Indigenous Education in the 18th century

  • By Dharampal
  • March 2004

British Strategy, Impact        

Friends this chapter has four important parts. One is comparison of education in Britain & Madras Presidency, two is how were indigenous schools organized, three is British strategy to kill indigenous educational system and four impact of point three.

The significance of what Gandhiji said at Chatham House in October 1931 ought to have been understood not in the literal way in which Philip Hartog did, but within the total context of Mahatma Gandhi’s address, which attempted to reveal the overall disruption and decline of Indian society and its institutions under British rule. That a great decay had set in by the 1820s, if not a few decades earlier, in the sphere of education was admitted by the Madras Presidency survey, as well as by W. Adam with regard to Bengal and Bihar. In 1822-25, the number of those in ordinary schools was put at over 1,50,000 in the Madras Presidency. Evidently, the inference that the number was appreciably, perhaps a great deal higher some 20 0r 30 years earlier, cannot be ruled out. At any rate, nowhere was there any suggestion made that it was much less than it had been in 1822-25.

England-Madras comparison 


Madras Presidency


95,43,610 (1811)

1,28,50,941 (1823)

Nos attending schools

App 75,000 (note below)

1,57,195 (ref chapter 20

Note – more than half of this number of 75,000 in English schools consisted of those who attended school at the most only for 2-3 hours on a Sunday.

However, after about 1803, every year a marked increase took place in the number of those attending schools in England. The result: the number of 75,000 attending any short of school around 1800 rose to 6,74,883 by 1818, and 21,44,377 in 1851, i.e. an increase of about 29 times in a period of about fifty years. It is true that the content of this education in England did not improve much during this half century. Neither did the period spent in school increase: from more than an average of one year in 1835 to about two years in 1851. The real implication of Gandhiji’s observation, and of the information provided by the Madras Presidency collectors, W. Adam and G. W. Leitner, is that for the following 50-100 years, what happened in India-within the developing situation of relative collapse and stagnation-proved the reverse of the development taking place in England.

It is such a feeling, and the intuition of such an occurrence, that drove Gandhiji, firstly, to make his observation in London in October 1931, and secondly, disinclined to withdraw it eight years later. Gandhiji seemed to be looking at the issue from a historical, social, and a human viewpoint. In marked contrast, men like Sir Philip Hartog, as so commonly characteristic of the specialist, were largely quibbling about phrases; intent solely on picking holes in what did not fit the prevailing western theories of social and political development. 

Statistical comparisons were what Sir Philip Hartog and many others in his time wanted. And these can, to a large extent, settle this debate: some comparison of the 1822-25 Madras school-attending scholars is made here with the Madras Presidency data pertaining to the 1880s and 1890s. Because of incompleteness of the earlier data available from Bengal and Bihar, and also from the Presidency of Bombay, such a comparison does not seem possible for these areas, much less for the whole of India.

According to the 1879-80 Report of the Director of Public Instruction for the Madras Presidency, the total number of educational institutions of all types (including colleges, secondary, middle and primary schools, and special, or technical Institutions) then numbered 10,553. Out of these, the primary schools numbered 10,106. The total number attending them: 2,38,960 males, and 29,419 females. The total population of the Presidency at this time is stated as 3,13,08,872. While the number of females attending these institutions was evidently larger in 1879-80 compared to 1822-25, the proportionate numbers of males was clearly much reduced. Using the same computation as those applied in 1822-25 (i.e. one-ninth of the total population treated as of school-going age), those of this age amongst the male population (taking males and females as equal) would have numbered 17,39,400. The number of males in primary schools being 2,18,840, the proportion of this age group in schools thus turns out to be 12.58%. This proportion in the decayed educational situation of 1822-25 was put at one-fourth, i.e. at 25%. If one were to take even the total of all those in every type of institution, i.e. the number 2,38,960, the proportion in 1879-80 rises only to 13.74%.

From 1879-80 to 1884-85, there was some increase, however, to be found. While the population went down slightly to 3,08,68,504, the total number of male scholars went up to 3,79,932, and that of females to 50,919. Even this larger number of male scholars came up only to 22.15% of the computed school-age male population; and of those in primary schools to 18.33%. These figures are much lower than the 1822-25 officially calculated proportion. Incidentally, while there was an overall increase in number of females in educational institutions, the number of Muslim girls in such institutions in the district of Malabar in 1884-85 was only 705. Here it may be recollected that 62 years earlier, in August 1823, the number of Muslim girls in schools in Malabar was 1,122; and, at that time, the population of Malabar would have been below half of that in 1884-85.

