On February 2, 1835, British politician Thomas Babington Macaulay circulated Minute on Education, a treatise that offered definitive reasons for why the East India Company and the British government should spend money on the provision of English language education, as well as the promotion of European learning, especially the sciences, in India.

While The Minute acknowledged the historic role of Sanskrit and Arabic literature in the Subcontinent, it also contended that they had limitations. “A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia,” Macaulay wrote in the Minute.

Depending on the reader’s perspective, these words show Macaulay either as an angel or a villain in the shaping of the Subcontinent’s history.

A month after its circulation, the Minute became policy, when William Bentinck, the governor general of India, signed the resolution. For Macaulay, this was a victory. He had won against his detractors, especially the Orientalists – East India Company officials, scholars, translators and collectors – who supported study and instruction in India in Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian languages.

Macaulay vs. the Orientalists

The Orientalists had had reasons enough to hold out.

Warren Hastings, governor general of India in the 1770s, had always felt a need to understand the subjects ruled by the East India Company, and for this reason alone, he acknowledged the value of their ancient languages: Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic.

From 1820 to his retirement in 1833, it was English Orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson who made key educational decisions on behalf of the Company. Wilson is credited with a much-referenced, albeit free-wheeling, translation of Kalidasa’s Sanskrit poem, Meghaduta, and with the first glossary of words in Sanskrit and other Indian languages used in revenue and the judicial services.

Horace Hayman Wilson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Horace Hayman Wilson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Wilson’s advocacy of Sanskrit and Arabic followed existing Company support for the Sanskrit College (now Government Sanskrit College) in Benares and the Madrasah (now Aliah University) in Calcutta. An exception was later made when Hindu College (now Presidency University), set up in 1816 in Calcutta, fell into financial straits. The college provided instruction in English, western sciences and philosophy.

An allowance was also made for The Delhi College (now Zakir Husain College), founded in the mid-1820s. As Margrit Pernau’s detailed work on the college shows, its Vernacular Translation Society saw impressive work, especially under two teachers, Master Ramchandra and Maulvi Zakaullah, who spearheaded a programme translating texts in western sciences, history and philosophy into Urdu.

A ‘Filtered’ Education

Such interventions were limited – the East India Company, as it happened, was never really enamoured with the idea of investing in education. Yet, English education became important when the lower levels of the bureaucracy had to be staffed, creating a demand for babus, or native clerks.

The Anglicists, Macaulay included, while vociferous in their advocacy of English, stood for what they described as the “filtration” of education. This meant that only the upper echelons of society would be provided instruction in English, and they, in turn, were expected to educate the natives down the order.

Macaulay’s Minute clearly stated these intentions: education was to “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect”.

Even then, schools offering instruction in English had already existed in Bengal for a while. Besides missionary-run schools, it was the so-called vernacular schools – with instruction primarily in Bengali – that offered English classes. These schools were small, private initiatives, and English lessons were extended to the better performing students, while the majority continued to be schooled in Bengali.

Yet it was the presence of these Anglo-vernacular schools that made officials and scholars, who opposed both the Orientalists and Anglicists, call for more funds to support vernacular education.

Till the mid-1830s, such voices were subdued. But once Macaulay’s Minute became a resolution and the more powerful bodies in London weighed in as well, this strand of opinion represented by officials like Frederick Shore, Brian Houghton Hodgson, William Campbell and William Adam, began to make itself heard via anonymous letters in newspapers, and more forcefully, in their reports.

Thomas Babington Macaulay. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Babington Macaulay. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Vernacular experiments

A vernacular effort similar to Bengal existed in the Bombay Presidency as well. Supported by Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone, the Bombay Native Education Society offered English classes in 1824. Other colonial officials and Indian scholars translated works in science and western literature into local languages of the Bombay Presidency – Marathi and Gujarati.

George Ritso Jervis, a civil engineer, translated a work of geometry into Marathi, and there was a translation of Aesop’s Fables into Gujarati. In another experiment, Lancelot Wilkinson, the Resident at Bhopal, saw merit in ancient Indian science works such as the Siddantas and proposed their translation, along with western works, into native languages.

These efforts were among the examples cited by officials to vouch for the efficacy of the vernacular approach. The criticisms against the vernaculars were that it would, a) be costly and involve a lot of funds and, b) the vernacular languages were one too many and no one was quite like the other.

But dismayed at colonial ignorance about the native languages, the vernacularists had their arguments too, as has been detailed by historian John D Windhausen. They said that the filtration approach would not work as it would only create an elite educated class. Educating what they described as the “native masses” was the most humanitarian thing to do. They also believed that with the spread of education, aided by the Company and the British government, the subjects would come to appreciate British rule.

Spokespersons for the vernaculars

Frederick Shore, who served as a colonial official in Bengal for 15 years, wrote first anonymously in the India Gazette and then more forcefully in his Notes on Indian Affairs. Shore felt that given support, the native languages would flourish, and borrow words from English – just as English had adopted words from foreign languages.

More convincing however were the arguments provided by naturalist and ethnologist Brian Houghton Hodgson, who had until recently been acting Resident in Nepal. In his Letters to the Anglicists published in Friend of India, a journal of the Serampore Mission, he echoed the view that limiting knowledge to a few would only create a more powerful ruling class.

At the same time, he disagreed that the vernacular languages were dissimilar from each other. In an experiment, the Friend of India had the Lord’s Prayer translated into some Indian languages – Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindustani, and Marathi (called Maratha in the paper) – and it revealed that the four languages had several words in common and many that sounded similar.

More controversially, there was William Adam’s three reports on the state of native education in Bengal and Bihar, both part of the Bengal Presidency. Though he did mention the schools existing at the village level, his numbers turned out to be hugely exaggerated, as historian John D Windhausen writes. There were 16,000 schools across the province, as compared to Adams’s 100,000, and in most instances, their structure was fairly primitive with a lone schoolmaster providing instruction in Bengali, and giving a few arithmetic lessons. Nevertheless, as Adam insisted, this system gave the Company a base to build on – teachers could be trained and the printing of more textbooks could be an additional benefit.

The vernacular approach failed, despite their overtures to Bentinck’s successor, Lord Auckland, in 1839. Auckland rejected the proposal on grounds that “society may be disrupted by too rapid a spread of mass education”.

In London, the efforts of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who in 1836 wrote to his superiors in the Court of Directors in support of Orientalism, and the scholar-official Horace Hayman Wilson, came to naught. It was Bentinck and Macaulay who prevailed in the end.

John Stuart Mill. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
John Stuart Mill. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Anglo-vernacular initiatives

Some of Adam’s proposals were adapted by the Governor of the Northwest Provinces, James Thomason, and implemented in part in Etawah district in current-day Uttar Pradesh by the collector, Allan Octavian Hume (who later found fame as one of the founders of the Indian National Congress), and Lakshman Singh, a tehsildar (tax inspector).

In the mid-1850s, Hume and Singh helped establish a localised three-tier system of education – with schools at the village, town level and a central school in the district’s main city, complete with library and museum for presentation of local artefacts. Funds came from contributions from the local landed gentry (1% of the revenue from every landholder). The subjects in these schools included English, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, mathematics, surveying, geography, history and natural science.

This initiative, however, ended with the revolt of 1857, resulting in an increasing centralisation of education, and the implementation of British politician Charles Wood’s dispatch of 1854 that introduced the three-tier educational system as we know it today, with education in the native languages at the primary stages but an increasing focus on English at the higher, especially at university, level. Literacy rates in India remained poor, as determined by the Hunter Commission report of 1881. And as late as 1941, the literate represented barely 16% of pre-independent India’s population.