THE COUNTRY'S SEVENTIETH INDEPENDENCE DAY is a fitting occasion to ask a simple question: which single individual in modern Indian history can be said to have had the greatest impact on our destiny? It is facile, and perhaps a sop to national vanity, to answer Mohandas Gandhi, for had Gandhi had such impact, then we would scarcely be in our current state. Gandhi did not decide the lingua franca of independent India’s public life. Nor did he conceive our education system, write the laws by which we live, or design the administrative services which run India. Gandhi wanted swaraj, or self-rule, not representative democracy, which, as he wrote in Hind Swaraj, he detested.
A more reasonable answer to the question would be Jawaharlal Nehru. He certainly had a big role in deciding independent India’s lingua franca, its education policy and its administrative and legal setup. And he surely stood for the system of representative democracy that continues into the present, categorically dismissing Gandhi’s idea of swaraj.
However, in all the above respects, Nehru was actually following in the footsteps of a longstanding modern British liberal tradition, whose imperial roots in the British Raj can be traced back to the 1830s. The man who actually had the profoundest impact on these critical matters was the early nineteenth-century Scottish legislator Thomas Babington Macaulay, who spent an eventful four years in India between 1834 and 1838.
Many Indians would argue that as large as his influence might have been in the past, now, in the twenty-first century, we are quite done with his legacy. We have moved on. This judgment is premature. We still know all too little about Macaulay, especially from an Indian perspective. Is there a good biography of the man? Yes, there are a few, but they are written by British writers, and are very dated. The last comprehensive biography, by Macaulay’s nephew GO Trevelyan, was published in 1876. In the 500-page book, there is one chapter on Macaulay’s years in India, which says little about the India that his actions and policies overlooked altogether.
Up until 2012, when Zareer Masani published his Macaulay, there was not a single biography of the man by an Indian—an astonishing fact given the vast galaxy of Indian historians and intellectuals. What this shows is that if the imperial gaze is returned at all, it does not look closely enough at the other as the other. This oversight leads to inevitable misunderstandings about not only the other, but about one’s own self.
Masani’s account of Macaulay, while not quite hagiographic, presents the man as a far-sighted pioneer whose unwavering commitment to administrative and legislative liberalism not only built and consolidated the British imperial reputation for “fair-play,” but was also pivotal, by enabling the spread of the English language, in uniting India. The advantage that the language afforded, Masani claims, has extended well into the global digital era, where it has given millions a “passport out of poverty.”
These claims are seriously exaggerated, especially given that we know that speedy automation and robotisation threaten jobs everywhere, and that a knowledge of English is hardly an insurance anywhere against the peril. Nor, as we also know, has ignorance of the English language inhibited places such as China, Taiwan and South Korea from taking advantage of the opportunities of the global age.
What remains unexplored is how Macaulay laid the foundations of what we might call the cognitive paradigm for modern India, which we follow to this day. He played a key role in the making of a future class of mediators and middlemen for the Empire. Along with imperial rulers before and after him, he was instrumental in creating many of the institutional frameworks and psychological conditions that, 70 years after the end of colonialism, still reproduce generation after generation of middlemen who serve empires. This is as true today, in the so-called global era of American domination, as it was during the nineteenth-century British Raj.
When the Raj was still a fresh memory, the imperial historian Philip Mason, in his 1953 book The Men who Ruled India, described Macaulay and his ilk as a “new caste of ‘English Guardians,’” added at the top of a structure occupied by the “four original castes of the Hindus.” These guardians were reared on the history of Greece and Rome, in a very regimented manner, to be the sort of rulers—austere, disinterested, authoritarian—that Plato had wanted in The Republic. This corps of carefully selected men was brought up on all the great “masculine” virtues, as a race apart and superior to those they ruled. They were discouraged from marriage and family life. So strict was their breeding that they were not allowed to trade or own property in India. It is this sort of preparation that made Mason claim that “no other people in history can equal their record of disinterested guardianship.”
Given the long shadow that he continues to cast on modern India, and especially on its educated elites, a detailed study of Macaulay’s cognitive world—of his Anglo-Saxon imperial imagination—would tell us no less about us than about him. What we need is a critical psychological portrait of the man who, more than anyone else, can be said to have designed modern India. Such a biography could tell us what is hidden to us about our own selves—so that we might one day step out of his lengthening shadow, now that we have celebrated seven decades of formal liberation from colonial rule.
