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  • Ajay Chiratla

Journey of Education: Colonial and Post-Colonial India

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

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. - Thomas Babington Macaulay, February 1835 The present educational system of India is often argued or considered to be the reproduction of what is inaugurated and founded by the British. In ancient times, Indian education was perceived as a land of innovations and developments, known to embrace the world's first university in early 700 BC, boarding more than 10,500 students called the Taksha Shila University. Place value, the Decimal system, and the discovery of Zero are very few in the list that often reflects the merit of Indian or Oriental Education in general. However, few scholars like ThomasMacaulay who was said to reconstruct the idea of education in India disregarded its value or even considered it to be ineffective. In that regard What can we comment or comprehend on the British’s view in the promotion of western education? What are various reforms and their implications in Imperial India?

Following the quote above and his famous minute on education, this paper explores the brief Historiography of education and the diversity of opinions behind it in Colonial and Post-Colonial India.

Indian Education system was sensed to be culturally and piously enriching, concrete notion on which this system relied said to be religion. As religion played a vital role, temples and other religious centers took the purpose of schools. The medium of instruction was in Sanskrit, which thereby weighed to be the mother of many other languages. Later, there was the Gurukul system, to date conceded as the most efficient and oldest as well. The educational system altered suiting to different eras from MedievalBuddhist to Islamic, nonetheless drastic setbacks to the foundation changed in the Colonial period marking the onset of the Modern Educational System. It is often the presumption among people that the British made changes in the educational idea of India to meet their needs of colonial power, precisely to prepare them as clerks for the functioning of local administration. The instruction was found to be vernacular, the Imperial Government provided endowments to the indigenous schools, which slowly crawled to be Government aided schools. The state's influence on native education crystallized with the origin of missionary schools. As their influence grew, they had enough incentives to impose the western attitude on the native students. Many arguments persist that the British tried to regulate their colonies from drawing more towards sciences and technology, rather they emphasized Arts and Humanities. The introduction of textbooks was one of the key changes introduced to the Indian system, the text culture is also known to bear a lot of criticization even in the present day. Babington, Macaulay Thomas. "Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macau- lay." Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay. 2 Feb. 1835. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

The texts as argued were constructed with more western ideologies and history opposing the native orthodoxy. British assumed that by drawing over Indians the idea of the west would change their desires, needs accordingly, and thereby profiting their trade, as the demand for western goods rises.

These intentions and impositions can be visualized as how the British wanted to take the ultimate control of India. This very claim can further be solidified from the speech Lord Babington Macaulay delivered to British Parliament in February of 1835. In that address, he said that “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 calibre, 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 self-esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation”.

But, at the same time, it is essential to note that many colonial officials were willing to accept the value of Oriental Education. In 1783, WilliamJones had an appointment as Junior judge in the supreme court established by the company. Jones was a linguist and was a scholar in many languages, over his stay in Calcutta, he spent time with native scholars who assisted him with the native education and Sanskrit. Soon Jones began to read and rethink the native texts of India from Literature, Law, Politics to Medicine, etc. He was not the only British official who saw the essence of Indian Education at its core. Henry Thomas Colebrooke and Nathaniel Halhead were on that list. Jones and Colebrooke had a particular attitude towards India as they mutually shared respect towards its culture and heritage. They both spent time discovering the ancient texts, understanding them, and even translating them for a wider audience. This mission started by them was not only to let the British consider its merits but also to make the Indians rediscover the culture and heritage lost in the ceremonies of the past.

Inclined with these, several British officials were ready to promote the claim that the state ought to accentuate equally for native education. They believed that Hindus and Muslims are to be persuaded that the texts and education they followed is not alien to the colonials. In that sense, they thought it would win them the hearts of the natives. However, the attack and criticism on orientalists grew sharply in the late 18th century, as people like James Mill, Macaulay started conceiving education as a core department to be targeted to gather a firmer grip over the colony. There were several education reforms and policies that have influenced the course of Indian education over time. The Charter Act of 1813 is considered a historical landmark in the education of Colonial India, although the provisions of the Charter Act cover trade, tax, etc. We here are going to concentrate its implication on education, Act’s section defines the first legislative action on the right of education through public revenues. It characterizes the elements of education for the promotion of learned natives, improvement, and rediscovery of literature, and elevation on science and technology. Nonetheless, the act had no connection with regard to direction concerning the methods of instruction. Macaulay, Thomas Babington. India. Feb. 1835. Speech. MATHIRAJ, SP., and R. SAROJA DEVI. “EDUCATION IN INDIA – ‘ANCIENT’ AND MODERN.’” N.p., Oct. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

