This page last revised 4 June 1998
This page proposes to examine the history of English language and literature in colonial India in order to highlight why they should retain high cultural status in the post independence years. Inevitably this was an ongoing process when results of which reflect the fusion of a wide range of social, political, and cultural influences. However, it can be seen that certain policies and publications had a particular potency and effect. Through outlining the most influential of these it will be possible to register how their reverberations continue to impinge upon the social and cultural milieu of post independence India today. In the field of post-colonial studies the question of whether to write in the language of the former oppressor becomes a hotly debated subject giving rise to much difference of opinion.
The Charter Act of 1813 decreed that English would be taught in the Indian education system although not as a replacement for indigenous languages . Instead, it was anticipated that English would co-exist with Oriental studies as a means by which moral law could be reinforced.
The 1817 publication of John Mill's History Of British India proved to be a defining text in the theories of how education policies should be formed (ed. Horace Hayman Wilson: London, Piper, Stephenson and Spence, 1858). Mill was situated firmly in the Enlightenment tradition and disdainful of notions that Indian culture and tradition was of relevant value for an advancing nation. He dismissed cultural history on the basis that it was not primarily motivated by reason and therefore was illogical, irrational and defunct. Relying on missionary accounts of Hindu society Mill condemned Indian behaviour as immoral in comparison to European codes of conduct. India and Indians were deemed a childish, superstitious and backward nation with a huge potential for development. In the world view of Mill and others the crude emerging civilisation of India could be directed and moulded by the morally superior colonial power. Mill advocated the introduction of European knowledge to counter balance Indian traits judged to be irrational. Instilling ideals of reason would accordingly 'reform' Indians by the example of Western systems of thought and outlook. The ideas contained within the History Of British India discredited Indian culture, language and literature even as its assumptions of moral superiority authorise and justified the presence of the British in India.
In 1835 Lord William Bentninck revitalised the earlier Charter Act with his New Education Policy which determined that English should be the official language of the courts, diplomacy and administration. Prior to this Persian had been the accepted language of diplomacy. Bentninck's motive was ostensibly to "regenerate" society, but the ramifications were boundless. From this moment on only those with Western style education and a knowledge of English were eligible for government employment or for a career in public life. Thomas MacAuley's infamous 'Minute On Indian Education' (1835) encapsulates both the overt and covert agendas for such a policy.
In 1854 Sir Charles Wood published his Education Dispatch which was aimed at widening the availability of Western oriented knowledge. Universities were established under the London examining model in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras. However, in order to popularise this style of education and education in general, third level entry standards were lowered.
Lord Ripon's Hunter Commission of 1882 somewhat belatedly attempted to rectify the omissions of earlier policies through advocating that there should be increased provision of education at primary level and for women. The theory was that there would be a subsequent rise in the calibre of applicants for third level entry.
The inevitable result was that an Indian- based education was viewed as being second rate in comparison to. an English-based education . With the focus being on quantity rather than quality an Indian intellectual elite did not develop quite as intended. In the post mutiny era there was a fresh impetus toward Western style education as a means of control. This went hand-in-hand with widespread condemnation of traditional Indian beliefs which conflicted with the rationalist point of view.
Lord Ripon's Hunter Commission in 1882 advocated more primary and female education in order to raise third level entry standards.
For the aspirational Indian knowledge of English became a major tool for economic and social advancement. It was no longer essential to belong to a literary caste: rather, acquisition of English enabled the individual to transcend the formerly impenetrable barriers of caste and class. Although the first was admitted into the Indian civil service in 1864 it had been a technical possibility since 1833. The widespread dissemination of Western knowledge and literature created a climate of opinion wherein British ascendancy and power seemed to be a natural prerogative arising from a perceived and implied intellectual and moral refinement. Indians became increasingly motivated by the desire to emulate and acquire the body of knowledge which appeared to be at the roots of the coloniser's power. This attitude was promoted by the British tendency to imbue their national literature with a moral imperative. By stressing an imaginary moral superiority the colonial administration managed to obscure the underlying motivation and reality of a first world power exploiting a technically inferior country for its own economic advantage. As MacAuley's 'Minute' shows , English literature was employed to prevent the risk of native insubordination under the "guise of a liberal education" (Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest: Literary Study And British Rule In India. London: Faber, 1990).
The cultural consequences of the 1854 Education Dispatch were that the ease with which one could acquire an Indian contributed to its subsequent devaluation. A consensus of opinion arose which held that a truly educated Indian had received a university tuition in England. Third level education retained a Geographical elitism. With the focus being on quantity rather than quality an Indian intellectual elite did not develop quite as had been intended. However, official policies meant that , for the first time, Indians of differing caste and religious persuasions had access to a common language and pool of ideas. Similarities in education for Hindu, Muslim and Jain resulted in a fusion of social and cultural ideals. The formation of The Indian National Congress in 1885 reflected this cultural synthesis as it mainly consisted of Western educated lawyers, teachers and professionals who made a forward looking component of Indian society. It was this group which created the impulse and movement for the formation of an independent India.
In brief, while English language and literature had originally worked as strategies of containment they also played a significant role in the de colonising process. The reverberations of a colonial past continue to be felt as English became widespread and retained much of the aura of power and prestige.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Tricia Doyle. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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