In Trying To Defy Colonialism, Draft NEP Walks the Path of the Colonisers

The Indian government should instead aim to truly open up educational spaces for humanistic pursuits.

The draft New Education Policy released last month rightly emphasises the importance of “liberal” higher education, but radically redefines the term to refer to an ancient Indian tradition in which an educated person was a master of a range of “kalas,” or arts. In its refusal of a strictly Western vision of liberal arts education, the policy follows in a long line of anti-colonial Indian experiments in higher education. But unlike those earlier experiments, it takes a purely instrumental view of the arts, for the sake of economic productivity, leaving little room for the exercise of dissent and critical analysis that has been the core value of modern liberal education, especially as a result of anti-colonial pressure.

In this, the draft NEP is in line with the Indian government’s decision last year to award six universities the status of “Institution of Eminence,” qualifying them for significant autonomy in curriculum and faculty recruitment. Three are public universities and will receive a bounty of government funds, with the aim of finally enabling Indian universities to achieve top-ranked global status. All six were engineering institutes, reflecting the government’s notion that the value of education lies in its contribution to India’s economic strength.

Meanwhile, the Modi government continues to censor and control scholars and academic institutions that question its right-wing Hindu agenda, and liberal arts education in the West faces crisis. Entire departments are closing at some universities, while others roil with controversies related to #MeToo, sexual assault, free speech, and affirmative action. Undaunted, elite institutions like my own, Stanford University, forge ahead to secure their global status — the Western dominance that drives India’s new policies.

Also read: Silencing Scholarly Voices, One Event at a Time

This situation is an opportunity to reflect on the way government control and the global power of the Western academy have shaped Indian higher education since the era of British colonial rule. By revisiting that twinned genealogy we might better assess the meaning of the latest policy visions for India’s postcolonial history.


British colonial rule depended heavily on “orientalist” scholarship produced in the West. The exclusive playground of white men in that time, the Western academy produced the theories of race, gender, and Western cultural superiority that underwrote imperialism. India’s British rulers began to establish Western-style universities in the subcontinent not to develop alternate points of view to that intellectual hegemony but to give it even longer legs. In 1835, the liberal MP Thomas Macaulay articulated the goal of liberal imperialism in his infamous “Minute on Indian Education”: to produce “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Some Indians absorbed the reformist impulse, most notably Ram Mohan Roy, an employee of the East India Company, who became a severe critic of Hindu priestly power and the social excesses it underwrote. He launched the reformist movement known as the Brahmo Samaj, and was a central figure in the Bengali Renaissance. He also entered debates within Christianity. He died in England after appealing to the king to increase the Mughal emperor’s pension. Among his reformist projects was the foundation of Hindu College in Calcutta in 1817, which aimed to provide (mostly) Hindu elites education in English. It was a non-governmental institution, but one founded at the instigation of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta. A few years later, Macaulay’s brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan was the driving force behind reorganisation of an eighteenth-century Delhi madrasa into another college including English instruction—the Anglo-Arabic College, also known as Delhi College. Trevelyan similarly held that, “Only the pure fount of English literature [can make] headway against the impenetrable barrier of habit and prejudice backed by religious feeling.” Delhi College became a key site of the flourishing of Urdu literary and political culture known as the Delhi Renaissance.

This faith in cultural and moral reform went hand-in-hand with liberal economic orthodoxies. As a civil servant in the Treasury, Trevelyan notoriously opposed government action to alleviate the famine in Ireland in 1846. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Wood, was of the same cast of mind. He, too, went on to shape the colonial government’s investment in higher education in India. In 1854, as President of the Board of Control overseeing the East India Company he sent a dispatch to the Governor-General, recommending establishment of English-language institutions of higher education to reform the Indian mind and produce a class of reliable Indian elites—the recently chartered University of London was the model in mind. Accordingly, in 1857, universities were established in the company’s “presidencies” in Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay; two further universities in this mold would be added in Punjab and Allahabad in the 1880s. One scholar summarises: “The functions of universities under British rule were intellectual, cultural, and political: to connect Indian education to European knowledge; to transmit the cultural values specific to Britain and Europe; and to make available to the raj a class of clerks, bureaucrats, and political collaborators.” The colonial universities were under full governmental oversight: the first chancellor of the University of Calcutta was Governor-General Lord Canning himself.

