The Legacy of Macaulay’s Minute

“India won freedom on 15 August 1947.”

A statement that’s a fact can never be challenged. Or it can be; depending upon the fact and the way it is used, along with the hidden assumptions that are made in order to reach the inference. There are two very important words in the statement that is at the beginning of this paper:Indiaand freedom.Indiaas a geopolitical entity definitely came into existence on the date mentioned in the sentence. It was freed of any foreign control on the date mentioned above, butIndiaas its people in totality was not granted independence. Yet, looked at in the hindsight, the assumptions may be challenged. Every Indian citizen, of any class, creed or caste, was guaranteed liberty, equality and justice in its constitution that came into force in 1950. The English colonials went away, but the colonization remained, in essence, intact. The white sahib left, but the brown sahib took his place smoothly and the transition was complete. A postcolonial perspective of the things reveals that the discriminatory power structure was left intact and was strengthened in the years to come by those with vested interests. Class, religion and caste became the bases for a very rigid stratification of the Indian society. Social mobility was the only means, apart from a nearly impossible or hopelessly and vaguely distant revolution, to change one’s status. The English had gone, but they had left behind their legacy: the whole political system ofIndia, along with its institutions that ran the whole nation, beginning from district to national level. They had also left a class of rulers in their place that consisted of a very strong and irreplaceable bureaucracy. It was the “culture determining group…the so called elites ofIndia…busy…observing the latest developments in the West” (Paranjape). It was impossible to do away with, and, at times, appeared to be even more powerful than the legislature or the judiciary. The one language that acted as the force binding all the persons in the upper echelons of this bureaucracy was English: both pre- and post-independence. It is not just inIndiathat it happened. It happened equally in all the erstwhile colonies, e.g. those in Asia andAfrica. Thiong’o, in Nigerian context, shows “how English serves to uphold the domination of a small elite and of the foreign interests that they are allied with”(Kachru et al 307). InIndiatoo, those who ruled generally interacted in English. Moreover, English remained the official language of interdepartmental communication. Although,

the constitution ofIndia[had] specified 26 January 1965 as the date on which English would no longer be used as an official language of the new state. Since then, in spite of attempts to phase out English, practical difficulties in implementing the original constitutional mandate have convinced the successive governments to leave the status quo undisturbed. (Kachru et al161-62)

