Thoughts on economics and liberty

Indians wanted the English language in India, well before Macaulay

Macaulay's liberal contributions seem to have been entirely forgotten in India while his advocacy of the English language is decried by many Indians even today. But who really wanted English as the language of higher education in India? Was Macaulay the first one to suggest this? The facts are otherwise:

a) A number of Hindu donors including Jai Narayana, Raja Badrinath Rai and anynomyous donors funded colleges for English education WELL BEFORE Macaulay even reached India or considered this matter. That this achieved immediate good results is evident from the fact that one of the Vidyalayas' "student body bought up a sizable shipment of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Age of Reason." What better than educating Indians in English so they could directly understand the dramatic and far-reaching conceptions about liberty?

b) "Ram Mohun Roy did much more to promote English-language instruction in India. In 1823, he sent a long memorial to Lord Amherst attacking the policy of the General Committee of Public Instruction. Under the leadership of H. H. Wilson, that committee had founded a Sanskrit College in Calcutta in I823. Roy called for the establishment of a college devoted to European learning instead of a Sanskrit college. He questioned the usefulness of Sanskrit studies. He argued that the lakh of rupees devoted to education of Indians which Parliament had written into the East India Company's charter in 1813 should be laid out in employing European gentlemen of talents and education to instruct the natives of India in mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences that have raised them above the inhabitants of the rest of the world.
"Ram Mohun Roy appeared in 1831 before a parliamentary committee in England studying the renewal of the company's charter. While giving testimony on the question of free European emigration to India, Roy expressed the opinion that English emigration should be unrestricted since English settlers in India "from motives of benevolence, public spirit, and fellow feeling toward their native neighbours, would establish schools and other seminaries of education for the cultivation of the English language throughout the country, and for the diffusion of a knowledge of European arts and sciences."" (Elmer H. Cutts, "The Background of Macaulay's Minute", The American Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 4 Jul., 1953, p. 828).
[I am reminded of the Japanese emperor in the Meiji revolution who brought Americans into Japan to teach the latest science and literature to the Japanese, so that they could modernise rapidly. The same sentiment is being expressed by Raja Ram Mohun Roy. Eminently sensible.
c) William Bentick who formally introduced this policy in India, needed no prompting from Macaulay.  "Regardless of the advice of experienced company servants, he flouted Hindu prejudice and abolished sati (suttee), and made English instead of Persian the official language of the government of Bengal. As an economy measure he hired more Indians at low salaries and less Englishmen at high salaries to operate the Indian civil service.23 These two policies combined made English-language instruction virtually mandatory in government-supported institutions of higher learning. More Indians must know English. Otherwise, either Bentinck's economy measures or his English-language policy must fail. Bentinck's very administrative policies obviously predisposed him to accept Macaulay's argument."
I want to close the discussion of the Macaulay minute by noting that there is nothing exceptionable about the minute. It was something that many of the early educated Indians wanted, it was convenient and cheaper for the British to use English as a language of instruction instead of trying to translate all their books into local languages, and it allowed, over the course of the next 150 years, many Indians to appreciate the development of liberty in England and elsewhere, and to understand advances in science.
As R.C. Majumdar (et al,1978, p.813) notes: "although confined to a few, English education produced memorable results. It not only qualified Indians for taking their share in the administration of their country, but it also inspired them with those liberal ideas which were sweeping over England."
This understanding of  the advances in political philosophy and science ultimately gave us our 1950 liberal constitution which has so far held India together, and enabled us to become a (relatively speaking) powerhouse in science and technology. I am convinced that without the disciplined governance and common language (English) introduced in India by the British, India would have been a splintered sub-continent with over 100 "nations", today, something like AfricaNothing from India's history suggests otherwise.
In thus taking India from an anarchy in the early 18th century to a strong world power of the 21st century, I can't find too much fault with the events of history, more so with the language policy of Bentick (or the minute that Macaulay wrote). Sure, had India had its own revolutions for freedom, things would have been different, but India was Old World, despotic, truly backward in thinking. The waves of freedom that landed on India's shores came in through books and education, not through British rule (although with many British liberals actively involved in India's affairs, surely the tenor of their efforts might have also led to an increased demand for liberty in India). The internet is now pushing these waves further into India. That is what ultimately matters, not who rules. When people learn that they rule themselves, no one but they can rule. That was Macaulay's vision for India, and I think while no single person can ever be responsible for such major achievements, his vision has been largely actualised.
India is moving steadily towards freedom. It has achieved the preliminary step of independence, and the clamour for freedom now arises. 
I invite your opinions if you disagree with my assessment of Macaulay's English language advocacy for India (which was NOT, to repeat once more, the sole reason why Bentick introduced English education more formally in India). I think we ought to stop all the ill-founded calumny of Macaulay and evaluate him objectively. He shines resplendently over the centuries, a well-wisher of India, a visionary hoping to bring us freedom and the capability to govern ourselves effectively. The fact that we have never understood his advocacy of freedom shows our biases, not weakness in his efforts. 
I've now uploaded the scanned extract from the original minute (published in 1876 by Macaulay's nephew), here (2.2MB). The full book from which this extract is taken is available here (57MB).
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9 thoughts on “Indians wanted the English language in India, well before Macaulay
  1. Rohit Awasthi

