Defamation of India”, has reproduced Macaulay’s 1835 Minute of Education and a part of his 1843 speech in the House of Commons. This essay is a summary of the chapter in Dharampal’s book, on Macaulay (15).
Macaulay begins his 1835 Minute by his disapproval of the claim of the admirers of the Oriental system of education that the public faith was pledged to the present system and that any alteration in the allocation of funds which have been spent up to now in encouraging the study of Arabic and Sanskrit would amount to spoliation. He says that there is no meaning in talking of a government pledge to teach certain languages and sciences if they become useless. He adds that there is not a single word in any public instruction from which it can be inferred that the government intended to give any pledge on the subject. The one lakh rupees is at the disposal of the Governor-General in Council, for the purpose of promoting learning in India, in any way which may be thought most advisable. His Lordship (the Governor-General) is quite free to direct that it shall no longer be employed in encouraging Arabic and Sanskrit. There is a fund available to be employed by the Government for the intellectual improvement of the country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?
He says that all parties seem to agree that dialects commonly spoken by natives of this part of India contain no literary or scientific information. It will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them. Intellectual improvement of those classes of people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be effected only by means of some language not vernacular among them. One-half of the Committee maintains that it should be English. The other half strongly recommends Arabic and Sanskrit. The whole question seems to be, which language is the best worth knowing?
Macaulay adds that he has no knowledge of Sanskrit or Arabic. But he has read translations of the most celebrated Sanskrit and Arabic works. He has conversed with men proficient in these Eastern tongues. Taking Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves, he has not found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted even by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education.
The department of literature in which the eastern writers stand highest is poetry. Macaulay claims that he has never met any Orientalist who ventured to maintain that Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. When one passes from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, the superiority of Europeans becomes immeasurable. It will not be an exaggeration to say that all historical information which has been collected from all books written in Sanskrit is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.
Macaulay contends that they have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. They must be taught some foreign language. The claims of the English language in this respect, need not be recapitulated. It stands pre-eminent even amongst the languages of the West. Whoever knows English has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth, which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations. In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher classes of the natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. Of all the foreign tongues, English tongue would be the most useful to the native subjects.
The question then is whether, when it is in their (British) power to teach this language, they (British) shall also teach languages in which there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared with their own. When they can teach European science, shall they teach systems which when they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse? Shall they patronize at public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier or astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school or history, abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long or geography, made up of seas of butter?
Macaulay claims that there is experience to guide them. In modern times, there are two instances where knowledge was diffused, tastes were purified, and arts and sciences were planted in countries which had recently been ignorant and barbarous. The first instance is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. At the time, almost everything that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had the ancestors of the present day British taught only in Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French and neglected the language of Cicero (Latin), would England have been what she now is? What Latin and Greek were to the contemporaries of Ascham (tutor of Elizabeth I between 1548-1550), English is today to the people of India. The literature of England is now more valuable than that of classical antiquity.
Another instance where a nation which had previously been in a state as barbarous as that in which the British were before the crusades, and which has gradually taken its place amongst civilized communities, is Russia. This change was effected not by flattering national prejudices, but by teaching Russians those foreign languages in which the greatest mass of information had been laid-up, and thus putting all the information within their reach. The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. There is no doubt that they will do for the Hindoo, what they have done for the Tartar (Turkic speaking peoples living mainly in Western Central Russia).
Macaulay highlights that there are arguments against this course. It is said that first the co-operation of the native public ought to be secured and that this can only be done by teaching Sanskrit and Arabic. He rejects this by saying that when a nation of high intellectual attainments undertakes to superintend the education of a nation comparatively ignorant, the learners cannot absolutely prescribe the course which is to be taken by teachers. Besides, the Government has to pay Arabic and Sanskrit students, while those who learn English are in fact willing to pay the Government. This is because knowledge of Arabic and Sanskrit does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them.
He adds that the Committee has allocated a lakh of rupees for printing Arabic and Sanskrit books. But these books have found no purchasers. In contrast, the School Book society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, which not only pays the expenses of printing, but realizes a profit of 20 percent of outlay.