The Calcutta university was established months before massive Indian rebellion against the British in 1857. The University of Bombay followed in July; in September, as the British regained control of Delhi, the third university was founded in Madras. But the rebellion delivered a major blow to the liberal notions that had inspired these institutions; instead notions of permanent racial difference gained sway, bolstered by new scientific theories of race. If Britons grew ambivalent about the possibility of making Indians into Englishmen, Indians were divided over whether and how to adapt to the reality of British colonial rule. The decisive British defeat of the Mughal empire in 1858 left Muslim intellectuals, in particular, at a crossroads.

Revolt of 1857. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Some determined that the best way forward was to adapt to a culture of Western learning—a tack primarily associated with Syed Ahmad Khan and Maulana Khwaja Hali. Delhi College was closed for three decades after 1857, but some of its former affiliates helped set up a new college at Aligarh in 1875. Syed Ahmad Khan had visited Oxford and Cambridge and hoped to create an educational institution on that model—one that might belatedly fulfill Macaulay’s dream of producing an Indian class in the British image: Muslims must acquire the skills necessary to navigate the structures of power in an India clearly ruled by Britain. Khan was knighted soon after. Deoband, north of Aligarh, attracted Muslim intellectuals opposed to such a course.

A few years after the 1857 rebellion, Debendranath Tagore, whose father had been a close affiliate of Roy, established Santiniketan as a spiritual center of the Brahmo Samaj movement. At the turn of the century, his son the poet Rabindranath Tagore added a school, to actualise the theory that learning transpired most effectively in a natural environment. Rabindranath’s pedagogical convictions, departing from the British model, emerged partly from his abortive attempt to study in England in the 1870s.

Tagore returned from England degree-less, but other Indian elites proved more adaptive to education abroad. In 1905, Mohamad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher usually credited with inspiring the movement for Pakistan, went to Cambridge in the footsteps of his teacher from Government College in Lahore, the orientalist Thomas Walker Arnold, who was a great friend of Syed Ahmad Khan. Arnold was returning to England to work in the India Office, serving thereafter in high academic and imperial governmental offices. Through his studies, Iqbal became interested in Islam’s potential as a social and political organisation—the intellectual journey that would take him to the idea of a “Muslim India within India.” His understanding of “Islam” was critically shaped by orientalist European notions enshrined in European institutions of higher learning and in the imperial outlook of his mentor.

Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Ambedkar and other future nationalist leaders also studied abroad. The Oxford-educated revolutionary Lala Har Dayal landed briefly at Stanford University before he and other local Punjabis, including students at UC Berkeley, launched the Ghadar Party, whose name was an homage to the rebels of 1857.

In 1915, the Ghadar movement established a base at Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore. Soon after, Lala Lajpat Rai, who had met with Punjabis in California and visited Tuskegee University, a historically black university in Alabama, founded an educational experiment in this hall, National College. Its purpose was to offer higher education to those who did not want to join British institutions—part of the swadeshi movement to boycott British goods. The socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh studied there for four years.

Bradlaugh Hall was named for Charles Bradlaugh, the late-Victorian freethinker, who had addressed the Indian National Congress in 1889, when its aim was only to secure a greater share in governance, per Macaulay’s vision. His closest associate in England was Annie Besant—though her conversion to Theosophy right around then opened a rift between them. She was among many turn-of-the-century Britons drawing on orientalist notions and colonial cultural exchange to rethink spiritual—and political—questions. She arrived in India in 1893 shortly after Bradlaugh’s death. As with Roy and Tagore, her spiritual evolution inspired an educational experiment. In 1898, she established a school in Benares to encourage learning based on Hindu philosophy. Just before becoming president of Congress in 1917, she joined forces with a former Congress president, Madan Mohan Malviya, to found Benares Hindu University, which hosted Gandhi’s first public address in the country in 1916—putting Congress on the path to becoming a mass party demanding self-rule.

