The Road of Macaulay: The Development of Indian Education under British Rule

The story of British influence on Indian Education, to which Macaulay's Minutes of 1835 belong, has been told in six distinct phases. Syed Nurullah and J P Naik's very popular and influential History of Indian Education calls these 'six acts' of the drama: 

From the beginning of Eighteenth Century to 1813 

The British East India Company received its charter in 1600 but its activities did not include any Educational engagement till the Charter Act of 1698, which required the Company to maintain priests and schools, for its own staff and their children. And, so it was until the renewal of its charter in 1813, when the evangelical influence led to insistence of expansion of educational activities and allowing priests back into company territory.

From 1813 to Wood's Education Despatch of 1854

The renewal of Charter in 1813 re-opened the debate, which seemed to have been settled in the early years of the company administration, between the Orientalists, who believed the Englishmen should learn the manners and customs of India and operate within the cultural environment of the host society, and Anglicists, who believed the Indians should be educated in the manners and laws of England and should be given a new civilisation. This was a period of experimentation and competition between the two ideas, with Macaulay's Minutes being a forceful advocacy of the latter point of view. The debate was somewhat settled by the Wood's Dispatch of 1854, named after Charles Wood, then the President of Board of Control (equivalent of what would become Secretary of State for India once the British Crown took over Indian territories) but perhaps drafted by, as later research has shown,  Thomas Baring, the Earl of Northbrook, who was Wood's Private Secretary at the time (and later, a Viceroy of India). Wood's Dispatch recommended a structure of Indian Education somewhat along the Anglicist path, though it created a structure of school education based on modern Indian languages, not imposing English as the Anglicists wanted, nor reviving Sanskrit and Parsi education and culture, as the Orientalists would recommend. 

From 1854 to 1901

This period, which falls outside the scope of this work, is marked by, as Nurullah and Naik maintain, 'Westernization of the education system but Indianization of its agency'. This phase was marked by the wholesale decline of the indigenous education system of India, the pathshalas and maktabs, and rapid expansion of schools teaching the 'government curriculum'. By the end of the period, Indians were owning and running most of these schools offering Western curriculum. In many ways, this was a period of 'convergence' between the British Educational Agenda and Indian aspirations.

From Curzon's Reforms of Public Instruction in 1901 to 1921

The question of quality in private schools and that of national consciousness dominated the conversation during this period. Quality was one of the primary concerns for Lord Curzon to convene the conference of Directors of Public Instruction in Shimla, which kicked off a full scale agenda of educational reform. However, at the same time, Indians were looking at Asia, particularly Japan and its rise (especially its victory over Russia, an European Imperial power, in 1905) and drawing lessons from Meiji restoration. This period saw the National Education movement, incorporation of new institutions wishing to promote Indian or Asian cultures. In a sense, this was a time of divergence between Indian aspirations and British Educational agenda. The end of the period was marked by the transfer of Education portfolio to the control of Indian ministers.

From 1921 to the Full Provincial Autonomy in 1937

This period was marked by experimentation under Indian control, an enthusiasm to expand Education system and recruitment of new scholars. However, financial difficulty marked the period, of which the effects of Great Depression were not inconsiderable. Eventually, this would mean scaling back of ambitions and continuous struggle between Indian aspirations at the provinces and Government of India's control of the purse strings. The Government of India Act of 1935, which replaced the earlier 1919 version, marked the end of this period, with fuller provincial autonomy, and Congress taking power in seven of the eleven provinces.

From 1937 to Independence

This final phase is marked by enthusiastic reforms, as were set out in the years between 1937 and 1940, stalled by the advent of Second World War, intensification of political agitation, communal strife and Independence. 

As is mentioned above, the Macaulay narrative relates to the first two of these six periods, though there is a distinct overhang of it in the subsequent periods, at least until the changes of 1921. But before the discussion moves on to its effects, it is appropriate to look at the periodizations a little more closely, and question, in light of this discussion, whether the period between 1698 and 1813 can really be counted as one. 

My argument is that there are significant breaks within this period, which changed the East India Company's involvement quite substantially. Indeed, the most significant development during this period is the emergence of the Company State, after the victories in Bengal-Bihar in the middle years of the Eighteenth century, and the grant of Diwani in 1765, which made the Company State a vassal of the Mughal Emperor. The British East India Company was now in charge of an enormous territory, many times bigger than Britain, which was also one of the richest geographies in the world. 

The early Company administrators took this on as a lifetime opportunity to make fortunes, both for the Corporations as well as for themselves. The indigenous education system, which was traditionally supported by the local rulers and landlords, was suddenly without its patrons, as the Company Officers, despite their change of roles, were negatively inclined to take the responsibility of educating the natives. However, this would start changing in a significant way after the arrival of Warren Hastings as the Governor General of Bengal in 1769, his second stint in India, as he would formulate a new philosophy of the company state, and with that, a new involvement with India. 

This is a significant break, one I believe deserves a separate periodization. The period from 1698, when the Company was a mere trading outfit, ended somewhere in between 1765 and 1769, with the Diwani and Hastings' arrival, and the debates that would shape later policy would soon begin. I, therefore, chose this point as my starting point: The story of Macaulay must, in my opinion, start with Warren Hastings.


For the above periodization, see Nurullah, S and Naik, J P, History of Education in India (during British Period), 1951, Macmillan and Company, Bombay, Introduction, Pp xiii - xxiii.


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