    Very true….recently read a book on the same topic in hindi…..Raja Ram Mohan Roy and many other top level Hindus of then Bengal advocated there voice for English language college in Bengal atleast……they wanted English and not Sanskrit as the primary teaching language…..these were the people who went to western world and retured after looking splendid magics of science into their lives…..they wanted young Indians to read and learn the science and techonlogy and contribute into the development of the country….the impact of this is surely subjective issue….

  2. Vijay Mohan

    Quite a complex issue ..Before commenting I would like to go through complete of his work.
    But I believe that Hindi and Sanskrit or most of the other regional languages are  No less a scientific language . With Hindi as one national language we could have progressed more ..
    With English given priority, We have lost the knowledge of our literature our Science .
    Most of the losses were done even before with the fall of Nalanda & Takshshila
    Macaulay like many of the Britishers used to hate or disrespect Indian literature / culture or any of the Indian Contributions or mainly HINDUISM. He was obsessed with English and English Work .
    Macaulay was biased in his thinking that ENGLISH and English people are superior to its Indian counter part.
    The situation now is Hardly 5% of Indians Know English and only those are having most of the powers and facilities rest feel inferior with themselves for not knowing English.
    I feel One national language is required ..Though its difficult to say which one .. But Hindi is the best option.

  3. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Vijay

    I’m afraid I can’t find ONE shred of evidence to support your claim that “Macaulay like many of the Britishers used to hate or disrespect Indian literature / culture or any of the Indian Contributions or mainly HINDUISM. He was obsessed with English and English Work .
    Macaulay was biased in his thinking that ENGLISH and English people are superior to its Indian counter part.”

    Please note that INDIANS had wanted English language teaching well before Macaulay came on the scene. I would urge you to prove to me your claim. Don’t make claims against others without evidence.


  4. Vijay Mohan

    Dear Sanjeev,
    Its not difficult to say What I wrote .. The Sense or the tone in which the minutes were delivered
    I got the following link from Wikipedia .. I hope you have the same minutes of the meeting
    I also know that the statement "I have been to length and breadth …" has no proof …at atall
    i have put some of the points below .. but you can get the sense from many points ..raised by him
    [8]All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them.
    [10] 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. 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. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.
    [11] It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But 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.

  5. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Vijay

    These are statements of fact, from Macaulay's perspective. He, in his short 34 years of life when he wrote the Minute, having been a parliamentarian briefly, but otherwise a budding liberal writer, had clearly imbibed only sketchy information re: the value of Indian thought. 

    a) Re:  dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information

    It remains a fact that most parts of India (except mainstream Hindi, Gurmukhi and Urdu speaking areas) possessed a relatively crude language, with under-developed scripts and grammar. The British were to later help a lot in fixing this problem, Thus, for instance, it was a British officer Miles Bronson who collated and published the first Assamese dictionary ( Indian languages developed strongly in the 19th century, perhaps from the more stable conditions afforded by (relatively) less warfare that was typical of the previous centuries. Thus literary advances in many Indian languages (not Sanskrit, of course!) were very poor by the time Macaulay wrote his work. He is referring to "dialects commonly spoken", not to classical languages.

    I am not aware of any dramatic scientific advance in ANY Indian language, for such advance does not exist.

    b)  Re:. 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. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature 

    This is clearly based on Macaulay's limited knowledge. Note that researchers like Max Mueller came on the scene after Macaulay’s minute of 1835. Once they discovered and elaborated upon the Upananishads, philosophers (mostly German) like Schopenhauer definitely would not have made such a statement. This does not display disrespect or hatred, but ignorance. GIVEN the facts at his disposal, this conclusion was not particularly misplaced. 

    c) Re: 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.