Tagore’s work influenced such Western mystical experimentation, especially after he won the Nobel prize in literature in 1913. The First World War turned him into a vocal critic of Western civilisation, after which he used his prize money to found the Vishwa Bharati college at Santiniketan, as yet another departure from Western methods of education.

Rabindranath Tagore hosts M.K. Gandhi and Kasturba Ganhi at Santiniketan in 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Osman Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, which was a nominally independent “princely state,” was the richest man in the world then. Besides founding Osmania University, the only university with Urdu instruction at the time, in his own princely domain in 1918, he donated significantly to Aligarh. A group of teachers and students grew frustrated however with Aligarh’s colonial sympathies and quit to found a more radically anti-colonial institution, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). The founders included the who’s who of radical Muslim leadership—Maulana Azad, Mohamed Ali Jauhar, Maulana Madani, and others. JMI’s anti-colonial outlook included an emphasis on developing innovative educational methods, for which it attracted international fame.

In this increasingly competitive field, with universities entangled in rival ideological and political missions, the British Indian government resolved to invest more in higher education—thus Patna received a university in 1917. The aim of producing a class of Indians in the British mold was rendered more exigent by the anti-colonial movement’s extraction of political reforms in 1909, which finally expanded Indian participation in governance. In 1919, the Montagu-Chelmsford Act tried to appease nationalist pressure further: Education was among the departments devolved to provincial governments in Indian hands.

That year Michael Sadler headed a commission investigating affairs related to Calcutta University. Sadler had risen from a radical industrial English background to become a prominent university administrator and art supporter. Exceeding its original mandate, his commission’s voluminous report considered education in the context of intensifying anti-colonialism, fuelling foundation of more universities, including one at Lucknow. From 1920-1927, government universities were founded in Delhi, Rangoon, Lucknow, Dhaka, Nagpur, Agra, and Andhra. The Nizam of Hyderabad added Andhra University and Benares Hindu University to his list of philanthropic beneficiaries. Instigated in many cases by Indian elites, these postwar universities had somewhat more autonomy than the initial wave of government universities.

Global forces were at work here. Indian and Western universities emerged out of cooperative as much as competitive impulses. The historian Emily Levine rightly observes, “The emergence of unexpected friends and foes in the pursuit of knowledge, within and across borders, challenges our standard notions of center and periphery.” Some Indian elites continued to study abroad, despite growing opportunities in India, because their liberatory commitments were international and regional as much as national. Leftists attended the new Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow, including M. N. Roy, who helped found communist parties in Mexico and India. Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit also briefly attended. Meanwhile, Indian students at University College in London deepened Bloomsbury’s radicalism.

In 1933, the idea of a separate state of Pakistan was circulated in a pamphlet written by a Punjabi student in Cambridge, Chaudhri Rahmat Ali. Sajjad Zaheer was in London recovering from the storm of controversy unleashed by his co-authored short story collection, Angare, which had criticised Lucknowi Muslim culture. After the British government in the United Provinces banned the book, Zaheer joined other Indian students in London, including M. D. Taseer and Mulk Raj Anand, to found the anti-colonial and leftist Progressive Writers’ Movement, which met first in Lucknow in 1936. Universities abroad were sites of cosmopolitan radical connections.

The history of South Asian higher education from the 1850s cannot be separated from the competing forces of colonialism and anti-colonialism. The reformist impulses institutions of higher education almost always embraced, if in competing directions, were exercises in social engineering, working to produce particular kinds of Indian subjects, colonial or national, Muslim or Hindu, Western or Eastern. This project has not ceased; India’s institutions of higher education remain focused on reforming Indians.


