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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Macaulay we don’t know

Reading him out of context robs his writings of the lessons they hold for modern-day reformers

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: September 7, 2017 4:45:54 am
IPC, Macaulay, Indian Penal Code, Law Commission, Justice system, Courts in India, India news, opinion, Indian Express (Representational Image)

Macaulay is much abused by trolls on social media. Unfortunately, people who should know better sometimes succumb to diatribes. I don’t mean Macaulay Culkin. I mean Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay was no mean historian, of England, though not of India. Anyone who knows a smattering of Indian history should know about the Law Commission (Macaulay was chairman) of 1834, the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 and the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1861. In spite of amendments, the core of the IPC, 1860, is still in the statute books. Not unlike today, there was a time lag between the draft legislation in 1837 and its enactment — the IPC was enacted in 1860.

Despite a Second Law Commission in 1853, the IPC was the single-handed work of Macaulay. His imprint can also be seen in the CrPC, the Civil Procedure Code (CPC) and the Indian Evidence Act. Cast your mind back and imagine the prodigious task of harmonising and unifying criminal law. In pre- and post-Independence India, no other individual has had that kind of impact on law reform. Macaulay never married and had no offspring. But these statutes are his progeny and we can’t wish them away.

What about the infamous February 1835 Minute on Education, then? That does make the blood boil: “I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. 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. 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 is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” People who take seconds to pillory Macaulay refer to this quote, or another bit I will mention later. Had they spent a few minutes reading the Minute, instead of selected excerpts floating around on the internet, they might have had a different take. The paragraphs in the Minute weren’t numbered. There were 36 paragraphs. This quote is from paragraphs 10 and 11.

To clarify the context, here are quotes from a few other paragraphs. The Minute hadn’t been penned in a vacuum. “The grants which are made from the public purse for the encouragement of literature differ in no respect from the grants which are made from the same purse for other objects of real or supposed utility. I hold this lakh of rupees to be quite at the disposal of the Governor-General in Council for the purpose of promoting learning in India in any way which may be thought most advisable. I hold his Lordship to be quite as free to direct that it shall no longer be employed in encouraging Arabic and Sanscrit, as he is to direct that the reward for killing tigers in Mysore shall be diminished, or that no more public money shall be expended on the chaunting at the cathedral…We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as the Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?…This is proved by the fact that we are forced to pay our Arabic and Sanscrit students while those who learn English are willing to pay us. All the declamations in the world about the love and reverence of the natives for their sacred dialects will never, in the mind of any impartial person, outweigh this undisputed fact, that we cannot find in all our vast empire a single student who will let us teach him those dialects, unless we will pay him.” Therefore, this was about the opportunity costs of public resources and linking expenditure to outcomes. Modern-day proponents of reform should applaud Macaulay.

Let me now turn to the other “offensive” quote. “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.”

This is normally equated (incorrectly) with teaching of English and intended output of the education system. If 70 years after Independence, the education system still churns out clerks who cannot think, it seems odd to blame a man who died in 1859. As for teaching English, there is a Dalit group that celebrates Macaulay’s birthday (October 25), because access to English reduced asymmetry in access to education that older forms of education possessed.

There can be a debate on teaching English versus the vernacular, though I think the postulated trade-off is non-existent. To return to the issue, it seems more odd that, as a country in a globalised world, we flaunt our pool of English-speaking population and also conduct the anti-Macaulay discourse in English. That being said, we must save people from the false Macaulay “that wrought the deed of shame”. Incidentally, that’s a Macaulay quote.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. (Views are personal)

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