Eleven years later in 1895-96, the number in all types of educational institutions increased further. While the population had grown to 3,56,41,828, the number of those in educational institutions had increased to 6,81,174 males, and 1,10,460 females. It is at this time then that the proportion (taking all those males attending educational institutions) rose to 34.4%: just about equal to the proportion which Thomas Munro had computed in 1826 as one-third (33.3%) of those receiving any education whether in indigenous institutions, or at home. Even at this period, i.e. 70 years after Munro’s computation, however, the number of males in primary education was just 28%.

Coming to 1890-1900, the last year of the nineteenth century, the number of males in educational institutions went up to 7,33,923 and of females to 1,29,068. At this period, the number of school-age males was calculated by the Madras Presidency Director of Public Instruction as 26,42,909, thus giving a percentage of 27.8% attending any educational institution. Even taking a sympathetic view of the later data, what clearly comes out of these comparisons is that the proportion of those in educational institutions at the end of the nineteenth century was still no larger than the proportions estimated by Thomas Munro of the number attending the institutions of the decaying indigenous system of the Madras Presidency in 1822-25.

The British authorities in the late nineteenth century must have been tempted-as we find state authorities are in our own times-to show their achievements in brighter hues and thus err on the side of inflating figures: therefore, this later data may be treated with some skepticism. This was certainly not the case with the 1822-25 data which, in the climate of that period, could not have been considered inflated in any sense of the word.

From the above, it may be inferred that the decay which is mentioned in 1822-25 proceeded to grow in strength during the next six decades. During this period, most of the indigenous institutions more or less disappeared. Any surviving remnants were absorbed by the late 19th century British system. Further, it is only after 1890 that the new system begins to equal the 1822-25 officially calculated proportions of males in schools quantitatively. Its quality, in comparison to the indigenous system, is another matter altogether.

The above comparison of the 1822-25 Madras indigenous education data with the data from the 1880s and 1890s period also seems to provide additional support-if such support were required-to the deductions which G.W. Leitner had come to in 1882. These reveal the decline of indigenous education in the Panjab in the previous 35-40 years.

IMP - How were indigenous schools organized - There is voluminous data in British records, which confirm the view that in terms of basic expenses, both education and medical care, like the expenses of local police, maintenance of irrigation facilities had primary claims on revenue. It was this revenue that maintained elementary & higher education. Parents & guardians of children contributed too.

According to the Bengal-Bihar data of the 1770-1780s, revenue was divided into various categories in addition to what was called the Khalsa i.e. the sources whose revenue was received in the exchequer of the ruling authority of the province or some larger unit. These categories excluding khalsa constituted app 80% of the revenue. 2 of these categories were referred to Chakeran Zemin and Bazee Zemin in Bengal/Bihar during this period. The former referred to recipients of revenue who were engaged in administrative, economic, accounting activities etc and were remunerated by assignments of revenue. The latter referred to those who, according to the British, were in receipt of what were termed ‘religious & charitable allowances’. A large part of this went to maintenance of religious places; others went to poets, joshis, to medical practioners etc. The number of maths & temples in Tanjore around 1813 were 4,000. The position in Bombay/Madras Presidency was not very different. 

About one third of the total revenue (from agriculture & sea ports) were according to ancient practice assigned for the requirements of the social & cultural infrastructure till the British overturned it all. In Bengal the rate of assessment was fairly low, the rate charged for Bazee Zemin was around one quarter to one third of rate which the British had begun to demand from the lands which were treated as Khalsa. The British increased the quantum of land revenue, made it payable twice a year at fixed timed (irrespective of weather conditions), had to be paid in cash not produce meaning the farmer had to sell his produce in the market to pay revenue exposing himself to the vagaries of market pricing. These moves towards centralization of revenue ensured that there was hardly any revenue to pay for social & cultural infrastructure resulting in its death.

The Collector of Bellary A D Campbell came out with an exhaustive report on indigenous education. He said one that the degenration of education is ascribable to the gradual but general impoverishment of the country, two that the means of the manufacturing classes have been greatly diminished by the introduction of our European manufacturers, three that the transfer of capital of the country from the native govt and their officers who spent their money in India to Europeans who were debarred from spending it in India meant that the support given to India’s population in learning, science etc vanished. Four he added “that of the 533 institutions for education now existing in his district, I am ashamed to say not one now derives support from the state but there is no doubt that in former times under Hindoo govts, very large grants were issued for the support of learning”.