One nationalist leader who did not study abroad was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. His father was an influential Islamic scholar who left Delhi for Mecca during the 1857 rebellion. The family moved to Calcutta in 1890. Azad was home-schooled and an autodidact, emerging a master of many languages, religious scholarship, and Urdu literature. He was highly conscious of his different formation, relative to other political leaders of his time. As India’s first Education Minister after independence, he launched yet another experiment in higher education: the IIT’s, the Indian engineering institutes that have produced the talent driving much research and industry around the globe, especially where I live in Silicon Valley. Two of them — IIT Delhi and IIT Bombay — are among the new Institutions of Eminence.

Prime Minister Nehru envisioned tight government oversight of these institutes, dreaming of establishing IIT Allahabad opposite his own house. But the IITs rebuffed the play for control. They did not report even to the University Grant Commission created to centralise government control of universities. Their technical, developmental mission was understood to be above politics.

Not all institutions founded after independence were able to fend off government interference, particularly when foreign funding or faculty were involved. Such matters triggered insecurities about the institution’s commitment to the newly independent nation. University autonomy was sacrificed in the name of national autonomy — and not entirely without cause: It was the Cold War, and countries like the United States and West Germany did give money to institutions like AIIMS (Delhi’s All-India Institute of Medical Sciences) partly to counter India’s eastern-leaning tendencies. To guard against this, the government permitted foreign donations to particular projects rather than to the institute as a whole.

All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi. Credit: AIIMS

During the Cold War, the US offered generous amounts to All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, to counter Soviet influence. Photo: AIIMS

Of late, similar suspicions have led to attacks on scholars of South Asia situated abroad. To prime minister Modi’s supporters, those who criticise his policies from American universities do the work of Western imperialism in undermining India’s image abroad—no matter how solid their anti-colonial credentials. After all, in the 1910s to 1940s, criticism of the Indian government by scholars abroad often was a call for regime change — from a British to an Indian regime. The anti-colonial movement was deeply influenced by events and ideas generated abroad, from Ireland to California to Japan. Tagore named his university “Vishwa Bharati” to emphasise this idea of Indian communion with the world. The global reach of Western imperialism ensured that anti-colonialism evolved from transnational and cosmopolitan bonds, often retaining that flavour of wider solidarity even while defending a particular nation’s claim to freedom. Hence, in part, the Third World bonds of the postcolonial era. Modi’s rhetoric is anti-colonial, too, playing continually on the idea of overcoming the colonial hangover, recovering national unity and self-esteem; but his “globalism” is about business opportunities rather than a sense of wider liberatory fraternity.

A measure of this business-minded outlook is the award of “Institution of Eminence” to the Jio Institute, which exists only on paper, but is backed by the richest man in Asia, Mukesh Ambani, the largest shareholder of the Reliance business empire. The call for enhancing global business opportunities is also invoked to address the brain drain from the IITs, which is held to held to have sabotaged their developmental mission and enabled other countries to profit from Indian government-subsidised technical and entrepreneurial brilliance. The “Institutions of Eminence” designation aims to ensure that, with global standing, these six engineering institutes will be able to hold on to their talent and at last enable the country to make the defence equipment and other goods Indians desire — from cell phones to Ganesha statues—to prove its independence. “Swaraj” (self-rule) at a few select universities will underwrite the nation’s swaraj by reducing its dependence on “scholars based in western universities,” as a historian at Punjab University puts it.

This argument evokes the entire narrative of colonialism. Two centuries ago, Indians deferred to “outside scholars”—Western orientalists. A century ago, Indians went abroad to become Western-trained scholars. Half a century ago, India, having invested in a higher education infrastructure intended to truly free India, produced scholars who left for the West. Now, at last, we might have Indian scholarship for India, and India for Indian scholars. The grant of administrative autonomy to a few institutions came while the Modi regime engaged in a general assault on academic freedom; both tactics serve the regime’s nativist vision, as does the draft NEP’s redefinition of liberal arts in terms of ancient Indian tradition. How does this development figure against the backdrop of the global university of the West?


