DailyTimes | Bashing Macaulay

Bashing Macaulay

When the English were building courtrooms, hospitals, mental asylums, schools and universities, rulers in the subcontinent of India were busy building mausoleums, gardens and pleasure houses
Bashing Macaulay

In a speech and a subsequent tweet recently, Imran Khan produced this alleged quote from Macaulay: “I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think that we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her cultural and spiritual heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them — a truly dominated nation.”

This is a bogus quote (though clearly Imran Khan would hardly know better), invented by Hindutvadis in India during the 1998-2002 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Hindutvadis had just begun moulding history in India — just as the martial law regime in 1969 had begun to do in Pakistan — to show that the native culture had been destroyed by those evil colonialists. The basic premise of this cultural relativist argument is that India was doing just fine before the British came and that the colonial project destroyed, very deliberately, the “high moral values” and the “cultural and spiritual heritage” of the natives. The real Macaulay’s Minute of course is part of historical record and it contains no such thing. The original minute can be found online at the Columbia University website and can be verified.

Now the colonial project was a mercantile project; there are no qualms with that proposition. The British colonialists did whatever they did out of own self-interest and no particular love for the natives. Still, let us not assume that everything was hunky dory before the British came and that the British did not bestow anything worthwhile on South Asia. The fact of the matter is that before the British came to the subcontinent, the idea of a state and society did not exist. There were no state delivery mechanisms, no legal or judicial system left by the late 18th century and certainly nothing of the kind that existed in the UK or the west. India — not even really one country by any stretch of the imagination — was in a state of total and complete decay.

What we had in the subcontinent were rajas, maharajas and Mughal emperors as feudal overlords who gave very little in return for nominal obedience. There was no law except the law of the stick and carrot, devoid entirely of any sense of justice. When the English were building courtrooms, hospitals, mental asylums, schools and universities, rulers in the subcontinent of India were busy building mausoleums, gardens and pleasure houses. Even the few contributions that were made to science by Muslim rulers elsewhere were made a long time ago. Ulugh Beg’s Observatory was made in the 15th century. Nizamul Mulk’s schools dated back to the Seljuk era. The Mughal emperors, unfortunately, were only interested in perpetuating their despotic rule. The two exceptions, somewhat, were Akbar and Aurangzeb. Akbar made original contributions to religion and philosophy because of his rebellion against the conservative Sunni religious milieu. Aurangzeb imparted a few projects of public welfare out of puritan religious guilt. By and large though, by the end of the 18th century, the literacy rates of Muslims and Hindus were woefully low and they lived utterly medieval lives under feudal fiefdoms and overlords who ruled by fiat and arbitrary whims.

The British Raj, right from the beginning of Clive’s Company Raj in Bengal, which was one of the worst forms of commercial exploitation, was far better in its approach than anything that had existed previously. By the time Lord Macaulay joined the Governor General’s Council as a law member and gave his famous ‘Minute on Education’, the British Raj was already well advanced. His contempt for the natives was considerable but so was his belief that English education and English civilisation could help raise the standards of the natives to equal that of the Europeans.

Contrary to Imran Khan’s bogus quote, Macaulay arrogantly declared: “I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”

This too is as much an exaggeration as what Imran Khan purports to be Macaulay’s words. Arab and Sanskrit literature was extremely rich, ancient and the knowledge transmitted through these two languages was in no small part responsible for what the west was. After all, it is the west that celebrates Rhazes and Rushd. These were men of the east. Yet it was not entirely incorrect to say that the state of Indians, Muslims and Hindus alike was so abysmal that Macaulay was driven to say this.

Macaulay’s contribution in terms of introducing modern English education cannot be underplayed. H M Seervai called the unfurling of the Indian Constitution of 1950 the proudest moment and culmination of the dream that Macaulay had expressed. In Pakistan’s case, there was no finer specimen of Macaulay’s dream than Jinnah himself, a Macaulayite in temperament, habit, mannerism and ideas. So, while we criticise Macaulay for his almost racial contempt and ignorance of Arabic and Sanskrit literature, we should also credit him for creating that class of individuals who were later to lead the subcontinent to its independence.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. He can be contacted via twitter @therealylh and through his email address yasser.hamdani@gmail.com