How Thomas Macaulay ‘educated’ India

by Zareer Masani

Editor’s Note: Even to this day in India, the term ‘Macaulay’s Children’ is hurled, typically with derision, as a label for anglicised, deracinated Indians who have, in the perception of some self-appointed hypernationalists, turned their back on their traditions, culture, language and mindset. But who is Thomas Macaulay? And what is his legacy in the erstwhile colony that he came to “educate” and “civilize”? In this biography of Macaulay, 'Macaulay: Pioneer of India's Modernisation' by London-based historian Zareer Masani published by Random House India, he presents a balanced reappraisal of Macaulay’s contribution to Indian nation-building, and in shaping an Anglo-Saxon model of development, based on the English language, liberal political and economic ideas, and representative government.

It is the 25th of October 2006, and an unusual birthday party is being held in a small apartment perched high up in one of the many ugly tower blocks that have sprung up in the sprawling suburbs of Delhi. The host is Chandra Bhan Prasad, a stout, very jovial middle-aged social activist of the Dalit community, and his guests are a motley collection of Dalit intellectuals, Delhi academics and foreign journalists. They are celebrating the 206th birthday of Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay, the man who brought the English language and British education to India, and thence arguably to the rest of the world.

An English medium school in India. AFP

Macaulay’s Delhi birthday party owes far more to local Indian rituals than to the classical Western values and ideals he espoused. Indian pakoras and kebabs circulate along with liberal supplies of Scotch whisky; and the climax of the event is the unveiling of a portrait of the newly invented goddess of English. In the best traditions of the colourful bazaar posters of Hindu deities, this hybrid reincarnation of the American Statue of Liberty is pictured against a blazing map of India, standing on a giant computer, wearing a sari and a wide-brimmed straw hat and holding aloft a massive pink pen.

A Dalit poet sings a hymn of praise to the new deity, with the refrain:

Oh Devi Ma, please let us learn English!
Even the dogs understand English.

Then Chandra Bhan Prasad addresses his guests and announces: ‘Empowered by Goddess English, Dalits can take their place in the new globalized world… Imagine, if we had followed only indigenous study, we would be like Afghanistan or Nepal today.’ And he adds, with a humorous twinkle in his eye: ‘Hereafter, the first sounds all newborn Dalit babies will hear from their parents is—abcd. Immediately after birth, parents will walk up to the child and whisper in the ear—abcd.’


In late January 1835… Macaulay unleashed his famous Education Minute, adopting the arguments of the Westernizers and putting them forward with rhetorical force… (T)he Minute…  deserves its fame because it articulated a cogent, authoritative and highly persuasive ideological basis for what was to become a distinctively British sense of imperial mission. Almost two centuries later, though never acknowledged, its underlying principles remain the Bible of Anglo-American nation-building in the world’s trouble-spots.

The Minute … asserted that the Indian vernacular languages or mother tongues were at present demonstrably inadequate to the task of providing a modern higher education; hence the need for a foreign language, and which of these could be more suitable than English, ‘pre-eminent even among the languages of the West’, with a literature equal to that of classical Greece and offering unparalleled access to every branch of useful knowledge, past and present? If that were not enough, English was already the language of India’s ‘ruling class’, ‘spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of government’ and ‘likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East’.

With his characteristic love of sweeping comparisons and rhetorical exaggeration, Macaulay presented a stark contrast between the educational alternatives now on offer. Even among the Orientalists themselves, he remarked in a much-quoted dictum, he had found none ‘who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia’.

Admitting his own ignorance of the languages he was dismissing, he maintained that he had read the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works in translation and conversed ‘with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues’.  He had concluded 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 abridgements used at preparatory schools in England’; and the position was the same in every other branch of knowledge.

Now in full flow, he demanded ‘whether, when we can patronize sound philosophy and true history, we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier… astronomy which would move laughter in the girls at an English boarding-school … history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long… and geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.’

The historian in Macaulay could not resist citing past precedents for how best to create a true Indian renaissance. The most obvious example, he claimed, was that of the revival of learning in Western Europe through the rediscovery of Greek and Latin literature in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In a curious and logically flawed analogy, he equated the enlightening role of English in India with that of the classics in Europe, while lumping India’s own classical heritage with the primitive, ancient dialects of pre-Roman Europe…

… Macaulay invoked the economic laws of supply and demand, arguing that Indians themselves were voting with their feet: ‘…we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sankrit students, while those who learn English are willing to pay us’. ‘The state of the market,’ he maintained, ‘is the decisive test.’ Pointing to the recent petition from ex-students of the Sanskrit College, protesting that their Oriental Studies had left them unemployed, he declared: ‘They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect. Surely we might … have saved the cost of making these persons useless and miserable …’ The Arabic and Sanskrit texts being printed in such large quantities by the Committee were languishing unread, with 23,000 surplus copies lying in ‘the lumber-rooms of this body’. English school books, on the other hand, were selling in their thousands and raking in large profits.

While accepting that the British must be respectful of Indian religions, Macaulay maintained that it was not the job of the government to bribe students ‘to waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat’. He dismissed as patronizing Orientalist concerns that English might be too difficult for Indians to grasp in sufficient depth. ‘There are in this very town,’ he pointed out, ‘natives who are quite competent to discuss political or scientific questions with fluency and precision in the English language.’ He had himself heard ‘native gentlemen’ debating this very subject ‘with a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction’. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any European foreigner in the highest literary circles who could ‘express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos’.

English was certainly a lot easier for Indians to learn than Greek for an English schoolboy: ‘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.’

Looking ahead to what practical shape the new Anglicist policy should take, Macaulay accepted, on grounds of cost and practicality, that the Indian masses could not be taught Hume and Milton in the kind of comprehensive educational system that campaigners like Trevelyan had envisaged. Instead, in its most famous words, the Minute set the objective of creating ‘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’. This class of enlightened intermediaries would, in turn, revive and modernize vernacular languages like Bengali, Hindi and Urdu ‘to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population’.

Words such as these were to make Macaulay’s Minute the template of liberal imperialism across the world and one of the most important and controversial political documents of the nineteenth century. It outlined an imperial mission more ambitious and global than any since ancient Rome. India was to become the crucible in which the British Empire would create a new, modern, rational and scientific society, Indian in ethnicity but British in education, values, thinking and—most important of all—language.


Macaulay’s educational minutes made it abundantly clear that he saw the teaching of English, far from replacing the vernaculars, as a channel for the transmission of European knowledge into the vernaculars and through them down to the wide mass of the Indian population. But the vernaculars must grow organically out of the new learning, rather than by government paying a few authors to produce books in those languages. ‘Twenty years hence, there will be hundreds, nay thousands, of natives familiar with the best models of composition, and well acquainted with Western science,’ he predicted. ‘Among them some persons will be found who will have the inclination and the ability to exhibit European knowledge in the vernacular dialects.’

His forecasts were largely justified. By 1838, when Macaulay sailed back to Britain, his Committee had established forty English-medium schools which were open to all regardless of caste, in itself a revolutionary step in a society where the lower castes had been strictly forbidden to study. Forty years on, as his biographer nephew recorded, the new policy had produced ‘hundreds of thousands of natives who can appreciate European knowledge when laid before them in the English language, and can reproduce it in their own.’ … The new schools had inevitably led on to the founding of new universities, endowed not merely by government but, as Macaulay had predicted, by the private philanthropy of wealthy Indians themselves.

Updated Date: Nov 13, 2012 11:30 AM

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