California is now home to many more kinds of Indians than it was in the time of the Ghadar movement. Waves of refugees from post-1947 India are here. So too are many IIT graduates, fuelling the prosperity of Silicon Valley. A group of IIT Delhi alums here recently launched Ashoka University just outside Delhi, out of concern that the cult around the IITs has channeled Indian creativity and intelligence narrowly into an engineering pipeline, without curing the nation of its postcolonial troubles. But this latest cosmopolitan experiment in Indian higher education in significant ways recalls the colonial mold of liberal-arts education. Though its vice-chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee is a historian of the 1857 rebellion, in a promotional presentation about Ashoka at Stanford University, he nevertheless enrolled it in a longer history of efforts to reform India and make it “modern.”

In the West, meanwhile, growing diversity in universities has begun to illuminate the depths of the liberal arts’ historical entanglement with the colonial mission. The very shape of liberal arts disciplines has begun to shift. In history, for instance, greater inclusion of the voices and activities of women and people of color have not only diluted older “great white man” narratives of events but have also forced intense reckoning with the concept of “agency”—of who makes history. The borders of history’s subfields are shifting, and new fields emphasising connection—e.g. Transatlantic and Indian Ocean history—have emerged.

Ashoka’s goal of modernising Indian minds, to the extent that it informs practice, risks reproducing the norms of the old academy. Nor is the goal an exceptional throwback to colonial mentalities. The post-independence Indian government has generally failed to question the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the colonial project from which it emerged. Young Indians preparing for the examination to join the prestigious Indian Administrative Service are taught that Wood’s dispatch was a wholly benevolent moment in the history of British rule in India. If the new NEP is less apologetic about Indianness, its goal remains economic “catch up” rather than actual intellectual freedom. Its attempt to restore India’s lost ancient glory is fully compatible with the old justificatory narrative of empire—that the British had come to restore a fallen civilisation.

The high cost of obtaining a college degree has meant that, for many students, the only way to finance their education is by incurring debt. Credit: piedmontvacc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Many institutions abroad are emulating and partnering with their Western counterparts. Photo: piedmontvacc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Other institutions abroad are emulating and partnering with their Western counterparts. Singapore Management University, founded in 2000, is modelled on the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Yale University has launched a collaboration with the colonial-era National University of Singapore to create Singapore’s first liberal arts college, Yale-NUS. China and the United Arab Emirates host international branch campuses. In Qatar’s “Education City,” one passes branches of Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, and more—a kind of McDonaldisation of the American university. French and British universities are opening branches abroad. These Western universities aim to both illustrate and consolidate their international standing and commitment to a globalised order. As it was for nineteenth-century European nations, a branch abroad is a matter of prestige. Money from Asian students eager to pay for these prestigious brands right at home is an added advantage, as is the increase in faculty positions across fields.

Where does Ashoka fit in this empire of globalised Western higher education? Do its partnerships with universities abroad and faculty hires from abroad put it in the same ideological space as Yale-NUS? Does it matter for a faculty member so long as her academic freedom is intact? Is academic freedom a universal value?

Such questions remain within the ambit of old debates about the limited liberatory potential of liberalism. It may prove more productive to recall that the most powerful critiques of colonialism often included critiques of the liberal education that accompanied it. Tagore, Lala Lajpat Rai, and the founders of JMI rejected both. Gandhi was emphatic that “The foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us.” Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was founded in 1969 with the intention of introducing new faculties like scientific socialism. It remains a bastion of student activism and resistance to government interference, notably shortly after its foundation, during the Emergency of 1975-77. India is littered with stories of universities founded to defy the reformist pretensions of colonialism. Perhaps we need not be as pessimistic as the JNU political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal who concludes, “To entertain greater expectations of the mass of Indian universities is to be deluded, because this is and has always been their purpose: to transmit received knowledge, conduct examinations and award degrees, all of these functions performed by state personnel called faculty under the watchful eye of a micro-governing state.” The Indian government has always interfered with universities, given the colonial and nationalistic stakes behind their founding. But the pedagogical experiments these competing objectives produced may yet light a way forward.

