Road to Macaulay: A Conservative Revolution

However, even when Hastings left Calcutta, forces that irreversibly altered India’s ‘ancient constitution’ were already ascendant. Paradoxically, the radical changes arose from the deeply conservative British attempts to preserve what they perceived to be the Indian culture and polity.

The Asiatic Society of Bengal, an institution Hastings patronised, was established in 1784 and over the next half century, would take the lead in the production of ‘reliable legal knowledge’. William Jones, its Founder-President, with his colleagues and successors, would be engaged in a vast enterprise of translating ancient Hindu and Muslim legal texts, that would end up transforming India’s tradition and custom-based context-sensitive legal system (‘three thousand years of despotism’, as Macaulay would describe it in his speech) into an European-style legal code. In this ‘Orientalist’ enterprise, Jones and his colleagues were supported by Hindu and Muslim scholars, a collaboration that produced a book-bound, scriptural version of the law as seen from the vantage point of the scholars guiding the enterprise. As the Company administration would put this legal code into practice, as it had to do in its search of fiscal certainties, it would transform the Indian social life. Historian Radhika Singha in her A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (OUP India, 2000) described how the changes of the criminal law system rode over India’s diversity, its traditions of communal justice and informal arbitration, the very ‘ancient constitution’ that Hastings, Burke and Jones sought to preserve. This transformation of legal institutions and practice would become, in a few generations, one of the key motivators for expansion of the modern higher education system in India.

The other transformation that dramatically subverted India’s ‘ancient constitution’ was the system of private land ownership introduced in Bengal by Earl Cornwallis in 1793. Cornwallis was implementing ideas promoted by Sir Philip Francis and Burke and following the instructions contained in Pitt’s India Act of 1784 to the Company government to redress the complaints of native landholders. This system, which came to be known as Permanent Settlement, created a new system of private land ownership wherein a ‘Zamindar’, the landlord, could buy the rights for a village (or group of villages) at an auction by agreeing to pay a fixed revenue to the administration on a stipulated date every year. This was very different from the pre-existing system of land-ownership in India, as the villages collectively held the land, and the ‘landlords’ were effectively tax collectors for the local rulers. The change of system supplanted the old, usually Muslim, landlords with the newly ascendant traders and company collaborators who bought villages that became their private property. Cornwallis’ deeply conservative motive of introducing a British style Farmer-Gentleman landlord class committed to village well-being and agricultural improvement (an idea he might have shared with Thomas Jefferson and the French physiocrats) brought about a radical change, making landlords out of the newly prosperous scribal, money-lending and trading interests. Under the new system, the landlords gained absolue powers over the lives and labours of the villagers in their respective domains, notwithstanding their complete ignorance of the area prior to the acquisition of the domain at auctions and consequent lack of connections and sympathy with its inhabitants. Most of them did not show any inclination to become the ‘Farmer-Gentleman’, and instead clung to the urban comforts and city lives. They conveniently contracted out revenue collection duties to middlemen, who, in turn, cared even less for anything other than the revenue collections. These absentee landlords, with their disposable income and idle time, would significantly impact the city culture and economy in the British metropolis of Calcutta, eventually becoming an important influence in the spread of English education.

However, while the Company was involved in the bold experimentation in property rights and codifying the law, matters directly related to the finances of the company state, the earlier relationship between trade and proselytising were decisively broken by the end of Eighteenth century. David Hume’s observation ‘as the force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion’ was taken to heart by company administrators and the company’s quest of political legitimacy was intricately linked with its policy of religious neutrality. Policy battles however raged in the Parliament between those driven by Christian duty, evangelicals like William Wilberforce and former Company official Charles Grant, and the East India Company’s Court at Leadenhall Street.

Grant, a Founder of the Clapham Sect, argued for introduction of English as the language of state business, citing both moral and pragmatic purposes, in a privately distributed pamphlet:

To introduce the language of the conquerors, seems to be an obvious mean of assimilating the conquered people to them. The Mahomedans, from the beginning of their power, employed the Persian language in the affairs of the government, and in the public departments...It would have been our interest to have followed their example… The details of the revenue would, from the beginning, have been open to our inspection..  

Grant’s proposals appealed to many in the Parliament, at a time when the ‘corruption’ of the Company administration was an issue being actively considered in the lengthy impeachment of Warren Hastings.

In the debate leading to the renewal of the Company’s charter in 1793, Wilberforce impressively argued in favour of sending schoolmasters to India to expand the Christian educational enterprise, but this ‘pious clause’, as it came to be called, was eventually dropped in the face of strong opposition from the Company’s Court and the Anglo-Indian interests. Speaking about this debate in his disposition before the Parliamentary committee in 1853, John Clark Marshman described the argument:

That proposal gave rise to a very memorable debate, in which for the first time, the views of the Court of Directors upon the subject of education, after we had obtained possession of the country, were developed. On that occasion, one of the Directors stated we had just lost America from our folly, in having allowed the establishment of schools and colleges, and that it would not do for us to repeat the same act of folly with regard to India; and if the Natives required anything in the way of education, they must come to England for it.

The battle lines were clearly drawn, not just between the pragmatic profit-seeking motives of the company and the evangelical zeal of the Anglicist camp, but also between the traditionalists and the reformists. The evangelical spectre of a complete transformation of the Indian society, even for the cause of Christianity, would have been a dangerous precedent, in the precedent seeking English mind, before the traditions and practices of the mother country itself come under attack.


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