© Akhilesh Mithal

Pitfalls of the 'New' British Education


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Any criticism of the British period in India’s history elicits the comment, "The British quit in 1947. Over 50 years have passed. Enough time to set things right. Why have free and independent Indians not taken corrective steps?  How long can you go on blaming the British?"

This is a valid comment. An explanation for Indian inaction is not only in order but necessary. This act might trigger action.

The reason for inaction or inadequate action is the paradigm change effected by the British as soon as they established political hegemony. This paradigm shift was achieved by rejecting the traditional Indian educational system and installing a totally new one in its place.

This "new" education system reflected the master/servitor relationship as between the conquering British and their subject, the Indians, and legitimized it by providing a bias and conditioning where Indians learnt self-contempt. With this mindset in place the new tribe of "English educated" Indians could side with their masters when it came to condemning their own heritage.

It can be no one’s case that the 18th century or pre-British Empire Indians were perfect. A great deal of jetsam and flotsam had been allowed to accumulate and clog the well springs of India’s existence. Monstrous, abiding superstitions prevailed. These required to be shed and people’s lives rescued from a seemingly eternal wandering "in the dreary desert sands of dead habit." Horrible practices like human sacrifice, female infanticide, sati, discrimination on account of birth needed to be addressed, condemned and exorcised.

There was also the need to analyze the cause for losing all battles to outsiders be it the Iranians and Afghans invading from the Northwest or the Europeans raiding from the seas.
There was, however, no need to expunge and eradicate the rich and diverse Indian heritage in its entirety. For much of it was vibrant with the riches garnered by humanity over centuries.

The hoary Indian traditions included the learning and cultivation of classical languages (Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian ) along with the prominent Prakrits  (for example Urdu, Awadhi and Brij Bhasha wherever the Mughals ruled); developing skills in the arts which enrich everyday life such as poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, play-acting, the culinary arts, the growing of orchards and the layout of formal "mughal" gardens; mathematics in its theories as well as the twin practical applications of music and astronomy, and training for honing and perfecting the practical skills needed for everyday living for example, horse management (i.e. riding training bleaching and dyeing of horses), swordsmanship, archery and wrestling to name a few.

The manuals for everyday living included those concerned with  understanding of sexual desires and the modes for its fulfilment. As the concept of "Original Sin" was yet to be learnt from Christian educators there was no squeamishness in addressing this subject.

All these aspects of education and learning were abandoned in the name of "new" education. There was also the need for change because the educated Indian ceased to be perceived as an officer and a gentleman by the Englishmen in power. Only the limited role of a mercenary soldier of the lowest rank in the service of John Company Bahadur or Malkaa Touria (Queen Victoria) remained. The civilian employment open to an Indian was limited to positions like that of a lowly clerk or most junior ranking officer in the revenue or judicial service.

Thus culture fracture combined with impoverishment and denial of opportunities for employment, trade or commerce made sure that the conditioning received by the Indians for the 200 years or eight generations during which they were enslaved, alienated them from their own heritage.

A whole value system that had sustained Indians since times immemorial and equipped their forefathers to deal with the newcomers like the Farsi Iranians under Darius, Macedonian Greeks under Alexander III, the Hunas white and coloured or the Sakas of many hues, disappeared in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

All those who defend British Rule in India and resent its criticism should be made to read a document that everyone talks about without actually having read it.

The document is Thomas Babington  Macaulay’s  Minute on Education, of February 2, 1835. The Governor General’s Committee of Public Instruction were debating the allocation of funds to various disciplines and the Act of the British Parliament of 1813, which had provided the sum of rupees one lakh for education was being interpreted afresh.

Macaulay says " (The Act) contains nothing about the particular languages or sciences which are to be studied. A sum (Rs one lakh) is set apart ‘for the revival and promotion of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of British territories.’
It is argued, or rather taken for granted that by literature the Parliament could have meant only Arabic and Sanscrit literature; that they never would have given the appellation ‘a learned native’ to a native who was familiar with the poetry of Milton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton; but that they meant to designate by that name only such persons as might have studied the sacred books of the Hindoos all the use of cussa (grass) and all the mysteries of absorption into the Deity.’ This does not appear to be a very satisfactory interpretation."

Readers can see the contempt that Macaulay feels and registers without hesitation for what he imagines Hindoo thought to be.

(To be continued).

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