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Indian education: How India made Britain more literate

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education
Image soucre: anglotopia.net

 

by Aravindan Neelakandan

“It wasn’t India which improved its schooling system by imitating Britain’s. Rather, it was the other way round.”

New Delhi: Every Indian learns at some point about how India was educated by the British and how that brought about a cultural renaissance to a degenerated and stagnant India. This had allowed Europe in general and Britain in particular to assume the role of civilizing the heathen world. How true is this grand narrative of the civilizing mission of the British?

Linked to this, Indian students also learn how two centuries prior to the colonization of India, Europe had undergone a renaissance and Lutheran reformation.

The missing links

England also fared no better in the treatment of its labour population which was mostly hereditary. Illiteracy of labourers was intentional, justified with religious reasons. In 1807, in the House of Commons, a British scientist Davies Gilbert vehemently opposed attempts to school the masses claiming that the education for the labouring classes.

Education – as a tool for social control
Even those who supported education for the peasant labourer community considered it as a means of social control than any means of social emancipation of the toiling masses.

Often, education was taken up by churches and bundled with Sunday Bible classes. As such, the educational standards were abysmally low.

The teachers were chosen not for their expertise in the subjects they taught but how well they had “a thorough knowledge of the saving powers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

The trends continued well into the nineteenth century and the malaise also affected the colonies. However, by the first quarter of the 19th century, there was another wave building up from London and its suburbs. And their origins were from the coasts of India.

Re-discovery of the ‘Beautiful Tree’

The remark by Gandhi at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, on 20 October 193, about the more literate India is today well-known thanks to the pioneering work done by Dharampal. The metaphor of ‘beautiful tree’ for the Indic educational system has become famous at least among the Indophiles. Sir Philip Hartog, the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University joined issue with Gandhi.

He commenced a correspondence with him, spanning almost a decade. Hartog was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of London in order to allay the rising feeling among Indians that the British systematically destroyed the indigenous education. His lectures were promptly published as a book.

Reports after reports that the East India Company had made in the early nineteenth century in an exhaustive survey of indigenous education system commissioned by Col T Munroe revealed a far decentralized, more egalitarian system of education than the one existing in contemporary England.

When Dharampal wished to publish his work the only person who was ready to do it was a Hindu nationalist historian and a publisher, Sitaram Goel. Dharampal’s book ‘The Beautiful Tree’ contains an 1823 report by Ballari district collector. The collector mentions a curious fact:

“The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools, and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge is certainly admirable, and well deserved the imitation it has received in England.”

This is the British acknowledgement of Indian system being imitated in Britain. With respect to how the saplings of ‘the beautiful tree’ were transported and transplanted in India, Dharampal provides a mention of one Andrew Bell.

Carrying forward the work of Dharampal

Some decades after Dharampal’s work was published, James Tooley a British educationist was given a copy of “The Beautiful Tree” by an old book vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. That opened up new doors for Tooley who was already working on cost-effective quality education with specific focus on the developing countries. The result is a book titled “The beautiful tree: a personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves” (Penguin Books India 2009)

Tooley started with Andrew Bell who was a “reverend”. In the words of Tooley, as he researched on the life of this Rev Andrew Bell, what he discovered ‘seemed like dynamite’ to him.

“For they vividly showed how the ‘economical’ method of teaching in the private schools for the poor in India became translated into a method that transformed education in Victorian England and beyond.”

Rev Bell was in India to work in the asylum for the progeny of British soldiers through native Indian women, whom of course the soldiers abandoned. The imported teachers for these children were not exactly enthusiastic.

Tooley further elaborates:

“the cost-effective teaching methods used in the indigenous private schools of 19th century India were, in fact, a manifest strength; so much so…they were imitated in Britain , then across Europe and then the world and did so much to raise educational standards.”

Funding of schools in England, Tooley observes, was done through school fees and private schools for the poor were increasing in Victorian England. By 1851 of the 2,144,278 children put in day schools 85 percent were in private schools funded the same way the private schools of early 19th century India were funded. The horses of literacy were galloping in England.

But in India…

In India in 1854, Thomas Babington Macaulay had established his first school in India.

