Saturday, 17 November 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Macaulay: pioneer of India's modernisation




Macaulay: pioneer of India’s modernisation
By Zareer Masani
Random House India, 2012
Price: Rs 450/-
269 pages

“If you’re an Indian reading this book in English, it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay,” says a blurb on the cover of the smartly produced volume that is billed as the first general biography of a man who made incalculable contributions to the shaping of modern India. This refers, of course, to Macaulay’s controversial Education Minute, in which he advocated British support for English language education to create “a class (of Indians) 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.”

But enticing the reader with the bait of “Macaulay’s children” does little justice to the rest of his prodigious legacy which Zareer Masani details in his beautifully written portrait of a brilliant, opinionated, patronising, infuriating, yet strangely likeable Macaulay. Just as Napoleon’s military conquests overshadowed his contributions to modern France --- The Code Napoleon, the Bank of France, the baccalaureate examination and the departmental system amongst others --- so too has the furore over Macaulay’s propagation of English overshadowed his other achievements, like his seminal role in drafting the Indian Penal Code, creating the Indian Civil Service, legislating a free press, and effectively nationalising the East India Company.

Masani’s skill as a historian, which is evident from his marshalling and interpretation of material, is complimented by a simple, readable writing style that draws skilfully on the illustrative anecdote, the telling quote. Given Macaulay’s superlative command of the language, and the trove of speeches, interventions, ripostes, comments, letters and documents, that Masani has mined, he has wisely chosen to use Macaulay’s own words extensively, with Masani’s own presence light and skilful. Through most of the book, the author is barely perceptible; this self-effacement is his greatest triumph.

Arranged chronologically, the book describes a self-made man from a modest background who overcame his ordinary looks (a political periodical of the time described him as “an ugly,… splay-footed, shapeless little dumpling of a fellow, with a featureless face”) to journey, apparently unstoppably, to becoming a cabinet minister and amongst the most respected intellectuals of his time. In successive chapters, the author traces his meteoric journey from child prodigy and debating wunderkind, to the House of Commons as the foremost Whig hatchet man in parliamentary debates, to his arrival in India to earn a financial buffer. Here, Macaulay would earn the undying hatred of modern Indian language nationalists as a member of Lord Bentinck’s council in what the author terms “the most radically reforming Governor-Generalship in the history of the British Raj.”

Never one to mince words, Macaulay’s contempt for Indians, and especially Hindus, are conveyed in overtly racist terms that Masani assures us was the norm for those colonial times. “There never, perhaps, existed a people so thoroughly fitted by nature and by habit for a foreign yoke,” he declares about the people along the Lower Ganges. “The physical organization of the Bengalee is feeble even to effeminacy. He lives in a constant vapour bath. His pursuits are sedentary, his limbs delicate, his movements languid…. His mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance…”

This scorn for Indians is matched by Macaulay’s disdain for the early British administrators, who he terms “rapacious, imperious and corrupt.” Macaulay believed in good governance and upliftment, even if that generated Indian demands for European institutions and privileges. “To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own,” says Macaulay, thinking way ahead of his British contemporaries.

Adding to the book’s readability are colourful vignettes of colonial life, from large breakfasts that included “plenty of eggs, mango fish, snipe-pies and frequently a hot beef-steak, in addition to coffee and toast”, to five-six hour meetings during which Macaulay would pen letters home in his characteristic hyperbole: “Sir Charles is alternately yawning and punning. The Commander-in-Chief has gone into the antechamber to take a cup of coffee. One of my colleagues is writing a note, and another is drawing a man and a horse on his blotting paper… I cannot employ the next hour better than in writing to you.”

The book also provides a splendid window into the heyday of Pax Britannica when “Victorian Britain imagined itself on the threshold of a new Elizabethan age”, with Britain dominating the world not just militarily but also in science, technology and medicine, much like America today. London, which grew six-fold in the 19th century, was then a squalid construction site with “heavy and foul-smelling” air redolent with “the stench of huge amounts of raw sewage dumped straight into the River Thames.”

This book ought to be read widely. Masani has given us a revisionist view of a much-vilified man, who has been judged for almost two centuries largely on the basis of a solitary document. Macaulay now emerges as a flawed genius, far ahead of his time in recognizing phenomena like globalisation and soft power. Ironically, his extraordinary ability as a wordsmith may have also been his undoing, causing him to overstate arguments and bludgeon opponents into perpetual animosity.

25 comments:

Manu Virmani said...

Great review. Yes the Civil Service was a great institution for "extraction" of resources from a colony, but unfortunately the "steel frame" has continued that role to perfection, in free India.

Amit Vora said...

You ought to read what he sent to British Parliament on 2/2/1835. He basically destroyed what Indianness was. Until indians stop believing that everything western is good, they will never come ahead in life.
Here is his address to British Parliament-- you be the judge: I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system,, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their selfesteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.

kulari94 said...

