Does Macaulay Matter?

Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana [1863 - 1952]

An email made my day. As I opened my mailbox, I saw a mail from Gaurav, someone who I did not meet before. The subject line is Macaulay, our favorite whipping boy, and it reads:


your article is fantastic but the issue is are we doing anything to change the tomorrow or we are just cribbing of the past.

This is our country we need to change the tomorrow.

This is indeed the first time anyone had anything nice to say about the impromptu post I made about the spoof passed on in Macaulay's name. I am indeed grateful, thanks Gaurav, but he makes a very valid point. Does Macaulay matter any more?

I gave away my answer pre-emptively in the quote I have put at the beginning of this post - I do think he matters and we need to have this discussion. In my mind, there are three reasons why he does still matter.

First, because, he invented the model of colonialism that helped the British monarchy rule us for two centuries. We were fooled into submission, one can say. Alternately, one can admire the ingenuity of his scheme and the fact that he invented modern colonialism. He divided us, effectively, and let us rule ourselves on someone else's command. It was he, and not Robert Clive, who actually won India for the British.

Second, because we are still having that chasm invented by him. We still live the legacy of Macaulay. We still have the big and the powerful, the VIPs, who are 'different'. Any argument in today's India starts with 'you know who I am' - we created a who's who society. Of course, we do nothing to bridge that gap - this will require a full-fledged social revolution in India - rather we enjoy the divide and blame Macaulay and 'his children'. We still pass on spoofs in his name projecting what he may have thought. He matters because we are still having this conversation.

Third, because Macaulay's success was accidental. He invented the colonial model, and it suited us so perfectly. We were always a divided society, and this is why it was so easy to conquer India. We had different layers - castes and jatis - and we never worked together. So, when, Macaulay wanted to create an Indian ruling class who will lord over the rest of us on behalf of the British, he accidentally created a scheme that came naturally to us.

But, then, we need to look at this critically and see whether we have learnt anything from our past. I guess we have not, as the same people who object to Macaulay so vehemently, and blame him for all our woes, try to take us back to the glories of Ancient India. Of course, we made great progress in science, philosophy and literature [and so did Egypt and many other nations around the world], but it all comes in a package. We also invented this terrible system of caste, which was not the brilliant division of labour as its apologists project it to be, but a harsh social hierarchy, rigid and without any mobility, which undermined us as a community and a nation for centuries. While we blame Macaulay, we want to perpetuate the same system of privilege indefinitely.

This is exactly what we need to change tomorrow. The debate about India's future starts at the very root of the idea of India - who are we inviting to the party. We keep talking about this metaphor, that there are two Indias, one brightly lit up, urban, educated and ready to go; the other, dark, rural, stilted and condemned to stay. I know I am indulging in a bit of generalization for some impact, but it is as if one is catching the bus and the other is sure to miss it. That's indeed a nightmare of pure Macaulay vintage.

The best way to understand Macaulay is also in trying to understand how we eventually defeated him and became an independent nation. I shall attribute this to the genius of Gandhi, whose singular achievement was to attempt the bridge the chasm that divided India and in bringing everyone together. Before Gandhi, Congress was a talking shop of Babus; after him, it was the biggest modern mass political organization the world has ever seen. And, if one reflects back on what Gandhi actually did, one will see he reached out - to Muslims with the cause of Khilafat, to villages with causes close to their heart and livelihood, with lower castes, to everyone. He started building India as a nation, and Congress as a microsm of it. If one wants to envision Colonialism and Independence as a battle of ideas, it would essentially reduce into this Exclusiveness and Inclusiveness face-off. And, the two symbolic figures here will be Macaulay and Gandhi.

However, despite the fact our independence was earned by following the inclusiveness principle espoused by Gandhi, we seemed to have resented the idea from the very start of Independent India. We maintained the British bureaucracy, along with all its traditions and practises and nomenclatures, and rejected Gandhi's suggestion of a ground-up rebuilding of the Indian administration. We defined our ambitions in terms of what rank we can achieve in the babudom, rather than the pre-independence spirit of public service. We invested heavily in the world-class institutes of technology and management, but neglected general education and literacy. We wanted to leave out the Muslims, though they are the ones who fought Macaulay the most, and showed great courage by staying in the Independent India despite the lure of a Muslim homeland in Pakistan. We wanted to leave out the uneducated [who, mind you, are uneducated by our own design], the villagers [who remain excluded, despite Gandhi's best attempts] and the lower castes [we actually employed Macaulay's designs to divide the lower castes and created an upper-lower and lower-lower caste, and left out most of them]. We basically wanted to create an Independent India following Macaulay's designs and sent Gandhi to exile.

How many times have we heard that our population is our problem and it won't be too bad if some poor people die in a war or famine? How many times have we resented the villagers polluting our cityscape? How many times have we said that Muslims should go to Pakistan? How many times have we wanted to believe that India was a great country before the Muslims came? How many times have we tried to undermine all our social, economic and scientific achievements during the middle ages, when Muslim rulers ruled India?

The debate about India's future should start here. Yes, with a wholehearted rejection of Macaulay, but also with a redefinition of our society and rejection of modern Macaulayism. It will be whether we can unlock our talent potential, build an inclusive society and bring everyone to party. But till we do so, Macaulay will remain terrifyingly relevant.


Unknown said…
Wonderful points you have made... very true to the core!!!
Sanju said…
Awesome post and excellent analysis...If you could delve in deep on Gandhi's Unifying strategies it could be an interesting read as well

Thanks for your kind words.

I keep writing about Gandhi, here are some other posts:

Also, I shall recommend this book to you - Goodbye to Gandhi - by Bernard Imhasly, which is travelogue of modern India but insightful.

I will keep writing about Gandhi.

Sumit said…
you have written we were never united, always fighting among ourself, do u think it is true, or it is the macaulay who taught us this, even if u r right and the britishers were very organised as per you, than y britain behaves like a pony tail of US now, which was under its colony.

I think we all appreciate what britishers have introduced in the field of science but why these white skin people come to India to obtain spiritual bliss its almost 2000 years that Christ has died, they are still close to us in term of spirituality, which is far more subtle compare to science, and you concluded so much on the basis o 200 years old rule of british, you forgot Ashoka Empire, Chandragupta Empire, there comes an era for everything, its just comes and go with passage o time

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