Colonial Education, Cultural Amnesia and Pathologies of the Raj
Education in post-colonial India, as Ashis Nandy argues, has become a means to inculcate a 'shared culture' in which, ‘the ruled are constantly tempted to fight their rulers within the psychological limits set by the latter.' This demonstrates the durability of the psychological aspect of colonial conquest, one that continues to remain below the surface all this while and cannot be repelled by force.

Suella Braverman, the recently-resigned British Home Secretary, made headlines when she stated that she was proud of the British Empire and would not apologize for its past actions. The unfortunate aspect of her remark is not that she uttered this statement so blatantly, demonstrating sheer ignorance of history, but rather that her own parents had immigrated to the United Kingdom from the countries that were left ravaged by British colonization. While Braverman has her own reasons for not condoning the crimes of the British empire in India; there are well-educated Indians living amongst us who profess similar views and believe in the manufactured truths of the British delivering us democracy, human rights, and railways. In a similar vein, many Indians seemed to have disliked a recent decision where a medical course was launched in Hindi, arguing that this could not be done as Hindi was not a lingua franca of India. These statements ignore the fact that such courses would soon be launched in all Indian languages, and that English as a medium of instruction would remain an option. Instead of discussing the nuances of the cases mentioned here, this article examines the process that led to this situation where Indians tend to justify their own subjugation and take pride in anything that originates in the West. How come the mental space of colonized peoples is invaded and appropriated to such an extent that they invariably engage in their self-humiliation?

This article argues that colonial education has made the socialization of Indians with a Western-oriented outlook possible, and that little was done in post-colonial India to eradicate these colonial legacies.

Education as a Tool for Conquest and Domination

The lingering impacts of colonization on the psyche of once-colonized people get visible when many among the commentariat class feel a need to validate themselves in relation to the West, echoing Macaulay and his contemporaries who saw Western values and achievements as a gold standard to which the rest of the world must aspire. The British tried to transform the collective psyche of Indians through the education system they introduced, and conceived education as an ideological apparatus that could be used to dominate the natives in all spheres of their lives. Not surprising then that resonating with these tendencies, J. Farish, a member of the Bombay government, wrote in his letter in 1838;

“The natives of India must be kept down by a sense of our power, or they must willingly submit from a conviction that we are wiser, more just, and more humane to improve their conditions.” Elaborating further on education’s impact on the collective consciousness of the colonized people, he asserted, “If well-directed, the progress of education would undoubtedly increase our moral hold over India, but, at the same time, we should also ensure that it does not lead the Natives to a consciousness of their own strength.”

As CA Bayly argues in his book ‘Empire and Information’, one of the major factors in British expansion in India was their ability to manage an existing and well-functioning information order. Therefore, the British leveraged education for imperial goals wherever they deemed it appropriate. The colonial government also ensured that indigenous informal village schools were destroyed, and replaced with fee-charging, tightly controlled grant-in-aid schools (very few in numbers). And a standardized curriculum ensured the continuation of the ‘downward infiltration’ theory.

Instead, the colonial authorities invested in the establishment of higher educational institutions to produce a class of cheaply paid but loyal Indian low-level bureaucrats to help staff the provincial offices and act as a buffer or intermediary class to stand between the government and the masses. In some places, the colonial government needed natives to help British surveyors and engineers in their extractive work, hence it translated the Engineering curriculum to vernacular languages. The first such attempt was made in a college set up in Bombay by Elphinstone, with Lt. George Jervis as its director. However, these initiatives were sporadic and eventually gave way to English as the language of instruction in all institutions of higher education. Alfred Chatterton writes in his book, ‘Industrial Evolution in India’,

“Both at the secondary & university levels, English was used exclusively as the language of instruction, & for those who reached these levels, the separation from their culture was complete”.

All colonial education policies, since the publication of Macaulay’s minutes, were directed at dismantling the local epistemes, the indigenous ways of thinking and knowing. Rooted in the ideas of racial superiority and colonial difference, these policies also sought to set the limits of what could be known, as well as dictating what counted as legitimate knowledge and how this knowledge could be legitimately produced. The ultimate aim of these policies was to induce a sense of inferiority complex in natives, with establishing the idea that the colonized were inherently different from (and inferior to) the Western colonizers. Colonial education was also directed at instilling in the natives a sense of gratitude for the colonizers and transforming their gaze so that they look at the colonizers with a sense of awe and wonder, as argued by Franz Fanon, in his book, ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, “The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession… The colonized man is an envious man.”