    This is UNDENIABLY TRUE even today. Please show me in relation to (a) facts recorded and (b) general principles investigated where has Indian classical literature come EVEN REMOTELY close to Western scientific literature starting from around the 16th century AD. 

    In brief, I don't see any evidence of hatred, and any disrespect you perceive is because you judge him by what you know, not what he knew.



  6. Vijay Mohan

    Dear Sanjeev,
    As per you Macaulay was ignorant on some of the facts ….So were many Indians ..
    There were lots of culture changes observed during Mughal rule .. .. Most of the time there was a struggle to survive… Knowledge , Literature was DESTROYED by mughals ( Not All) but most of them . Nalanda & Takshshila were huge examples .. Sanskrit was loosing its identity ..
    Basic Science , Mathematics , Physics , Medical , Politics,Economics .etc. were all known ..
    Its accepted that During the time of British invasion ..It was all together a different India ..but still there were many amazing things about India Which Macaulay could have skipped..because of his attitude or mindset of Superiority
    I will Never accept the Superiority of Europeans.. They  came to Loot India to dominated India to continue there lootings .. Europe or especially Britain grew of the loot… India or Indians never believed in Loot or dominating others with Power/.. No matter what they did ..BUT Thieves Looters ..can never be respected..
    But If someone is to be blamed of the disaster Its only Indians .. 
    How will I judge him based on What he knew .. When he was Ignorant about Indian History.. So Did british attitude changed after they found out magnificant past of India .. and than It cant be denied that they Deliberately changed some part of the Indian History to make Indians ashamed of  there culture and start Accepting British Culture.
    Though you may feel that I am moving away from the topic . But I dont feel he was much different from other british counterparts.
    I dont deny there wasnt any demand of English In India before he came..But again ignorance ..and the attraction of British Culture, Style was there [Which is  felt even today ].. 

  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Vijay

    I’d urge you to note that the Hindu belief is that all people have the same consciousness. There is no innate superiority or inferiority. I did not ask you to accept “the Superiority of Europeans”! Far from it. But don’t get caught up in such a debate, else you’ll lose objectivity.

    Macaulay was a good man. He did not loot or cheat anyone. If you show me that he personally hated any Indian, I’ll reconsider – but you’ll be hard pressed to prove this case.

    And do avoid generalisations such as: “did British attitude change”. Talk about individuals only. What is your problem with whichindividual? And why?

    To mix up so-called “deliberate change of Indian history” with Macaulay also doesn’t make sense. You are perhaps aware that there was NO HISTORY of India before European historians came to India and dug up the history of India. For instance, no one IN INDIA knew about the history of Assam till Edward Gait researched and wrote it down ( Please don’t be one-sided in your thinking, that too without evidence. Doesn’t help anyone.

    And don’t make wild claims that India had “Science , Mathematics , Physics , Medical , Politics,Economics .etc.”. Where? I haven’t found more than the most rudimentary science, mathematics and total ignorance of economics (that continues today with pepole like Baba Ramdev). Don’t exaggerate what was a very primitive state of affairs – although quite commendable for those ancient times.


  8. Vijay Mohan

    Hi Sanjeev,
    I am quite emotional on the topic…. 
    The Ancient Knowledge , I dont think its fully explored (eg.. Ayurveda) …Yet .. and I said the Basic .. not the complete one … "ARTHSHASTRA" by Kautilya  I think is quite a matured document in Economics….But you know better ..
    I agree , Britishers found Indian History…. But I hold them responsible after Indians For the present state of My Country ….. I have a kind of Hate For the Genocide for the loot for the torture ..of my Mother India
    Ya Its a generalization .. because this is what most of them did in most of the World..
    But you are right …THat is a History Now ..But understanding Macaulay is required ??

  9. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Vijay

    Don’t be emotional on any topic! Use only the head when discussing facts.

    Arthashastra displays a very poor understanding of economics. A controlled and regulated labour market and economy. Not what would generate wealth. I’ve gone through the Penguin translation: Wouldn’t recommend it for its economics, but its foreign policy (and much else) is interesting.

    Ayurveda – good but still very primitive. If people rely ONLY on Ayurveda they’ll die early. Average Indian lived to 30 years of age before modern science came in. Yes, anything of value in Ayurveda must be explored further. But don’t be emotional about things that happened 5000 years ago! Use your mind. As the Rig Veda says, “Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides”. Please calm down. Macaulay was good man. Learn what you can from him. Don’t make enemies out of people long dead and gone. Read his books with an open mind.


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