Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education

Dr. V.K. Maheshwari, Former Principal

K.L.D.A.V(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

His idea of “a learned native” was of a native “familiar with the poetry of Milton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton”, i.e. Indian only in external features, but for all intellectual and practical purposes steeped in western, nay English philosophy, science and literature.


In the 18th century, Indian masses received religious education pertaining to Christianity through Christian missionaries.  However, when the East India Company came to India they did not allow the missionaries to propagate religious education to the common people in India. They felt that, the education from the missionaries would encourage religious sentiments among the people in India that could affect the business policy and the diplomatic role of East India Company.

It was through the Charter Act of 1813 that a state system of education was officially introduced in the Indian history. This clause of the Charter Act of 1813 compelled the East India Company to accept responsibility for the education of the Indian people. As a result, from 1813 to 1857, the company opened many schools and colleges under their control, which laid the foundation of the English system of education in India

In this clause, Governor-General-in-Council directed that a sum of one lakh of rupees, each year shall be set apart for the revival and improvement of literature and encouragement of the learned natives of India, and for the introduction and promotion of knowledge of the science among the inhabitants of the British territories in India. For the first time official money was allotted to expand the education of the Indians.

Macaulay’s Minute

Lord Macaulay landed in India on June 10, 1834 and was immediately appointed as president of General Committee of Public Instruction. Macaulay arrived in Madras on June 10, 1834, and proceeded to Ootacamund, Nilgiris, where the Governor General of India William Bentinck was camping for the summer. Macaulay wrote of his initial experience as follows: “To be on land after three months at sea is of itself a great change. But to be in such a land! The dark faces, with white turbans, and flowing robes: the trees not our trees: the very smell of atmosphere that of a hothouse, and the architecture as strange as the vegetation” (Trevelyan 1876: 334). There was a salute of fifteen guns when he set his foot on the beach! . Lord Macaulay wrote a minute on 2ndFebruary 1835, where he made the decision regarding the controversy. Macaulay always devoted his best to the job on hand. In his youth, Macaulay exhibited “vehemence, over-confidence, the inability to recognize that there are two sides to a question or two people in a dialogue,” just as other young men displayed (Trevelyan 1876; 112). While these traits were tempered in his later years, Macaulay was always a man of his own ideas. And he was greatly influenced in his ideals, ideas, and ideologies by the great achievements of Western civilization, sciences, philosophy, and theology. His nephew-biographer writes, “His speeches and essays teem with expressions of a far deeper than official interest in India and her people; and his minutes remain on record, to prove that he did not affect the sentiment for a literary or oratorical purpose” (Trevelyan 1876: 235).

In 1835, the arguments Orientalists were put before Lord Macaulay, who rejected the arguments of the Orientalists through a very forceful minute wherein he supported the education of the classes and made a vigorous plea for spreading Western learning through the medium of English.

On March 7, 1835,  Lord William Bentinck also accepted Macaulay‘s recommendations and sanctioned it officially. In 1837 English was made the court language and a Government Resolution of 1844 threw high posts open to Indians. These measures resulted in a rapid growth of English education. The missionaries also established a number of English schools and colleges

Macaulay wrote in his minute “we must at present do our best to form a class of persons Indian in blood and colour and English in taste, opinions in morals and in intellect,”

Macaulay’s arguments in favour of English: Macaulay rejected the claims of Arabic and Sanskrit as against English, because he considered that English was better than either of them. His arguments in favour of English were

1.      It is the key to modern knowledge and is therefore more useful than Arabic or Sanskrit.

2.      It stand pre eminent even among the language of the west in India, English is the language sponsored by the ruling class. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the east.

3.      It would bring about renaissance in India, just as Greek or Latin’s did in England  or just as the languages of western Europe in civilized Russia

4.      The natives are desirous of being taught English and are not eager to learn Sanskrit or Arabic.

5.      It is possible to make the natives of this country good English scholars, and to that end our efforts ought to be directed

6.      It was impossible to educate the body of people but it was possible through English education to bring about “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour and English in taste , opinions in morals and in intellect”, and that education was to filter down from them to the masses


Macaulay concluded his Minute with a characteristically dramatic flourish, threatening to resign from his position as President of the GCPI if his proposals were rejected. He knew that this was an empty threat, and, as he anticipated, Bentinck immediately gave his ‘entire concurrence’ to the Minute.

