As an English historian of the virulently Whig persuasion his reputation has not stood the test of time well. He is not remembered as a great parliamentarian in the company of the Burkes and Churchills. He is considered at best a mediocre poet. You ask anyone in Britain about Macaulay — those who have come through New Labour’s comprehensives with several A levels and those who have attended universities, ancient and modern — and all you get is a blank stare.
Such indeed are the ironies of history. A person who oddly enough is central to the history of the conquered is quite irrelevant in the annals of the conquerors. Macaulay is central to modern India. You can be a Nirad Chaudhuri and have the courage to render praise where it is due or you can be a Swadeshi chauvinist or a dim-witted leftist and blindly criticise Macaulay. But in any event you cannot ignore Macaulay and his enduring decisive intervention in India’s history .
Macaulay was not even a governor-general or viceroy. He was a humble “member of the governor-general’s council”. He came here primarily attracted by the salary, not by professional challenges. He was appalled by Calcutta’s hot humid weather. He did have nice things to say though about Ootacamund and the spectacular landscape of the Nilgiris. He was not a racist in the modern sense. He thought of Indians as primitive, childish people. The closest comparison he had was to untutored Russians before Peter the Great transformed them.
Macaulay was asked by Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general (yes, the same one who banned sati), to give his views as to whether education in India should be imparted in the “traditional” mode with Sanskrit and Persian as the foundation and mediums or whether a “modern/non-traditional” method with English as the medium and as the source of knowledge should be adopted. Macaulay’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) minute was the result. He favoured the latter and his view prevailed. At one stroke, he became the most important founding father of modern India. Irrespective of one’s views, to think of India without the English language is pretty much like thinking of India without the monsoons. It may not touch everyone, but its influence touches everyone.
It is trite to state that not only R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie, but the very constitution of the Republic of India and the landmark judgments of its jurists are all a direct fallout of Macaulay’s historic minute. Ambedkar, Naoroji and Nehru wrote in English. Gandhi was a master of the telling phrase. He referred to Sir Stafford Cripps’ proposal as “a post-dated cheque drawn on a crashing bank”. No one without a feel for the idiom of English could have said that.
I, for one, am grateful to Macaulay. Without his gift to us, so many of us would be lesser individuals, not just different individuals. I use the word “lesser” quite deliberately. English is not just a medium or a means to an end; it is part of our very consciousness. The interesting thing is even while writing on completely Indian subjects, this consciousness has been a powerful force. Just consider the individuals and their writings: Vivekananda on Vedanta, Coomaraswamy on Indian Art, Aurobindo Ghose on Vedic Mysticism, Radhakrishnan on the Hindu View of Life, Krishnan on Indian Wildlife, Srinivas on Caste, Zakaria on Indian Muslims, Sircar on Indian History, Guha on Indian Cricket, Nandy on Indian Science, Kakkar on Indian Sexuality, Khushwant Singh on Indian Gossip. The list is endless.
Interestingly, Macaulay is objected to not just by the usual coterie of leftists (who are congenitally against anything or anyone with a constructive impulse) or by nativist fanatics, but by thoughtful persons who span a wide range of intellectual positions. There was opposition to Macaulay and his minute in his own times even from members within the colonial establishment. Macaulay ridiculed traditional Indian knowledge as useless, deluded and shallow. He alleged that Indian histories talked about reigns of kings that were forty-thousand years long and geographies made reference to seas of treacle and whey. He dismissed our traditional schools of medicine as nothing but quackery. While there may have been some justification in these doubtless exaggerated criticisms, his dismissal of Indian literature is certainly beyond comprehension. It can only be attributed to stupid Whig smugness. This gratuitous harsh criticism has alienated many who otherwise may have admired him.
Others accuse Macaulay of having “deracinated” Indians. The expression is a loaded one. It assumes the existence of an “Indian race or volk”. It is not in keeping with the spirit of the classical Tamil “Yaadum Oorey Yaavarum Keyleer” (every country is my country; every human, my kin”) or the classical Sanskrit “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is one family). The argument that the idealised Indian race has been assaulted should be dismissed as a worthless form of chauvinism. Macaulay may have used insensitive expressions when he talked about his hope that a race of “brown Englishmen” would emerge. We may be brown. We may speak and write English, but with names like Radhakrishnan and Khushwant, we are very Indian, thank you!
Neither Macaulay nor the Raj was perfect. I would argue that 58 years after the British departure, we need to get beyond our sense of grievance. There is a case for balance and selective praise. In short, a revisionist view of our British imperial legacy is overdue. Indira Gandhi can be our Dalhousie-putri (they both impoverished maharajas and nawabs); Jaswant Singh can be our Curzon-putra (they both worried about our security in a dangerous neighbourhood); and we can all be proud Macaulay-putras!
The writer is chairman/CEO of Mphasis