Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Macaulay: Misrepresented and unappreciated genius.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay is the most reviled name in Indian history and ironically the most enduring name too. 165 years after his famous (or notorious depending your politics) 'minute on Indian education' his legacy still lives. There are portions of Indian Penal Code that still retain the laws laid down my Macaulay. Recently I happen to chance upon a collection of his writings and read in full his 'minute on Indian education ' and his 'address on India'. In this blog I shall focus only on his educational legacy. Macaulay has been blamed for the Indian student's lack of appreciation for India's rich cultural heritage and instead for being supposedly 'indoctrinated' in the western civilization. Before I plunge headlong I'll cite a conversation I had with my cousin recently. My cousin and several friends of his, staunch DK/DMK activists, support Tamil as medium of instruction. They fund schools that are Tamil medium. I told him that very soon they will be knocking the doors of the government for some quota for these students. Presto, Karunanidhi did just that recently.

A very important note is that India, when Macaulay wrote his minute in 1835, was still administered by the "East India Company" and 22 years before the "Sepoy Mutiny" (or, as Indians love to call it, 'First War of Independence').

At Macaulay's disposal are funds to educate Indians. The dilemma before him is to choose the medium of instruction. His choices are a)English or b)Arabic or Sanskrit (depending on the religion of the pupil). Macaulay wades into the literary merits of each medium and very tellingly into what would be "good" for pupils.

It is his arguments on the literary merits, or lack there of, of Sanskrit and Arabic that stirred quite the hornets nest and. "A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". Without exaggerating I can affirm that those words continue to irritate Indians to this day. Indians, reflexively, ask "what does Macaulay know of Indian literature. Macaulay answers "I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. .....when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same."

Even conceding the claim of Indians on 'literary value' of their epics Macaulay clearly rips into pride by showing that there is nothing more worthy in Indian literature when it comes to the sciences. This is only a blog and I cannot digress into every claim and counterclaim of Indians. I know the usual arguments that would be trotted out, Arthasastra, Bhaskara, Aryabhatta, Susruta etc but in 1835 India was an intellectually arid country. By then England had seen Shakespeare, Oxford, Cambridge, Shelley, Byron, Milton, Newton, Bacon, John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, Royal Society etc.

Macaulay is introspective too, "Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto noted, had they neglected the language of Thucydides and Plato, and the language of Cicero and Tacitus, had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island, had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but chronicles in Anglo-Saxon and romances in Norman French, --would England ever have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India. "

. In 1990 when I did my +2 at a Government aided private school (Up to 10th I was at Don Bosco) the school, under government rules, would charge English medium students Rs20 per month while the Tamil medium students studied free. The schools, under regulations, could have only one English medium section but as many Tamil medium sections as desired. Thus the government "created" a scarcity and made access to English medium sections difficult for the common man under the pretext of protecting Tamil (while M.K.Stalin studied in MCC, Kanimozhi in Church Park, Maran brother in Don Bosco etc etc etc).

Macaulay is at his best when he lays bare the ground realities and the hypocrisies. Even in his day students studying in Sanskrit and Arabic had to be paid the government whereas a pupil in English medium classes paid the government, "we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students while those who learn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh this undisputed fact, that we cannot find in all our vast empire a single student who will let us teach him those dialects, unless we will pay him." 165 years ago the average parent rejected his children being taught in Sanskrit or Arabic and CHOSE TO PAY FOR ENGLISH MEDIUM.

"Why then is it necessary to pay people to learn Sanscrit and Arabic? Evidently because it is universally felt that the Sanscrit and Arabic are languages the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them. On all such subjects the state of the market is the detective test." Macaulay sounds very much like a right wing conservative of modern day America talking about the 'market as the detective test'.

Even today Tamil Nadu government acquires so called scholarly works of Tamil scholars and stuffs libraries with them irrespective of literary merit. Here is Macaulay in 1865 lamenting, "The committee have thought fit to lay out above a lakh of rupees in printing Arabic and Sanscrit books. Those books find no purchasers. It is very rarely that a single copy is disposed of. Twenty-three thousand volumes, most of them folios and quartos, fill the libraries or rather the lumber-rooms of this body." WHEREAS "the School Book Society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, and not only pays the expenses of printing but realizes a profit of twenty per cent. on its outlay."

To the oft repeated canard of Indians never being able to master English as a Englishman could Macaulay speaks warmly of the educated Indian, "It is taken for granted by the advocates of oriental learning that no native of this country can possibly attain more than a mere smattering of English. They do not attempt to prove this. But they perpetually insinuate it. They designate the education which their opponents recommend as a mere spelling-book education...Less than half the time which enables an English youth to read Herodotus and Sophocles ought to enable a Hindoo to read Hume and Milton."

Coming to the vulgar claim of quotas for Tamil medium graduates. Here is Macaulay 165 years ago and this passage needs to be quoted in full for the brilliance and clairvoyance. Here he talks about how students educated in Arabic and Sanskrit, at Government expense, come pleading to the same government for jobs. " These are surely the first petitioners who ever demanded compensation for having been educated gratis, for having been supported by the public during twelve years, and then sent forth into the world well furnished with literature and science. They represent their education as an injury which gives them a claim on the Government for redress, as an injury for which the stipends paid to them during the infliction were a very inadequate compensation. And I doubt not that they are in the right. They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect."

Tamil chauvinists (masquerading as enthusiasts) clamor for being educated (that too educated free mostly) in Tamil and then present the same education as if it was an injury to claim compensation (jobs) from the government. I always hated this premise but until I read Macaulay I was not able to frame it clearly.

Deciding upon whether to further spend public money on supposed encouragement of Sanskrit and Arabic Macaulay is categorical "I would at once stop the printing of Arabic and Sanscrit books."

To mollify Indians he nevertheless agrees to allowing a college each to teach students in Sanskrit and Arabic BUT the conservative republican in Macaulay refuses to subsidise any such education, in shining prose he declares, "I would at least recommend that no stipends shall be given to any students who may hereafter repair thither, but that the people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know.

What did Macaulay hope to achieve by his educational policy, "We must at present do our best 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 tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population."

So why did Macaulay want to educate the Indians at all? Indians have been fed a staple diet of looking at East India Company as mere 'conquerors' and people like Macaulay as 'unapologetic imperialists' suffering from the proverbial 'white man's burden'. I shall answer these in my next blog in detail.

165 years and each word rings true till today and what is sad they have GAINED much more relevance today. Macaulay's policy of taking education out of the hands of priestly classes which clamored for Sanskrit and Arabic shook the foundations of 1000 year caste heirarchy and laid  the foundations on which a century later India would raise its English speaking citizenry. A citizenry that is fueling India's economic surge. But for that accident of history India would not be where it is today.

I'd suggest erecting a statue for Macaulay in every town and hamlet.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

macauley verses tamil teaching and all karunanidhi stuff may be correct. but what macauley tried to do to the indian culture is unpardonable. indian in blood and colour and english in tastes... etc. He has done millions tons of harm to the indian society. all indians are mentally slave to the English and they do not know the value of sanskrit. still more than 50000 books are not yet opened from palm leaves.
i read one book natures secrets recently in sanfransisco.
what physics could not solve a sanskrit text has solved. details are there in the book. but no indian could take up that task.
the treasures are in sanskrit.
filty one rupees crime novels are fast selling.
but 100 rs ramayana are slow moving.
you cant rate any book by its selling power.
what a shame on our thinking mode.
pl read all of my articles.