WHO WAS MACAULAY and what is his significance to our history and destiny? The standard colonial histories tell us that he was a liberal historian and statesman who held a number of key positions in government in Britain between the 1820s and the 1850s. In 1834, he was appointed the very first Law Member on the Council of the Governor-General of India—then the highest administrative body in the country. A year earlier, the 1833 Government of India Act had effectively nationalised the East India Company, thereby creating, for the first time, a centralised government of British India accountable only to the British Crown.
On his voyage to India, Macaulay read not Indian but Greek classics—indeed, his knowledge of the country whose future he would legislate rested on that infamous “classic,” James Mill’s six-volume History of British India. Written by a man who had neither visited India nor learnt even one Indian language, Mill’s History was the standard Empire 101 primer that all India-bound imperial cadres had to read as preparation to rule.
Macaulay became one of the key architects of the British Raj. As per the Government of India Act of 1833, he was charged with the establishment of the rule of law in the country, which had been plundered at the hands of East India Company officials. From Robert Clive to Warren Hastings, and beyond, they had used their power to personally enrich themselves. The mere four years Macaulay stayed in India left behind a legacy which long outlasted not merely his death, in 1859, but also the end of the British Raj, in 1947. His three key achievements were the establishment of the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Civil Service and an English-based system of education.
First, Macaulay drafted his comprehensive penal code for the whole of British India. As president of the law commission in Calcutta, he was tasked with reforming and codifying Indian law after the legal chaos of the preceding decades.
Macaulay put into practice “two great principles, the principle of suppressing crime with the smallest possible amount of suffering, and the principle of ascertaining truth at the smallest possible cost of time and money.” He insisted that only a comprehensive new code, rather than partial reform, would create the necessary stability in law and order. Delayed by various objections and consequent amendments, the Indian Penal Code did not come into legal force till 1862. It remains largely in place as the cornerstone of the Indian judicial system more than a century and a half later.
“It is the genius of this man,” the historian KM Panikkar wrote in his 1954 book A Survey of Indian History, “narrow in his Europeanism, self-satisfied in his sense of English greatness, that gives life to modern India as we know it. He was India’s new Manu, the spirit of modern law incarnate.”
Second, Macaulay created a system which culminated in the Indian Civil Service after 1861, following the provision for it in the Government of India Act, 1853. After returning to Britain in 1854, he chaired a committee tasked with the creation of a new system of competitive examinations through which young officers would be recruited in Britain to administer the top imperial bureaucracy in India. Till then, such appointments were made through patronage. (After 1862, a limited number of Indians were also eligible to sit for the examinations. Rabindranath Tagore’s eldest brother, Satyendranath Tagore, was the first Indian to become an ICS officer.) The ICS became a model for Britain’s domestic civil service later on, a marked departure from its own past practices of patronage and nepotism. The much-coveted Indian Administrative Service, or the IAS, the backbone of independent India’s bureaucracy, is what the ICS was called after 1947.
But the transformation of education was Macaulay’s most decisive accomplishment. Through his famous ‘Minute on Education,’ produced in 1835, he settled the fate of the main language of instruction in the country. In it, Macaulay pushed aggressively and successfully for an education policy that would adopt English over Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, which were the languages used for instruction in the schools supported by the East India Company up until then.
Macaulay argued that English was “better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic.” He felt that Indians wished to be taught English. “Neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have Sanskrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement.” Finally, he felt that it was “possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars.”
Despite not knowing Sanskrit, Macaulay had the bombastic imperial solipsism to claim:
It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England.
In many places Macaulay resorted to hyperbolic rhetoric to mask his enormous ignorance of the languages he was rejecting. His racist views become apparent in infamous claims such as this:
I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues ... I have never found one among them who could deny that
a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.
As the iconoclastic historian Dharampal has astutely noted:
The Westerners themselves obtained knowledge of India and the East in their own languages; but India was to learn the knowledge of the West only through the language of the West. Surely, behind such a view, was a deep contempt for the Indian languages, the Indian intellect, and the Indian people.
