Revisiting Macaulay’s Minute in a Postcolonial World

Revisiting Macaulay’s Minute in a Postcolonial World


Decolonizing English language teaching in South Asia, especially in the Indian subcontinent, is an issue that has become of central importance in the academic scenario of the erstwhile colonies of what was theBritish Empireonce. ELT is a part of the overall education policy and the policy has developed in a continuous process traceable to the colonial era. There are two extreme stances in the spectrum of responses to colonialism through ages. Between them lies a whole array of intermediate positions. The extreme stances are of welcoming or expecting “recolonization” while condemning all that is native, and the other extreme is of opposing and condemning indiscriminately all that colonization stood for or brought. If we focus on the responses inIndiaonly, on one hand there are those who are all praise for the Raj era and wax eloquent about how it civilized a nation that got even the concept of nationhood from its colonial masters. They rightly point out how the administrative structure and the basic civic systems of the subcontinent were laid down by the British. They also point out how the enlightened modern way of thinking and education was the gift of the colonial masters. They glorify the Raj and are anglophiles to the hilt. On the other hand there lies a set of persons who blame the Raj unreservedly. They equate evil with the colonizers and ascribe all that is good to those who oppose them. The hypothetically ascribed intentions of the colonizers negate all they had done in and for the colonies, even when the effect was totally positive. It is this extreme band whose favourite document that exposes the colonial policy is Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of the Educational Policy (the Minute), 2 February 1835, that Lord William Bentick had later assented to and that was the cornerstone of the long term development of the education system of the Indian subcontinent:

The Minute had the support of the powerful government lobby and was
a classic example of using language as a vehicle for destabilizing a subjugate culture with the aim of creating a subculture. As Macaulay says, this subculture inIndia would consist of: 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 opinion, in morals and in intellect. (Sharp qtd. in Kachru 37)

They find its sentences and parts, never the whole body of thought contained within or its main intent, very strongly supporting their side. They quote repeatedly and out of proper context only those limited parts, drawing reductionist, essentializing and simplistic conclusions from them. They choose specially the following parts: “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature ofIndiaand Arabia.” and,

We must at present do our best to form 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 tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

It has been done in a Goebbelsian manner: so many times that for people, in general, the moment the Minute is mentioned these lines, especially their intention flash to the mind’s eyes. The present paper is not at all an apologia, either for Macaulay’s intention or the wisdom underlying his Minute; more so, because the Minute had not a single idea that was “invented”. Macaulay was just presenting the then prevalent line of thought that had matured through the long struggle between the two major and contending views the colonizers held of the colonized of the East: the Orientalist versus Anglicist controversy. It was the overall discourse, i.e. “large body of texts with a similar intent and set of protocols”, of contrapuntal positions (Paranjape). It had generated all the ideas and the heat, one part of which is strongly present in the Minute. Neither extreme of views was race exclusive, as they had both white and brown proponents, depending on the part of grand narrative they were interpellated with. Yet, they did constitute parts of a structure and could only function while belonging to it. The Minute only present a set of ideas, not essentially and exclusively related to either the content or the medium of education. Moreover, to make the point clear, it must be mentioned that Raja Ram Mohan Roy was a great supporter of the medium of instruction being English, instead of the then prevalent languages of the schools: Sanskrit and Arabic. His reason to support an alien language was that he believed it would create opportunities of opening the mind of the students to the western ideas, ideals of modernity and modern science.  His letter to Lord Amherst that he had written in the year 1823, presents his point persuasively. The nineteenth century Indian Renaissance was largely the outcome of the exposure of the Indian intelligentsia to the Enlightenment ideas, albeit a bit belated in comparison to the other colonies viz. theUSA.Roywas totally against the blind adherence to the word of the “shastras” that the religion of his time strongly prescribed. He favoured an education system that benefited from rational thinking and modern advances in science, medicine, technology etc. He knew that to break the clutches of a superstitious and enfeebling set of practices that was called religion in his time, he would also have to destroy the whole system that sustained it, and Sanskrit or Arabic based education system was at its root. So he prepared to do away with the very root. He opposed the opening of educational institutions that forwarded the teaching of classical and conservative Hindu or Muslim languages and education with the funds provided by the Government. These educational institutions, subsidized as they were, only fattened the evil ignorance of the masses. It is in this formative phase of Indian education system thatRoyand Macaulay strove to better the lot of the masses. Macaulay’s Minute has thoughts that run exactly parallel toRoy’s letter and to study the Minute in this context will provide valuable insight into the working of modern minds. Roy, Macaulay and many others made their stand against the then very strong orientalist lobby and reasoned to prove the assumptions and methods of their opponents wrong. In the long run they emerged victorious. Their side won and their victory decided the direction in which the education system of the Indian subcontinent would finally develop. In a way, it also decided bilingual system of education with English as a Second Language eventually.