It is insisted that Hindoo law is to be chiefly learnt from Sanskrit books and Mohammedan law from Arabic books. However, the British Parliament has now commanded to ascertain the laws of India. A law commission assisting with this may soon be promulgating a code. Once this is done, the rationale for teaching Sanskrit and Arabic on these grounds, will no longer hold.
Another argument made in the favor of teaching Sanskrit and Arabic is that these are languages in which the sacred books of hundreds of millions of people are written, and that they are, on that account, entitled to peculiar encouragement. While it is the duty of the British Government to be tolerant and neutral on all religious questions, to encourage the study of a literature of small intrinsic value which inculcates the most serious errors on the most important subjects, is not reconcilable with either reason or even with neutrality. These languages have no useful knowledge. Teaching them will amount to teaching false history, false astronomy, and false medicine, in the company of a false religion. While the Government shall abstain from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting natives to Christianity, is it reasonable to deploy revenues of the state to teach youth what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat?
The advocates of Oriental learning assume that the choice is between a profound knowledge of Hindoo and Arabian literature and science on one side, and a superficial knowledge of the rudiments of English on the other. However, this assumption is not supported by reason or experience. Foreigners of all nations learn English sufficiently to have access to all the most abstruse knowledge it contains. It is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the continent, a foreigner who can express himself in English with so much correctness, as is found in many Hindoos. Learning English for a Hindoo is perhaps less difficult than learning Greek for an Englishman. A Hindoo should be able to read Hume and Milton in less than half the time which enables an English youth to read Herodotus and Sophocles (in Greek).
In the final part of his minute, Macaulay says that they are not limited by the 1813 Act of Parliament and that they are free to deploy the funds (of one lakh rupees per year), as they choose. They should employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing. English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic. The natives are desirous to be taught English, and not Sanskrit or Arabic. It is possible to make the natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars. British efforts ought to be directed towards this end.
He adds that it is impossible for the British within their limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. Thus, they must do their best to form a class who may be interpreters between them and the millions whom they govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class, it may be left to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from Western nomenclature and to render them fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of population.
Macaulay then asks for stopping printing of Arabic and Sanskrit books. He also calls for abolishing the Madrassa and the Sanskrit college at Calcutta. He says that by retaining the Sanskrit college at Benares and the Mahommedan College at Delhi, British would have done more than enough for the Eastern languages. There should also be no stipends given to any students. They should be left to make their own choices between the rival systems of education without being bribed by the British to learn what they have no desire to know. The funds thus placed at the disposal of the British would enable them to give larger encouragement to the Hindoo college at Calcutta and to establish in the principal cities, schools in which English would be well and thoroughly taught.
The Board of Public Instruction is presently wasting public money, for printing books (in Sanskrit & Arabic) which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed; for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology; for raising up a breed of scholars whose education is so utterly useless that when they have received it they must either starve or live on the public, all the rest of their lives.
Macaulay concludes by saying that if in the opinion of the Government, the present system ought to remain unchanged, then he may please be permitted to retire from the Committee (General Committee for Public Instruction). He would not be of the smallest use there. Unless the Committee alters its whole mode of proceeding, he must consider the Committee not merely as useless, but as positively noxious.
We now move to Macaulay’s 1843 speech in the House of Commons, which was delivered as part of the debate concerning the “Gates of Somnath” incident. The section of the speech reproduced in Dharampal’s book, is summarized in the paragraphs below. The complete text of the speech can be accessed online (16).