It was the knowledge of this language, just like that of Persian or Arabic in the age of the Mughals, was and is, the surest way to better employment opportunities. English was and is a definitely and distinctively powerful language used by those in power. It is the surest, best and fastest way to achieve the mush coveted social mobility inIndia. Ironically, “English is the paradigm modern language of political and economic power; …the factor responsible for disenfranchisement of a vast majority of populations in the third world” (Kachru et al 305). There are, in fact, two nations in our country today: one that is designated as Hindustan, and the otherIndia.Hindustanspeaks vernaculars and dreams of climbing the power and social ladder. The English speaking, rich and powerful section of our country are designated asIndiaby thinkers today. The present paper is an attempt to trace the development ofIndiaand Hindustan from the pre-independenceIndia. Its focus will be on Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of the Educational Policy (the Minute), 2 February 1835, that is widely blamed or acclaimed as the foundation of the future education policies of India, hence of future India. Taking up such an old link in the chain of colonial policy and using the past as a parallel to the present is justified by the fact that the past continues to live with minor changes even today. Even today there exist inIndiathe powerful elite who rules and the powerless masses that is ruled and exploited. Even from today’s freeIndia, there is a huge drain of wealth, like its pre-independence colonial days, to both a parallel black economy and to various foreign bank accounts. The juggernaut set in motion in the nineteenth century crushes the bones of millions of Indians even today, although they are citizens of a free democracy with freedom to choose between a whole set of options between a life in perpetually powerless poverty and a slow but definite descent into death. It is also important because English Language Teaching (ELT) policies inIndiadescended from those of the Raj era, just as many of the implicit assumptions regarding education and value of native civilization and languages. “It is education that plays the dominant role in suppressing local languages and forcing alien languages and cultural values onto people” (Kachru et al 306). InIndia, as Macaulay had planned, the system and medium of education planted in the past did their work perfectly.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of the Educational Policy (the Minute), 2 February 1835, that Lord William Bentick had later assented to, was the cornerstone of the long term development of the education system of the Indian subcontinent as it “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” (Sharp qtd. in Kachru 37). Macaulay had written it, as a Member of the Council of India, in reaction to the policy of education being followed inIndiaat his time. The 1813 Act of the British Parliament had set apart one lac rupees “for the revival and promotion of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives ofIndia, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories” (Macaulay). Macaulay was totally against the way the above mentioned amount was used. He was heavily critical and disapproving of the Arabic and Sanscrit literature. His idea of “a learned native” was of a native “familiar with the poetry ofMilton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics ofNewton”, i.e. Indian only in external features, but for all intellectual and practical purposes steeped in western, nay English philosophy, science and literature. A scholar of the Sanskrit sacred books, Hindu rituals and philosophy was not to be called learned. Moreover, Macaulay based his strong plea for change in the educational policy on the explicit mention of the promotion of the knowledge of science among the colonized natives. The orientalists were campaigning for the maintenance of the status quo. Macaulay, on the other hand, was very sure of the uselessness of teaching “certain languages and certain sciences, though those languages may become useless, though those sciences may be exploded”. He claimed with certainty that the vernaculars would become useless with the passage of time, being replaced by the dominant language: English. Time proved him wrong. Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil are spoken by a very large proportion of the world’s population today. The number of people who call these languages their mother tongue is increasing day by day. Macaulay’s claim of the unscientific native sciences was not reached at through a scientifically valid research and analysis of only facts. It was based on baseless and immature opinions of an opinionated white man. Paranjape, in his “Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj?” points towards the:

…examples of our indigenous science and technology… the advanced metallurgical traditions ofIndia. Nowadays we talk about the need to cut down on the high energy expended to make steel. InIndia, we had a tradition of small furnaces in which we made pretty high quality steel in villages. This skill was known and recorded in the 18th century and still continues today. Another example is inoculation. InBengalthere were people who toured the countryside inoculating adults and children against small pox. In the early 18th century, the British were learning from them. The latter made records, some of which are still available. Yet another example is plastic surgery. In Pune, for instance, barbers were expert plastic surgeons. There are detailed British records of how a person whose nose was cut off had a new nose grafted on to his face. Now, nose surgery is very sophisticated. Even today not everybody can do it. So also the case of artificial limbs, especially the world-famous Jaipur foot. These were made, and continue to be made, extremely effectively inIndia. These knowledge systems-and many more-were available inIndiain the 18th century and some of them survive to this day.

Macaulay’s confident assumption of the eventual exploding the native sciences was made with an arrogance that knew no bounds. It was with this very characteristic faith in his white racial supremacy that he declared: “We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country”. The unsaid yet widely believed opinion of his time was that the Orientals were beasts of natural impulses, given to the pleasures of flesh, and nothing else. His generalizations are so totalizing and confident that they leave one speechless with intellectual rage. He had the courage to pronounce: “All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of Indiacontain neither literary nor scientific information”. He was not alone in explicitly or implicitly mentioning so. There were many, among the colonized too, who were of a similar opinion. They had, as Paranjape points out, an “insufficiency thesis” regarding their own culture and its products. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a famous social reformer and enlightened Hindu who started Brahmo Samaj movement in Bengal, did not “have much use of traditional or Sanskrit learning”. He demanded for his countrymen the knowledge of the western sciences and the modern empirical method. It is this very “unqualified enthusiasm for techno-modernity” that Gandhi later opposed in his Hind Swaraj. “His Hind Swaraj …contains the anti-thesis of Rammohun’s insufficiency thesis. Gandhi advances what might be termed the complete self-sufficiency thesis. He says Indian civilization is superior to modern civilization”(Paranjape). He had questioned the very idea of a “western” civilization, defending his point by reporting the instance of: “A great English writer[‘s] work called Civilization: Its Cause and Cure. [W]herein he …called it a disease” (29). He went on to conclude: “According to the teaching of Mahommed this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age” (30).