Macaulay realised the limitations of resources at the disposal of the Raj, and so, keeping an eye on the imperial administrative needs of the future, he focused on generating a class of Indians who would enable the few—the British—to rule the many in the imperial interest. He wrote:
It was this class of “good English scholars” (colloquially identified as “brown sahibs” or “babus”) who mediated between the few British rulers and the vast sea of Indian humanity for over the century of colonial rule which followed, a point that has been well-grasped by Indian scholars such as Amartya Sen, who writes of the phenomenon in The Argumentative Indian. We may not have to exert our imagination much further to find Macaulay’s children in independent India. The writer of this essay has certainly fit the description on many an occasion. For that matter, many readers of an article such as this would also qualify. Any Anglophone Indian who has ever felt like a foreigner in his own country is part of that cadre. We are indispensable today as well-paid and loyal mediators between the new ruler of the world—the American empire, with its ever-expanding multinational corporations—and the vast Indian citizenry.
IT IS CRUCIAL TO NOTE that during the period when India was transitioning from Company to Crown rule, much existed that ceased to exist soon thereafter. Macaulay was not writing imperial history on a blank slate. The existing biographies of him do not tell us about the state of education in India before his intervention. Even Macaulay’s critics seem to assume that there were no arrangements for education in India before he arrived. To understand the violence that Macaulay did, it is necessary to consider the forms of education that did exist in many parts of India at the time of his large-scale intervention.
Building significantly upon Pandit Sundarlal’s voluminous Bharat mein Angrezi Raj (first published in 1929, then republished across 1,780 pages in 1939, and promptly banned by the British), Dharampal did pioneering work in documenting systematically “the reality of the India of this period: its society, its infrastructure, its manners and institutions, their strengths and weaknesses.” While his work stretches over half a dozen volumes, the one most relevant for the present discussion is The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, first published in 1983. Here we find gathered in one place facts relating to school education and higher learning before Macaulay’s ‘Minute,’ taken from surprisingly extensive surveys and reports by district collectors and other British administrators.
British administrators carried out surveys of the status of indigenous education in Bengal and Bihar during the 1830s. A report filed by William Adam, a former missionary, observed that there were an estimated 100,000 village schools across the 150,000 villages in this region—although recent research has shown that the number of these schools was closer to 16,000, still a significant number. These schools had varying languages of instruction, from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic to English, Hindi, Bengali and Oriya. Adam also found at least 100 institutions of higher learning in each of the 18 districts of Bengal, in which over 10,000 scholars were enrolled. The subjects taught at these institutions ranged from grammar, logic, law and medicine to mythology, rhetoric, vedanta, mimansa and sankhya philosophy.
In western India, Thomas Munro, a champion of elitist education in the English language, had to admit, in his own ‘Minute on Education,’ produced in 1826, that the general standard of schooling in the Bombay region was “higher than most European countries at no very distant period.” He counted 12,498 schools providing education in Marathi and Gujarati. He advised against “any interference whatever in the native school.”
In 1820, GL Pendergast, a member of the council of Bombay Presidency, the highest administrative body of the region, noted:
I need hardly mention what every member of the Board knows as well as I do, that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more; many in every town, and in large cities in every division; where young natives are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, upon a system so economical, from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a ru- pee per month to the school master, according to the ability of the parents, and at the same time so simple and effectual, that there is hardly a cultivator or petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy, in my opinion, beyond what we meet with amongst the lower orders in our own country; whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease, conciseness, and clearness I rather think fully equal to those of any British merchants.
In 1823, the collector of Bellary in Madras Presidency, AD Campbell, reported:
The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserved the imitation it has received in England.
In 1814, Munro, then the governor of Madras, observed that “every village had a school.” When a full formal survey of indigenous education in Madras Presidency was done between 1822 and 1823, it found 11,575 schools with 157,195 students, for a total population of 12.85 million. Dharampal notes that England, with a population of 9.5 million people, had only 75,000 enrolled in schools, half of whom attended school just for a few hours every Sunday. In Madras Presidency, the survey also found 1,094 colleges with 5,431 students. The high ratio of schools and colleges to students was in keeping with the prescriptions of the traditional Indian education systems they followed, embodied in such institutions as gurukuls, pathshalas, madrasas and agraharams. The other striking aspect of the evidence gathered was that “soodras” constituted, depending on the region, between 35 and 85 percent of all male students enrolled in schools. Instruction was given in languages that varied from Sanskrit, Persian, Hindavi and Grantham to Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. Among the subjects taught in higher learning were theology, law, metaphysics, ethics, astronomy and medicine. Dharampal’s collation of British documents lists dozens of texts which were being used in the schools and colleges.