It is very important to focus on the Minute in detail because it is from this point of origin that whole subsequent system is alleged to have come, especially by those who criticize it.Roywanted a system of education that gave a rational outlook and took one away from the superstitions that were fed to the masses by the then prevalent systems, viz. the madarasas and pathshalas that gave only a very conservative kind of education in Sanskrit or Arabic. Macaulay opposed the same system of education inIndia, just like his enlightened Indian predecessors, and very much like his enlightened Indian successors. He asserts: “a Government pledging itself to teach certain languages and certain sciences, though those languages may become useless, though those sciences may be exploded, seems to me quite unmeaning”. His prophetic words were eventually proven right and his intention was adopted by patriotic Indians in the century that followed. English is the language of higher education, science and technology, medicine etc. in the Indian sub-continent, and not Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit or Arabic. Hypothetical projections of a past that could have led to an alternate present have been made by the extremists, but they disregard the simple fact that analysis of hypothetical situations doesn’t yield concrete results. Today’s reality is, that the books and journals in the field of higher education and research are mostly in English and not in the vernacular or classical languages, just as Macaulay had written “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.” the decision taken by the history was regarding the question Macaulay had asked: “What then shall that language be? … which language is the best worth knowing?” Although the first question has been answered decidedly, the question of value of the language is too subjective to be answered with finality. His infamous assertion regarding the second questions must be mentioned to in relation to the debate. He was asserting the intrinsic superiority of the literature etc. of his nation and asserting what was the most prevalent view of his times. He was wrong, as the hindsight decrees; yet, he wasn’t exaggerating or being unnaturally mean. Yet, whatever he writes about the historiography of Sanskrit texts, although a bit exaggerating, has been proven to be accurate by the modern historians:

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 inEngland. (Macaulay)

The problem he presented was of educating a people who could not be educated in their mother tongues. His confident assertions may be proven fallacious, illogical, even ridiculous today, but his prediction turned out to be true. English is the coveted and the most popular medium of education in urbanIndia, that is a part of the global village called the world. The hegemony of English language and literature is directly linked with the forces of globalization and polarization of powers – both military and monetary. As far asIndiais concerned, English happens to be the passport for securing gainful employment in the private sector. Thus, it acts as it did nearly two centuries ago, as is mentioned in that much detested and debated about document. Macaulay had very confidently and rightly asserted:

InIndia, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are rising, the one in the south of Africa, the other inAustralia, –communities which are every year becoming more important and more closely connected with our Indian empire. Whether we look at the intrinsic value of our literature, or at the particular situation of this country, we shall see the strongest reason to think that, of all foreign tongues, the English tongue is that which would be the most useful to our native subjects.

He was right. Even the most recent developments in history bear witness to this fact. English gave Indians advantage over the Chinese in winning considerable employment opportunities in the recent times in BPO and KPO sectors. So much so, that Obama himself had to exhort his countrymen to compete well with the English speaking Indian population. The large pool of Indians who know English is the main reason behind a lot of economic development, especially in the service sector.


One very relevant issue touched in the Minute is relevant even today. The issue was: whether the vernaculars should be promoted, instead of English, especially when good basic textbooks at the level of even secondary education, are not easily available. In the past it had been decided in favour of English. As Roy and many of his enlightened contemporaries had demanded, Maaculay too, supported teaching of European science, instead of a jumble of unsystematic and entirely confused science in the classical languages and vernaculars. The assertion he made is hotly debated even today. Makrand Paranjape, in his “Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj”, very interestingly presents the case of the native science and medicine by giving one of the most popularly given example of the small rural furnaces in India that produced, and even now do so, high quality steel. Then he mentions people in the eighteenth centuryBengalproviding inoculation from small pox moving from one place to another, and Pune barbers performing intricate nose surgeries. He recommends more such recoveries in order to mend the rupture in the mind of the colonized from his past. Yet, he conveniently forgets to mention the fact that after the spread of the Industrial Revolution all over Europe and then, the world, cottage and small scale manufacturing of steel could not keep up with market demand, and had to give way to large scale steel production in huge factories. He does not affirm that the majority of the people in the erstwhile colonies, once they are aware of the modern medical science’s advancements even if they had never had any formal education, would trust doctors trained in western medicinal science and surgery for severe cases. What “is” cannot be challenged because it could have been something else. Iconoclasm, just for its own sake, is not a very advisable practice. Decolonization as a rationalizing and liberating practice, in line of the hitherto incomplete Enlightenment project, is very much a part of the grand narrative of progress that the West (from where nearly all the colonizers came) supports. Just because it is supported by the West, it doesn’t become automatically wrong and opposable. Macaulay compared the opening up ofIndiato English language, culture, stream of philosophy and literature, to the opening up ofEuropeto Greek and Latin cultures, languages and knowledge during the Renaissance. He very strongly presents his case with help ofRussia’s development as an example. The Russian young man was civilized and led to development “by teaching him those foreign languages in which the greatest mass of information had been laid up, and thus putting all that information within his reach. The languages of western Europe civilisedRussia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar”. The assumption underlying this assertion is that industrial and scientific progress and civilization are good and must be striven for. If the assumption is questioned, then Macaulay appears to be wrong, nay, evil in his intention: aiming to give progress and civilization, as he knows them, to the colonies.


