Lord Macaulay "chaar sau bees"

I received a forwarded e-mail, titled “See what was [sic] India at [sic] 1835”, from one of my friends. The e-mail included the following quote that was supposedly spoken or written by Lord Macaulay.

“I have traveled 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 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 self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”

The validity of this quote is quite unclear. I tried to look up on-line and see if I can find any authentic source, but I found none. There are many who claim this quote as false, but none of these sources look authentic too. In any case, a quick look at Macaulay’s writings and thoughts would make it clear that this man is very unlikely to utter such words of glory for anything that is Indian. 

Anyway, I found couple of interesting things about Macaulay. He came to India in 1934 to serve in Supreme Court and spent about 4 years there. During his tenure in India, he made two major contributions. He created the criminal law system that was enacted in India after the Great Mutiny of 1957. This code was soon to be reproduced in many other British colonies. It was Section 420 of this code, that became a very popular cultural reference. Even today, after more than 150 years of its creation, tricksters are called chaar sau bees (Four Hundred Twenty in Hindi) in India. His second contribution is quite controversial. In 1835, he convinced the Governor General to replace Sanskrit (and Arabic) with English as the medium of higher education (6th year of schooling onwards). He wrote a well-known article called Minute on Indian Education, which played a pivotal role in convincing the British government to implement this change. [The full text can be found here]

A century and a half later, one can make an arguement that the software revolution might have never happened if it wasn’t for Macaulay.

Looking at this article more closely, many of his quotes look highly dramatized and controversial. Here’s one for example: “… a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”. This is an exaggerated statement at its best. The whole article is full of many such false claims and justifications, but I think there are few points that are worth giving some thought. While I strongly disagree with the construct and reasoning of his argument, I tend to agree with the core reason to opt for English because it had the necessary vocabulary to explain modern science and medicine. What makes his argument difficult to digest is his prolix claims about Sanskrit/Arabic being useless languages 

“… the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.”

On the other hand, I think there’s some fact in his proposition that there’s very little historical information in the books written in Sanskrit (most of them are fables, poems, and shlokas), but again, his proclamation about this [read the entire text here] is full with spurious nonsensical comparisons.

Here’s another interesting quote from Minute on Indian Education:

“…it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

This passage gave birth to the term Macaulay’s Children, which is used (often in derogatory fashion) to refer to any Indian born individual who has adopted Western culture or lifestyle or values (Anglophiles that are not loyal to their own Indian heritage).

There are different school of thoughts in India that either revile or revere to Macaulay’s impact on education in India. There are some dalit activists that believe that it was because of the introduction of English medium that the lowest strata of the Indian society could become even eligible to get eduction. Their claim is based on the postulation that Sanskrit was considered a sacred language, and only the upper caste Hindus were entitled to learn the scriptures and texts written in Sanskrit. Once English became lingua franca in schools, that bar was removed. [Source] And on then there are protectionists who think that Macaulay’s actions was a severe blow to the native languages as well as culture. To them Macaulay has become  synonymous with cultural estrangement of Hindus. [Here is an article, with saffron color sprinkled all over, on Hindu Jagruti web-site.] According to such measures, the four biggest enemies of Hindu Dharama are: Muslims, Missionaries, Marxists and Macaulayites… known as the 4 M’s!

For further reading, here’s a link to Ramachandra Guha’s take on Macaulay’s Minute. And the Wikipedia link.


2 responses to “Lord Macaulay "chaar sau bees"

  1. shrek

    Are you talking about accounts of history written before or after British occupation? Obviously, after the occupation, we hardly have any literature in Sanskrit etc, but you forget that most of the accounts of Indian history that we learn “Gupta dynasty, Maurya dynasty etc etc” were all in vernacular languages.

    Although the british occupation gave us knowledge of English and thereby a push start, this was the trade-off.

  2. vishal12

    Of course, whatever pre-colonial historical information we Indians have is written in Indian vernacular languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Brahmi etc. It has to be, right?

    But that doesn’t mean we have enough. Most of these so-called historical books are written as epics in the praise of a particular king, his royal family and/or a dynasty. But when it comes to the history of a common man (and his land) – I don’t think we have much.

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments.


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