Remembering Macaulay, the imperialist we love to hate

(My column in Mint Lounge, January 06 2017)

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Shortly before the New Year, passed the death anniversary of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), the imperialist Indians of most political shades love to hate. Only infrequently is he remembered in the land of his birth, but in India, even the Internet generation has heard of Macaulay—once lampooned by the Tory press as a “shapeless little dumpling”—thanks to a quote widely ascribed to him. And like most controversies widely ascribed in the Internet age to historical figures, this one too is a fabrication, intended to outrage thin-skinned sensibilities while reinforcing right-wing resurrections of lost glories.

“I have travelled across the length and breadth of India,” Macaulay apparently declared, “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 caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural 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.”

Like most humans, Macaulay was a man who said and did a number of contradictory things, some of which were wholly unpleasant in historical retrospect. And while he did institute a new (enduring) education system in India and introduce the language in which we transact national business—English—we can be sure that he would never have endorsed the backhanded compliments featuring in that spurious quote. On the contrary, he despised all things Indian and spent a career admonishing Orientalists enamoured of Sanskrit and other subcontinental charms for wasting their time on “a people who have much in common with children” (and therefore begged for imperial supervision).

Indian music, for instance, Macaulay dismissed as “deplorably bad”—the only unresolved question was whether it was vocal or instrumental music that was worse. All the Hindu gods were “hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble”—Ganapati was “a fat man with a paunch”. Even the better variety of Indian lacked sophistication—a glance at the furniture in the Mysore maharaja’s drawing room horrified Macaulay into comparing His Highness to “a rich, vulgar Cockney cheesemonger”. But most preposterous of all was his hatred of tropical fruits—the mango, for example, was as appetizing as “honey and turpentine”.

Macaulay was a creation of his times, both in terms of his racism and his conviction that Britain “ruled only to bless”. But before he became the scheming imperialist of Indian contestations, Macaulay was that young parliamentarian who campaigned for Jews to be able to sit in the House of Commons. He was that parvenu idealist who penetrated the aristocracy and fought to abolish slavery. Ruin, he warned, was the fate of those “who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age”. And after he left India, he became a prolific writer, whose History Of England became a best-seller in America even as it upset Marx (who thought Macaulay a “systematic falsifier of history”) in England itself.

Macaulay came to India with prejudice in his mind, condescension in his pen—and because he was offered a salary 10 times what London provided, with many servants. He championed unpopular changes: The Indian Penal Code was the result of his labours, and remains the backbone of our legal system, despite its many unIndian provisions. The Indian Civil Service too, from which are descended today’s bureaucrats, was designed by Macaulay. But it was his Minute On Education (1835) that cast his name in stone.

Till Macaulay’s arrival, the East India Company supported what it deemed traditional Indian education in Sanskrit and Persian (i.e. education for an Indian elite, around whom other Indians had no chance). Activists in Bengal, including the likes of Rammohan Roy, were already clamouring for access to Western schooling, and Macaulay was a godsend. “Does it matter in what grammar a man talks nonsense?” he thundered. “With what purity of diction he tells us that the world is surrounded by a sea of butter?” It was not the business of government to watch students “waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat”.

Instead, Macaulay decided, Indians must learn mathematics, geography, science—and they would learn it in English. Far from singing praises of Indian culture, he saw it as British destiny to bring modernity to India. “It may be,” he announced with patronizing sincerity, “that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having been instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions.” And whenever that time came, “it will be the proudest day in English history”.

Macaulay succeeded in replacing Brahminical education with Western institutions, throwing open schools to all Indians. They could recite the Vedas at home, but at school, children would absorb the fruit of European modernity. Nativists resented Macaulay but there were others in India who embraced his presumptions—after all, a Jyotirao Phule, son of a gardener, could never have entered a Sanskrit school, but he was welcome in an English institution. He had no compunctions about being a Macaulayputra when the alternative was demeaning drudgery in the gardens of the upper caste, who only looked less haughty than Englishmen because they were brown.

India was merely one remunerative chapter in Macaulay’s life as a writer, parliamentarian, and public intellectual in England. And for all the debate his legacy provokes here among those who feel he manufactured a deracinated new elite, and those who owe their escape from the clutches of oppression to him, Macaulay himself would never concede he made a mistake. In the end, he died before his 60th birthday, very possibly sexually repressed, and concerned not about his disputed bequest to India but dreading impending separation from the person he most adored, his sister Hannah. She then came to Madras as the wife of another controversial English grandee. But that is another story.

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