Reforms Carried Out by the British in India

The British carried out extensive revenue, commercial, land, police, judicial, administrative, social and educational reforms in India during their 190 years of rule. The task was by no means easy because they had to overcome language barriers and be mindful of possible strong reaction against their rule if they stepped on religious, social and cultural sensibilities of people of diverse religions, languages and ethnic backgrounds. 


Here are excerpts from the book illustrating the debates on whether Indians should be taught Indian learning in vernacular languages or Western science and learning in English science.


Indian Learning in Vernacular Languages vs. Western Learning in English   


  With the Charter Act of 1813, the East India Company (EIC) was obliged to undertake education as a state function in India and Rs 100,000 was allocated for the purpose, which was increased to Rs 1 million by the Charter Act of 1833. However, no action was taken for a decade, as no official educational policy had been formulated. In 1823, the General Committee for Public Instruction (GCPI) was appointed.  In the next decade, the GCPI took steps to strengthen Indian learning by establishing Sanskrit colleges and printing books in Sanskrit and Arabic. English was also taught in all these colleges.  


Enlightened Indians, such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, severely criticized this policy of Oriental instruction and advocated the teaching of English and Western science, instead of Indian knowledge. The EIC’s court of directors also criticized the policy of Oriental instruction, stating, “The great end should not have been to teach Hindoo learning, but useful learning.”[1] Again, in 1827, the directors stressed that “the first object of the improved education should be to prepare a body of individuals for discharging public duties.”[2] The company, thus, wanted to impart education to Indians who would then be employable in government in India.  


The GCPI believed that Hindus and Muslims had “vigorous prejudices” against European learning. By 1833, however, due to the progressive campaigns of reformers like Ram Mohan Roy, popularization of the teaching of English by missionaries, and the ready availability of government jobs for those who could communicate in English, public opinion had rapidly shifted toward the learning of English and Western science. The GCPI had been proved wrong.

  The controversy between the Orientalists, who favored Oriental learning in Indian languages (Sanskrit and Arabic) and the Occidentalists, who favored the learning of English and Western science, continued. Lord Macaulay argued in favor of learning of English and Western science.  


Orientalists feared that Indians would not be able to master the English language, and that they would resent the imposition of the English language upon the people. They also argued that Western culture was an alien culture that was neither healthy nor palatable for Indians and should not be transplanted in Indian soil.  


The actual situation, however, was the reverse. Indians themselves were very eager to learn English, especially after the EIC’s court of directors accepted English as the official language of administration in 1830. Macaulay argued that the popularity of English had also been proved by sales in the thousands of English books published at a profit by the Calcutta School Book Society, whereas books published in Sanskrit and Persian could not be sold profitably and had to be supported by government funds. In addition, Hindu colleges that taught English and the Western sciences were experiencing explosive growth in enrollment. Macaulay also observed that students receiving education in Oriental institutions had to be given financial assistance by the government, whereas students in English schools were willing to pay fees to be educated.  


Macaulay also argued that Western learning would bring about a regeneration of Indians, leading to a renaissance. He was firmly of the opinion that Western knowledge could not be effectively imparted in the Indian languages, Sanskrit, Arabic, or Persian and that English was the best medium of instruction and the key to Western knowledge. Macaulay argued that English was the language of rulers, and, with great foresight, he said that it was the language of commerce around the globe.  


Macaulay submitted his memorandum on February 15, 1835. Lord William Bentinck accepted it immediately and issued orders on March 7, 1835, making English the medium of instruction to impart Western learning to Indians.  


There was vigorous opposition to this resolution from the Asiatic Society chapters in Calcutta, London, and on the subcontinent for discouraging cultivation of Oriental literature by diverting funds. However, this criticism was effectively countered with the argument that Hindu learning had not suffered during Mogul rule, even though the Moguls expended no funds for the purpose, and because Brahmins had plenty of resources accessible to them through the gifts bestowed upon them during festivals. Moreover, Bentinck’s resolution stated that those engaged in teaching Hindu learning would continue to obtain government support; their services would not be terminated.  


In the Oxford Union debate, Shashi Tharoor stated the following:  


"The English language comes next on the credit list [of benefits of colonization]. It too was not a deliberate gift but an instrument of colonialism. As Macaulay explained the purpose of English education: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. That we seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation was to our credit, not by British design."  


As usual, Tharoor latches on to a single phrase or idea that a person may have expressed and presents a completely distorted view of what really happened. But the brief account of how English came to be taught in India shows that Tharoor lacks honesty to provide a balanced view of historical events.  


Establishment of the Medical College at Calcutta


William Bentinck wasted no time in implementing the resolution and founded a medical college in Calcutta in March 1835 to educate Indians in all branches of science as taught in European universities. The best medical officers in the government’s service were appointed professors. A library and museum were established, and every apparatus necessary for the education was placed at their service.  


Many predicted the failure of the institution, believing that high-caste Hindus would not pollute themselves by dissecting a dead body. This proved to be another phantom of the imagination of the “sages.” Hindus took to the dissecting room freely and with as much enthusiasm as other students. Then, two of the best students were sent to London in 1844 with expenses paid by Dwarkanath Tagore, an enlightened Hindu, to continue their studies. There, they competed with the very best students in England with resounding success.