"Pioneer of India's Modernization"

False statement. The English influence in India only prolonged India's medieval state. The worst famines in India occurred during British influence. India has only begun the steps for modernization after the British were thrown out.

shiv said...

agreed to... Manu..

Anonymous said...

Shukla's Hymens to Masters !!

Broadsword said...

@ Anonymous 17:49

"Shukla's Hymens to Masters"!

That's hilarious. You've given my my laugh for the day. Do you mean Hymn? Or do you actually mean Hymen? Both would work.

And both would show you up for the uneducated, uncouth yob that you obviously are!

Anonymous said...

If anything, that the British and other foreign conquerors have taught us is that the Pursuit of scientific knowledge is what guarantees success and victory. No doubt India had the best culture before the arrival of conquerors, but lacked the required education system to make progress in science and technology. For which we should be grateful to the British. Even having learned how valuable scientific knowledge is, Indians still cannot produce high-quality scientific research in India! Which begs the question, what is it that hinders such achievements?

Mr. RA said...

Unfortunately Macaulay came to an India which was already enslaved for 666 years and highly plundered and exploited.

Had he come 1000 years back to free India, he would have spoken highly of India like many others have done and he must have learnt Sanskrit at Nalanda and taught it to the British parliament spread across many villages.

Anonymous said...

Shukla - as either a Hindu or an Indian, do you have any ounce of self respect? Pretty much shows how deracinated some of you older "pukka Brit" heritage Army types are when you glorify a man who was thoroughly racist towards your own countrymen and faith. And you think he deserves credit. Nowhere else in the world, are idiots like you found. Shameful.

kulari94 said...

Anonymous said:

"If anything, that the British and other foreign conquerors have taught us is that the Pursuit of scientific knowledge is what guarantees success and victory. No doubt India had the best culture before the arrival of conquerors, but lacked the required education system to make progress in science and technology. For which we should be grateful to the British. Even having learned how valuable scientific knowledge is, Indians still cannot produce high-quality scientific research in India! Which begs the question, what is it that hinders such achievements?"

Anonymous, the above is an inaccurate statement on several levels:

1) India had the technology to defeat the British. The dispositive factor that allowed the British to gain control was India's lack of unity;

2) The other foreigners were able to prevail because Indians preferred to fight each other instead of the foreigners. What all this has "taught" India is that it needs to be unified. Some Indians, however, have not learned this lesson.

3) India does not need to be "grateful" to the British. The developments in India would have happened regardless of whether the British controlled India or not. India has clearly gotten much better since the British were thrown out. Do you think India would be in a better state currently if the British had remained in control?

4) High quality research, and results, do occur, despite all the obstacles, despite the lower pay and lack of funding, despite India not being in control of its military or foreign affairs until relatively recently (1947), and despite India not designing military equipment until very recently.

Anonymous said...

It is time India "educates" the World, starting with Arabs. I was surprised when I saw the sheer lack of knowledge among the Arabs, that they truly believe only in their holy book. They would represent a best challenge for educating. Also once India starts educating the World, we will continue improving ourselves.

Lenard Nemoy said...


To All those who deride shukla here goes India as a entity exists because the British conquered it, if not we would be a divided nation. Also if not for this conquest it would be muslims who would rule us in bihar and down south, probably marathas in the middle and sikhs in the extreme north. We incorporated a the closed Muslim mind set the british started us on our way to removing this barrier. We also had a rigid caste system which we have not been able to over throw even now. Yes they exploited us but there were also a lot of good britishers who helped us become what we are now. Unfortunately the words of Winston Churchill kind of ring true with regards to our leaders.

Lenard Nemoy said...

Amit vohra. What your are quoting never happened, I repeat never happened, There was a good article in the Hindu which debunks all these lies which were spread about macaulay, The idea of education to all and sundry was an abomination to the upper caste folks and it is they who spread these lies. The reason it is a lie is because every thing said in the parliament is recorded and archived, and you can find a lot of thing but not these lies attributed to Macaulay. I an not saying he was a saint, I am just stating that these are lies fed to us.

Anonymous said...

I was going to leave a comment about the poverty of thought that elevates Macaulay to status of inspired role-model. But after that comment about "Hymens", all I can say is aha ha ha ha ha (gasp, groan) ha ha! Unfortunately, I will never be able to take any book about Macaulay seriously again because the association is now fixed in my mind. Thanks for a good laugh and please let more such gems slip through the moderator filter.

Anonymous said...

how even columbian drug money... sponsors election 2014... in India... http://www.tehindu.co/en/about-us

Sachin Khandelwal said...

The enslavery by the British and the Mughals, who were a minuscle as compared to the Bharat population, for almost 1000 years had a singular cause. The great Bharat civilisation catipulated due to the "renounce" of military appetitie by Emperoro Asoka. A soft power is important but not a substitute for hard power. This is the single most important lesson of a millenium of Bharat slavery.

Trying to give a few foreign rulers a shower of glory is akin to singing the bravery of Rezang La while burying the Henderson Brooks report. Its misleading on two counts: historical and criminal.

