British rule and problems of the present education system

What was the system of education in pre-British India, and what was the impact of British rule on it, discusses Naresh Kumar.

What was the system of education in pre-British India, and what was the impact of British rule on it, discusses Naresh Kumar.

In a society divided into rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, between various castes, religions, sexes, languages, cities and villages and so on, the education system cannot be neutral. It is obvious that those in power will cast the education system in accordance with their interests, so that the consciousness and activity of those without power can be checked. This fully applies to the education system prevailing in the country today. At the same time, this system was not built in a day. Its development has a history. To understand its contradictions, it is essential to know how it developed.

Lord Macaulay, who laid the foundation of the English education system here, said, “In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. Those Indians of the high class who are in government also speak it… We must 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, words and intellect.”
Sir Trevelyan, an important man in the English education system, said, “There is only one way to turn the thoughts of the Indian nation in another direction. And that is to create Western thoughts among them.” Those youth “who study in our schools and colleges start hating the jungle dictatorship under which their ancestors used to suffer and then they start hoping that their national institutes would be created in the British style.”
This is what he said in the British parliament in 1857 – “After such an education, a political revolution in this country will be unlikely and we will easily be able to rule over our Empire for long.

“If the British want to rule India forever, they will then have to pay a great deal of attention to education. If the British want the youth to forget the thoughts of independence and patriotism, then education will be like a fire fighter in this regard – Indians will then not rise up against us.

“I have lived in Bengal for a number of years. There I saw that educated Indians have totally different types of thoughts. Instead of thinking of slitting our throats, these people want to sit along with the British in courts as juries or hope to become bench magistrates.”

In Trevelyan’s opinion, “By increasing education and by giving jobs to more and more Indians, the British rule can be made permanent.” Education was made the means of getting government jobs and the highest ambition of the youth was restricted to getting such jobs. This process has fully continued after independence and the fight to get one’s share in it has emerged as a strong political current.

Everyone knows how the Indians in government jobs during the British Raj behaved towards those fighting for freedom. How lakhs of Indians working in the police, bureaucracy and legal system used to hate the Indian people and oppress them.

The new education system became a strong means to create the cultural system of imperialism in India as well as in the other colonies. In this education system, knowledge was also colonial.  It was planned as per the requirements of the colonial rulers. The colonial knowledge not only helped to maintain the hierarchical social system in Indian society based on race and caste, but also greatly contributed towards strengthening British rule. This education produced a feeling of inferiority about our culture and languages in the minds of ordinary Indians. Even today we are not free from these shackles. To this day the common educated Indians have a colonial mentality.

To impose their education system the British had to first destroy the education system prevailing in India since ancient times. This was done at many levels and in many ways. It is obvious that the native education system was neither ideal nor was it non-partisan, but its roots were Indian and it was continuously being developed. It was not a static system, as is commonly said.
The education system prevailing in India before the advent of the British can broadly be looked at as follows:

  1. Religious and moral education regarding life values.
  2. Education relating to skills, crafts and agriculture.
  3. Education relating to philosophy, science, technology and mathematics.
  4. Education relating to arts.
  5. Education relating to politics and military art.
  6. Medical education.

There was both formal as well as non-formal education. The broad producing classes and women (from among non-savarnas) were confined to the first and second levels, but there were exceptions in this as well. Knowledge was primarily the monopoly of the Brahmins. The level of knowledge was higher, and definitely not lower than that prevalent in Europe. Definitely this education encompassed all aspects of life. It could have been strengthened and developed into a modern education system. An important aspect of the Bhakti movement was to prepare the ground for a new education. The Bhakti movement was a very strong and broad movement against feudal privileges, caste inequalities, superstitions and the separation of labour and knowledge as well as for the establishment of democratic values in society. The majority of producing people in the country were expressing their aspirations through the Bhakti movement. People were questioning every established truth, value and accepted norm. Due to this the theological basis for the influence and domination of feudal rule was getting steadily eroded. The actual manifestations of this were seen in politics and state power.

Basing itself on people’s consciousness, people’s languages and people’s lives, the Bhakti movement challenged feudal privileges and shook their roots. It took India to such a stage that no power could advance by negating people’s rights. The Sufi movement of that time played a similar role. The sants and fakirs of the Bhakti and Sufi movements were teachers of the people in the true sense.

Between 1757 and 1857 the Company Raj made efforts to dig up and destroy these roots so that the roots of the British rule could be strengthened. Government grants to all education activities were stopped. During this period the colonial education system was slowly created and institutionalized. The Charter Act of 1813, the education policy of Lord Macaulay, the Woods dispatch, The Hunter Commission, University Act, the Sergeant Plan, all of them show how the colonial education system was getting strengthened.