Bentinck appears to have been anxious to settle the education controversy before his departure from India . As noted above, he gave the Minute his immediate assent, and to effect its speedy implementation, he deliberately prevented any discussion of Macaulay’s scheme in the GCPI. Seed (1952) claims that Bentinck purposely withheld action on the education question until the very end of his term in office because he feared that the radical nature of the policy would arouse the opposition of the Court of Directors in London, upon whose blessing all policies ultimately depended. Seed further argues that the timing of Bentinck’s decision was shaped by his experience in Madras in 1807, when he was dismissed from the Governorship for his alleged insensitivity to Indian religions and customs.By introducing the controversial new policy on the eve of his departure, Bentinck perhaps calculated that he would succeed in avoiding a similar humiliation.

Bentinck’s underlying caution is evident in his Resolution of 7 March 1835 giving effect to the new policy. In accordance with Macaulay’s proposals, the Resolution stated that ‘the great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and that all the funds appropriated for the purpose of education would best be employed on English education alone’ . However, in a significant departure from theMinute, Bentinck disavowed any intention ‘to abolish any College or School of Native learning, while the Native Population shall appearto be inclined to avail themselves of the advantages which it affords’ . Although the Resolution stipulated that no further stipends be awarded for Oriental studies, it was careful to direct that native scholars already in receipt of government grants would continue to enjoy their allowances. Bentinck’s concessions on these points seem to have been prompted by pressure from influential groups in Calcutta’s Muslim and Hindu communities, who, upon hearing news of Macaulay’s scheme, submitted petitions to the government protesting against the new policy. The Governor-General’s softening stance towards Oriental studies a matter of weeks after expressing his ‘entire concurrence’ with the Minute would therefore appear to bear out Rosselli’s  contention that ‘Bentinck let Macaulay fire the rhetorical big guns while ensuring that vested interests suffered little actual damage’.

Macaulay left India in December 1837, apparently with satisfaction for the job he did in India

Analysis of Macaulay’s Minute

Since the decision to promote English education had been taken well before the Minute’s composition, Macaulay’s purpose was essentially to justify the policy which had already been agreed upon rather than to persuade Bentinck to support the Anglicist position. Macaulay was aware that in formulating its education policy the GCPI was bound by the Charter Act of 1813, which required the East India Company to encourage both Western and Oriental learning. While the Anglicists’ project accorded with the Act’s stipulation that funds be assigned for ‘the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences’, it was apparently at variance with its requirement that education policy should also be directed towards ‘the revival and improvement of literature, and the encouragement ofthe learned natives of India’. Though perhaps not an explicit statement of British intentions, it was generally accepted that this objective envisaged the revival and improvement of Arabic and Sanskrit literature ratherthan English literature.

Indeed, as Spear(1938 )notes, the flimsiness of Macaulay’s legal case accounts for the content and tone of the Minute: the withering attack on Indian learning, the source of its continuing notoriety, was intended to distract attention from the provisions of the Charter Act, which he knew provided the Orientalists with their strongest argument. Given the fragility of his case, it is not surprising that Macaulay addressed the legal issue in a perfunctory manner, brushing aside the arguments of the Orientalists with what Spear (1938: 84) describes as ‘an Olympian statement of opinion that the Act of 1813 intended the exact opposite of what its words implied’.

Having concluded that the grant at the Government’s disposal could be used to promote learning ‘in any way which may be thought most advisable’ ,Macaulay proceeded to discuss the most useful way of employing it. Since all parties agreed that the vernacular languages contained ‘neither literary nor scientific information’ and were thus too ‘poor and rude’ to be used as instructional media, the GCPI was faced with a straightforward choice between Sanskrit/Arabic and English, the central question being, according to Macaulay, ‘which language is the best worth knowing?’ (p. 1405). Macaulay’s case for English was founded on his belief in the intrinsic superiority of English literature and science over Indian learning, and on his conviction that a strong desire for English-language education existed among certain segments of the Indian population.