Dharampal also quotes British records that give extensive statistical data on higher learning through private tutors in various regions of Madras Presidency. Additional subjects such as poetry, literature, music and dance appear in these reports. A very small number of girls were reported as enrolled in formal schooling, while many others were being educated at home by tutors.
The British annexed Punjab in the late 1840s. In 1882, a former principal of Government College in Lahore, GW Leitner, prepared an extensive official survey of indigenous education. It showed a drastic decline in enrolment in schools of varying denominations between 1849 and 1882: from 330,000 to 190,000 in a little over a generation. Leitner wrote of
how in spite of the best intentions, the most public-spirited officers, and a generous Government that had the benefit of the traditions of other provinces, the true education of the Panjab was crippled, checked, and is nearly destroyed; how opportunities for its healthy revival and development were either neglected or perverted; and how, far beyond the blame attaching to individuals, our system stands convicted of worse than official failure.
Based on the extensive evidence assembled by him, Dharampal inferred:
According to this hard data, in terms of the content, and the proportion of those attending institutional school education, the situation in India in 1800 is certainly not inferior to what obtained in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to). The content of studies was better than what was then studied in England. The duration of study was more prolonged. The method of school teaching was superior and it is this very method which is said to have greatly helped the introduction of popular education in England but which had prevailed in India for centuries.
Gandhi was not on weak ground when he claimed at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London in 1931, “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago … because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.”
MACAULAY SUCCEEDED in his goal of generating a class of babus who would mediate between the rulers of the empire and their subjects. By the time he left India in 1838, some 40 English-medium schools had been established in Bengal. As the writer Nirad C Chaudhuri noted of his, and previous, generations of Bengali elites, “the whole class was hardened by more than a hundred years of successful self-seeking under British rule.”
The originality of Gandhi’s critique of colonialism was that he saw colonial rule as more than just a form of political domination or economic exploitation. His critique of British rule was fundamentally a critique of Macaulay’s legacy, of the British system of education that kept the Raj alive and of the cognitive control that the colonial powers exercised over the Indian elite. As he wrote in Hind Swaraj: “The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.”
It is worth remembering that at no point over two centuries of the Raj did the British population in India ever much exceed 100,000 people, the majority of whom were army personnel. The British could rule such a vast subcontinent with so few of their own soldiers and civilians by projecting a hyper-masculine image, wherein the colony was always governed by a military mentality, as if it was a war camp, as the scholar Ganesh Devy has noted in his book After Amnesia. Youth and masculinity were the reigning symbols of colonial power. The eighteenth-century English statesman Edmund Burke had said, as Devy quotes: “there was one sight never seen in India, and that was the grey head of an Englishman.”
Colonial coercion was military theatre renewed cognitively on a daily basis in order to firmly establish imperial control of public consciousness. The rise of the anti-colonial consciousness that Gandhi inspired was a cognitive as much as a political awakening. However, the post-colonial period showed more continuity than change, as old habits of thought and practice remained entrenched.
At the purely formal level, 1947 did change a few things. Sovereign India had its own constitution, and its own elected leaders in government. But the past persisted with respect to the fundamentals—of language, law and administration—with which independent India began its journey. The IPC and IAS remain in place, as does the English-based system of education. Most importantly, the decolonisation of the ruling elite mind never happened. If one thinks only of the place of the English language, its role in education, administration, media, business and public life in general, one would have to acknowledge Macaulay as the man whose India, more than anyone else’s, we continue to live in. At the governmental level, neither Nehru, nor any of his successors, down to Narendra Modi, have found the courage to take up the key challenge of decolonising public consciousness along the lines that men such as Gandhi and Tagore had hoped for.
