Assistant Professor
Department of History
B.H. College, Howly, Barpeta, Assam

The introduction of Western education was an important factor in the social changes and national resurgence. Western education was promoted by: (a) Christian Missionaries, (b) Indian Reformers and (c) The British Government. Such was the impact of the Western education, even Tilak remarked in 1883, that patriotism was the product of English education1.

Prior to 1781, for the first 60 years of its dominion in India the East India Company – a trading, profit-making concern – took little interest in the education of its subjects. A humble beginning was made in 1813 when the Charter Act incorporated the principle of encouraging learned Indians and promoting the knowledge of modern science in the country.1

Prior to 181, two very minor exceptions towards educating Indians was made. In 1781, Warrren Hastings set up the Calcutta Madrasah for the study of Muslim law and related subjects, and, in 1791, Jonathan Duncan started a Sanskrit college at Varanasi, where he was the resident, for the study of Hindu law and philosophy. Both these institutions were designed to provide a regular supply of qualified Indians to help the execution of law in the courts of the company.3

Lord Curzon convened the first conference of directors of public instruction in 1901 and initiated an era of educational reform based on its decisions. The Indian universities act of 1904 was passed on the advice of a commission setup two years earlier. It enabled the universities to assume teaching functions, constituted syndicates for the speedier transaction of business, provided for stricter conditions of affiliation and periodic inspection of colleges, and defined the territorial jurisdiction of the different institutions. This led to a substantial measure of qualitative improvement in higher education without adversely the tempo of expansion.

With the passage of the act, the government began to sanction larger grants-in-aid for the development of universities. It was announced in 1913 that additional universities would be established and that all universities would be financially assisted o undertake research and teaching activities. By 1921 the number of universities in India increased in 12, the 7 new ones being Banaras, Mysore, Patna, Aligarh, Dacca, Lucknow and Osmania. The number of colleges increased from 191 with 23,000 students in 1901-02 to 229 with 59,000 students in 1921-22.

The same series of events was virtually repeated at the secondary stage. The Government secondary schools were largely improved through such measure as the strengthening of staff and the provision of hostels – they were meant to serve as models for private enterprise. The government tightened its control by increasing the inspection staff and by insisting that every secondary school must seek   recognition from the department – aid or no aid, the condition of recognition were fairly strict. The expansion of secondary education was even more rapid than in the earlier period of laisser-faire: from 5,493 schools with 6, 23,000 students in 1901-02 to 7,530 schools with 11,06,803 students in 1921-22. Attempts were made in this period to diversity secondary education, provide vocational course and reduce the domination of English by adopting the modern languages of India as media of instruction. But the success achieved was very limited and the major defects of secondary education noticed in the earlier period continued to persist.

The government strove to expand primary education by giving larger grants-in-aid to local bodies, but it also laid great emphasis on improvement of quality. For this purpose the salaries of teachers were raised, the curricula were widened, and the training of teachers as also the adoption of better methods of teaching were dressed. The Bombay legislature was the first to pass the law introducing compulsory primary education in urban areas in 1918. This example was followed by several other provinces which enacted similar laws. Owing partly to the larger financial support made available by the government and partly to popular enthusiasm, the expansion in the field of primary education was very great. The Number of primary schools rising from 93,604 in 1901-02 with 30,76,671 children to 1,55,017 in 1921-22 with 6.1 million children.

It was in this period that the concept of national education was first put forwarded by a number of great leaders such as Mrs. Annie Besant, Lala Lajpat Rai and Mahatma Gandhi. They held that the system of education, as it then existed was unhelpful an even antagonistic to national development. A national system of education for India, they said, should be subject to Indian control, and it should foster love of the motherland. Freed from the termination of English, I should emphasize technical and vocational education and try to build up the national character. 2

From 1921 to 1941, education was under Indian Control in the sense that it was, under the new Act, a provincial legislature. There was an unprecedented expansion in university education. Thus by 1947, the modern system of education created by the British was nearly 150 years old. 3


For all the loud claims that it made, the Government of India under the Company and later under the crown did not really rake serious interests in spreading Western learning or any other learning in India. Even the limited effort that was made was the result of factors which had little to do with philanthropic motives. Of some importance in this respect was the agitation in favour of modern education by progressive Indians, Christian missionaries, and humanitarian officials and other Englishmen. But the logical reason behind was the Government’s anxiety to economize on the costs of administration by getting a cheap supply of educated Indians to man the large and increasing number of sub-ordinate posts in administration and British business concerns. It was manifestly to costly and perhaps not even possible to import enough Englishmen for the purpose. This emphasis on the cheap supply of clerks explain why the schools and colleges had to import modern education, which fitted its recipients for their job in the Westernized administration of the company, and why these institutions had to emphasis English which was the language of the masters as well as the language of the administration. Another motive behind the educational policy of the British sprang from the belied that the educated Indians would help expand the market for British manufacturers in India. Lastly, Western education was expected to reconcile the people of India to British rule particularly as it glorified the British Conquerors of India and their administration. Macaulay, for example laid down: We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between is and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.4

The British thus wanted to use modern education to strengthen the foundation of their political authority in the country.5

The traditional Indian system of education gradually withered away for lack of official support and even more because of the official announcement of 1844 that applicants for government employment should possess knowledge of English. This declaration made English medium schools very popular and compelled more and more students to abandon the traditional schools.