Nearly a decade before the arrival of Lord Macaulay in India, the General Commission of Public Instruction was constituted in 1823. The committee was dominated by orientalists, therefore, the emphasis on oriental education was relatively high. The oriental attitude continued until recruits to the committee in 1824. As a result, the homogenous nature of the commission surpassed as new viewpoints came into existence. The Orientalist-Anglican dis- course was evident, the competition and debate thereby increased, which halted the educational spread in India. The charter eventually was renewed for another term of 20 years, adding a new law member to the council of Governor-general of Bengal which initially was a group of 3 members. The new law member was Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose resolution provided the sole discourse of the British’s idea of education in India. He renounced the notion of Sanskrit or Arabic education in comparison to the English and stated that the state’s intention of promotion of Science and Technology will be fruitful only with English. In his minute, he mentioned that the claims made by the state on oriental education are just exploitation of public wealth.

He said that “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. We found a sanatorium on a spot which we were supposed to be healthy. Do we thereby pledge ourselves to keep a sanatorium there if the result should not answer our expectations? We commence the erection of a pier. Is it a violation of the public faith to stop the works, if we afterward see a reason to believe that the building will be useless? The rights of property are undoubtedly sacred”.His minute utilitarian discourse ultimately varied the policy, medium, and means of education as Governor-general then, Lord William Bentinck was himself an admirer of English education. Lord Bentinck who was a soldier, an English statesman and Governor-General deeply supported and celebrated the minute delivered by Macaulay, as he wrote one line under it “I give entire concurrence to the sentiments expressed in the Minute”. On that note, he passed the resolution on 1835, which is often referred to as the “Lord Bentinck's Resolution of 7th March 1835.”

The proclamations of the resolution inherit the following, the education and its aims to be judged by the British, progression for western arts and sciences as a public object, grants and transfers on oriental education to be discontinued, and the promise to provide English learned Indians for the state at cheaper rates and capable at the same time. In 20 years, in 1853 the CharterAct was to be reviewed. The court of directors from the company sent a despatch to the Governor. The educational dispatch said to be issued by Charles Wood, who is the president of the Board of Control in the East Indian Company referred to as the Wood’s Despatch of 1854. The objective behind the despatch was not just to create intellectual fitness but to raise the moral idea to be supplied with the servants. It was argued and publicized that Western education would improve people’s character i.e. making them honest and truthful, etc. In follow up with the despatch, many reforms were established to meet the firmer grip of the colony. The foundations were laid for the upliftment of university education and one of the immediate effects of this despatch is the University’s act of 1857. Three universities were set up in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, education commission was instituted in each province. The age between the despatch and Indian Universities commission in 1902 was called the Victorian Era in Indian Education.

Babington, Macaulay Thomas. "Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macau- lay." Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay. 2 Feb. 1835. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

However, there were many other education policies and improvements brought into action during the early 19th century on the ground initiated by these reformations. Colonials were not the only people talking about the essentiality of western education, few Indians like Raja Ram Mohan Roy thought that English education could modernize the nation. They claimed that British education provides the natives or Indians with a congenial atmosphere leading to mental prosperity in a new lens, which revolutionizes the social, political, and cultural outlook. Whereas other portions of Indians strongly opposed or criticized these notions, M.K. Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagoreare two prominent figures whose ideologies are stimulating to be evaluated or considered. Mahatma Gandhi clarified the belief that western education created a spirit of inferiority in the minds of Indians, making them visualize the West to be superior, eventually lose their pride in the heritage they had. He claimed that there is poison in their system and in fact, it has enslaved us. He instead wanted a type of education that creates an essence of dignity and self-respect. He urged the people in his national campaigns to leave the British institutions and cast out the evil. The instruction to be in native languages is very important for Gandhi as he envisioned that English is distancing from their social surroundings and culture.

Western education which centers on reading and writing according to Gandhi is less powerful compared to the Indian that prioritizes oral education which in his choice is cerebrally challenging and intellectual. He deliberated to peer Indian education to be very flexible that could benefit masses, this can be pondered by looking at a survey made in the 1830s by William Adam, a Scottish who toured extensively across the Bengal and made a report. He found that there were over 1 lakh Pathshalas in Bengal and Bihar. These were small institutes with nearly 20 students, but the total is said to be over 20 lakhs across the districts. These often were set up by wealthy people or local people or at times started by the teacher (Guru) himself. He concluded that it is one of the most flexible systems as there were no fixed fees or huge costs, benefiting people from diverse classes. By education, Mahatma Gandhi desired an all-around personality development- from body, mind to the inner spirit. He said, “Literacy in itself is no education” and that the crafting system of education is superior to any other form. Emphasis on making handicrafts and that to be taught scientifically is what develops general aptitude of mind. Western education is a form of a mechanical system that damages the moral character of the students in his opinion. As nationalism became an important discourse, the perspective of education was seen from that angle.