Macaulay maintained that his low estimate of the value of Indian learning was shared by his adversaries in the Orientalist camp: ‘I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’(p. 1405)

.According to Macaulay, the claims of English were hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stood pre-eminent among the languages of the West. Whoever knew English had ‘ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth which all the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations’ . The important political and economic role which English was beginning to assume in India and in the emerging Empire also provided a strong justification for promoting education in the language. Thus, whether viewed from the perspective of Britain’s growing imperial interests, or its value as the repository of a superior body of knowledge and thought, English was the language which Macaulay believed would be ‘most useful to our native subjects’ (p. 1406). The simple question before the British authorities was whether, when it was in their power to teach English, they would instead teach languages in which there are no books on any subject which deserve to be compared to our own,whether, when we can teach European science, we shall teach systems which, by universal confession, wherever they differ from those of Europe differ for the worse, and whether, when we can patronise sound Philosophy and true history ,we shall countenance, at the public expense, medical doctrines which would disgrace an English furrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

Apart from extolling the virtues of English literature and science vis-à-vis traditional Indian learning, Macaulay sought justification for his plan by arguing that Indians evinced a far stronger desire to learn English than Sanskrit or Arabic. In setting out his case, Macaulay challenged the time-honoured Orientalist argument that the promotion of Oriental studies helped to conciliate the influential classes in Indian society. Macaulay contended that ‘unanswerable evidence’ existed to prove that ‘we are not at present securing the co-operation of the natives’; in fact, the policy of engraftment was having quite the opposite effect.

For Macaulay, the ‘state of the market’ should determine language policy (p.1409): We are withholding from them the learning which is palatable to them.We are forcing on them the mock learning which they nauseate. This is proved by the fact that we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanskrit students while those who learn English are willing to pay us. (p. 1408)

Having presented his case for English, Macaulay advanced the idea of ‘downward filtration’, which proposed that the meagre parliamentary grant be used to cultivate a class of anglicised Indians who would not only serve as cultural brokers between the British and their Indian subjects, but who would also refine and enrich the vernacular languages, and thereby render them fit media for imparting Western learning to the masses:

In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. 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 tastes, 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.

While the sentence advocating the creation of an acculturated Indian elite is justifiably regarded as the epitome of cultural and linguistic imperialism, Macaulay’s critics have tended to overlook the significance of the preceding sentence, which indicates that his controversial scheme was entirely dictated by government parsimony, and have similarly chosen to ignore the import of the following sentence, which reveals that the development of vernacular education constituted an important element in the Anglicists’ project.

Macaulay accompanied his plan with three specific measures designed to ‘strike at the root of the bad system which has hitherto been fostered by us’ (p. 1412). Though careful to stress that existing interests should be respected, he nevertheless proposed that the CalcuttaMadrasa and Sanskrit College (Calcutta) be abolished,that the printing of Arabic and Sanskrit books be discontinued, and that no further stipends be awarded to students wishing to pursue Oriental studies at the Delhi Madrasa and Sanskrit College (Benares).

.It is important to note, however, that the authorities in Calcutta formulated and began implementing the new policy on their own initiative rather than seeking prior approval from the Court of Directors. In fact, the documents relating to the new policy did not reach the company’s London offices until January 1836, that is, almost a year after Bentinck had given his initial assent. It was not, however, until January 1841 that the controversy over Macaulay’s Minute was finally laid to rest, and it would be a further 13 years before the British produced, in the shape of Wood’s despatch, their definitive statement on language policy in India.


