The National Education Policy 2020 announced on July 31 has re-triggered the debate on mother tongue instruction at the primary stage. While educationalists point to numerous studies that show the advantages of learning in the mother tongue at the early ages, English continues to find support from a large section of Indians as the preferred medium of instruction. The widespread Anglophilia of Indians (not surprisingly) can be traced to the expansion of English education in the colonial era.

During the early conquest of India by the East India Company in the 18th and early 19th Century, British, Danish, German, and American protestant missionaries had set foot in India to proselytise. At the time they realised that “schools were both the cause and the effect of proselytisation and that educational and missionary work had to be undertaken side by side”. Thus they chose education as their medium for proselytisation, with English as the medium of instruction.

However, they faced barriers due to the enormous diversity of Indian languages. As a result, many missionary elementary schools were set up in India’s native languages as well. They also translated the Bible, and western school textbooks into Indian languages. By 1813, Danish missionaries in Bengal’s Serampore were printing the Bible in as many as 31 Indian languages.

Language conflict

The East India Company also faced a similar dilemma: should they keep the Oriental tradition of higher education (in the classical languages of Sanskrit, Arabic or Persian), promote Western education in English or push vernacular languages (a term used for native languages like Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Hindustani)? This conflict persists in Indian education policies.

The East India Company, post 1765 followed the footsteps of Hindu and Muslim rulers in encouraging Oriental higher education (setting up institutions like the Calcutta Madrassah and Beneras Sanskrit College) in order not to interfere with the religious values and social norms, and educational parctices of Indians. This brought them in conflict with the missionaries who wanted to promote Western schooling – resulting in what is called as Anglo-Oriental controversy, which played out mainly in the Bengal Presidency.

In Bombay Presidency, Mountstuart Elphinstone (governor of Bombay from 1819 to 1827) encouraged the Bombay Education Society to educate Indians. Between 1822 and 1840, many district primary schools were set up to encourage the “spread of Western Science and knowledge through the mother-tongue”. However, many East India Company officials wanted English to be the medium of instruction, as opposed to the native languages of Bombay Presidency, which led to the Anglo-Vernacular controversy.

Indigenous system

Education surveys were commissioned by the government from 1821-1838 in Madras and Bombay, as well as Bengal and Punjab in 1882, to gauge the indigenous system of education. The surveyors were awestruck to see the expanse of the informal education system in India (almost one school for 1,000 population as Thomas Monroe, Governor of Madras from 1819 to 1827, who commissioned the Madras Survey, noted), in comparison to the spread of schooling in Britain at that time. This informal system, without any books and state patronage, while limited to rudimentary education – reading, writing and arithmetic and mensuration – was very well attuned to local condition with schools invariably in the language of the local population.

A collector of the district of Bellary (now in North-Eastern Karnataka) noted schools in Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi. The Madras Presidency had schools in all South Indian languages and Oriya. While highly elastic to local language and culture, this informal system did pose access barriers to women and disadvantaged social groups.

Thomas Macaulay’s infamous minute was published in 1835. Thomas Macaulay a member of the Governor-General’s council who despised India, its knowledge system and languages in all forms, batted for English education “to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern’’ and to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”.

Although Macaulay’s minute was adopted by William Bentinck through the English Education Act of 1835, it was soon opposed by both Hindus and Muslims fearing anglicisation. As a result, the Minute had to be amended soon after to encourage native literature and allow for the translation of English works so that they may reach India’s masses. Contrary to its outsized image in modern India today, later colonial education policy documents hardly make any reference to Macaulay.

As the education historian SC Ghosh notes, “Bentick’s decision opened the doors of Western literature and science to India, and ironically, it led to the promotion of vernacular languages and vernacular education.”

Thomas Macaulay

Western education takes off

In 1843, James Thomason (of Thomason Engineering College, now called IIT Roorkee), the British Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces (current Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand), proposed the model of a model school in every tehsil teaching in the vernacular medium. Some ideas from the Thomason plan were incorporated into the Education Despatch of 1854 – the first comprehensive education policy designed for all of India.