Even at a time when colonialists, under the leadership of the first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, were experimenting with the orientalist education policies, there were individuals like Charles Grant who were quite convinced the superiority of the western knowledge and how it could be used to truly civilize the natives. Grant wrote in his ‘Observations on the State of Society’ (1792):

“Growing familiarity with Western learning, made possible by increasing knowledge of the English language, would silently undermine, and at length subvert, the fabric of error that held Hindu society together.”

But all the indigenous knowledge had to first be extracted and appropriated before destroying it, rubbing it over with the western episteme. Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832), a lawyer and Benthamite, exhorted his colleagues to “mine the knowledge of which we have become the masters” when he spoke at the first meeting of the Bombay Literary Society. He continued by informing his audience that, “that all Europeans who visit remote countries…..are detachments from the main body of civilized men sent out to levy contribution and knowledge, as well as gain victories over barbarism.”

Colonial education was designed to foster a ‘colonial mentality’ and to make Indians doubt their own selves, identities and heritage. As Charles Trevelyan, Macaulay’s brother-in-law, wrote in his book, ‘On the Education of The People of India’ (1838), “We British should not try to instill in the native a deep grasp of subjects, but to force them to ape & recite English, and metaphysics in the most slavish fashion.” Explaining it further, he argued, “More importantly, education should instill in them a respect and awe for the aristocratic virtues of the majestic English language and culture, and a corresponding contempt and disdain for their own background.”

Thus colonial education promoted the idea that non-Europeans needed first to be de-nativized themselves before they could become fully human and civilized and it required that Indians radically separate themselves from their own knowledge, and civilizational heritage. As a result, Indian students enrolled in higher education institutes by the middle of the 19th century were reading an Oxford text and performing a recitation on a complex historical issue involving King Alfred and the Norman Conquest while they did notlearn anything about their own past. Writing to Queen Victoria in 1844, Governor-General Hardinge quipped,

“They discuss with accuracy the most important events in British history. Boys of 15 years of age, black in color, recite the most favorite passages from Shakespeare, ably quoting the notes of the English commentators.”

Such was the hold of English education over the psyche of people that H. Woodrow, a school inspector in East Bengal, writes in sheer astonishment in an 1856 report, “People have forced themselves to acknowledge English as a necessity….they consider the acquisition of our language as necessary for the advancement of their children in this life.”

The outcome of such an education was that getting jobs in the colonial administration became the main impetus, with the whole system of education becoming geared towards training for government services. As there were not enough jobs to go around, many of the educated Indians became mere clerks. Assessing this colonial situation, Historian Brailsford writes, “Indians neglected the studies & careers which might have ended Indian poverty by the development of scientific agriculture & modern industry. Instead, education produced an unemployed proletariat of intellectuals.”

Continuing on with the colonial legacy, India still has a huge state bureaucracy and patronage system, and almost all institutions are mere vestiges of their colonial-era embodiments. Due to the continued exaltation of the English corpus as the ideal, our school and college curricula still have a tendency to be heavily weighted toward English-language works.

The study of Indian oral traditions, which were formerly the principal means of knowledge transmission, has largely been reduced to an appendix and is not given much attention.

Given the state of our education today, it is not surprising that these validation efforts still persist. The “transmission lines” that Fanon talked about, wherein post-independence intellectuals, commentariats, and the educated class function as middlemen between Western interests and the masses, are manifestly still in place.

Education in post-colonial India, as Ashis Nandy argues, has become a means to inculcate a ‘shared culture’ in which, ‘the ruled are constantly tempted to fight their rulers within the psychological limits set by the latter.’

This demonstrates the durability of the psychological aspect of colonial conquest, one that continues to remain below the surface all this while and cannot be repelled by force.

(i) Bayly, C. A., & Bayly, C. A. (1996). Empire and information: intelligence gathering and social communication in India, 1780-1870 (No. 1). Cambridge University Press.
(ii) Carnoy, M. (1975). Education as cultural imperialism
(iii) Chatterton, A. (1912). Industrial evolution in India. The’Hindu’Office Mount Road, Madras.
(iv) Fanon, F. (2004). The Wretched of the Earth. 1961. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 6.
(v) Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. Grove press.
(vi) Grant, C. (2013). Observations on the State of Society Among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain: Particularly with Respect to Morals; and on the Means of Improving It. Cambridge University Press.
(vii) Nandy, A. (1989). Intimate enemy (pp. x-x). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(viii) Trevelyan, C. E. (1838). On the Education of the People of India. Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans.
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Anurag Shukla

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Anurag has worked extensively with various state governments, civil society organizations, and community groups. Before joining the social sector and academia, he was a journalist. His research papers have been published in various top journals.

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