(published in Oriëntalistische Literaturzeichnung, December 2016, p.528)
Masani, Zareer: Macaulay. Pioneer of India’s Modernization. Noida: Random House India 2012. XV, 269 S. 8°. Hartbd. INR 450,00. ISBN 978-81-8400-303-1.
There are a lot of things wrong with many Indians’ unquestioning trust in and use of the thesis put forward by Edward Said in his unjustly famous book Orientalism (1978). This work is full of factual errors, leaves unconsidered the German-language mainstay of orientalism (to which its main proposition linking Orientalism with colonialism happens not to apply), and essentially is a conspiracy theory, turning all scholars concerned into colonial agents. But with regard to Indians specifically, it uses “Orientalism” in a sense different from the original application relating to India, which in turn is distinct from its academic use as the name for a philological discipline. “Orientalist” originally refers to those British administrators of India who, around 1800, opined that the native languages were more suited as mediums of education and modernisation than English. Whereas “Orientalism” has become a dirty word among Hindu nationalists as much as among ‘postcolonial’ Marxists, the historical Orientalists actually pursued nativist education policies still advocated by the same Hindu nationalists.
Now a book has appeared which presents the man who put the Orientalists out of business by pushing through an Anglicist education policy: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859). Finally, we have an up to date biography of this person extremely influential in Indian history. As Zareer Masani says on the cover of his book Macaulay. Pioneer of India’s Modernization: “If you’re an Indian reading this book in English, it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay”. His last biography was one by his nephew George Otto Trevelyan, still in the nineteenth century.
The present book is a pleasant enough read, giving all the relevant data. It is marred by only one factor, which may even garner the author sympathy among some of his readers, namely his all too conspicuous sympathy for his subject, not to say his unconcealed admiration.
By birth and upbringing, Macaulay was part of a British circle of elite people who were both liberal and Christian. The best known example of this movement was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), who successfully campaigned both for the abolition of slavery and for allowing missionary activity in India. We see Macaulay going to India not to fulfil a historical mission, but as the only way seemingly open to him to boost his finances. He worked as an assistant to Governor-General William Bentinck, most famous for prohibiting the self-immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres (satī). It was formally in a written advice to him that he formulated his famous Minute on Education in 1835. Apart from determining education policy for centuries to come (we still have an education system sensibly called Macaulayan) , he also made his mark in other areas: e.g. he drafted the Indian penal code. Then he returned to stay in England for twenty more years as a scholar and a famous poet, to die at age 59.
It will not endear the man to Indian nationalists that he used his spare time in Calcutta to pursue his interest in the Graeco-Roman classics while spurning the native ones. His contempt for Sanskrit writings is well-known and comes through in his Minute, where he equates the whole of Sankrit literature in terms of knowledge content with a single shelf of a popular library in Britain. Or, according to the approving author: “Macaulay was notoriously dismissive, if not downright hostile and contemptuous, about native Indian, and particularly Hindu, customs and religious superstitions” (p. xiii).
Hindu nationalists tend to use his name when they mean the Anglicised elite. However, he did not spin a conspiracy that made the influence of the British long outlast their presence in India, as nationalist narrative implies. Instead, Indians themselves have opted for his and against nativist policies regarding language and education. Maybe they have chosen to pursue a wrong course (or maybe not, as this book affirms), but it is at any rate their own doing, not that of a Western conspiracy.
Was Macaulay’s education policy good for the former untouchables, here called “Dalits” (the choice of words in this case being very sensitive)? As Dharampal has shown in his book The Beautiful Tree. Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (New Delhi: Biblia Impex 1983), basing himself on contemporaneous British surveys carried out in preparation of the implementation of Macaulay’s policies, Indian schools were by no means backward, and the school system was definitely more democratic than the contemporaneous one in England. It did not serve many untouchables, but they were represented, contradicting the usual assumption that low-castes were forbidden from learning to read and write. Moreover, positing a causal relation between the introduction of the English medium and the emancipation of the low-castes is factually incorrect. China pursued a radical policy of equalisation and achieved near-general literacy without using one word of English. Many Chinese engineers of whatever social background work at high-tech jobs without knowing English.
Macaulay also did not have the egalitarian reforms in mind which his present-day Dalit fans ascribe to him. Britain at that time had steep class differences, which helps explain why, as administrators in India, the British could so easily accommodate the caste system. As we learn in this book, Macaulay was not in favour of universal franchise, preferring to keep it restricted to people owning property or diplomas. The Indian leftists and subalterns the very circles that celebrate his memory opposed the latest Gulf War in which a superpower bludgeoned a backward country in the name of human rights (and probably in the service of private capital). Exactly the same conditions prevailed in the First Opium War, which Macaulay passionately and prominently supported. In this case, the author is more even-handed, observing that today, “Macaulay’s ideas about an imperial mission to inform and educate still underpin the way the West exports its values to the rest of the world, especially through ‘soft’ power and the subtle transfer of cultural and economic norms” (p. xv).
Did Macaulay provide the glue that still holds independent India together, as his fans, including the author, believe? The Constituent Assembly envisaged two alternatives to English as the official language: Hindi, taken to be more or less spoken as a mother tongue by some 40% of the population, which was chosen and badly failed (partly but not wholly by sabotage from the English-speaking elite); and Sanskrit, which had a history as an official language and was highly respected both in India and abroad. Sanskrit was little spoken (as was English), but learning it as a common second language would have proved easier than making Hebrew the first language for Jews migrating to Israel, also because of the many vocabulary links between Sanskrit and the vernaculars. If Sanskrit was a difficult language, it was difficult for everyone, and it did not seriously favour one region over another, the way Hindi did. Even Bhimrao Ambedkar, Law Minister and venerated ideological light of most low-caste Macaulay fans, strongly supported Sanskrit. India might have been united under its own classical language. However, after a 50–50 vote, Assembly President Rajendra Prasad cast the fateful deciding vote in favour of Hindi, thus aborting the possibly successful Sanskrit experiment and indirectly making English the only viable alternative. Macaulay might have been history by now, but he is back with a vengeance. And if Masani has his way, Macaulay is here to stay.