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The Vilification of Lord Macaulay: Will Capitalism Suffer the Same Fate?

Chandra Bhan Prasad
November 18, 2007

By most accounts, all Indians now regard democracy as the ideal political system for India, but I would like to argue that that consensus is not quite valid, especially when it comes to challenging the caste order.

The large majority of politicians, political theorists as well as the general public often speak of an Indian way of democracy as distinct from Western democracy, but this thinking has an undercurrent of contempt against the entire Western value system.

That ultimately leads us to being, or believing in being, Indian in terms of a collective ethos and value system. We therefore fall into a category that I describe as the Indian Social Order, one that puts us in sharp conflict with not only western democracy, but also with modernity, and finally with capitalism as a social order.

Often, outside our control, our Indian-ness takes us closer to using caste order as a positive point of reference because the Indian Social Order is infused with the spirit of the caste order.

Within ourselves, a fight erupts between caste and modernity, graduating into a conflict between the modern notion of nationhood and the caste order.

This state of consciousness forces us - the mainstream India(n) - to choose caste over the Indian nation if there was a choice to make. However, this part of consciousness remains unstated, officially unclaimed, but erupts through other channels of conflict.

India at this point of history is in a terrible state of self-conflict: its caste order and the Indian 'nation' are at war. India is still undecided as how far to embrace its nationhood. Since the nation is still not the first choice for most people, any thing hurting the caste order is facing resistance - be it capitalism or mechanization.

Capitalism, for example, is not only about monetary transactions and profit; it is also a social order. For the Indian nation, industrialization is a necessity, but it cannot be independent of capitalism, which as a social order has the innate capacity to replace the caste order.

Given its capacity to destroy caste, all symbols of modernity and capitalism are under attack in India. There is a positive side though. The anti-casteism forces are gaining ground and that is why the conflict exists. Earlier, the caste order had a free run, as is exemplified by the case of how the Indian nation has demonized and marginalized Lord Macaulay.

For instance, if one was to ask any mainstream Indian a simple question 'Given a choice between shooting at a portrait of Sir Robert Clive and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, which would you choose?' the answer is most likely to be the latter.

The question, therefore, arises: Why do mainstream Indians hate Lord Macaulay more than Sir Robert? After all, Sir Robert won an empire for Britain and India became a colony.

In sharp contrast, Lord Macaulay was virtually an Indian nationalist. Deploy all the historians of the world and scan all history pages of India to find out who the first used the word 'independence' for India.

It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.  

Those are the exact words spoken by Lord Macaulay in his Government of India Speech on July 10, 1833 in the British House of Commons.

Who was the first person to find native Indians worth holding public offices under British rule?

We are told that the time can never come when the natives of India can be admitted to high civil and military office. We are told that this is the condition on which we hold our power. We are told that we are bound to confer on our subjects every benefit - which they are capable of enjoying? No; which it is in our power to confer on them? No; but which we can confer on them without hazard to the perpetuity of our own domination. Against that proposition I solemnly protest as inconsistent alike with sound policy and sound morality.  

Lord Macaulay again, in the same speech.

If reason was to regulate conscience, India should have accorded honorary citizenship to Lord Macaulay posthumously. Instead, we pull out Lord Macaulay’s Minutes on Education to show that he was a mind-enslaver."...Thomas Babington Macaulay, the founder of the colonial system of training loyal local clerks," wrote the fairly talented Indian traditionalist Praful Bidwai in a December 2006 column in the Khaleej Times.

And let’s look at what are children taught in India’s schools.

"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 opinion, in morals and in intellect," Macaulay is quoted as by eminent historian Prof. Bipan Chandra for a nationally standardized (by NCERT) history textbook for schools.

What are college and university students taught in India? Here is what Prof. Sumit Sarkar quotes Macaulay as saying in his Modern India: "English educated intelligentsia - brown in colour but white in thought and taste."

All most all Indian history books remember him as wanting to turn Indians into intellectual slaves of the British Empire. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh even disparages all English-speaking Indians as the 'children of Macaulay'.

Was Lord Macaulay aiming to achieve what Indians accuse him of? Here's what actually says in his Minutes on Education.

In point, I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed to. I feel with them that 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. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.

Shouldn't we question why the initial and final lines are taken out while representing Lord Macaulay’s view? Is it because the former speak of the context, the lack of infrastructure, and the latter of the intent, to let Indians themselves modernize their curricula?

There is more. 'Macaulay was contemptuous toward Indian genius', they will say and reproduce the following Macaulay quote: 'A single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.'

If the above quote is stripped from its context, Lord Macaulay would indeed look partisan, even racist. But look what he says about his own country in the same Minutes.

The first instance, to which I refer, is the great revival of letters among the Western nations at the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. At that time almost everything that was worth reading was contained in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had our ancestors acted as the Committee of Public Instruction has hitherto acted; had they neglected the language of Cicero and Tacitus; had they confined their attention to the old dialects of our own island; had they printed nothing and taught nothing at the universities but Chronicles in Anglo-Saxon, and Romances in Norman-French, would England have been what she now is? What the Greek and Latin were to the contemporaries of More and Ascham, our tongue is to the people of India.

That's Lord Macaulay about his own country, about his own language, about his own history. How does he then become a colonizer of minds?!

As matter of fact, Lord Macaulay was fighting a grim battle with the Orientalists who saw everything Indian as virtuous - from its indigenous system of education to the caste system. As an Abolitionist himself, Lord Macaulay feared an enduring dependence of India on Britain and argued for modernity, democracy and the sciences for India.

So why is he is hated more than Sir Robert Clive? Let us return to Lord Macaulay himself for the answer.

"Or, to go to India itself for an instance, though I fully believe that a mild penal code is better than a severe penal code, the worst of all systems was surely that of having a mild code for the Brahmins, who sprang from the head of the Creator, while there was a severe code for the Sudras, who sprang from his feet. India has suffered enough already from the distinction of castes, and from the deeply rooted prejudices which that distinction has engendered. God forbid that we should inflict on her the curse of a new caste, that we should send her a new breed of Brahmins, authorised to treat all the native population as Parias," he argued in his speech to Parliament.

"I allude to that wise, that benevolent, that noble clause which enacts that no native of our Indian empire, by reason of his colour, his descent, or his religion, be incapable of holding office," he adds.

Taking Hindu religiosity to task, Lord Macaulay wrote the following in his Minutes:

We are to teach false History, false Astronomy, false Medicine, because we find them in company with a false religion. ....And while we act thus, can we reasonably and decently bribe men out of the revenues of the state to 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?

We are a Board for wasting public money, for printing books which are of less value than the paper on which they are printed was while it was blank; for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology.  

Remember, Lord Macaulay scripted the Indian Penal Code which made all Indians equal before the law. While Sir Robert conquered India, he didn't question its caste order, among other things. Lord Macaulay, on the other hand, promoted India’s interests but questioned many practices, including the caste order.

Mainstream Indians, therefore, don't forgive Lord Macaulay. It is testament to the lasting and unforgiving legacy of caste that, from Lord Buddha to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, all those who questioned it were despised and discarded. Buddhism virtually disappeared from India, and Dr. Ambedkar lost elections despite having been the key architect of independent India's Constitution.

The same can be said to be true of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if capitalism as a social order can overcome that which individuals and socio-political and religious movements could not conquer.

Chandra Bhan Prasad is a visiting scholar for the fall semester 2007 at the Center for the Advanced Study of India. He is one of India’s leading Dalit thinkers and the only Dalit to have a weekly column in a national English daily newspaper, The Pioneer. His story and writings can be seen at


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