Macaulay’s Indian achievement

If not for the British administrator, we would have been divided by religion and ignorant of modernity. But did we lose something?

Published: 18th October 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th October 2017 11:17 AM   |  A+A-

Lord Macaulay was an essayist, historian, liberal member of the House of Commons and later of the House of Lords, law member of the Supreme Council of India and British minister for war.

In his Minute on Education of 1835, Macaulay set out the problem of choosing the medium of education for India: “What then shall that language be?  One-half of the committee maintains that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommends Arabic and Sanskrit. The whole question seems to me to be—which language is the best worth knowing  … I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. 

I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works  ... I am ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the Oriental plan of education.”

Macaulay concluded: “In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class ... It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East ... Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects”.

If Indians had continued to be educated—Muslims in Arabic and Hindus in Sanskrit—we would not only have been divided by religion but been unable to communicate across that divide. Worse, we would have remained ignorant of all modern, scientific and technical knowledge. Our modernisation was helped by the English language, through which we have access to global knowledge, as much of the non-English works are also available in English translation. English now gives us the international competitive edge.

Macaulay drafted the Indian Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Civil Procedure Code. In place of the cutting off hands, tongues and offending limbs, evidence through torture, there came about a measured and fair, if slow, due process of the secular law courts. Macaulay also drafted the Government of India Act of 1833, which imposed restraints on the East India Company. He inserted the clause—of which he was justifiably proud—which enacted that “no one shall, by reason of his colour, his descent, or his religion, be barred from holding office”.

Yet he knew where it would all end and was not a bit concerned about it. Speaking in the House of Commons he said: “It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history.”

That day came a hundred-odd years later on 15 August 1947. Almost all our nationalist leaders were fluent in English, were largely lawyers trained in the implementation of Macaulay’s legal codes. Their whole argument for Independence was based on Western political logic and they were equipped to administer the system the British had imposed on India.

The adoption of English language, however, meant also adoption of Western concepts—concepts which developed in Europe over 200 years based on Protestant Christian theology. The conceptual basis of the Republic and the Constitution fundamentally rests on the traditions of governance in Western Europe. As Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly and first President of the Republic wrote: “The Constitution which we have drafted is a copy of the constitutions of Western countries. There is nothing new in it! … We desire the good of the country. We desire that all its nationals should prosper.

But does not this require both character and ability? It that is so, we are making no specific provision for these in our Constitution because we do not find it in any constitution in the West... If we could devise some method by which knowledge and character, and character even more than knowledge, would be required of those who would be called upon to run the administration of the country, we should make an original contribution to constitution making. But we have not been able to do so; for our minds have been so influenced and moulded by Western thought that we cannot see or grasp a non-Western idea or concept.

This is not our fault, but the fault of the kind of education we have had.”Our ruling elites had set aside or discounted the religious, cultural and social traditions that evolved over thousands of years to adopt Western concepts, ideas and policies. This is part of Macaulay’s ambiguous legacy and has resulted in the division between “India and Bharat”. Even our Constitutional order is riven with inconsistencies and contradictions which make it difficult to state its basic principles let alone defend them. It is nothing more than a series of compromises and ad hoc adjustments which create confusion and confound the judges. This unstable situation has now been undermined by the 2014 electoral victory of age-old traditions, beliefs, preferences and prejudices based on the life experiences of past and present generations. Maybe Indians have indeed “outgrown” Macaulay’s system?

Gautam Pingle

Dean of Studies and Head, Centre for Telangana Studies, MCR-HRD Institute of Telangana

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