A major weakness of the education system was the neglect of mass education with the result that mass literacy in India was hardly better in 1921 than in 1821. As many as 94% of Indians were illiterate in 1911 and 92% in 1921. The emphasis on English as the medium of instruction in place of the Indian languages also prevented the spread of education to the masses. It further tended to create a wide linguistic and cultural gulf between educated persons and the masses. Moreover, because the students had to pay fees in schools and colleges, education was quite costly and became a virtual monopoly of the richer classes and the city-dwellers.

A major lacuna in the early educational policy was the almost total neglect of the education of girls for which no funds were allotted. This was partly due to Government’s anxiety not to hurt the susceptibilities of orthodox Indians. Even more it was because female education lacked immediate usefulness in the eyes of the foreign officials since women could not be employed as clerks in the Government. The result was that as late as 1921 only 2 out of 100 Indian women were able to read and write; and in 1919 only 490 girls were studying in the 4 top forms of high schools in Bengal Presidency.

The Company’s administration also neglected scientific and technical education. By 1857 there were only 3 Medical Colleges in the country of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. There was only 1 good engineering college at Roorke to impart higher technical education and even this was open only to Europeans and Eurasians.

The Government was never willing to spend more than a scanty sum on education. As late as 1886, devoted only about one crore of rupees to education out of its total net revenue of nearly 47 crores.6

The introduction of Western education brought India into a close contact with the west. Educated Indians read the works of great writers like Mazzini, the philosopher of Italian Nationalism, Rousseau and Voltaire who prepared the way for the French revolution. Besides, Thomas Paine, Locke, Burke, Macaulay and Mill – the exponent of liberalism, Individualism and national freedom. Accounts of the nationalist movements in the 19th Europe which led to the liberalization of Greece from the Turkish rule and the emancipation of Belgium from the domination of Holland filed the rising generation of educated Indians with shame at their national degeneration and inspired them to work for national unity and the liberty of their country. “The educated Indians read about the war of Independence and the American people, of the Italian struggle for national liberation from Austrian domination, of the Irish struggle for freedom. They also read the works of writers who preached the doctrines of individual and national liberty. These educated Indians became the ideological and political leaders of the Nationalist Movement in India. 7

The English Language was really a very valuable asset to Indian nationalism. It soon took the place of an All-India language cutting across provincial boundaries. As a sort of a lingua franca of educated Indians, it became a medium for the exchange of ideas among Indians from all parts of the country. It enabled them to meet on a common platform to discuss Common problems and to devise common plans of action.8

The modern education system bought Indians into contact with scientific and industrial development, as well as the thought and the social and political philosophy of the West. This contract had in many ways a vivifying effect. It freed the Indians mind from the “Thralldom of old-world ideas,” and initiated a renaissance in Indian life, which led to a scientific and critical study of our cultural heritage and to the rediscovery of our ancient arts of painting, architecture and sculpture. It also resulted in the enrichment of Modern Indian Languages and the development and revival of humanistic trends. Finally, the awakening of the political consciousness and the struggle for freedom which culminated in the attainment independence in 1947 can also be largely traced to the social forces released by Modern Education.9

Since the Charter Act of 1813, education was supposed to filter or radiate downwards from the upper class. It was only by 1854 that important step was taken towards educating the masses.27Interestingly, educational steps was taken because the British needed Clerks. Besides, educated Indians would help expand the market for British manufacturers in India.Thus, educational policy by the British was designed for Colonial purposes.

Talking about the educational policy of 1854 onwards, it may also be pointed out here that even though education did not percolate downwards, modern ideas to a large extent, though not in the form desired by the rulers. Through political parties, the press, pamphlets, literature and public platform, though not through schools and textbooks, the educated Indians or the intellectuals, spread ideas of democracy, nationalism, anti-imperialism, and social and economic quality and justice among the rural and urban masses. If the educational system acted as the carrier to those ideas it did so indirectly by making available to its recipients some of the basic literature in the physical and social sciences and the humanities and thus stimulating their capacity to make social analysis. Otherwise its structure and pattern aims, methods, curricula and content were all designed to serve colonialism.10

In spite of the above criticism, it must be noted that by the time the British rule was established in India, education had stagnated and become confined to the study of classical languages – Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. Both Hindu and Muslim seats of learning languished. India had closed itself to the intellectual influences from the outside, no natural sciences or modern science was known; the Indian intellectual and cultural tradition has ceased to be creative. The situation was ripe for a change – for better or worse. Fortunately, it was the former and it resulted in a rediscovery of the truth of India’s past, and a revival of creative activity in many fields. The result was a broad movement of regeneration – an Indian Renaissance. Western learning put the tools of rationalism and skepticism in the hands of a generation of young Indians. First used to break the fetters of tradition, the same tools helped a later generation to cut through the chains of political thralldom.

Notes and References
1.   N.C.E.R.T – Modern India, P-90
2.   IBID, P. 660 (for more detail of Education under Indian Control, Gazetter, P. 660)
3.   N.C.E.R.T. P. 92
4.   IBID, P. 92
5.   IBID, P. 92-93
6.   T.D. Mishra (ED), P. 72
7.   IBID, P. 72
8.   The Gazette of India, P. 661-662
9.   N.C.E.R.T., P. 91
10. Unique Quintessence, P.237

i)  The Gazette of India -The Department of Culture, Ministry of Education & Social Welfare.
ii)  Mishra, T.D. – Modern India, IAS Study Forum (Ed)
iii)  N.C.E.R.T. – Modern India (Std – XI – XII)
iv)  Suchita Kripalini’s “India’s Struggle for Independence”

About the Author: The Author (Nayan Moni Hazarika) is serving as Assistant Professor, Department of History, B.H. College, Howly, Barpeta, Assam...[Read more]

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