Could Macaulay have imagined that one day an Indian would be England’s prime minister? – Arvind Sharma

Rishi Sunak visiting a temple in London.

Arvind SharmaCould Macaulay have imagined that one day, as a result of his policy, an Indian would rise to be at the helm of England’s political destiny? – Prof. Arvind Sharma

Once the East India Company had established itself firmly in India, after finally defeating the Marathas in 1818, the responsibility of running the greater part of the country devolved to it. Part of its duties involved the manner in which public education was to be promoted in India, and a major issue to be resolved was the language through which public education was to be imparted.

The choice lay between using the classical languages, such as Sanskrit and Arabic, as the means of instruction on the one hand, or English on the other. The officers of the East India Company were divided on this point, and two schools of thought had emerged—one represented by the Orientalists, who favoured the classical languages of India, and the other by the Anglicists, who favoured the introduction of English. The committee was deadlocked on the issue. It was in these circumstances that Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was appointed to head the committee. He prepared a document known as the Minute on Education (1835) which argued forcefully in favour of English, and his opinion came to prevail. As a result of this decision, English was introduced as the medium of public instruction in the dominions of the East India Company.

Lord Macaulay argued in this Minute that what the Company needed was a “class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” which would serve as the go-between between India’s English masters and their teeming subjects.

Macaulay was frank to the point of sounding racist, when it came to the goals he had in mind for introducing English as the medium of public instruction. However, he was quite aware of the possibility that such a class, raised on the thought and literature of the West, might someday start demanding Western institutions, including that of self-government. This is clear from the following peroration of his address to the British parliament:

The destinies of our Indian empire are covered with thick darkness. It is difficult to form any conjecture as to the fate reserved for a state which resembles no other in history, and which forms by itself a separate class of political phenomena. The laws which regulate its growth and its decay are still unknown to us. It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own. The sceptre may pass away from us. Unforeseen accidents may derange our most profound schemes of policy. Victory may be inconstant to our arms. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverse. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws.

It is clear from what Macaulay said that he was prescient in this peroration. He would not have been surprised that the Indian Constitution was drafted in English, nor that it was based on Western laws, upheld Western norms of governance, and so on.

What one wonders is whether he had foreseen that the class of Indians he was creating would one day come to occupy key positions in the Western world itself. These are the positions currently occupied by Indians in medical establishments, in academia, and in cutting-edge industries like information technology in the West; and finally, in their government, when a person of Indian origin now occupies the office of the prime minister in the very parliament in which Macaulay had uttered the words quoted above.

Did Macaulay foresee that this class of people would mature from being the go-betweens between the British rulers and their subjects in India, to occupy key positions within Britain itself?

In one respect, it is remarkable that although Macaulay could be accused of being racist in the way he described the goals of English education in India, it must also be pointed out that he vigorously opposed any legal discrimination between the Indian and the Britisher when it came to the rule of law. He wrote:

I feel myself irresistibly impelled to say a few words. I allude to that wise, that benevolent, that noble clause, which enacts that no native of our Indian empire shall, by reason of his colour, his descent, or his religion, be incapable of holding office. At the risk of being called by that nickname which is regarded as the most opprobrious of all nicknames by men of selfish hearts and contracted minds, at the risk of being called a philosopher, I must say that, to the last day of my life, I shall be proud of having one of those who assisted in the framing of the bill which contains that clause.

This clause pertained to the equality of everyone before the law.

This is a commendable sentiment. Legal equality, yes, but would Macaulay have accepted the prospect of political equality in a colonial era?

Could he have imagined that one day, as a result of his policy, an Indian would rise to be at the helm of England’s political destiny? – Firstpost, 18 December 2022

Prof. Arvind Sharma, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. 

Thomas B. Macaulay Quote

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