The Lengthening Shadow

What a critical biography—still unwritten—of Thomas Babington Macaulay would tell us about ourselves

01 August, 2017

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.