Macaulay was not making his assertions on his own authority, or in opposition to the claims of the point of view he opposed. In fact, one of his most infamous assertions is made on behalf of both Orientalists and Occidentaslists, as he had “never found one among them [the Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature ofIndiaandArabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education”. It was their faith of their superiority, fed by their collective chauvinism, which made the colonizers blind to reason. Macaulay mentions very clearly that even among the orientalists, the Sanskrit and Arabic poetry, the best and choicest fruit of these classical languages, was seen as inferior to the European one. 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 Occidentalist 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. 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.


Macaulay made sweeping generalizations disregarding both common sense and specific examples that might have proven it otherwise. He claimed that the English had “to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue”, while either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that in Bombay presidency vernacular was successfully used as the medium of instruction in schools. His linguistic chauvinism knows no bounds when he asserts confidently that English stood “pre-eminent even among the languages of the West”. His claim was neither unique nor uncharacteristic of his times. In addition to the obvious superior intrinsic value of English language, he was also presenting more concrete reasons:


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.


Thus he was presenting a very strong case for the adoption of English as the medium of education and also for an insidious infiltration of young minds when they were the most impressionable. He knew that “language is a system of culture, not merely a system of communication. [and a]… culture is deeply embedded in a language” (Paranjape). Thus he was aiming at something much more significant than just the medium of instruction. His explicitly expressed objective, just like that of his race, was regarding “a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society, of prejudices overthrown, of knowledge diffused, of taste purified, of arts and sciences”. His race was there to civilize the ignorant barbarians of the East and he knew that the white man’s sacred burden ought to be shouldered with a dutiful faith. His arrogance, a very characteristic imperial arrogance, oozes out of the whole body of the text. He takes the implicit assumptions of his time as self-contained and self-sustaining axioms of the perfect Euclidean Empire. His certainty is amazing, as is his unshakeable faith in the superiority of his race. He opines that, “when a nation of high intellectual attainments undertakes to superintend the education of a nation comparatively ignorant”, the learners must be guided by their masters (pun intended), and not the other way round. His generalizations had no rational ground or support. He declared the literature, history, metaphysics and theology ofIndiaas “absurd”. With a very strongly chauvinistic assumption regarding his race and its culture, Macaulay asserted that the British must try to create a class of Indians who would act as interpreters between their countrymen and their white masters. He envisioned very shrewdly the creation of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. To a large extent he succeeded in his plan. The postcolonial theory very clearly states that it is impossible for an alien nation to colonize and exploit another nation until they get ample support from certain sections of the colonized people themselves. The collusion of the colonized with the Empire was one of the main reasons not only behind its successful entry intoIndia, but also behind the sustenance of the colonial rule. Macaulay’s success was so complete that even today a whole set of countercurrents run in the Indian system, as was mentioned in the beginning of this paper. The colonizers had created an elite and language was an important element in the successful execution of their plans as “the colonizers were also in part linguistic codifiers, who were able to act as gatekeepers for those who wished to share in the economic and other benefits of becoming English users” (Kachru et al 307-08).

Macaulay’s confident assertions may be proven fallacious, illogical, and even ridiculous today, but, ironically, his prediction turned out to be true. English is the most coveted and the most popular medium of education in urban India. 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 as Indiais 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. 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 had very incisively opined about the market demand for his language and its eventual spread in India: “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. 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 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 was 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. A look at Kachru’s three circles very clearly indicates that Macaulay’s legacy stayed. Most of the erstwhile British colonies in South Asia (India,Pakistan,Bangladesh andSri Lanka) are found in theOuter Circle of English speakers (qtd. in McArthur 100). English stayed there, even after the Empire was done away with. It has now taken roots that have gone too deep to be uprooted in near future. 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.




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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