When, in the early 1960s, Nehru said to the then US ambassador in India, John Kenneth Galbraith, “I am the last Englishman to rule in India,” he was not merely joking. Even British observers such as the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge lamented the continuity between the colonial and post-colonial eras. Muggeridge wrote in his Chronicles of Wasted Time:
As I dimly realised, a people can be laid waste culturally as well as physically; not their lands but their inner life, as it were, sewn with salt. This is what happened to India. An alien culture, itself exhausted, become trivial and shallow, was imposed upon them; when we went, we left behind railways, schools and universities, statues of Queen Victoria and other of our worthies, industries, an administration, a legal system; all that and much more, but set in a spiritual wasteland. We had drained the country of its true life and creativity, making of it a place of echoes and mimicry.
Nehru, too, Muggeridge felt, “partook of the same hollowness. A man of echoes and mimicry; the last Viceroy rather than the first leader of a liberated India.”
After Independence, Indian elites were led by a spirit of optimism in reimagining the economic and political frameworks which they inherited. They were familiar with the ills of colonialism, and had gained confidence by having fought and defeated perhaps the greatest superpower of the day. Moreover, following the Second World War, a bipolar global geopolitical arena opened up space for imagining other futures. This resulted in experiments with Soviet-inspired economic planning by the Indian state, as well as in the emergence of the non-aligned movement, which sought a coalition of sovereign nation states unbeholden to the United States or the Soviet Union in international relations. But, by the 1970s, cracks began to emerge in both the mixed model of the economy and the non-aligned model of international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union finally put an end to these struggling experiments, by realigning Indian economic and political structures with the lone remaining imperial power, the United States.
The global age, seduced by the American dream, arrived in India too, and the country’s elites lost no time in embracing the “American way of life.” In the years that have followed, social and cultural changes of tectonic dimensions have unfolded with the outbreak of digital mass media. Recent governments have gone well out of their way to make military alignments with Washington. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Israel—the first by an Indian leader—India’s geopolitical loyalties have clearly done a somersault since the Soviet era. Under such conditions of a loss of effective military and economic sovereignty (in spite of the appearances), what view is one to take of India’s independence?
In retrospect, what is clear is that a great opportunity was lost in the immediate aftermath of Independence. Visionaries such as Gandhi and Tagore had argued for a creative renewal of the best there was in Indian traditions, instead of a blind embrace of the ways of the modern world. But their visions were not even debated seriously in the portals of power after the British departure.
How is one to judge the years from 1947 to the 1980s? This period after formal independence now stands out as a time of experimentation in self-rule—which arguably reveals itself, in hindsight, to have been based on an illusory sovereignty. The illusion held up as long as the Soviet Union was alive and India could pillion-ride behind it, but with the end of the Cold War it was quietly shattered. India was simply unprepared to steer a properly sovereign, independent course—militarily, economically, politically or culturally—thereafter.
In sum, it is quite clear what the years after 1991 have meant for India. Its past from the days before 1947 has returned to tempt (some would say haunt) it. Our elites could easily adapt to the radically changed world after 1991 since the inner cognitive software for this adaptation was not only in place, but was always in active use underneath the surface of publicly purveyed illusions. Since the 1960s, Indians had been going to the United States to study and work. Our elites, already Westernised from the days of the Raj, were increasingly Americanised in the decades that followed 1947, even if the official positions of the state did not change till much later.
Discussions of “post-colonial” India may seem embarrassingly premature in light of the loss of effective sovereignty in multiple dimensions, and the vulnerable terms on which globalising India has been wilfully roped into the dynamics of a New York- and London-dominated system of global finance. The Indian state lacks its Chinese counterpart’s confidence in capital controls, allowing vast sums of capital to leave the country at will in moments of volatility. A certain kind of voluntary colonialism has come into being in India, which operates under a deceiving veneer of hyper-nationalism, especially under the present regime. The needs of all of rural India, implying over 850 million people dependent on agriculture and traditional livelihoods, are very low down on the cognitive priorities of the policy elites, whose faith in the globally integrated economy cannot tackle the question of how to include excluded aspirants in their vision of the future. It would be appropriate to describe what we have in India now as corporate nationalism defined by a heroic belief in India Inc.
ONE WAY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE is to control and create it. In the introduction to his biography, Masani writes that Macaulay was “the first Western thinker to predict that the future of global modernity, science and capitalism lay with an Anglo-Saxon model of development, based on the English language, liberal political/economic ideas and representative government.” In the book’s epilogue, Masani reflects on the contemporary era of “liberalisation” in India and finds retrospective foresight in Macaulay’s vision, since he “correctly predicted that the English language would be the key to success in a globalised knowledge economy.” He quotes the historian Ramachandra Guha: “The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay’s Minute.”