The rate of growth of literacy in India under the British controlled Macaulay education system began to fall way back compared to the rate of growth of literacy in Britain under the Indic method of private school enrolment. The Macaulay system itself needed 60 years to improve upon the enrolment figures of Indian educational system. Tooley observes wryly:

“If the dynamics of the India private education system had been anything like those of the parallel system in England we would have seen a much larger growth in enrollment than had the British not intervened at all.”

Macaulay system also perpetuated and amplified the social distances among the different occupational groups in India. Tooley states:

“Though Government spoke of the resentment of upper-class Indians the fact is that the British educational system in its very nature was elitist and often prevented people form lower strata of the society into echelons of higher education. It was almost a universal phenomenon of colonialism.”

It should also be noted that while British policy of education to masses was as a means of social control, the indigenous education in India was for empowering and liberating the individuals and the society.

But here the most successful social revolutionaries were all (Ayya Vaikundar, Sri Narayana Guru and Ayyan Kali – to name a few) those who studied in the native educational system.

The cost-effective universal education, which gave England its advantages over other European nations, also owes its positive features to that beautiful tree that stood in India, which as Gandhi stated was destroyed by the very British who benefited by it.

(The article was originally published in swarajyamag.com)

Next Story

Indian Politics and Polity Shift to the Right and Away from Europe

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism

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Rahul Gandhi becomes president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi steps down
Rahul Gandhi steps in as President of Congress, Wikipedia

By Dr. Richard Benkin, Chicago

  • India is world’s largest democracy
  • Indian politics is always under international coverage
  • India is witnessing political shift due to its leaders and their transformation

The great democracy was electing its national leader.  It was a fight between the party in power with a leftist tinge; and the more conservative opposition with its upstart candidate. The media was rooting openly for the leftist candidate and would stop at almost nothing, even vilifying the conservative upstart as evil, not just wrong.  The candidate on the left seemed to feel entitled, that being head of state was all in the family.  And, as you probably have guessed, that candidate lost.  You might or might not have guessed that, despite the familiarity to American voters, this was not the United States.  It was India.

will also hold a meeting there with the Indian community. Wikimedia Commons
Narendra Modi’ win in 2014 elections stunned the whole nation. Wikimedia Commons

India’s 2014 election was a clear rejection of the long serving Indian Congress Party and its soft socialism.  Its candidate, then 43 year old, Rahul Gandhi, was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Prime Ministers; and though India is the world’s largest democracy, not the world’s largest monarchy, it was “his turn” to take the nation’s top spot.

The similarities between the Indian Congress Party and the US Democrat Party stop, however, with how the two parties and their dynastic candidates reacted to their defeats.  While there is ample evidence that the Democrats are moving further to the left, India’s Congress, and especially its former candidate, seem to have taken the lessons of their defeat to heart.  Moreover, we too often gauge a polity’s position on the left-right spectrum by which major party dominates.  In the Indian case, however, we get a deeper understanding by examining changes in the out of power party.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi Elected as President of Congress Amidst Celebration of Followers

The Indian National Congress Party was founded in 1885 and, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was the principal leader of the movement that led to India’s independence from Great Britain in 1947.  It has ruled India for roughly 57.5 of its 70.5 years as a modern nation (81.6 percent of its entire existence).  Congress fashions itself left-center party with “democratic socialism” as one of the party’s guiding principles; and over the years, I have written a number of articles, criticizing what I believe to be weak Congress policies.  It has followed the lead of soft left European parties, in contrast with the Indian nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Amitabh Tripathi is a well-known Indian political commentator.  I caught up with him in New Delhi in February and asked him about how the Congress Party was reacting to its crushing 2014 defeat.

RB:  So, was the 2014 election a strong statement about traditional Indian politics?

AT:  Definitely.  Till 1991, Indian politics was at a status quo with socialist, leftist, and communist stances prevalent.  After 1991, right wing politics emerged as a political force.  Since then, Indian politics has shifted to the right; and from time to time for more than two decades, left and right engaged in direct political confrontations.  Congress led the coalition of leftists; and the BJP emerged as the leader of the right.  The BJP ruled the country for six years (1998-2004) and its policies swung to the right, including a vocal and unapologetic relationship with Israel, moving forward strategically with the United States, and exploring India’s role in the Indian Ocean to contain China and its imperialistic ambitions. When the BJP lost power to a Congress led coalition in 2004, the Indian polity again shifted left; and Congress became a complete replica of its 1960s self—a totally leftist party.