Critical Appraisal of Macaulay’s Minute

It was the knowledge of English  language, just like that of Persian or Arabic in the age of the Mughals, was and is, the surest way to better employment opportunities. English was and is a definitely and distinctively powerful language used by those in power. It is the surest, best and fastest way to achieve the mush coveted social mobility in India. Ironically, English is the paradigm modern language of political and economic power; …the factor responsible for disenfranchisement of a vast majority of populations in the third world . There are, in fact, two nations in our country today: one that is designated as Hindustan, and the other India.Hindustan speaks vernaculars and dreams of climbing the power and social ladder. The English speaking, rich and powerful section of our country are designated as India by thinkers today. The present paper is an attempt to trace the development of India and Hindustan from the pre-independence India. Its focus will be on Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of the Educational Policy (the Minute), 2 February 1835, that is widely blamed or acclaimed as the foundation of the future education policies of India, hence of future India. Taking up such an old link in the chain of colonial policy and using the past as a parallel to the present is justified by the fact that the past continues to live with minor changes even today. Even today there exist in India the powerful elite who rules and the powerless masses that is ruled and exploited. Even from today’s free India, there is a huge drain of wealth, like its pre-independence colonial days, to both a parallel black economy and to various foreign bank accounts. The juggernaut set in motion in the nineteenth century crushes the bones of millions of Indians even today, although they are citizens of a free democracy with freedom to choose between a whole set of options between a life in perpetually powerless poverty and a slow but definite descent into death. It is also important because English Language Teaching (ELT) policies in India descended from those of the Raj era, just as many of the implicit assumptions regarding education and value of native civilization and languages. “It is education that plays the dominant role in suppressing local languages and forcing alien languages and cultural values onto people” (Kachru et al 306). InIndia, as Macaulay had planned, the system and medium of education planted in the past did their work perfectly.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Minute of the Educational Policy (the Minute), 2 February 1835, that Lord William Bentick had later assented to, was the cornerstone of the long term development of the education system of the Indian subcontinent as it “had the support of the powerful government lobby and was a classic example of using language as a vehicle for destabilizing a subjugate culture with the aim of creating a subculture” . Macaulay had written it, as a Member of the Council of India, in reaction to the policy of education being followed in India at his time. The 1813 Act of the British Parliament had set apart one lac rupees “for the revival and promotion of literature, and the encouragement of the learned natives ofIndia, and for the introduction and promotion of a knowledge of the sciences among the inhabitants of the British territories” (Macaulay). Macaulay was totally against the way the above mentioned amount was used. He was heavily critical and disapproving of the Arabic and Sanscrit literature. His idea of “a learned native” was of a native “familiar with the poetry ofMilton, the metaphysics of Locke, and the physics of Newton”, i.e. Indian only in external features, but for all intellectual and practical purposes steeped in western, nay English philosophy, science and literature. A scholar of the Sanskrit sacred books, Hindu rituals and philosophy was not to be called learned. Moreover, Macaulay based his strong plea for change in the educational policy on the explicit mention of the promotion of the knowledge of science among the colonized natives. The orientalists were campaigning for the maintenance of the status quo. Macaulay, on the other hand, was very sure of the uselessness of teaching “certain languages and certain sciences, though those languages may become useless, though those sciences may be exploded”. He claimed with certainty that the vernaculars would become useless with the passage of time, being replaced by the dominant language: English. Time proved him wrong. Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil are spoken by a very large proportion of the world’s population today. The number of people who call these languages their mother tongue is increasing day by day. Macaulay’s claim of the unscientific native sciences was not reached at through a scientifically valid research and analysis of only facts. It was based on baseless and immature opinions of an opinionated white man.

Macaulay’s confident assumption of the eventual exploding the native sciences was made with an arrogance that knew no bounds. It was with this very characteristic faith in his white racial supremacy that he declared: “We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country”. The unsaid yet widely believed opinion of his time was that the Orientals were beasts of natural impulses, given to the pleasures of flesh, and nothing else. His generalizations are so totalizing and confident that they leave one speechless with intellectual rage. He had the courage to pronounce: “All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information”. He was not alone in explicitly or implicitly mentioning so. There were many, among the colonized too, who were of a similar opinion. They had, as Paranjape points out, an “insufficiency thesis” regarding their own culture and its products. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a famous social reformer and enlightened Hindu who started Brahmo Samaj movement in Bengal, did not “have much use of traditional or Sanskrit learning”. He demanded for his countrymen the knowledge of the western sciences and the modern empirical method. It is this very “unqualified enthusiasm for techno-modernity” that Gandhi later opposed in his Hind Swaraj. “His Hind Swaraj …contains the anti-thesis of Rammohun’s insufficiency thesis. Gandhi advances what might be termed the complete self-sufficiency thesis. He says Indian civilization is superior to modern civilization” Macaulay was not making his assertions on his own authority, or in opposition to the claims of the point of view he opposed. In fact, one of his most infamous assertions is made on behalf of both Orientalists and Occidentaslists, as he had “never found one among them [the Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education”. It was their faith of their superiority, fed by their collective chauvinism, which made the colonizers blind to reason.

Macaulay mentions very clearly that even among the orientalists, the Sanskrit and Arabic poetry, the best and choicest fruit of these classical languages, was seen as inferior to the European one. The Minute had not a single idea that was “invented”. Macaulay was just presenting the then prevalent line of thought that had matured through the long struggle between the two major and contending views the colonizers held of the colonized of the East: the Orientalist versus Occidentalist controversy. It was the overall discourse, i.e. “large body of texts with a similar intent and set of protocols”, of contrapuntal positions . It had generated all the ideas and the heat, one part of which is strongly present in the Minute. Neither extreme of views was race exclusive, as they had both white and brown proponents, depending on the part of grand narrative they were interpellated with. Yet, they did constitute parts of a structure and could only function while belonging to it. The Minute only present a set of ideas, not essentially and exclusively related to either the content or the medium of education. It is very important to focus on the Minute in detail because it is from this point of origin that whole subsequent system is alleged to have come, especially by those who criticize it.