Masani’s claims are obviously unsubstantiated—after all, technological development in Japan or South Korea did not require Macaulay’s ‘Minute’ nor two centuries of colonial devastation. Scientific inquiry has not been inhibited in countries across Europe that do not use English. And the glaring instance of China’s enormous success, in fact, shows that capitalist modernity works smoothest without an “Anglo-Saxon model” of representative democracy.
Such analyses reveal a larger poverty of the contemporary Indian elite imagination, which cannot envision an independent India outside the framework of colonial cognition even 70 years after the end of colonial rule. The newfound prosperity of our class, the educated Indian elite, has brought a kind of cognitive surrender.
Serving the new empire of global capital has meant a resumption of old colonial cognitive habits that many of us born in the earlier era of independent India had taken for dead. We find in the global era an immense cultural violence in the vast vulgarity of imitation. It takes the invasive form of a consumer pathology fed by the sales blitz of metropolitan mass media.
This violence has many facets to it. At one level, it leads to rejection of one’s own customs and traditions in an indiscriminate manner, without much reflection or discussion. Desires are stoked and pre-emptively decide questions that ought to be debated. The language of aspirations has been invented by marketing wizards over the last generation to foreclose any serious reckoning with what is imposed invisibly by a corporate state in the name of development.
Mass culture in the Western world has long been controlled, and continues to be produced, by giant corporations that wield enormous power. The West has been living in a supermarket for a very long time. Corporate rule in the Western world has meant a thorough devastation of human society, putting relationships from the most intimate to the most public in jeopardy. Presumably, this is the vision of consumer modernity that India’s rulers wish to see realised, a vision in which the global market is the sole arbiter of all values. India’s cultural heritage and traditions are part of the collateral damage of this aspiration—as they were in Macaulay’s time—and there are many who are happy to see it all go. What will remain afterward?
Corporate nationalism in the global era denies these psychological realities. There is the commercial aggression of globally agile digital and media corporations, ever keen to expand their markets around the world. But there is also a pliant state at the receiving end, which allows them unrestricted access. Alongside them, now we are offered fantasies of an ancient past, when Vedic science and technology supposedly flourished, to mitigate the internal shame and humiliation of a class of elites who have enriched themselves materially while remaining cognitively enslaved in the mental world set in motion by Macaulay.
Devy, in After Amnesia, has argued that
in India, Westernization has brought with it a regressive tendency ... of reviving a distant past and repressing the immediate past. This fantasization of the past ... and the uneasy relationship with recent history ... are consequences of the cultural amnesia into which Indian culture has regressed during the colonial period. The worst part of the colonial impact was that it snatched away India’s liv- ing cultural heritage and replaced it with a fantasy of the past. This amnesia, which has affected our awareness of native traditions which are still alive, is perhaps the central factor of the crisis.
Quite contrary to what Masani argues in his biography, vernacular languages have suffered under the onslaught of English. Devy led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, launched in 2010, which revealed that 250 languages have been lost in post-colonial India—causing a drop in the number of languages spoken in the country from 1,100 to approximately 850 since 1961. If India after globalisation is becoming the “graveyard of languages,” as Devy says, it has much to do with the longstanding legacy of choices against vernaculars dating back to the days of Macaulay, reinforced by state decisions taken in independent India along similar lines. In his latest book, The Crisis Within, Devy has expressed alarm at the cognitive condition of India in the post-liberalisation era. “The cumulative effect of the rise of English schools in India on Indian languages is going to be negative,” he writes. “That would lead us into difficulties while conceptualising our cultural history. When a large number of such children get into positions of authority, their collective amnesia about cultural history can pave an easy way for false historical narratives and a fascist political environment.”
Masani’s biography, as well as the writings of some Dalit intellectuals, celebrate Macaulay today as a great liberator in good measure precisely because of his introduction of English into Indian education. Should we not, however, seriously reflect on the consequences for the fate of our languages as a result of the national triumph of English? Even more seriously, as Devy points out, the cultural discontinuity and false narratives that emerge from this enormous phenomenon endanger our society in ways which are already becoming rudely manifest.