Even in the education system that the British established, the written English, through a very special system of notations, reflected the historical consciousness of the dual struggle waged by the working people in the field of nature and social production. With time language becomes the repository of the memories of collective struggles, which reflect both continuity and change. Apart from being a medium of communication language is also a carrier of culture and civilization. Language has a primary and very important role in determining the kind of relationship one has with one’s natural and social environment. As a medium of instruction in education, English broke off the process of communication with the people.

By expelling the knowledge of labour and life from the ambit of education, the English education gave birth to contempt and negligence towards the laboring masses.  By making the knowledge of English the pre-requisite to the task of administration, the education system was converted into a machine to produce “educated slaves” of the British. In addition to this, English education performed the task of producing a new historical outlook.

According to this outlook the natives have no history, no culture. The culture had to be imported from Europe. Divided into castes, religion, tribes in conflict with each other, this society was basically considered as being in uncivilized stage.  It was through the arrival of Europeans that enlightenment, culture and justice had been brought to this society. In the society that was gradually moving towards unity, division and discord was deliberately encouraged and institutionalized, becoming a cancer to our society.

The period 1757-1857 was marked by destruction of the social, economic, political and educational fabric of the Indian society. The impact of this destruction was felt by all sections of society, particularly the labouring masses, of which the dalits were in the majority. That is the reason why they wholeheartedly participated in the 1857 uprising. Of the lakhs of people who were massacred in Awadh region, the majority were poor people, particularly the dalits and their teachers – the Ulemas, Sanatani, Kabirpanthis, nath panthis, and various preachers belonging to various religious-educational currents.

The education system that was established after this destruction has nothing to do with the workers, peasants, language, culture, traditions, history, literature, science, medical science, religion, or philosophy of the soil of this land. This is entirely a system imposed from outside. The present education system has its origin in this system. All the various commissions that were set up in the post independence period for education reforms did not come up with any change that would make a break with the old structure of education and reestablish its link with the land and its people. All that was done was to include what was necessary in the new system. To sum up none of the commissions on education made an attempt to decolonize the education system.

The new form of education system that is emerging with the process of globalization is no less dangerous to Indian society than the system that was imposed on the Indian people in the period following the uprising of 1857. Education has been totally cut off from the lives of people, labour and collective need of the society, and converted into a commodity.  Depending upon one’s purchasing power one can buy a commodity called  “education” from the market. After buying such education, the purchasers do their best to use this education to enrich themselves. Making use of the prevailing conditions is the morality of present times. Competition and profits are the two most sacred values. To care for those who are left out of this competition is foolishness and a crime. Lies, cunning, individualism, greed, contempt for society, labour and women, cowardice, cruelty, indiscipline, and showing-off– all these values are a product of the present education system. The youth educated in such a system develop a servile mentality. Either he becomes a low paid or very highly paid slave, but a slave all the same; there is no alternative. His cultural level is brought down to such a low level that he considers the most corrupt and worthless person as his ideal. Heroes of the world of advertisement and glitter are turned into real life idols. He looks at his own tradition and land with contempt.

There are remarkable similarities between this education system and the education imposed by the British in the aftermath of 1857. This also reflects the needs and nature of the present ruling classes. Whatever little  positive elements of decolonization and democracy were there in the education system have been completely decimated by the new education policy of 1986 and later the Birla-Ambani report. The ruling classes had already sensed that the policy of globalization and economic reforms they were imposing on the people would not be taken lying down by the people and they would resist. That is the reason they introduced the new education policy so that people become loyal, servile and selfish. So that the problem of another uprising does not arise. We can see its effect today.

But it is true that the consciousness to resist oppression can be numbed for some time but cannot be totally eliminated, because this consciousness emanates from the objective conditions of life. Though belatedly, people will definitely become active to resist devastation and destruction and find solutions to their problems. To ensure that this resistance becomes organized we must not only expose all aspects of the present education system among the people, but also must present outline of the education system that we propose to build, so that people wage their struggle with clear aims.

The process of understanding of each and every aspect of the education system is closely linked with the task of transforming the present system. One of the main tasks of the student and youth movement is to transform the existing education and assert values which are in favour of people, both within and outside the organisation. The question of democratisation of education is closely linked the question of democratization of society, which in turn is directly linked to the overthrow of capitalism.

To conclude, what Gandhi said about English education is very relevant:
“We must realize that by adopting English education we have made our nation a slave.  English education has resulted in arrogance, anger, oppression and so on. English educated people have not spared in fooling and tormenting common masses. And if we do something for their benefit we are but repaying a small portion of the debt that we owe to them".   

Naresh Kumar is a Research Scholar in Lucknow University. This article has been translated from Hindi by Pravin 

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