This work of Lord Dalhousie and Lord Northbrook (but often wrongly attributed to Charles Wood), recommended primary education in vernacular languages for the masses, but secondary and higher education exclusively in English. Lachman Khubchandani, eminent author on language education in India, notes three patterns of education that eventually emerged as a result of British rule:

  1. Rural areas with primary education in vernacular languages
  2. For the educated urban elites, english medium even at the primary stage
  3. Two-tier system with vernacular at primary level and English at higher stages.

While it was the British who had set the ball rolling, it was upper class and aristocratic urban Indians who now wholeheartedly embraced Western education, seting up grant-in-aid schools and colleges, with English as a medium of instruction. By 1882, the number of primary and secondary schools managed by Indians far exceeded those run by Missionaries and the British (See Table 1). It was this wholehearted adoption of Western education by Indians in the Victorian era that heralded the massive anglicisation of Indian education.

Table 1

Educational Institutions in 1881-82 Run by Indian Managers Run by other than Indian Managers
Primary Schools 54,662 1,842
Secondary Schools 1,341 757
Arts Colleges 5 18
Professional Colleges and Schools 10 18
TOTAL 66,018 2,635
Source: Students History of Education in India - Sayyed Nurullah and J P Naik

The new Western system of education proved a death-knell to the indigenous education system in just a century. By 1921, India had 1.66 lakhs schools with 74 lakh students in schools and colleges of Western education. Indigenous schools had reduced to 16,000 with just 4 lakh students studying in it. Gandhi characterised this failure as the perishing of a beautiful tree.

In spite of this apparent growth, however, this new Western system failed to adapt, expand, and universalise education. Formal education, imported directly from the West, with a rigid form and curriculum, was ill-suited to the diverse conditions of India. It thus hardly made a difference to literacy.

In 1921, the male literacy rate was just 14% (a modest increase from the 6.1% estimate of William Adams in 1835) and female literacy was abysmal at 2.1%, with widespread variations across caste, religion and region.

Mohandas Gandhi spoke up consistently for mother-tongue education.

A failed pushback

At the end of the 19th century, several national leaders were dismayed by inadequacies of the Western education system. In 1882, Gooroodas Banerjee, Vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, drew attention to the problems faced in the education system and called for the introduction of mother tongue instruction at the university level. Rabindranath Tagore pushed for Bengali as a medium of instruction in schools and colleges.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 further fueled the desire to create national education, led by stalwarts like Annie Besant, Tilak, Gokhale and Gandhi. Besant, in her work Principles of Education, called for education “controlled by Indians, shaped by Indians, and carried on by Indians” conducted in schools where “the medium of instruction will be the mother tongue of the district” and “English will be taught as a second language throughout the secondary and high schools.”

Gandhi was distraught with western education. In his essays on education reconstruction in the Harijan, the Mahatma argued:

“English, having been made a medium of Instruction in all branches of learning, has created a permanent bar between highly educated few, and the uneducated many. It has prevented knowledge from percolating to the masses. The excessive importance given to English has cast upon the educated class, a burden which has maimed them mentally for life and made them strangers in their own land”.

Gandhi’s ideas took shape in the 1937 Wardha scheme of Basic Education (Nai Talim), where the “process of education should be centered around some manual and productive work” would would be provided in the “mother tongue of the child”. The Basic Education experiment was carried out in several Congress ruled provinces in India, but took a hit due to World War II. Later revival attempts in several states achieved mixed results and eventually failed.

At the end of the colonial period, the British left India with a plan for postwar educational developments in India (the 1944 Sargent Plan). It had an ambitious proposal which envisaged India achieving similar education levels as Britian within a span of 40 years. Although both India and Britain started with similar education levels in the early 19th century, Britain had shot ahead while India lagged far behind in elementary education.

In 1950-’51, India’s literacy rate was a mere 18% (the female rate was even more abysmal at 8.9%) with more than 40% of boys and 75% of girls in the 6-10 age group not even enrolled in primary school. The great educational historians Sayyed Nurullah and JP Naik attribute this failure to the neglect of the indigenous system of education, blind imitation of English models and the use of English as medium of instruction especially in secondary and college education.

Shivakumar Jolad is on the faculty in public policy at FLAME university in Pune.