Are there ways to mobilise the past embodied in the founding of institutions like JMI and Vishwa-Bharati to address the global crisis of the humanities? This is not a past very out of reach, going by those prominent in the debate. Take Aatish Taseer, who recently wrote in the New York Times about an engineering professor sacked from Benares Hindu University for his left-wing (“anti-national”) views. Taseer is the London-born, Amherst-educated son of the Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and the Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, who was the son of the Cambridge-educated Progressive Writer M. D. Taseer and the British leftist Christabel George. The sacked professor was a Gandhian and an alum of Benares Hindu University and UC Berkeley. What global, regional, and national political histories are stoked when Taseer writes in the preeminent American newspaper about the “Right-Wing Attack on India’s Universities”?

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Last year’s sexual harassment scandal around NYU professor Avital Ronnell elicited moving and eye-opening commentary from the Kenyan humanist Kegura Macharia, as he watched senior scholars in an ostensibly inclusive field—queer studies—rally to defend power structures. He sensed their unwillingness to listen to minoritised voices if doing so risked their standing—their “posture of white woundedness” in plain view. He grappled with “what it means to practice and pursue freedom,” as someone who was “minoritised” while in the US, “a minoritisation… compounded by my distance from the U.S. and my current location in Nairobi.” Those who would ask why he should care about an academic scandal in New York misunderstood “how freedom practices work, how freedom dreams travel, how freedom pursuits draw energy from each other, how we who pursue freedom work across geohistorical difference, recognising our shared struggles.” Evoking the cosmopolitan solidarity of anti-colonial activists of an earlier era, Macharia recognised that the senior scholars who closed ranks in the Ronnell drama were not part of that shared pursuit, whatever the seeming sympathy of their scholarly pursuits. The radical spaces of the Western academy have always coexisted with an overarching structure devoted to the established order. Yale is named after an East India Company man who made a fortune through illegal profiteering. Stanford was founded by a notorious “robber baron” and continues to receive Defense Department contracts while providing intellectual legitimacy to Republican administrations through the Hoover Institution’s old boys’ networks.

Humanist disciplines may be yielding to the innovations of new scholars from diverse backgrounds, but almost as a rearguard action, spaces for radicalism in the Western academy are shrinking, and the memory of earlier anti-colonial experiments may provide fresh inspiration. In 2013, Macharia left a faculty position at the University of Maryland to return to Kenya partly out of exhaustion with the “anti-intellectual professionalizing atmosphere” of American university life. Despite greater diversity, the American academy remains a world in many ways “uninhabitable” for an African intellectual. Macharia arrived at this conclusion partly through the writings of the nineteenth-century Caribbean-born Pan-African intellectual Edward Wilmot Blyden, who helped found a university in Liberia that would create structures of knowledge devoid of the racial toxicity that suffused Western learning.

Acknowledging the utopian impossibility of such a project, Macharia hopes modestly to find “space within which scabbing can begin.” He arrives at this realism through the revolutionary anti-colonial thought of Frantz Fanon, who, coincidentally, died in Maryland. Fanon urged an end to “nauseating mimicry” of Europe, calling on the “Third World” to start a “new history of Man.” This was precisely what many Third World leaders in his time were attempting to do, as we have seen in their pedagogical experiments; but today we witness the triumphal global dominance of a single vision of human formation through an increasingly corporate version of Western education. Perhaps American universities too might begin to learn from past efforts across geohistorical space to grapple again with what it means to practice and pursue freedom.

Rather than pin its hopes on its kitty of “Institutions of Eminence,” the Indian government should recognise institutions that promise “distinction” in the sense of a “new history of Man.” More practically, rather than prioritising defence spending (India is among the top-five armament buyers in the world), it might invest more liberally across institutions of higher education, including humanistic, vocational, craft, and polytechnical institutions. But this is a government too indebted to its colonial predecessors’ instruments of intellectual persecution to attempt to really revolutionise Indian learning; perhaps a fresh wave of anti-colonial activism, local and global, might again direct us toward that forgotten dawn.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and author of two award-winning books: Spies in Arabia (OUP, 2008) and Empire of Guns (Penguin, 2018).