The Colonial University: Three Debates About Indian Education

Charles Wood, 1st Viscount Halifax
That the Board of Control of East India Company, the parliamentary body supervising the affairs of the East India Company from London, sent a famous dispatch - dubbed the 'Magna Charta of Indian Education' - in 1854 to Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, proposing the establishment of three Presidency universities in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, is well-known. Lord Dalhousie largely ignored the despatch, and its recommendations were implemented later by Lord Canning, Dalhousie's successor, as a part of wide-ranging reform initiatives after the Great Sepoy mutiny. The origin story, at least for British convenience, is better linked with the dispatch than the mutiny, and so this is how it's told.

The Hindu Nationalists in India see the founding of universities as the realisation of Macaulay's dream, of creating natives who are Englishmen at heart; they took to calling university educated Indians 'Macaulay's Children' and blame them for subverting the Hindu India and for creating a colonial hotchpotch.

For the Liberal Nationalists too, this is a creation moment: In Liberal imagination, Indian universities were the fountainhead of an Indian modernity, which would supply the modern national ideas leading to the Independence of India. The inconvenient fact that the Colonial Universities very much contributed to a Hindu resurgence and most graduates of these universities loyally served the British Empire, were usually left out of this narrative. Thus, the Colonial university, lived on Indian imagination after the independence, either as an imperial gift that accidentally created modern India, and subverted its traditions and cultures.

Despite these debates about its impact, the back story of the 1854 Dispatch remains insufficiently interrogated. The apparent straight line from Macaulay's famous minutes of 1835 to the Dispatch may largely be a red herring. The Dispatch was, in more ways than one, a different beast, and it went well beyond Macaulay's ideas of Anglicization (in fact, it recommended the opposite - use of vernacular in Primary and Secondary schools). Opposed to his idealistic and evangelical overtones, the Dispatch was pragmatic: It was not proposing new ideas, but it was rather a compendium of earlier ideas, shaped by the confidence of the Victorian empire but also by practical considerations about India. It took ideas from other practically minded endeavours, like the proposed plan for the University of Calcutta drawn up in 1845, and English Education Minutes of 1853. In its pragmatic accommodations, the dispatch marked the conclusion of three debates about Indian education that dominated the conversation between British Parliament and the East India Company for three quarters of a century preceding it.

First and the most famous of these debates was indeed the one between the Orientalists and the Anglicists. Macaulay's ideas of anglicizing Indian Education - something that he took from his reading of Tudor suppression of the Irish language and forced installation of English instead - were only the most famous in a long line of arguments running since Warren Hastings. Hastings, who encouraged education in Indian languages, and helped set up the Sanskrit College in Benares ('Athens of India') and Aliah Madrasah in Calcutta, had a political goal: To govern India in a way to which Indians 'acquiesce best'. In that sense, the opposite side of Macaulay's position was not just the Orientalists like William Jones and Horace Wilson, who were leading the studies of Indian languages and Indian archaeology, but more so the practically minded Conservatives, who wanted to preserve the Indian society as it existed. For this latter group, the idea of forced change of social institutions in another country was as unpalatable as it would be at home; James Cumming, a leading Conservative and a voice of preservation of Indian social order, succintly described of the Liberal ideas of reforming India and its education: "Tom Paine is writing Indian Constitution".

At the core of this debate about the language of Indian education, then, there was a political debate about how to govern India. And, significant too is that there were three sides of this debate, rather than just two: This was English versus Sanskrit and Persian versus the Modern Indian Languages, such as Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Gujrati and Marathi. Framing the debate in Orientalist-vs-Anglicist terms misses this very important nuance.

Charles Wood's dispatch, which might have been partly drafted by John Stuart Mill (or, as some historians would contend, by Lord Northbrook, a later Viceroy of India, who was Sir Charles Wood's Private Secretary) takes the pragmatic position on this debate: It took Macaulay's ideas of an English educated elite, but it accepted the opposing position that no country could be educated in a language other than its own, too. It recommended a school system based on vernacular - neither in English nor in Sanskrit and Persian - and envisioned Universities as vehicles for promoting Advanced scientific and western knowledge. Indeed, the universities were to promote learning in Sanskrit and Persian too, but with Government and Courts using English (rather than Persian, as was the case previously), the interest in these ancient learned languages quickly declined.

The Second debate was about Christianising India. This was very much Macaulay's central purpose, and it was so for the English evangelicals ever since the administration of Warren Hastings. Their's was a strong voice in the Indian education debate, starting with Charles Grant who had tirelessly campaigned for encouragement of missionaries and their schools in India. This was a central point of the debates in 1790s, in the amendments proposed by William Wilberforce in the East India Company's charter, as well as in 1812, when the Charter came up for renewal again. Arrayed against this position were again the more practical colonialists, including Warren Hastings, who thought India was best governed if its communities remained divided. The prospect of an India united by Christianity was what defeated the Wilberforce amendments, and this remained a strong leitmotif in the conversations about Indian education.

By 1854, though, there was a significant change in the thinking about education. Unlike in 1812, the responsibility of education has passed from the Church to the State, and the secular idea of education, as in English Education Minutes of 1853, remained at the heart of Wood's Dispatch. The Sepoy mutiny amply highlighted the dangers of any attempts to interfere with religious sentiments, as well as that of an Indian unity. Rather than advancing Christian ideas, the preservation of divided state of India remained at the core of the Dispatch and subsequent establishment of the universities.

The Third Debate was, rather predictably, about the effect of Education on India's national feelings. As early as 1784, East India Company officials argued that educating Indians might have a similar effect as in America, as they blamed the American universities for the loss of the colony. This was indeed the Conservative position. Arrayed against it were various Liberal positions, ranging from ideas about rule of law to an acceptance that Indians were far too numerous to be permanently kept under British rule, and Indian independence when it came, as it would invariably come, should still keep the Indians connected to Britain through education and language.

Wood's Dispatch embraced the Liberal position, but its central idea was also aimed to address the Conservative fears. It is important to remember here that the foundation of the universities were not the beginning of Higher Learning in English in India - there were already a number of colleges set up by private Indian initiative and philanthropic contributions, mainly by rich Indians - but rather to impose a structure on this growth of Higher Education. The purpose of the new universities were not to encourage studies of Liberal Arts or free thinking, but rather to discourage such idle pursuits (and groups like Young Bengal) from arising. The key proposition in this is to co-opt the Indians into the colonial bureaucracy, and make Professional Education (primarily Law) as the centrepiece of the Indian University project. This was some sort of a colonial genius - making an educated class of Hindus (they were Hindus mostly) a beneficiary of the Colonial enterprise - which would serve the empire well for the next 90 years or so.

In conclusion, then, the Colonial University, as envisioned in Wood's Dispatch, was a practical, pragmatic institution aimed at bureaucratisation of Indian education. It is this, rather than the presumed sins of Anglicization or Christianising, that became its most enduring, and damaging, legacy. Besides, contrary to the Liberal Nationalist narrative, the Colonial University never aimed to reform and unite Indians, but rather to enshrine old divisions of caste and religion and create new ones between the university educated and others. After Independence, Indians sought to move beyond the colonial legacy, but the ghosts of the Colonial University remained alive and well.


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