Demonizing Indigenous Education

This brings us finally to an assessment of the content of the indigenous system of education. The long letter of the much-quoted A.D. Campbell, collector of Bellary, had been used a century earlier by London to establish that in India reading and writing were acquired solely with a view to the transaction of business’, that nothing whatever is learnt except reading, and with the exception of writing and a little arithmetic, the education of the great majority goes no farther,’

The question of content is crucial. It is the evaluation of content which led to indigenous education being termed ‘bad’ and hence to its dismissal; and in Gandhiji’s phrase, to it’s up rooting. Yet it was not ‘the mere reading and writing and a little arithmetic which was of any consequence in such a decision. For, schools education in contemporary England, except in the sphere of religious teaching, covered the same ground and probably, much less thoroughly. As mentioned earlier, the average period of schooling in 1835 England was just about one year, and even in 1851, only two. Further, as stated by A.E. Dobbs, ‘in some century schools, writing was excluded for fear of evil consequences.’

While the limitless British hunger for revenue-so forcefully described by Campbell-starved the Indian system of the very resources which it required to survive, its cultural and religious content and structure provoked deliberate attempts aimed at its total extermination. It was imperative to somehow uproot the Indian indigenous system for the relatively undisturbed maintenance and continuance of British rule. It is the same imperative which decided Macaulay, Bertinck, etc., to deliberately neglect large-scale school education-proposed by men like Adam - till a viable system of Anglicized higher education had first been established in the country.

In 1813, this bold intention was publicly and powerfully expressed by William Wilberforce when he depicted Indians as being ‘deeply sunk, and by their religious superstitions fast bound in the lowest depths of moral and social wretchedness. T.B. Macaulay expressed similar views, merely using different imagery. He commented that the totality of Indian knowledge and scholarship did not even equal the contents of a single shelf of a good European library’, and that all the historical information contained in books written in Sanskrit was less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridement used at preparatory schools in England. To Macaulay, all Indian knowledge, if not despicable, was at least absurd: absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, and absurd theology.

A little later, Karl Marx seems to have had similar impressions of India-this, despite his great study of British state papers and other extensive material relating to India. Writing in the New York Dally Tribune on 25 June 1853, he shared the view of the perennial nature of Indian misery, and approvingly quoted an ancient Indian text which according to him placed ‘the commencement of Indian misery in an epoch even more remote than the Christian creation of the world.’ According to him, Indian life had always been undignified, stagnatory, vegetative, and passive, given to a brutalizing worship of nature instead of man being the ‘sovereign of nature-as contemplated in contemporary European thought. And, thus Karl Marx concluded: Whatever may have been the crimes of England in India, she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about-what Marx so anxiously looked forward to-India’s westernization.

The complete denunciation and rejection of Indian culture and civilization was however, left to the powerful pen of James Mill. This he did in his monumental three volume History of British India, first published in 1817. Henceforth, Mill’s History became an essential reading and reference book for those entrusted with administering the British Indian Empire. From the time of its publication till recently, the History in fact provided the frame work for the writing of most histories of India. For this reason, the impact of his judgments on India and its people should never be underestimated.

According to Mill, ‘the same insincerity, mendacity, and perfidy; the same indifference to the feelings of others; the same prostitution and venality’ were the conspicuous characteristics of both the Hindoos and the Muslims. The Muslims, however, were perfuse, when possessed of wealth, and devoted to pleasure; the Hindoos almost always penurious and ascetic; and ‘in truth, the Hindoo like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave.’ Furthermore, similar to the Chinese, the Hindoos were ‘dissembling, treacherous, mendacious, to an excess which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society.’ Both the Chinese and the Hindoos were ‘disposed to excessive exaggeration with regard to everything relating to themselves.’ Both were cowardly and unfeeling.’ Both were in the highest degree conceited of themselves, and full of affected contempt for others.’ And, above all, both were in physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses.’

Compared to the people of India, according to Mill, the people of Europe even during the feudal ages, (and notwithstanding the vices of the Roman Church and the defects of the schoolmen), were superior in philosophy. Further, the Europeans were greatly superior, notwithstanding the defects of the feudal system, in the institutions of Government and in laws.’ Even their poetry was ‘beyond all comparison preferable to the poetry of the Hindoos.’ Mill felt it was hardly necessary to assert that in the art of war ‘the Hindoos have always been greatly inferior to the warlike nations of Europe.’ The agriculture of the Europeans ‘surpassed exceedingly that of the Hindoos’, and in India the roads were little better than, and the rivers without bridges: there was not one original treatise on medicine, considered as a science, and surgery was unknown among the Hindoos. Further still, ‘compared with the slavish and dastardly spirit of the Hindoos’; the Europeans were to be placed in an elevated rank with regard to manners and character, and their manliness and courage.