Macaulay says that the great majority of the population in India consists of idolaters, blindly attached to doctrines and rites, which considered with reference to the temporal interests of mankind, are in the highest degree pernicious. Brahmin mythology is so absurd that it necessarily debases every mind which receives its truth. With this absurd mythology, is bound up an absurd system of physics, an absurd geography, and an absurd astronomy. Within the whole Hindu pantheon, there is nothing which resembles the beautiful and majestic forms which stood in the shrines of ancient Greece. All is hideous and grotesque. Emblems of vice are objects of public worship. Acts of vice are acts of public worship. Courtesans are as much a part of the establishment of the temple, as the priests. Crimes against life and property are not only permitted but enjoined by this repulsive theology. Without British interference, human victims would still be offered to the Ganges and the widow would still be burnt alive, along with the corpse of her dead husband. It is by the command of one of the most powerful goddesses that the thugs make friends with an unsuspecting traveler, slip the noose around his neck and divide his money and luggage.
The British might have acted as Spaniards in the New World and attempted to introduce their own religion by force. They could have held out hopes of public employment to converts and imposed civil disabilities on “Mahometans” and Pagans. But the British judged wisely and preserved strict neutrality on all questions merely religious. However, some have deviated from the right path. Some Englishmen, who have held high office in India, seem to have thought that the only religion which was not entitled to toleration and respect was Christianity. They regarded every Christian missionary with disdain. They suffered the most atrocious crimes perpetrated by Hindoo superstition.
In Bengal, British let infanticide and Suttee (Sati) continue unchecked. They in fact provided dancing girls and decorated the temples of the false gods. They repaired the car under the wheels of which (in Jagannath Puri), crazy devotees flung themselves at every festival to be crushed to death. All this is still considered, by some prejudiced Anglo-Indians of the old school, as profound policy. British have gained nothing by such a shallow senseless policy. They led the Hindoos to believe that the British attached no importance to the difference between Christianity and heathenism. Yet how vast that difference is!
Macaulay claims that he speaks merely as a politician anxious for the well-being of society. And in that capacity, his view is that to support Brahminical idolatry and not to support the religion which has done so much to promote justice and good government, which has struck off the chains of the slave and which has raised women from servants into companions, is to commit high treason against humanity and civilization.
Has adds that gradually, a better system was introduced. The 1813 Act of Parliament gave new facilities to persons who were desirous to proceed to India as missionaries. Lord William Bentinck abolished the Suttee (Sati) in 1829. Shortly after, in 1833, Home Government sent out to Calcutta, a despatch. One paragraph in it, contained in short compass an entire code of regulations for the guidance of British functionaries in matters relating to the idolatry of India. The orders were express, that the arrangements of temples should be left entirely to the natives. Another despatch was sent in 1838, which referred to the aforesaid paragraph in the 1833 despatch. Again, in 1841, precise orders were sent out on the same subject. The orders were that British authorities in India neither decorate those temples, nor pay military honor to those temples.
Through his (1842 Proclamation of the Gates) order, Lord Ellenborough has declared to the world his intention to make a present to a heathen temple. He has also sent a body of troops to escort these gates (from Ghazni), to a heathen temple. It was his duty not to take part in disputes amongst the false religions of the East. But he has paid homage to one of those religions and has grossly insulted another. He has selected as the object of his homage the very worst and degrading of those religions, and as the object of his insult the best and the purest of them. The homage was paid to “Lingamism”. The insult was offered to “Mahometanism”. “Lingamism” is not merely idolatry, but idolatry in its most pernicious form.
Siva is the god of destruction. Worship of his images would be a violation of decency. Yet, he has been selected as the object of homage. The object of insult is a religion which has borrowed much of its theology from Christianity, which strictly proscribes the worship of images. The duty of the Government is to take no part in the disputes between “Mahometans” and idolators. But if the Government does take part, there cannot be a doubt that “Mahometanism” is entitled to the preference. Lord Ellenborough though is of a different opinion. He has taken away the gates from a “Mahometan” mosque and offered them as a gift to a pagan temple. Morally, this is a crime. Politically, this is a blunder.
This affront of faith to the “Mahometans” of India will excite their fiercest indignation. Their susceptibility on such points is extreme. This susceptibility has caused the British some serious disasters, such as the Vellore Mutiny in 1806. If a Governor General had been induced by his zeal for Christianity to offer any affront to a mosque held in high veneration by Mussulmans, he would have been guilty of indiscretion and proved himself unfit for his post. But to affront a mosque of peculiar dignity, not from zeal for Christianity, but for the sake of this loathsome god of destruction (Shiva), is nothing short of madness.
