Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) lived in India just for four years, from 1834 to 1838. Yet he left unerasable footprints on Indian soil. During his time in India, he decided to introduce English into the education of Indians by deploying government resources in schools and colleges. He argued that Sanskrit and Persian, which were the medium of instruction under the East India Company before the British Crown took over the Indian administration, should be done away with from schools.
Today, many English-educated Indians deride Macaulay, perhaps for giving that language to them and what they also call the ‘un-Indian’ English culture. Only very few who are also English-educated admire him occasionally. Those who criticise Macaulay come from all schools of thought: extreme right, extreme left and centrist liberals.
But vast numbers of Indians who are outside the English-speaking milieu – food producers, such as the Shudra, Dalits and Adivasis, who work in the fields – do not think about Macaulay. For them, their local languages – Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, Gujarathi or tribal languages and so on – are the medium of instruction in schools and colleges. The English language, with its global accessibility, is too far away from them. Yet, Macaulay also has admirers among Dalits and OBCs who feel that English is a language of liberation and have taken to it as a way of progressing in life and in their careers.
Now, with the new National Education Policy somewhat demoting the status of English by giving a priority to Indian languages for the first few years of school education, the issue becomes pertinent. Are Macaulay and his ideas irrelevant and un-Indian? Is Macaulay’s presence fine in private English medium schools but not good for government-run schools, where the poor children study?
Quite consciously, from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, the so-called ‘anti-national Macaulay’ English education has been confined to expensive private schools, where only very rich Dwijas could afford to educate their children. Even rich Shudra landed gentry did not send their children to good English medium schools. Many Dwijas, in fact, preferred to send their children to Christian missionary schools.
Both Macaulay’s detractors and admirers are able to speak and write in the English language; they were educated either in Indian English medium schools, colleges, universities or institutions like IITs and IIMs or foreign universities.
What was the state of education before Macaulay?
There was hardly any modern college that used Sanskrit and Persian as the medium of education until 1834. Anyway, education in Sanskrit and Persian was meant for the Hindu Dwijas (Brahmin, Bania, Ksatriya, Kayastha and Khatris) and Muslim feudal lords, who perhaps were either Pathans or Arabs or Dwijas who converted.
Unlike the Christians, Muslims never allowed the non-Muslim Shudras and Dalits into their schools. Some Dwijas – mainly Brahmins – managed the system of education in Persian, in collaboration with rich Muslims. But that did not help them with employment, even when it was the official language, because the bureaucracy and legal systems were dominated by Brahmins.
School education in these languages was not available to Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis of India, who were the main food producers then, as they are now.
Actually the earliest missionary teaching of the English language to Dwija children was started in 1817, as a private affair, by William Carey (1761-1834) in association with Rajarammohan Roy in Culcutta. He came to India in 1793 and died here in 1834, the year in which Macaulay arrived. Carey established the Serampore College in 1818, the region’s first degree college in the English language. Which caste and class of youth were able to access this college? Would it have been Bengali Shudras and Namashudras? No way.
What Macaulay proposed to the British administration was to make English part of the state education policy to replace Sanskrit and Persian. While Indian Muslim feudal lords refused to send their children to English medium schools at the cost of their Persian and Urdu education, the Brahmins of Bengal and Kerala had no such inhibitions. They were among the earliest to do so, setting aside Sanskrit education.
Dwija Hindus wanted to become pleaders, officials and clerks in the government offices as ‘middlemen’ (not many women were allowed to hold these positions then) between the British colonial rulers and the Indian Shudra-Atishudra masses.
The term Shudra-Atishudra was first used by Mahatma Jotirao Phule, the first Shudra person to be educated in the English language. In the Bengal region, whether any Shudra or Namashudra was allowed to go to school – leave alone one with English as the medium – is not known. In Maharastra, where Phule and Dr B.R. Ambedkar came from Marathi and English education, which was accessible to some Shudra and Dalit social forces in subsequent years. But in Bengal, it still remains a Bhadralok preserve. From Rajarammohan Roy to Jyothi Basu to Mamata Banerjee, English and thus power, are in their hands only.
Why is Macaulay important?
Why is Macaulay dear to the Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis now? The Indian state and civil society have to move towards a mode of education that imparts global and Indian knowledge – even within the framework of competing nationalisms – to all children in the English language.
It is also important to remember that the ideological attack on Macaulay did not lead to a total divorce from the English language. Among the ruling classes, whatever is their ideological and political position, their children are educated in English medium schools.
But quite consciously, this language has been kept away from the rural agrarian, productive masses. This has led to the creation of two nations—English-speaking India and mother tongue-speaking Bharat. A small number of English-educated Indians, in this globalised world, have taken the lead in every sphere of life. The rural masses cannot catch up with the globalised, English-educated Indian ruling and business classes unless they too acquire that language, right from their time in school.
From tribal areas to our metropolitan urban centres, Indian school and college education has to be in one common language, with the same content and course levels. Unless all children do not read and write one national and international language – English – the creation of a national, advanced intellectual discourse will not be possible. Even the production of new scientific knowledge is linked to a globally communicable language. Teaching children science in their mother tongue is not going to help.
‘Will alienate people from Indian culture’
The common argument that English medium education will alienate people from Indian culture has proved to be deceptive propaganda. The Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis have had a very bad experience with the ‘divine distancing’ of Sanskrit, which was the ‘national language’ in ancient and medieval times, from their lives. The agrarian masses have been deceived on the issue of language for quite a long time. Now these same forces are trying to deceive these productive masses by keeping their children away from English, by labelling it Macaulay’s “colonial conspiracy”.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has broken the myth that Macaulay’s English is anti-national or un-Indian. He has decided to introduce English as the medium of instruction in all government schools. When the same Macaulayputras tried to oppose it, the rural productive masses responded by saying, “You hypocrites, send your children to Sanskrit medium schools, but our children need to study in English.”
The diabolical nature of Hindutva is all around us. A time has come to abolish the two-language nation – one English speaking and the other in their mother tongue – and see that all Indians speak and write only in English. Regional languages can be used for local purposes. Macaulay and his ideas have to be re-evaluated in light of the modern world.
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd is a political theorist, social activist and author.