The question of civilization has been raised and answered variously in various times and climes. To bring the issue closer home, Mahatma Gandhi’s views can be relevantly cited. What were civilization and its gifts to Macaulay was poison and corruption to the Mahatma. In his Hind Swaraj he writes about the “disease” called the western civilization. He used the famous dream argument of Descartes, who, ironically, is the central pillar of that very civilization’s central strand of philosophy, traditions of rationalism and free thinking. Gandhiji asserts that people couldn’t criticize the Western civilization unless they were freed of its influence. He went on to criticize that “bodily welfare” was being made the “object of life” (29). Strangely enough, he even seems to dislike the spread of the power to be printed, read and understood, democratically and without any limitations or impositions, because “Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people’s minds” (29). All that science and technology have achieved in their so called “march of progress” meant nothing to him in comparison to what it had spoiled. He cites the development of war machines and the exploitation of the masses by a few super-rich people. He is in favour of religion and asserts that the Western civilization has lost it. Finally he solemnly pronounced: “According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age” (30). As this extreme view of civilization is generally not held by most of the people in the world, they do enjoy the fruits of this very “Satanic Civilization” and try to improve upon it instead of denouncing it and discarding it in favour of a hypothetical (Eutopian) Ram Rajya. Macaulay belonged to the pragmatic set and took progressivism to be good. He recommended the same for the colonized.

The strongest reason that Macaulay put forth to oppose the subsidized education of traditional type in Sanskrit and Arabic and to support modern Western Education in English medium, was the simple matter of the market demand creating its supply. The classical and vernacular medium and the traditional type of education in Indiaforced on the native populations “the mock learning which they nauseate”. To prove it he presented the fact that the Arabic and Sanskrit medium students needed to be paid for studying while people pay to get education in the English medium schools. He demanded that “the people shall be left to make their own choice between the rival systems of education without being bribed by us to learn what they have no desire to know”. The same is true for today’s India too, where the madarsas and Sanskrit pathshalas are criticized for their supreme unconcern for what is required of their students in real life, and their total neglect of the demands of the existence in modern society. More and more people are sending their children to the English medium schools and there is a proportionate decline in the number and popularity of schools that teach in classical languages based or vernacular mediums only. Even poor people send their children to English medium schools in hope that learning English would definitely enhance their employability and will finally help in moving up from the social stratum they belong to. The same motivation was working exactly in the same manner in Macaulay’s time too. The language of power was creating market and learners at a very fast pace; just as it had done in past after the Muslim invasion and expansion in India. Macaulay very incisively opines: “Nothing is more certain than that it never can in any part of the world be necessary to pay men for doing what they think pleasant or profitable”. He had ample support favouring English against the classical languages of learning. He quotes facts and statistics to support his point and illustrates it with an example of the petition that the students of the SanskritCollegehad presented to the committee that had say in policy making. They needed an employment that allowed bare existence because what they head learnt devoting the best years of their lives was not the market’s demand, so they were no gainfully employable. “They have wasted the best years of life in learning what procures for them neither bread nor respect”. He called “the state of the market…the detective test” of the desirability or demand of his times. It also happens to be the demand of our times. He very strongly and clearly puts forth: “What we spend on the Arabic and SanscritCollegesis not merely a dead loss to the cause of truth. It is bounty-money paid to raise up champions of error”. His is the voice of reason and is echoed even today in many modern, liberal, even religious Hindus and Muslims. He was totally against the fostering of superstition and also against the languages that became its medium. He was like his European predecessors, especially like Diderot etc. in the 18th centuryFrance, and also like the enlightened Indians viz.Roy. He was also like many who followed the same line of thought and action later inIndia.


