Few colonial figures are as reviled as Thomas Macaulay, the man who took on the orientalists in 1835 and won, thereby irrevocably altering India’s cultural and political landscape. And while several post colonial scholars perceive Macaulay as the embodiment of the Colonial power’s formidable influence over its foreign subjects, what remains a matter of interest to me is the diverse set of lenses that the man is scrutinized under. To secular liberals (I include secular Indian nationalists in this category) he was an abomination: a racist and unapologetic imperialist who thrust his paternalistic sentiments on an unwilling populace. To Hindutvas (Hindu nationalists) he was an evil white Christian who was determined to destroy the glorious “Bharat mata” (mother India) because that’s what White Christians do for recreation. To Indian Muslim nationalists he was a perfidious schemer who rendered Indian Muslims politically vulnerable by dethroning the Moghuls; and rendering them socially vulnerable by mandating English as the official language of the subcontinent (replacing Persian) thereby rendering millions of Muslims illiterate with the stroke of a Pen. Never mind that most Indian Muslims were Hindu converts and thus were political non entities to begin with, and that the vast majority of them were illiterate to begin with and hence a language switch wouldn’t have affected them on any magnitude.
Despite the ire that his name provokes from various circles, Macaulay’s legacy is impressive in its scope and breadth vis a vis India’s socio/cultural/political landscape. He was the man who was chiefly instrumental in founding a universal public education system for Indians of all castes thereby planting the seed for the emancipation of lower castes. Prior to Macaulay, Indian education was disseminated via a type of home schooling system known as Gurukul. A Guru (master) would typically take on a small group of pupils who were invited to share his residence during the course of their studies. To my knowledge there was no standardized curriculum and the selection of pupils was based on caste and not merit. The pupils were typically Brahmins (priest caste) and Kshatriyas (warrior caste) and this convenient system enabled them to maintain their hegemony over Indian society indefinitely. Macaulay set up several schools in Bengal which freely accepted lower caste students thus breaking a three thousand year cycle of illiteracy. It is no surprise then that even today Bengal is a hotbed of intellectualism, Marxism, and literature. His critics claim that Macaulay was merely trying to create a buffer class of educated Indians that would serve as 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”. However I don’t buy this; if his critics are correct then Macaulay would merely have advocated educating a small clique of upper caste Indians to serve this role. But we know for the record that his schools were open to the lower castes and that Macaulay was genuinely concerned about caste abuse: “India has suffered enough already from the distinction of castes, and from the deeply rooted prejudices which that distinction has engendered. God forbid that we should inflict on her the curse of a new caste, that we should send her a new breed of Brahmins, authorised to treat all the native population as Parias! “
Macaulay believed that English would better serve as a medium of education due to its larger and more flexible technical vocabulary. He correctly surmised that such a vocabulary was more conducive to articulating complex scientific concepts. This assertion was certainly no idle boast and even today the best post secondary institutions in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh (like India’s IIT) are predominantly English medium schools; clearly a testament to his towering legacy. His educational reforms rendered benefits to many regions of the subcontinent such as Gujarat, which as Aakar Patel points out, inherited the Andrew’s Library in 1850 followed by a literary culture formerly alien to the region’s mercantile heritage. It was under these circumstances that Narmad Shankar complied the first Gujarati dictionary in 1873 marking a significant contribution to Gujarati culture which would have been impossible if not for Macaulay. Make no mistake however, for Macaulay’s greatest gift to India is not its Penal code (largely unchanged and still in use) but the English language itself. As Aakar Patel illustrates: “It is difficult to explain to Indians the wrongness of collective punishment. This is because our identity is collective, and so is our behaviour. The understanding that this is wrong comes mainly to those who speak English. Individuals are more easily produced by English because it opens access to the world outside the tribe. It is able to place us outside the narrow definitions assigned to us by Gujarati and Hindi.”
Rethinking Macaulay would also require re-evaluating the British legacy on India. The British might have inflicted economic damage upon India (which cannot be denied) however they also imparted literacy, Science, Public education, the rule of law, infrastructure, and the fruits of western civilization to an ancient but stagnant culture. If it were not for the British, most Indians today would be illiterate and living in small segregated villages, oblivious to the world beyond their neighbourhood.