When the subject of establishing English style Public Colleges in India came up before the British Parliament in the late Eighteenth Century, the proposition was deemed to be both preposterous, as the Indians were deemed to lack the discipline needed for a college education, and subversive, as American colleges were blamed for the loss of British colonies there. The East India company administrators, however, were establishing colleges in India at the time - Warren Hastings modelled the Calcutta Madrassah following a version of famed Dars-i-Nizami curriculum followed in Awadh, followed by the efforts of Jonathan Duncan, the resident of Benares, to establish the Benares Sanskrit College - but these colleges were classic orientalist projects, for oriental learning and primarily for the benefit of English administrators wanting to understand Indian society and legal system. Such was the motivation of Wellesley's Oxford of the East - the Fort William College in Calcutta - which would not only train a generation of European orientalists but also rejuvenate Indian scholarship and contribute to the enlightenment project in Bengal.
This conversation changed in 1813, from the time of renewal of East India Company's charter, when the Company's Board, led by Charles Grant, evangelist and founder of Clapham Sect (and an old India hand who was close to Lord Cornwallis and tried to impeach Lord Wellesley), took a much more favourable view of missionary activities in Company territories, which was hitherto forbidden, and proposed the funding of public education out of company revenues. The sum was minuscule, but it was still significant as this predated any attempts at public education in England. In motive, also, this was different from earlier attempts by company officers: Whereas Hastings and others were attempting to step into the shoes of local rulers - India had an extensive education system supported by local rulers and enjoyed a higher rate of literacy than Europe even at the time of company ascendancy - the endeavours of 1813 was inspired by the reforming zeal of the evangelicals.
Indeed, the impact of this change in attitude would reflect in Indian administration a full generation later. Rather, the tenure of Marquess of Hastings in India (1813 - 1823), followed by Lord Amherst (1823 - 1828), is generally considered the golden age of Orientalism in India, distinctive for the Horace Hayman Wilson's pioneering work of Sanskrit scholarship and great archaeological discoveries of Hindu and Buddhist heritage of India. It was only afterwards, with Lord William Bentinck becoming the Governor, enthusiastically supported by the Utilitarian James Mill at the East India company, the shift of Indian Education policy was apparent. The 'Anglicists' - those who sought a transformation of India through English Education (like that of Ireland, where the Irish language was pushed into extinction by the conscious policies of Henry the eighth and later monarchs) - were clearly ascendant. Part of this project was pragmatic: Wanting to reduce the cost of administration, Bentick sought to employ Indians and needed to have them trained in English. The other part was motivated by the acceptance that India cannot be kept under control forever, and it would be through the English educated Indians, British connections - and trading privileges - would need to be sustained.
By this time, the earlier hesitancy about the Educated Indian - in the eighteenth century, India unified by Christian religion and the English language was thought to be a sure way to create national feelings - has given away to certainties about British moral and military superiority. Britain was at the height of its world power, and the abolition of slavery has supplied the moral confidence. When Macaulay was writing his Indian Education minutes, there would have been no doubts in his mind that the entire Sanskrit and Persian literature and science wouldn't even be worth a single shelf of an Englishman's library. James Mill's ideas of civilising a society by giving it civilised laws (English Common Law, in his mind) have been somewhat superseded within his lifetime, and civilising through education has already become the English mission.
There is another influence that one must not ignore in this conversation though. Indias were not, as is commonly believed, passive recipients of English educational ideas, neither the conversation about English education was solely an evangelical project, aided, in its late stages, by utilitarian agenda of spreading the European science. The Indians took the lead in creating private, rationalist, English education system, with their own money and effort, creating the famous Hindu College in Calcutta and setting in motion new education and cultural movements that challenged the Evangelical agenda of spreading Christianity. The project of rationalism in Indian Higher Education has been given somewhat marginal role, but its key figures - Raja Rammohan Roy, a high-born free-thinking Indian, David Hare, a Scottish watchmaker and rationalist, Henry Derozio, an Anglo-Indian Educator and founder of Young Bengal - played as much a role in shaping the Indian Higher Education as the British policy-makers did.
While Indians were kept out of Government jobs, by 1850s this has become a key demand of the English educated Indians. While some roles, primarily in the Judicial services, were being opened up to Indians, it was unthinkable, because of the stereotypes of a typically effeminate Indian averse to physical work, to put them in administrative roles. Yet, the English education in India was spreading fast, and by the 1850s, the Sanskrit and Persian schools were significantly undersubscribed. This was the setting, then, of Charles Wood's Education Despatch of 1854, where the earlier, rejected, plan of establishing a university in Calcutta was taken up again, and alongside a comprehensive plan for Indian Education, and the argument for promoting modern vernaculars, rather than Sanskrit and Persian (the two languages that gave Indians a common identity) was put side by side with the creation of affiliating universities in the three main presidencies, was presented as policy.
There are three important perspectives that help illuminate the motives behind this decision.
First, the idea of the Indian universities was taking shape at a time of unprecedented economic confidence, in the years after the Great Exhibition, when the old tributary-style colonialism was definitely out of time, and a new, consent-based (whatever that might mean on the ground) consumer imperialism [the type Hobson and Lenin would later come to describe, but one driven by free trade, rather than monopolistic ideas] had become the object of policy. The new Higher Education system was a part of the policy apparatus of free trade that co-opted the intended consumers in a culturally cohesive space.
Second, this is a time that the British administration discovered the Indian middle class. The traditional preference for the Indian elite - the British policy was to co-opt the elite into administration until they were thwarted by their refusal and, in 1857, rebellion - and the doctrine of Downward Filtration, the hope that an educated elite would spread rational ideas and English education [despite warnings that in a society divided by caste, it's hardly practicable], were both at an end. The loyalty of Bengali Hindu middle classes during the rebellion illustrated that the British rule can be sustained not by sustaining traditional social order and power structure, but through the collaboration with the emerging classes and an inversion of order. This was very much in sync with the Liberal Thought in England, and therefore, easily adaptable.
Finally, the British policy of encouraging Indian private enterprise in Education through a Grant-in-Aid system was successful in spreading English education (and destroying the traditional system), but rationalist endeavours in Higher Education also underlined the need for a Government imposed order. This was what the proposed Indian universities sought to do, to impose order through an examination system. Passing the examination became the object of education in no time, nipping the Indian experimentation with Liberal Education in the bud.
The foundational narrative of Indian universities, usually presented as a logical conclusion of Anglicist endeavours, or as a precursor of Indian nationalism, usually miss the point about an examination-based Higher Education system being conceived as a constituent part of a consent-based free-trade empire, one intricately linked with professions and livelihood, designed to create a middle class order. This is the story I am intending to tell through my work on Indian universities.
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