Writing The History of Colonial University

I am finally onto a project I always wanted to do: Write a history of the Colonial Universities.

Indeed, I start with a very modest work - an essay on the establishment of metropolitan universities (Calcutta, Madras and Bombay first, and then Allahabad and Punjab Universities) in India - which I intend to finish over the next few months. But I hope to make this a prelude to the bigger project, because I see the Colonial University as a distinct form of institution, whose purpose was to educate for the economic purposes of imperialism, and even if the empire is long gone and dead, this institutional form and modes of thinking lives on.  

That way, I shall claim, this is not just a freak exercise in academic pretencion for me, but an essential part of my overall work. 

While I work on it, I already find it fascinating to study the rhetoric and ideas around the establishment of the Indian universities. The conventional narrative runs along the lines of Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, with the historical figure of Lord Macaulay appearing in the background (though perhaps more important figures, like Charles Trevelyan and William Bentinck, are rather forgotten). The idea of the Indian Universities are seen - by today's Hindu nationalists in particular - as one of those great Anglicist impositions that perverted the course of Indian history, creating 'Macaulay's Children', Indians who were 'native in colour but Englishmen at heart'. It is, however, a mistaken narrative, because it was Indians, particularly Hindu Indians, who were intent on English Education and an Indian style university. The new universities became a springboard of Hindu supremacy in India, creating a new generation of elite who spoke English rather than Persian, and who would occupy the Civil Service roles soon thereafter. It is they, along with their Anglo-Indian compatriots, who would help make the British conquest of India complete, so much so that, in another 90 years, in the Constituent Assembly of Independent India, English would be retained as an official language, reluctantly, as it was the only common language that multi-lingual Indian elite use to communicate between themselves.

But there are two other narratives which I find equally misleading.

The first was the narrative of Progress and Enlightenment, favoured by the British historians then and now. The shortcomings of this narrative is clear: The universities in India were part of the oppressive imperial structure rather than institutions of freedom and liberation. They were designed, from the very start, to be different from the American Colonial Universities, which were started by the settler initiatives (backed by the Crown) and which were blamed for whatever happened in the American colonies thereafter. In fact, East India Company successfully argued against establishment of universities in India, proposed by William Wilberforce in the 1790s at the juncture of renewal of its charter, citing the debacle in the United States. The Colonial Universities in India were not in any way similar to the 'Colonial Colleges' such as Harvard, William and Mary or Yale (named after the East India Company clerk who made his fortune in Madras). The Colonial Universities in India were designed to be tools of economic exploitation of India, to turn it into a huge 'back-office' of the imperial enterprise.

The other is the liberal Indian narrative of the universities as the bedrock for Indian nationalism. This rather popular narrative does three things at once: First, it denies, wrongly, the existence of an Indian 'national consciousness' before the British conquest and education. Second, as a corollary, it reduces the Indian 'Struggle for Independence' in a single narrative dominated by Indian National Congress run by its college educated leaders, and airbrushes out the other important struggles, peasant revolutions, Sepoy mutiny, and workers' agitations from the picture. Third, as a result, it presents the idea of India as a derivative of European style idea of nation, denying the historical reality of the popular conception of 'Bharath'.

This narrative is wrong because the eventual dissatisfaction of the college-trained Indian elite with the discrimination at the workplace was not the fountainhead of Indian national consciousness. India was not, as some British historians would like to claim, an entity conceived in Imperial terms. India  was an ancient geographical, cultural and political entity, and both outsiders - early British merchants, for example - and people in India, knew it as such. Mughal empire was very much an entity, and it would be wrong to read the demise of India in the political fragmentation after Aurangzeb. There were several competing parties, and the British was one of those parties, and they sealed their dominance only in the mid-Nineteenth century. The colonial university as the fountainhead of nationalism denies this pre-existent reality, and inadvertently promote the idea of India as a British political construct (as indeed the modern India, reflecting the imperial boundaries, have become).

As I mentioned, this also bundles all other 'conflicts' - peasant revolts, Sepoy Mutinies, workers's struggles - in a subordinate role to the national struggle, as the National Consciousness seemed to belong exclusively to a group of college educated people. This is largely anomalous, as most of these college graduates devoted themselves, as they were expected to, in the colonial service, and, on the other hand, when Mutineers were being tied to the cannons and blasted away, they were not dying for 'special interest' but for their battles against the British (in many cases, for loyalty to the Mughal Emperor). This is not to undermine what the educated leaders of a later generation did in India, but while the Colonial universities may have played a role in creating a new 'imagined community', but that was not the only game in town.

I am also aspiring to tell the tale from a global perspective, as I see the Colonial University to be an instrument of globalisation, which created an ephemeral 'modernity' and various attempts at reconciliation with the ideas and practises of the Indian society. The economic structures of 'dependence', the political quest for an 'Indian people' and a very Indian love of 'science' - not of the scientific, questioning worldview, but the superficial labelling of anything as 'science' to claim higher ground and stop questioning - are all rooted in how the colonial universities were conceptualised and run. And, therefore, my attempts are to tell the story of the colonial universities in India as an expression of India's relationship with the world at large.


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