The British (and Mughal) legacy is historically manifested in the great mass poverty, abysymmal lack of hygience, sanitation, and progress, complete servitude mindset, v low sense of personal pride in learning ancient Hindu shashtras vedas upanishads, feudal dominance.

This colonial leagacy is criminal because it slaughtered and enslavened generations.

I always wonder how the imperial British Indian army/police of a million plus force could fire on its own people but not the gora sahebs and fight on distant shores to please its gora masters,but not to liberate its own land.

I think the Indian Army top brass does not have the courage of conviction to put Bharat's good before petty gains like promotion, retirement benefits,posts etc. Otherwise how can one picture the military strongmen twiddling their thumbs in front of political masters when the country is being attacked by proxy wars?

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 01.01 Do you have anything to offer other than cliches? Can a racist not have any other qualities? Churchill was a racist and an imperialist but he was also a many other things, good and bad.

You can be a polemicist who interprets things under one ideological framework or you can be an analyst who can see beyond his or her immediate nose.

It is you who is a shameful idiot.

Alok said...

Looking at the mess our politicians have created, We would have been better of If English had stayed longer - like they did in Hongkong.
As Churchill said India is more like Europe -geographically united but culturally very diverse.
I once read an essay by MK Gandhi describing the chaos and unhygienic conditions in Indian railway stations during the early 1900s.
If a reader reading this was not informed of the time when the essay was written, he would have assumed that the essay describes the current state of railways.
Unless We Indian admit our shortcomings and try to improve no point in phony chest thumping about our rich culture and how British destroyed it.We have only ourselves to blame.

Alok said...

Looking at the mess our politicians have created, We would have been better of If English had stayed longer - like they did in Hongkong.
As Churchill said India is more like Europe -geographically united but culturally very diverse.
I once read an essay by MK Gandhi describing the chaos and unhygienic conditions in Indian railway stations during the early 1900s.
If a reader reading this was not informed of the time when the essay was written, he would have assumed that the essay describes the current state of railways.
Unless We Indian admit our shortcomings and try to improve no point in phony chest thumping about our rich culture and how British destroyed it.We have only ourselves to blame.

kulari94 said...

Wouldn’t pay a penny for it, and wouldn’t waste time reading it. However, it could be used as toilet paper.

kulari94 said...

Macauley may have liked to comment on the feebleness of the “physical organization of the Bengalee” (Colonel Shukla's article is quoted here), but the fact is that the British would not have held up very well in India in either hand to hand combat or without their Indian allies. And in the Battle of Plassey (which involved fighting the Bengalees), Colonel Robert Clive had to engage in deception to achieve a victory.

The Indian supporters of Macauley need to be reminded that in sports involving combat, the Indians do just as well, if not better, than the British, i.e., wrestling, boxing, shooting, etc. So much for Macauley’s notions of feebleness.

kulari94 said...

Lenard Nemoy said:

"India as a entity exists because the British conquered it"

Another common misconception. India as an entity existed long before the British came. India became one country after the British were thrown out due to the efforts of Bose, Sardar Patel, and Gandhi.

kulari94 said...

Sachin Khandelwal said...

“The British (and Mughal) legacy is historically manifested in the great mass poverty, abysymmal lack of hygience, sanitation, and progress, complete servitude mindset, v low sense of personal pride in learning ancient Hindu shashtras vedas upanishads, feudal dominance.”

Sachin, you’re right, but who is to blame for that? Indians. It was Indians who allied with the Muslim invaders (instead of with each other), and it was Indians who allied with the British. The Indians only have themselves to blame for their loss of freedom, and therefore, all the problems that have developed as a result.

Anonymous said...

We are still suffering from Stockholm's syndrome. The British came when we had 25% of the world's economy. WHen they left, it cam down to 2.5%. Worse still, our farming and industry was in tatters. Pakistan (east & west) were created nad India itself was not united by the British. Vallabhbhai Patel was the man who unite India. If you are looking for corruption, then the British were the real masters of the game. Their ability to manipulate our opinion about them has been legendary where they blame the natives and loot them.

Aditya Singh said...

I don't see how any modern day Indian can thank British colonial rulers for anything. What they did in India was not out of altruism it was for their own self interest. Thanks to the freedom movement we are free of political colonization but thanks to the education system which values a foreign language and a western thinking over indigenous thinking we are still colonized in our minds. Language is what a person thinks in, so Language is no doubt important in how thoughts are shaped. I don't know what language nationalism is. What is the language that the British or German or French or Russian or Chinese prefer over their own? Thanks to Macaulay we think that the elite in India ought to first be able to speak fluent English to deserve anything in life. This itself is a mistake. English is a de-facto international language which is fine but it can at best be a secondary language in India the primary language should be ones mother tongue. In order to decolonize our minds we need to start thinking in out mother tongue and start learning a gift of our ancestors a language like Sanskrit. Only then will be realize our true cultural heritage. Mind you before leaders like M K Gandhi could imagine freedom from the British they had to decolonize their minds.