Rahul Gandhi becomes the president of Congress as mother Sonia Gandhi Steps Down
Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run). It is believed he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.

In 2014, when elections occurred, the Indian polity moved on to the right on issues from economics to culture.  Before the election, Congress did not read the undercurrent of the people and moved even further left on those issues.  This has been widely acknowledged as the reason for its crushing defeat.

RB:  So it was a real shift to the right among Indians, which sounds a lot like our own experience in 2016.  In the US, the losing Democrat party has reacted by moving further left.  Has India’s Congress tried to understand the reasons behind its defeat?

AT:  The latter statement is correct.  Immediately after losing the elections, Congress realized it was not simply an electoral defeat.  Its ideological stagnation led to the historical loss.  And it tried to rectify that and re-invent itself.

RB:  How have they done that?

AT:  I observed it on three fronts, three major decisions.  First, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the former party President and current head of the dynastic family, took an almost “voluntary” retirement.  She had become the face of hard left and anti-Hindu policies.

RB:  Sounds familiar.  Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has become the same here, but she does not seem to be going anywhere.

AT:  Second, in ten years of Congress rule, they openly flaunted themselves as very pro-Muslim, which irritated the majority Hindus in India.  But last year, in prestigious elections in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Gujarat), Sonia Gandhi did not address a single rally.  Plus, Congress Party Vice-President (now President) Rahul Gandhi traveled to many Hindu temples during the campaign (something he avoided in his unsuccessful 2014 run).  We believe he also did not go to any Muslim places of worship, which was unusual for any top leader from the Congress Party.  Some people might say it was an opportunistic political move, but I would say it was a well-calculated shift in the party to shed the tags of pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu.

Third, since the days of the freedom movement before independence, and during the rule of Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (almost the entire period from independence to 1984); Congress followed the policy of demonizing the wealthy and glorifying the poor.  It seems, however, that Rahul Gandhi wants the population to know that he strongly favors the wealth generating middle class and capitalism; he opposes only crony capitalism.  He says the poor should aspire to become wealthy through greater opportunities and employment.

RB:  What about Rahul Gandhi himself?  Does he have a future in Indian politics?

AT:  Since 2014, we have watched his evolution from entitled politician to serious politician who understands the people’s aspirations and country’s need.  Perhaps most importantly has been his understanding of foreign policy and India’s role and responsibilities at a global level.  He has said that he’s ready to take the responsibility of the office of Prime Minister if elected, and he could make a formidable candidate.

Raul Maino
Rahul Gandhi can potentially cause a shift in Indian politics due to his transformation. Twitter

RB:  I’ve heard a lot of people talking positively about him and his growth in my time here.  I believe you also told me he has spent a lot of this time really listening to people from all classes and communities.  Thank you, Amitabh ji, it’s always a pleasure to hear your thoughts, and always a pleasure to be in India.

In a larger context, we have seen a reaction against decades of leftist overreach worldwide:  Donald Trump’s election; Brexit; and a number of elections in Europe rejecting the European Union and loss of national identity (most recently in Italy).  There has been little focus on Asia perhaps because it has not been in the orbit of traditional left-right equations in the West.  India, however, has become a major player on the world stage under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  It has historical conflicts with both Pakistan and China, and can be a major bulwark against Chinese expansion westward.  India also has strengthened its alliances with both the United States and Israel while maintaining relations with Iran.  The rightward movement there is highly significant in plotting future Indian geopolitical moves.

[Richard Benkin is a human rights activist and author with a strong concentration in South Asia.  Amitabh Tripathi appears often on Indian television and in other media.  He is also a contributor to What is Moderate Islam, edited by Richard Benkin.  This interview was conducted in New Delhi on February 27, 2018, while Benkin was there as part of a recently-concluded human rights mission.]