Where the Hindoos surpassed the Europeans was in delicate manufactures, ‘particularly in spinning, weaving and dyeing; in the fabrication of trinkets; and probably in the art of polishing and setting the precious stones; and more so in effeminate gentleness, and the winning arts of address. However, in the arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture the Hindoos in no way excelled Europeans. Further, ‘the Hindoo loom, with all its appurtenances, is coarse and ill-fashioned, to a degree hardly less surprising than the fineness of the commodity which it is the instrument of producing.’ The very dexterity in the use of their tools and implements became a point against the Indians. For as James Mill proclaimed: ‘A dexterity in the use of its own imperfect tools is a common attribute of rude society.’

These reflections and judgments led to the obvious conclusion, and Mill wrote:

Our ancestors, however, though rough, were sincere; but under the glossing exterior of the Hindoo lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy. In fine, it cannot be doubted that, upon the whole, the gothic nations, as soon as they became a settled people, exhibit the marks of a superior character and civilization to those of the Hindoos.

As to James Mill, so also to Wilberforce, Macaulay, and Karl Marx and the thought and approaches they represented (for it is more as spokesmen of such thinking and approaches that they are important in the context of India rather than as outstanding individuals), the manners, customs and civilization of India were intrinsically barbarous. And to each of them India could become civilized only by discarding its Indianness, and by adopting utility as the object of every pursuit according to Mill; by embracing his peculiar brand of Christianity for Wilberforce; by becoming anglicized, according to Macaulay; and for Marx by becoming western.

Given such complete agreement on the nature of Indian culture and institutions, it was inevitable that because of its crucial social and cultural role. Indian education fared as it did. To speed up its demise, it not only had to be ridiculed and despised, but steps also had to be taken so that it was starved out of its resource base. True, as far as the known record can tell, no direct dismantling or shutting up of each and every institution was resorted to, or any other more drastic physical measures taken to achieve this demise. Such steps were unnecessary; the reason being that the fiscal steps together with ridicule, performed the task far more effectively.

An official indication of what was to come was conveyed by London to the Madras Presidency when it acknowledge receipt of the information that a survey of indigenous education had been initiated there, much before the papers of the survey were actually sent to London. The London authorities expressed their appreciation of this initiative. They also approved of the collectors having been cautioned against ‘exciting any fears in the people that their freedom of choice in matters of education would be interfered with.’ However, this approval was followed by the observation: ‘But it would be equally wrong to do anything to fortify them (i.e. the people of the Madras Presidency) in the absurd opinion that their own rude institutions of education are so perfect as not to admit of improvement.’ They very expression of such a view in the most diplomatically and cautiously worded of official instructions was a clear signal. Operatively, it implied not only greater ridicule and denunciation of the Indian system; but further, that any residual fiscal and state support still available to the educational institutions was no longer to be tolerated. Not surprisingly, the indigenous system was doomed to stagnate and die.

IMP - Consequences of Killing Indigenous Education System -The neglect and deliberate uprooting of Indian education, the measures which were employed to this end, and its replacement by an alien and rootless system-whose products were so graphically described later by Ananda Coomaraswamy-had several consequences for India.

One, it led to an obliteration of literacy and knowledge of such dimensions amongst the Indian people that recent attempts at universal literacy and education have so far been unable to make an appreciable dent in it. Two, it destroyed the Indian social balance in which, traditionally, persons from all sections of society appear to have been able to receive fairly competent schooling. The pathshalas and madrassahs had enabled them to participate openly and appropriately and with dignity not only in the social and cultural life of their locality but, if they wished, ensured participation at the more extended level. Three it is this destruction along with similar damage in the economic sphere, which led to great deterioration in the status and socio-economic conditions and personal dignity of those who are now known as the scheduled castes; and to only a slightly lesser extent to that of the vast peasant majority encompassed by the term ‘backward castes’. The recent movements embracing these sections to a great extent seem to be aimed at restoring this basic Indian social balance.

Four & most importantly, till today it has kept most educated Indians ignorant of the society they live in, the culture which sustains this society, and their fellow beings; and more tragically, yet, for over a century it has induced a lack of confidence, and loss and bearing amongst the people of Indian in general.

What India possessed in the sphere of education two centuries ago and the factors, which led to its decay and replacement, are indeed a part of history. Even if the former could be brought back to life, in the context of today, or of the immediate future, many aspects of it would no longer be apposite. Yet what exists today has little relevance either. An understanding of what existed and of the processes which created the irrelevance India is burdened with today, in time, could help generate what best suits India’s requirements and the ethos of her people.

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