Nearly all Indians certainly would have heard of the word “Santi Niketan”. In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore started this institution. Tagore as a student never acknowledged school, considered it physically and mentally suffocating. The school experience he had in Calcutta, made him critical of it and he wanted to establish a school where the mind of a child wanders or plays in his belief. He marked that childhood should be an age of self-learning and recognition that prospers curiosity in a child. The existing British schools plagued the creativity and potential of the student. In many instances, Gandhi and Tagore’s educational idea was similar. He concentrated on the creative aspect of learning, as he chose to establish his school in the outskirts of the city and saw it as the adobe of peace. The school was set up in an open environment, where he thought it would create a mutual harmony between the natural environment and their education. Tagore made his school focus on Indian traditions, cultures, dances, arts, music as much as science and technology, in a sense he combined the essential elements of western education to the native design. Santi Niketan and Tagore’s ideology is stamped as a significant landmark in the educational philosophies of India.

The national educational system in post-colonial India and the way it should fashion thus remained with native people, as few aspired for a western style of education that extends to a larger audience whereas others opposed it. The condition of education was renovated drastically as Colonial Oppression became linked to English languages in the minds of people. It was under dominant attacks and criticism from three classes of the society, Nationalists, Cultural revolutionists, and Politicians who began a campaign in promotion of nativism to secure vote banks. The major arguments that were associated with Western education were that it symbolized the exploitation and decayed the prosperity of native languages and cultures. The state tried to improve education from every possible corner. The biggest problem that remained with the Government was the expansion of facilities to benefit the masses of students. The system which postulated made it clear the compulsory primary education and assistance for the higher or secondary education. This was to encourage all sections of society and women to have access to education. Thereby, many committees were established for the distribution of work for healthy functioning. The central idea behind it was to reconstruct the aspirations, the structure, and the purpose of education, providing equality and liberty to the people of India in educational terms. Article 15 of the newly drafted constitution stated that the state should endeavor and facilitate free and compulsory education. Within a decade after enabling it, there was commencement that mandated that all children be provided with basic primary education. Making India secular in terms of religion, culture, and education was another primary task in front of the state. Articles 28(1,2, and 3) granted the amendments in this respect. These were necessary to save the marginalized and oppressed in social, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Articles 29(1) briefed the Citizens residing in any territory of India to follow any language and protect it. Given this, the state was successful in regulating the educational disparities, and the University Commission Act of 1948 was one of the instant reforms brought into action in independent India. The chairman of this committee who submitted the report was Dr. Sri Radhakrishnan, in an attempt to fulfill these, Central and state governments provided endowments for various programs under 5-year plans. A full-fledged ministry emerged as an educational department for both state and central levels. However, in the early 20th century as the world started drastically changing and developing, English in many nations became an important communicable instrument for a larger spectrum of people.

A crucial factor that describes India from other nations is multilingualism. Concerning the changing world, the state began to re-visualize and elevate for the upliftment of English in combination with the native languages. With the rising utility of English in terms of communication, commerce, it soon began to influence the perspectives of people. Many scholars like V.V. John, started to prioritize that English education is essential but needless to say, not at the stake of native language and cultures. A new conclusion came into existence reflecting that English should be taught in India but the isolation of native languages is a mistake. As an outcome, people began to accept and see the value of English given the reality of prospering neighbouring nations. The horizons of English education improved to information and knowledge to what is present-day Indian education. It can be asserted that the British'sideology of advances in Indian education is implicit with blemishes and self-desires. While it is also unveiled that Western education in a direction has modernized India, granting people an arbitrary lens through which to look at things. It also brought things to light and fetched us out from disturbing social evils and atrocities to some extent. These have always been diseases in our Cultural and Religious ethnicity.


Babington, Macaulay Thomas. "Minute by the Hon'ble T. B. Macau- lay." Minute on Education (1835) by Thomas Babington Macaulay. 2 Feb. 1835. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

Civilising the ‘Native’, Educating the Nation.” OUR PASTS-III. The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), 2008. Print.

Education.” Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Nov. 2020. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

Gupta, R.K. “English in a Postcolonial Situation: The Example of India.” N.p., 1995. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

MATHIRAJ, SP., and R. SAROJA DEVI. “EDUCATION IN INDIA – ‘ANCIENT’ AND MODERN.’” N.p., Oct. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

Pandya, Rajashree. “Indian Education System- A Historical Jour- ney.” N.p., May 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

Purohit, Parth. “The History and Evolution Of The Indian Education System.” N.p., 2018. Web. 12 Dec. 2020.

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About the author: Ajay Chiratla is a second-year economics student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy (JSGP).

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