Politics of Foreign Education: The Colonial Memory

When I wrote a post titled 'Does India need Foreign Universities' I got the usual, and perhaps correct, response from many that the answer is obvious: Indian universities have a long way to go in terms of quality and innovation, and they need partnership with foreign universities to achieve this. However, my purpose of writing the post was never to argue on the contrary. In fact, it was not about collaboration and exchange of knowledge between the universities at all. This discussion is not about education, but about politics: My purpose is limited to exploring the political context why it is so difficult for India to pass the Foreign Education Providers' Bill (or allow Foreign Universities in India), when the educational benefits may be rather obvious (not to mention that most of the policy-makers themselves, and most certainly their children, are foreign educated).

While it may be easy to dismiss this as yet another example of the inefficacy of India's political class, the exploration of this politics, as I am doing now as a part of a project, is fascinating in itself. This is not just about lifecycle of a proposed legislation, but a broader discourse about Higher Education in India. The more I explore this, I see my own previous attempts to this, including the one I wrote  in a report about Indian Higher Education, may have been inadequate. The politics of foreign education is multi-layered in India, and it is indeed a worthwhile project to try to come to terms with it. This exploration may help dispel some of the myths - such as the delays around the bill are just about politicians and black money (which may be a reason, but only a partial one) or that a new administration led by business-friendly Narendra Modi may be able to quickly pass this legislation (which may happen, but it is unlikely that any administration will be over-eager to do it) or that the Foreign Providers' Bill is the solution (It is a flawed bill, as many have argued) - and may indeed stir a broader debate perhaps about what Indian Higher Education should look like in the coming years.

But, before I get into these broader issues, I intend to explore one of the reasons that keep coming up while discussing foreign education in India: Its colonial memory. This crops up in the discourse in regular frequency, and a key reason behind the ambivalence that successive Indian governments had towards foreign universities (and one key issue that a future administration, however business-friendly, may have deal with).

There is a simplified story about Indian Education system which often gets told in the West: That the British Colonial Administration endowed India with its first modern institutions, including the first civic universities. This started a sort of renaissance in India, with great flowering of literature, science and historical and social science research. This was, however, not followed up after Independence, and the excellence was gradually lost with the expansion of the education system. Today, India is afflicted by learning by rote, which the Indian students love to do, and is falling behind in Higher Education.

However, this is not the Indian story. An alternate story often captures the Indian mind. This narrative casts the colonial education system as the villain, rather than the enabler: The great Indian civilisation was systematically destroyed by the Anglicization of the education system. The Indian values were undermined, and learning by rote was introduced to produce civil servants who will help run the empire. The modern Indian state just sustained the handed-down colonial system, maintaining the same systems to sustain state power and ruled by a bunch of semi-colonialists educated in England.

The politics of Foreign Education is usually framed within these narratives: Outside India, it is about a nation that needs to free itself from its rote learning and obsolete education system; inside India, it is about finding its excellence within, not by subjecting itself to foreign methods which caused the subjugation of thought and destruction of its imagination. It is, therefore, important to try to make some points about the history of modern Indian Higher Education, which may hopefully cast the narratives in less emotive terms.

India did develop a system of science, medicine, jurisprudence and philosophy, but this had a more dynamic history than the proponents of the Indian glory would like us to believe. India's progress did not come from all endogenous developments through the ages, nor did ancient Indian scientists and philosophers had all the answers. Instead, the history of knowledge of India was one of rise and fall, of absorbing ideas from all over the world and developing successive waves of civilisation through the ages.

Coming up to the Eighteenth century, India was a still a prosperous country when the East India Company started making inroads in India. The country had its own system of education, quite an elaborate one with schools across its vast landscape, which was primarily funded and maintained by the feudal state (at the time of twilight of the Mughal empire, it was mostly its local chieftains who were independent in all but name). After East India company won a few local battles and landed up with the oversight of one of the most fertile territories on the land, Bengal, in 1760s, it did what merchants do (and what some of today's For Profit institutions focus on wholeheartedly) - it sought to maximize its profits. Education of the Natives was not one of its priorities, and though it may have had a line item of education fund in its budget, this was mostly about training its own officers policies of the company and customs of India. It was clear in its rationale: That the British share-holders were not to pay for the education of Indians.

Indeed, this is not about denying that some efforts were indeed made, particularly by key officers of the company. Warren Hastings played a key role in setting up the Calcutta Madrassah (which became Aliah University recently), which one can reasonably call this the earliest (or one of the earliest) modern institutions in India. Two Sanskrit Colleges, one in Calcutta and one in Benaras, were also established around the time. However, these attempts were more to train company officers than general natives, and while these institutions evolved over time, the story of colonial education in India should be seen as one of expedience rather than philanthropy.

