“Current Affairs Editorial – Can India continue to ignore Macaulay’s foundational contributions?”


Can India continue to ignore Macaulay’s foundational contributions?

G.S. Paper I: Modern Indian history from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the present- significant events, personalities, issues

The Grand Narrative of Modern Indian History:-

  • It is dominated by the triumvirate of Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar.
  • This approach was carried forward during the post-independence period when political parties appropriated these leaders to further the narrative of nation building.
  • Hence Congress took it upon itself to claim Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru post his demise.
  • The various Dalit outfits which emerged as a consequence of their empowerment over the years embraced B.R.Ambedkar and the constitution he dedicated to the nation.

Our Collective Amnesia:-

  • In this process, unfortunately many national leaders and freedom fighters who stood hand in hand with Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar were relegated to the status of foot soldiers.
  • Towering leaders like Rajaji, Sree Narayana Guru, Lala Lajpat Rai are no longer part of our collective consciousness.
  • Some of these great leaders have been relegated to the status of local and ethnic heroes.
  • For instance, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule is only celebrated by Dalits and most backward class groups and Mahatma Ayyankaali is familiar only to those from Kerala.

Injustice to our Foreign Rulers:-

  • We do more injustice to all those men from the British Isles and associated with the Raj.
    Mountstuart Elphinstone, apart from being an administrator of the British Raj, was a noted writer and his efforts to promote education is in India was stellar.
  • Likewise, Lord Lytton, Reginald O’Dwyer, William Bentinck, Lord Ripon are a few names in the never ending list of British administrators who have made stellar contributions to India.
  • They have often been recalled as part of the narrative against the British colonial rule in India while their great contributions remain subjects of staid academic debates and discussions.
  • It is natural that a generation remains bitter towards an oppressive regime, foreign or home-grown, that it managed to overthrow.
  • And the subsequent generations would be more forgiving, if not forgetful.

A Constant Reappraisal of History by Common People:-

  • Hence the need of the hour is a constant reappraisal of history by the common people which will make us rethink about the above mentioned grand narrative.
  • While scholars question the wisdom of ‘colonial hydrology’, Sir Arthur Cotton who built a barrage on river Godavari is gratefully remembered by people in coastal Andhra Pradesh.
  • Is it time the country embarked on a new estimation of the pantheon of modern India’s nation builders?

How Macaulay is remembered today:-

  • A person whose legacy is remembered with contestation and controversy is the legendary Thomas Babington Macaulay.
  • The Indian nationalists curse his legacy because during his four years as a colonial politician, they argue, Macaulay fastened the yoke of the English language onto India.
  • Even today “Macaulay’s children” is a pejorative term for those he westernized.

Macaulay is widely remembered for his hatred for Oriental languages which is often recalled through this infamous quote reproduced below:-

  • “I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in Sanskrit and Arabic. 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”.
  • “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltriest abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.
  • Hence politicians who launch a tirade against the invasion of English, the march of western culture and the loss in stature of Sanskrit train their guns invariably on Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Macaulay’s Real Contributions:-

  • Macaulay in 1833 was the first on record among those ruled India to reject caste and communal distinctions in categorical terms.
  • He sympathized with Shudras when he said “….the worst of all systems was surely that of having a mild code for the Brahmins… while there was a severe code for the Sudras.
  • India has suffered enough already from the distinction of castes, and from the deeply rooted prejudices which that distinction has engendered”.
  • In the words of eminent Historian K.M. Panikkar, Macaulay is India’s new Manu, the spirit of modern law incarnate.
  • Un conditionally wedded to the Idea of Progress, especially in terms of the liberal freedoms, Macaulay was one among the few who ushered in the rule of law in India.
  • This seminal change brought in a systematic legal system which gradually destroyed the authority of Caste based institutions in India reducing their power to control the lives of individuals.
  • Historian Ramachandra Guha echoes a similar viewpoint: “The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education in 1835”.
  • And India might not have still been united had it not been for that Minute on Indian Education, 1835 either.

Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, 1835:-

  • In his infamous Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, which adopted the arguments of the Westernizers, Macaulay urged Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General to reform secondary education on utilitarian lines.
  • There was no tradition of secondary education in vernacular languages back then; the institutions then supported by the East India Company taught either in Sanskrit or Persian.
  • He dismissed as patronizing Orientalist concerns that English might be too difficult for Indians to grasp in sufficient depth.
  • Hence Macaulay arugued: “We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language”.
  • With his characteristic love of sweeping comparisons and rhetorical exaggeration, Macaulay presented a stark contrast between the educational alternatives now on offer.

A Utilitarian Approach to English Education:-

  • The historian in Macaulay could not resist citing past precedents for how best to create a true Indian renaissance.
  • Macaulay accepted, on grounds of cost and practicality, that the Indian masses could not be taught Hume and Milton in the kind of comprehensive educational system.
  • Instead, in its most famous words, the Minute set the objective of creating ‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’.
  • Macaulay’s educational minutes made it abundantly clear that he saw the teaching of English, far from replacing the vernaculars, as a channel for the transmission of European knowledge into the vernaculars and through them down to the wide mass of the Indian population.

Envisaging an Organic Growth of Vernaculars:-

  • But the vernaculars must grow organically out of the new learning, rather than by government paying a few authors to produce books in those languages.
  • The new schools had inevitably led on to the founding of new universities, endowed not merely by government but, as Macaulay had predicted, by the private philanthropy of wealthy Indians themselves.
  • Macaulay: One of the makers of modern India?
    There was a recent controversy over Mahatma Gandhi’s quite uncharitable comments on Black Africans and consequent demands in several countries from Ghana to South Africa to pull down his statues.
  • The shortcomings of Mahatma Gandhi are not good enough to deny him his rightful place in history.
  • Can we continue to ignore Macaulay’s foundational contributions towards making modern India?

The Way Forward:-

  • Panikkar and Mr. Guha highlighted Macaulay’s two gifts to India, the rule of law and English language.
  • These two gifts have played and still play a critical role in building and keeping India as a functioning democracy.
  • An informed public debate on what it means to celebrate the legacy of Macaulay will help us appreciate the whys and wherefores of much of the current angst in the country.
  • It is time the country embarked on a new estimation of the pantheon of modern India’s nation builders.

Source: “THE HINDU Editorial For September 12, 2017”