More than three-quarters of a century ago, when the situation was not nearly so dire, Tagore had warned that “the entire East” was “attempting to take into itself a history which is not the outcome of its own living.” He felt that if Asia was to play the role destiny had assigned to it, it could not afford to allow itself to become a vulgar simulacra of the Western world. He wrote about the continent:
If she thus loses her individuality and her spe- cific power to exist, will it in the least help the rest of the world? Will not her terrible bank- ruptcy involve also the Western mind? If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an il- limitable parody of the modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity.
If the only biography of Macaulay written by an Indian in the twenty-first century sees him as “a pioneer of India’s modernization,” then we must be on our way to this absurd end. Nirad C Chaudhuri was prophetic in 1948, only a year after Indian independence, when he wrote, “I expect either the United States singly or a combination of the United States and the British Commonwealth to re-establish and rejuvenate the foreign domination of India.”
In an era which has come to see itself as somehow free, empires need ever subtler masks to perpetuate their projects of domination, ever more insidiously, so that power continues to be misunderstood as freedom. But modern history teaches that freedom is not a gift that the conquerors of history bestow upon their subjects from innate graciousness. It has had to be fought for, with great sacrifices, and even when it has been effectively won, it has had a pronounced tendency to be subtly overtaken by the inertia of earlier imperial domination. In an age in which knowledge and information confer unprecedented power, this amounts to the colonisation of cognition. As we know, cognition precedes not only analysis, but discourse itself.
Nobody was more aware of this than Tagore. When he proposed his own university a hundred years ago, he dwelt a while on the legacy of Macaulay’s education system, explaining in the process what made him drop out of school in the sixth standard, when he was just 14 years old:
The Western education which we have chanced to know is impersonal. Its complexion is also white, but it is the whiteness of the white-washed classroom walls. It dwells in the cold-storage compartments of lessons and the ice-packed minds of the schoolmasters. ... The effect which it had on my mind when, as a boy, I was compelled to go to school, I have described elsewhere. My feeling was very much the same as a tree might have, which was not allowed to live its full life, but was cut down to be made into packing-cases.
Tagore also observed, “Our educated community is not a cultured community, but a community of qualified candidates.” Recalling Macaulay’s legacy, he wrote, “The most pathetic feature of the tragedy is that the bird itself has learnt to use its chain for its ornament, simply because the chain jingles in fairly respectable English.” Tagore correctly identified the root of our cognitive ailment. “The main source of all forms of voluntary slavery,” he underscored, “is the desire of gain. It is difficult to fight against this when modern civilization is tainted with such a universal contamination of avarice.”
Tagore decried those who, in their impatience to become “modern,” refused to draw from our own history:
The unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of these disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure-trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.
In Tagore’s vision, the way to our future lay through a wise, discriminating recovery of the past:
Our ancient tapovanas, or forest schools, which were our natural universities, were not shut off from the daily life of the people. Masters and students gathered fruit and fuel, and took their cattle out to graze, sup- porting themselves by the work of their own hands. Spiritual education was a part of the spiritual life itself, which comprehended all life. Our centre of culture should not only be the centre of the intellectual life of India, but the centre of her economic life also. It must co-operate with the villages round it, cultivate land, breed cattle, spin cloths, press oil from oil-seeds; it must produce all the necessaries, devising the best means, using the best materials, and calling science to its aid. Its very existence should depend upon the success of its industrial activities carried out on the co-operative principle, which will unite the teachers and students and villagers of the neighbourhood in a living and active bond of necessity. This will give us also a practical industrial training, whose motive force is not the greed of profit.
Tagore envisioned another kind of education premised on another kind of cognition. As was the case with Gandhi, Tagore communicated as much of a message through his life as through his words. He was a middle-school dropout. He personally bid good-bye to Macaulay’s system in 1875. But he did not just quit.
In finding the courage to start Santiniketan, Sriniketan and Visva-Bharati University, he attempted to renew the idea of the tapovana. Even in dark times, Tagore’s example is an inspiration that shows that other futures can be imagined and brought into being. Few today seem to have the strength to be so bold. The first step may be to realise all the ways in which we are still under the long shadow of Macaulay. A critical biography which draws a full picture of the now lengthening shadow as much as of the man himself, may lead us to eventually step out of it, and into the light towards true freedom.