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The Ghost of Macaulay Haunts 171 Years Later

 By Anita Mukherjee



Life was easy back then. You were told that Bentinck was a good governor general, that Macaulay was a good education reformer, and you accepted it on the face value. You were just a school student. But now, decades later, you read the actual speech by Macaulay and you wonder; you read the role of Bentinck in suppressing the dissenting viewpoints of people like Prinsep and you wonder. Perhaps, Bentinck is easier to explain; after all it is all relative; compared to the string of appalling ones like Clive and Hastings, he was less of a devil; but truthfully, neither Bentinck nor Macaulay meant to do anything good for India. They were only loyal patriots, loyal to their own country; their job was to belittle and suppress India and everything Indian, politically, culturally and in every other way, and they did that well. They may have fooled themselves in believing that they were carrying out a white man’s burden, but what about a brown man (and woman)’s burden? The browns (and blacks) were truly bearing the burden in 19th century, literally and figuratively.


So, what was going on in Indian education system in 19th century? In early 1830s, the Committee of Public Instruction, which was entrusted with providing the direction for education in India, was divided right in the middle, five members for promoting Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, and five in favor of elementary education in vernacular languages with English for higher education (Thirumalai). The deadlock in the committee resulted in a suspension of educational activities; at this crucial juncture and in such high-charged atmosphere, Macaulay stepped in. Macaulay, an eminent parliamentarian and literary figure lived in Calcutta between 1834 and 1838, and on February 2, 1835, he delivered a speech to the supreme council of India, which sealed the fate of Indian languages and heralded English as the prime language of official communication and education.


Most of his arguments (though not all) were countered by other members of the Supreme council, particularly Prinsep, who was the Secretary for issues related to education, but Prinsep’s voice was muted, his memorandum suppressed. As Prinsep lamented, Bentinck had already decided that whatever Macaulay said was the truth and whatever he proposed was right; his mind was already closed just as Macaulay’s was even before he landed on Indian soil (Thirumalai). In his diary, on February 15, 1835, thirteen days after Macaulay’s speech, Prinsep wrote that the majority was against the introduction of English, “I carried with me the vote of the majority of the Council of Education. But when T.B. Macaulay arrived to be the new legislative member of the Council of India, his high literary reputation induced the Government to appoint him President of the Council of Education, and the English party, as it was called, entertained high hope that his influence and authority would turn the scale against me and my supporters. … Lord W. Bentinck would not even allow my memorandum to be placed on record” (Thirumalai).


Endorsing Macaulay’s views, on March 7, 1835, Governor General Bentinck paved the way for English with, "the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India" (Thirumalai).  


As one reads Macaulay’s speech, one can see that his arguments were based on both ignorance and arrogance, a deadly combination. Contemptuous and disrespectful in the extreme, he believed:

English is a far superior language compared to any other on the planet.

British will be doing a favor to the ignorant, uneducated, superstitious natives by giving them the gift of truth and enlightenment in the form of English and Western science. After all, what the white man didn’t understand was worthless and what he couldn’t experience was superstition!

British were already doing so much, going beyond the call of duty, by ruling the foolish natives. It is time that the smarter natives at least step up and take some of the burden off by learning English, helping in governance and acting as an intermediary between the rulers and the ruled. He even condescended that the brown man is actually good at learning and speaking English. 


And if you think I’m exaggerating, just look at some of the actual quotes from the speech (Macaulay):

 “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”.
“all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England”.
“It may safely be said, that the literature now extant in that language (English) is of far greater value than all the literature which three hundred years ago was extant in all the languages of the world together”.
“The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar”.

It is surprising that even he admitted that India was as good as England (and that’s the skies, right?) in philosophy, “In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same”.

Regarding teaching Hindu religion, he said, “We are to teach it because it is fruitful of monstrous superstitions. We are to teach false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion”. Yet, one must admit that he was against the missionaries, “We abstain, and I trust shall always abstain, from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting natives to Christianity”.
He ridiculed those who wanted to teach Sanskrit and Arabic literature with, “when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, whenever they differ from those of Europe, differ for the worse; and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true History, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines, which would disgrace an English farrier,--Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school,--History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long,--and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter”. 
He showed his generosity and magnanimity with, “at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books, I would abolish the Madrassa and the Sanscrit college at Calcutta … If we retain the Sanscrit college at Benares and the Mahometan college at Delhi, we do enough, and much more than enough in my opinion, for the Eastern languages”.


I’m trying hard to not judge him, to remain calm and detached and let the reader decide what Macaulay and the like were worth. But, there’s no doubt that what missionaries did against Indian religions, Macaulay and Bentinck did against Indian languages and literature.