The impact of English education on Indian society was very well captured by noted historian and philosopher of Indian art, Ananda P Coomaraswamy. In his collection of essays first published in 1918, he wrote, “It is hard to realize how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots — a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future” (17).
The denationalization caused by policies inspired by Macaulay’s Minute, birthed an “ism” in colloquial usage, called “Macaulayism”. It refers to Indians who, as consequence of their education, display a marked preference for Western cultural norms and a disdain for the Bharatiya/Indian way of life, not dissimilar to the attitudes of the British colonists (18).
Macaulayists interiorized the attitude expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden”. They came to see Bharatiya culture as primitive, superstitious, and full of social evils and that the British rule, at least partly, a civilizing exercise.
The following passage from Jawahar Lal Nehru’s letter to Mahatma Gandhi written in January 1928, aptly illustrates this view. Nehru wrote, “You misjudge greatly, I think, the civilization of the West and attach too great an importance to its many failings. You have stated somewhere that India has nothing to learn from the West and that she had reached a pinnacle of wisdom in the past. I certainly disagree with this viewpoint”. Another passage in the letter reads as follows, “I neither think that the so called RamaRaj was very good in the past, nor do I want it back. I think that western or rather industrial civilization is bound to conquer India, maybe with many changes and adaptations, but none the less, in the main, based on industrialism. You have criticized strongly the many obvious defects of industrialism and hardly paid any attention to its merits. Everybody knows these defects and the utopias and social theories are meant to remove them. It is the opinion of most thinkers in the west that these defects are not due to industrialism as such but to the capitalist system which is based on exploitation of others” (19).
The Macaulayian tendency to look towards models developed in the West for understanding India and treat Indian society as an entity in need of perpetual reform, continues to this day. Use of sub-altern and post-modernist frameworks to comprehend and “deconstruct” India, can be construed as examples of modern day Macaulayism.
In fact, that this essay is being written and read in English, rather than Tamil or Sanskrit, is evidence that while Macaulay is long gone, the Macaualyian lives on.
Sincere thanks to Dr. Gita Dharampal for granting permission to publish summaries of the various chapters from Shri Dharampal’s “Despoilation and Defaming of India”.
All links accessed on December 30, 2021
- Minute by the Hon’ble T.B.Macaulay, dated the 2nd February 1835. Section 34
- Thomas Babington Macaulay
- Minute on Indian Education by Thomas Babington Macaulay
- ‘A Constitutional history of India, 1600-1935’ by B.Keith, 1936, page 129
- https://www.ladykeanecollege.edu.in/files/userfiles/file/Susan%20Education%20in%20Colonial%20Period(1813-1882)%20ppt%203rd%20Semester.pdf, page 11
- ‘A History of English Education in India, 1781-1893’, by Syed Mahmood, 1895, page 27
- The spread of Western educational practices to Asian countries
- ‘A History of English Education in India, 1781-1893’, by Syed Mahmood, 1895, page 50
- English Education Act 1835
- ‘The Great Indian Education Debate, Documents relating to the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, 1781-1843’, edited by Lynn Zastoupil and Martin Moir, 1999, preface, page x
- https://www.egyankosh.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/23158/1/Unit-2.pdf, page 17
- Proclamation of the Gates
- British library online gallery. Mosque and Tomb of the Emperor Soolta Mahmood of Ghuznee.
- ‘A Handbook to the Agra and the Taj’, by E B Havell, 2003, page 62
- Despoilation and Defaming of India, page 191,
- ‘The Gates of Somnauth’. A speech delivered in the House of Commons on the 9th of March 1843 —
- ‘Dance of Shiva, fourteen essays’, by Ananda Coomaraswamy, 2013, Loc 2293, Kindle edition
- Despoilation and Defaming of India, page 37, https://www.dharampal.net/publications