In fact, how this foundational story was twisted by later interpretations on both sides is most apparent in the story of Hindu College (now Presidency University), which is arguably the first 'liberal arts' institution in India to offer instruction in English and study modern sciences. This was a private initiative rather than a government one, instigated by the liberal reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and funded by the rich Hindu businessmen of Calcutta. True, the enterprise was hosted and facilitated by the company officers, but the impetus of studying European science and English Language came from the great Indian reformer, who sought to bring change in the Indian society. Raja Rammohan was later excluded from the founding of the college - the Hindu donors saw him as a 'Mussalman' because he was a Farsi and English scholar and even travelled abroad, which was considered a sin (and ignited liberalism all over the world, earning a dedication of the Spanish constitution) - and the credits therefore were duly passed onto the English officers presiding over the founding of the institution.

Soon after this, however, the attitudes of the Colonial Administration changed towards the Education of the natives. The gradual expansion of the company rule in India, Lord Bentick's tenure in India (1828 - 1835) during which various reforms were initiated and the Company gradually started inducting natives into some jobs and the effects of changes in Britain (Utilitarianism, Free Trade ideologies) all resulted in the policy of developing, captured eloquently by Macaulay, 'a class of Indians, who are brown in colour, but English in taste'. The policy of cultural hegemony was firmly in place by 1857, when the Raj was eventually established after the Sepoy mutiny and the abolition of Mughal Empire. A Victorian Education, with learning by rote at its core, was firmly established in India. Almost all government money was spent in educating Indians to become officers of the Raj, 'education for clerkship' as one Indian Education reformer would call it, which undermined knowledge of Indian Heritage and established English Language at the top slot of the skills spectrum.

In fact, this system of education was resented and several attempts were made by Indians to reintroduce learning of Indian culture and languages.  One can cite various examples, such as:
1. Bengali landlords and philanthropists set up the National University of Bengal (later to become Jadavpur University) in Calcutta in 1905 to challenge the ‘education for subjugation’ offered by the state sponsored Calcutta University. 

2. This was also the objective of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who founded Benaras Hindu University in 1916. 

3. Using the Nobel Prize money he received, Rabindranath Tagore started ‘Viswa Bharati’ in Bolpur near Calcutta in 1923 (later to become Viswa Bharati University in 1951), challenging the pre-dominant Western, training-for-jobs education. 

4. Noted Industrialist and Banker Sir Annamalai Chettiar endowed Sri Meenakshi College in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, to promote Sanskrit and Tamil learning, in 1920, which would be given the status of an university (‘Annamalai University’) in 1927. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It was clear among the Nationalist Indian leaders, almost all of whom received some form of English education, that an Indian education system was needed for 'national awakening', but they were divided in their approach. Gandhi's early approach was to reject English education and values (When asked what he thought about Western civilisation at the wake of Second World War, Gandhi remarked that it would be a good idea) as inappropriate for Indians, but he eventually came around to the alternative view espoused by Tagore, that "if a lamp of knowledge lit anywhere in the world, we should gratefully receive that light". 

Nehru and most of his colleagues in the Indian cabinet (including his Education Ministers, Maulana Azad and Humayan Kabir) were proponents of this latter view: They instituted an Indian education system, which would be open to the ideas of the world, but would be driven by India's national requirements and priorities. However, English Language still persisted (and does) at the top of the skills ladder, earning the best jobs, salaries and even brides for prospective grooms.

Recently, however, there is an opposite trend gaining ground. With economic development and pre-eminence of the 'inside market', as the Indian consumers become the main source of business activity in the country rather than exports, the alternative narrative that the colonial education disrupted an Indian golden age is gaining ground. This is consistent with the ascendent Hindu nationalism, and an ideology that is likely to inform Narendra Modi's government, if he manages to come to power.  

The current dynamic about Foreign Education in India should be seen at this backdrop. As I intend to develop this narrative further (I am conscious that the story is still incomplete), I am learning several things that underlie India's attitude to Foreign Education: It is still a coveted thing for Indian middle class, which continues in its culture of government jobs and state patronage. However, at the same time, there is nothing Indian about rote learning, nor the Enlightenment project in India was a gift of British philanthropy. India may not need foreign institutions, nor it should go back to find its ancient route: Rather, the solution may lie in looking around for ideas of reformers such as Raja Rammohan, who imagined a new country within the civilisation of the old one. Indian education may need a reinvention, and this may happen outside the current ideas how this can be done. 


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