Prinsep countered Macaulay’s argument that students have paid to study English whereas those studying Sanskrit or Arabic were paid stipend by pointing out that “Gurukul” tradition of India is based on providing free education, whereas English teachers demand to be paid to teach, “Everybody knows that with Moolavees and Pundits, … it is meritorious to give instruction gratis and sinful to take hire or wages from the pupil who receives it… The English Master on the other hand who is a Christian … acts on quite different principles and not only deems it no sin to take payment for the lessons he gives but makes a special demand of it” (cited by Thirumalai). 


Macaulay, in his speech, had quoted a letter from Sanskrit scholars, who requested that the British administration continue to provide financial support as they do not have means of supporting themselves. Prinsep pointed out that the stipends are nothing but, “in all respects similar to the Scholarships of the Universities or to the foundation Scholars of the Public Schools of England. They are given not as inducements to study the language but as the rewards of successful study”. Further, within Mudrusa, scholarships are given “for proficients in English in order to encourage the study of that language”. And only “If this be a conclusive argument that the study of English is nauseated because it requires to be paid for, then may it be applied to Arabic and Sanscrit and to Mathematics and to all other studies”, he retorts (cited by Thirumalai).


And that it was Indians, especially Hindus who supported and allowed the British Raj to perpetuate for their selfish reasons is evident from Prinsep’s, “It is the Hindoos of Calcutta, the Sirkars and their connexions …those who have risen through their connexion with the English and with public offices, men who hold or who seek employments in which a knowledge of English is a necessary qualification”. Prinsep shows his understanding of ground realities when he emphasizes the dilemma that youth finds themselves in, “In all times and amongst all people this is an important question for youth but more especially to the youth of India at present” to decide as to “by what course of education to provide themselves the best chance of a comfortable livelihood” (cited by Thirumalai).


So, how relevant is Macaulay today? Well, there’s no denying that in those short 4 years, he changed the destiny of hundreds of millions of Indians for centuries to come. 


Macaulay wanted to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (Macaulay) and he certainly succeeded in that. Don’t Nehru, Jinnah and even Gandhiji exactly personify the image of brown Englishmen? But with Gandhiji, things eventually didn’t go as planned. How Macaulay must’ve turned in his grave when Gandhiji, after having tasted and lived British culture decided to give it up and embrace what was truly Indian. Choosing to live as the poorest of the poor, he led the boycott of all British products, and emphasized simplicity and “seva” --service to others, sacrificing self-interests and devoting one’s life to the service of nation and fellow human beings – something Macaulay and his kind could never have understood.


India is a country that prides itself in its unity in diversity – diverse food, clothing, languages, rituals and culture, yet there is that basic Indian culture and value system that binds us all together. And today, whether we like it or not, we have a common language in the form of “Indian English”. Hindi comes as a close second, what with generous help from Bollywood and television but not quite! And just as Muslims came as outsiders but integrated themselves in our Indian fabric, so has English language. Most educated Indians are as fluent (and sometimes more so) in English as they are in their mother tongue and it is a pleasure to hear them as they switch languages in a conversation, within a sentence naturally and gracefully.


In sixties, seventies and eighties, “brain drain” was a very popular term in India, reserved for the best of Indian brains, who migrated to US and other countries. There were serious debates on why Indian government is subsidizing education in premier institutes like IITs and IISc, when most of the graduates choose to immigrate. In nineties, suddenly, the tide turned; voices changed as the immigrants started giving back, back to their institutes, villages and communities. The affluent NRI (non resident Indian) was suddenly in a position to contribute and he did; he cleared his debts with full interest, the earlier investments seemed to pay off as India slowly became the destination of choice for outsourcing. One cannot deny that the command over English language is one major factor in Indian success; one could only communicate with and influence West by speaking their language, by being amongst them.


One can speculate on what would or could have been if Sanskrit, Arabic and other spoken languages of India were favored over English in 1830s. There’s no doubt that these languages would have been much more enriched, as the educated Indians would have contributed the way they now contribute in English. Perhaps, the impact of Western culture on India would be much less too, and Indian traditions, Indian mythology and culture would have flourished. There’s no doubt that Devnagiri script in which Sanskrit and Hindi are written is much more scientific compared to Roman script and perhaps, it would have heralded a faster scientific revolution. But, I’m not a person who enjoys science fiction; speculating and imagining is not my cup of tea, especially when I know that the past cannot be changed and the wheels of time cannot be rolled back. We have been served with a plate full of English, and we must make the most of what we have…


Thirumalai et al. (2003). Lord Macaulay, The Man Who Started It All, And His Minute. Language In India; Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow. Retrieved April 6, 2006, from



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(The author is  active in a variety of different fora and is a alumnus of Indian institute of Science, Bangalore


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