Analysing Macaulay’s premises, assumptions and claims leads one to a coherent and distinct attitude he had towards life and humanity. He appears to have a firm faith in the superiority of the West over the East – aesthetically and intellectually, arising implicitly out of its geopolitical superiority. He believes in his appeal to reason and not to emotions to bring about the change that he finds to be positive after a logical analysis of facts in hand. He had a firm and unquestionable loyalty to his nation and has unshakeable faith in the bright future of the Empire and its language. He may have been proven wrong about the geopolitical and temporal strength and extent of the Empire, but he was accurate about the predictions he made regarding the strength and future of the linguistic entity called the Empire of English language. Two hundred years after the Minute were written, Randolph Quirk expressed a similar confidence in the future and power of his language: “a language – the language – on which the sun does not set, whose users never sleep” (qtd. in McArthur xiv). It is this very empire of English language of whichSouth Asia is a part.


Macaulay was not a blind racial chauvinist that many portray through the pieces from his minute. He was a liberal and rational man. He could see what was true and was ready to stand for it. He was not at all condescending like his various orientalist contemporaries in wrongly believing “that no native of this country can possibly attain more than a mere smattering of English”.  His was a pragmatic outlook and his practical approach did prove to be the right one in the long run. He very justly adduces examples of Indians:

There are in this very town natives who are quite competent to discuss political or scientific questions with fluency and precision in the English language. I have heard the very question on which I am now writing discussed by native gentlemen with a liberality and an intelligence which would do credit to any member of the Committee of Public Instruction. Indeed it is unusual to find, even in the literary circles of the Continent, any foreigner who can express himself in English with so much facility and correctness as we find in many Hindoos…

One may insinuate towards some ulterior motive in the passage given above, but then, the same may be done with their side of discourse too. Macaulay’s bona fide intention was proven exactly when he had presented the Minute before the Supreme Council of India “embodying his views and announcing his intention of resigning if they were
not accepted” (Bryant qtd. in Kachru 37). His honesty and intention are also reflected in the very part of his Minute that has supplied the heaviest artillery to his critics:

that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form 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 tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population. [Italics mine]

I have italicized all that had not been quoted in the present paper before reaching this part. It has been done to provide the exact context to Macaulay’s famous “villainous”, colonizer’s sentiments of exploiting the masses through the creation of a “class of clerks”. If the italicized parts are read closely, it’ll be found that the practical man was right in framing a policy with “limited resources” in mind. It’ll also be found that the final aim and explicit intention of the writer was to “refine and enrich” the vernacular dialects ofIndiathrough the very class that was trained in the English language, physical, moral and intellectual strengths and culture: the interpreters in true and complete sense of the honourable word. He was firm in his faith and wantede progress for the country his race had colonized. Whatever the faults of his race might have been, Macaulay’s Minutes do offset them by showing an honourable and truthful English gentleman trying his best to “accelerate the progress of truth”.

Macaulay’s legacy stayed. As Kachru’s 3 circles very clearly indicate, most of the erstwhile British colonies in South Asia (India,Pakistan,BangladeshandSri Lanka) are found in theOuter Circleof English speakers (qtd. in McArthur 100). English stayed, even after the Empire was done away with. The legacy of colonialism that undoubtedly benefits those erstwhile colonies is English language that was once alien to these soils. It has now taken roots that have gone too deep to be uprooted in near future. A whole class of people is confident enough to make English their second language, and proudly affirm it, without any guilty conscience on “having betrayed their mother tongue”. Macaulay’s aim of creating an intermediary class was fulfilled. He did not know it fully that his prophesy would come true one day, especially when he was mentioning the future of English language in the world. Neither was he wrong about the impact of the language on the economy and socio-political and intellectual geography of the world.




Works Cited


Gandhi, Mohandas K. Indian Home Rule or Hind Swaraj. Navajivan: Ahmedabad, 1938. Print.

Kachru, Braj B. Asian Englishes Beyond The Canon. Hong KongUniversity Press:Hong Kong, 2005. Print.

Kachru, Yamuna and Cecil L. Nelson. World Englishes in Asian Contexts.Hong KongUniversity Press:Hong Kong, 2006. Print.

McArthur, Tom. The English Languages. CUP:Cambridge, 1998. Print.

Paranjape, Makarand. “Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj?” n.d. Web. 27 December 2011.


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