Macaulay made sweeping generalizations disregarding both common sense and specific examples that might have proven it otherwise. He claimed that the English had “to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue”, while either ignoring or ignorant of the fact that in Bombay presidency vernacular was successfully used as the medium of instruction in schools. His linguistic chauvinism knows no bounds when he asserts confidently that English stood “pre-eminent even among the languages of the West”. His claim was neither unique nor uncharacteristic of his times. In addition to the obvious superior intrinsic value of English language, he was also presenting more concrete reasons:

Thus he was presenting a very strong case for the adoption of English as the medium of education and also for an insidious infiltration of young minds when they were the most impressionable. He knew that “language is a system of culture, not merely a system of communication. [and a]… culture is deeply embedded in a language” . Thus he was aiming at something much more significant than just the medium of instruction. His explicitly expressed objective, just like that of his race, was regarding “a great impulse given to the mind of a whole society, of prejudices overthrown, of knowledge diffused, of taste purified, of arts and sciences”. His race was there to civilize the ignorant barbarians of the East and he knew that the white man’s sacred burden ought to be shouldered with a dutiful faith. His arrogance, a very characteristic imperial arrogance, oozes out of the whole body of the text. He takes the implicit assumptions of his time as self-contained and self-sustaining axioms of the perfect Euclidean Empire. His certainty is amazing, as is his unshakeable faith in the superiority of his race. He opines that, “when a nation of high intellectual attainments undertakes to superintend the education of a nation comparatively ignorant”, the learners must be guided by their masters (pun intended), and not the other way round. His generalizations had no rational ground or support. He declared the literature, history, metaphysics and theology of  India as “absurd”.

With a very strongly chauvinistic assumption regarding his race and its culture, Macaulay asserted that the British must try to create a class of Indians who would act as interpreters between their countrymen and their white masters. He envisioned very shrewdly the creation of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. To a large extent he succeeded in his plan. The postcolonial theory very clearly states that it is impossible for an alien nation to colonize and exploit another nation until they get ample support from certain sections of the colonized people themselves. The collusion of the colonized with the Empire was one of the main reasons not only behind its successful entry into India, but also behind the sustenance of the colonial rule. Macaulay’s success was so complete that even today a whole set of counter currents run in the Indian system, as was mentioned in the beginning of this paper. The colonizers had created an elite and language was an important element in the successful execution of their plans as the colonizers were also in part linguistic codifiers, who were able to act as gatekeepers for those who wished to share in the economic and other benefits of becoming English users.

Macaulay’s confident assertions may be proven fallacious, illogical, and even ridiculous today, but, ironically, his prediction turned out to be true. English is the most coveted and the most popular medium of education in urban India. The hegemony of English language and literature is directly linked with the forces of globalization and polarization of powers – both military and monetary. As far as India is concerned, English happens to be the passport for securing gainful employment in the private sector. Thus, it acts as it did nearly two centuries ago, as is mentioned in that much detested and debated about document. Even poor people send their children to English medium schools in hope that learning English would definitely enhance their employability and will finally help in moving up from the social stratum they belong to. The same motivation was working exactly in the same manner in Macaulay’s time too. The language of power was creating market and learners at a very fast pace; just as it had done in past after the Muslim invasion and expansion in India. Macaulay had very incisively opined about the market demand for his language and its eventual spread in India: “Nothing is more certain than that it never can in any part of the world be necessary to pay men for doing what they think pleasant or profitable”. He had ample support favouring English against the classical languages of learning.

Analysing Macaulay’s premises, assumptions and claims leads one to a coherent and distinct attitude he had towards life and humanity. He appears to have a firm faith in the superiority of the West over the East – aesthetically and intellectually, arising implicitly out of its geopolitical superiority. He may have been proven wrong about the geopolitical and temporal strength and extent of the Empire, but he was accurate about the predictions he made regarding the strength and future of the linguistic entity called the Empire of English language. Two hundred years after the Minute was written Randolph Quirk expressed a similar confidence in the future and power of his language: “a language – the language – on which the sun does not set, whose users never sleep”. It is this very empire of English language of which South Asia is a part. Most of the erstwhile British colonies in South Asia, English stayed there, even after the Empire was done away with. It has now taken roots that have gone too deep to be uprooted in near future. Macaulay’s aim of creating an intermediary class was fulfilled. He did not know it fully that his prophesy would come true one day, especially when he was mentioning the future of English language in the world


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