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Macaulay's Minute revisited


A hundred and forty-seven years after his death, Macaulay is revered by some and reviled by others in India.

Still controversial: Macaulay.

THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY died a hundred and forty-seven years ago, but in India he is still widely remembered, revered by some and reviled by others. In his four years in this country, he made two notable contributions. One was to draft the Criminal Procedure Code, which, according to legend, he wrote in one inspired week spent in the Ootacamund Club. This aspect of his legacy remains relatively uncontentious, for, a traditional society entering the modern age needed a rational legal system, and someone had to provide it. Still, Macaulay might have been amused by the fact that of his vast and complex Code, perhaps only two sections are known to most Indians. These are Section 144, which prohibits gatherings of more than five people whenever the Government perceives a threat to "law and order"; and Section 420, which defines what is counterfeiting. Indeed, the latter section, rendered in the vernacular, has even become a verb: so that we can now call a trickster of our acquaintance a "char sau bis".

Macaulay's second, and more controversial contribution, was a Minute he wrote in February 1835, which recommended that English be promoted as both a lingua franca and the medium of education in India. This Minute is reviled by nativists, who think it condemned India and Indians to centuries of mental servitude; but revered by modernists, who argue that it allowed Indians to take advantage of the modern economy and thus emancipate themselves from the burdens of a traditional and hierarchical society.

Most-quoted words

The words most often quoted from Macaulay's Minute are his claim that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". This is undeniably both arrogant and illiterate, for, Macaulay himself did not read a single Arab or Indian language. However, there are other moments in the Minute where the writer appears not as an insolent colonialist but rather as a far-seeing democrat.

The context for Macaulay's Minute was the existence of a fund "to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of the country". It was felt that this improvement could not be conducted in India's many native tongues, as these did not yet have the capacity to convey complex scientific terms and information. The available alternatives were those two classical languages, Arabic and Sanskrit, and modern English.

Macaulay opted for English because it had the necessary vocabulary for teaching modern science, philosophy, law, and history. He conceded that Oriental languages might have produced great poetry, yet "when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the European [languages] becomes absolutely immeasurable". Still, he thought that in time English might come to be supplanted (at least in part) by tongues indigenous to India. Thus Macaulay predicted that as an Indian intelligentsia arose, it would work 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".

Something like this has indeed happened. Far from being destroyed, the vernacular languages have flourished and developed, in colonial times through the advent of the printing press, and since Independence through the creation of linguistic States. But English remains indispensable for technical education and as a means of inter-State communication. The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay's Minute. And India might not have still been united had it not been for that Minute either. For, it was the existence and availability of English that allowed the States of South India to successfully resist the imposition of Hindi upon them.

And so, a century and more after he left this earth, Indians continue to have strong opinions about Macaulay. In his native Britain, however, Macaulay is remembered for altogether different reasons. He is remembered as an outstanding liberal, who resisted the encroachments of religion on the State and the encroachments of the State on its citizens. And he is remembered as a great historian, and a master of the English language, whose works can still be read for education and for profit.

Little-known connection

It appears that few in Britain today know about Macaulay's connection to the sub-continent. The first c.v. of his that I found on the Net (see has a paltry paragraph about his time in India. This does not mention the Criminal Procedure Code or the Minute on Education. It does however inform us as to why he came out to India, when he was well established at home, as a Member of Parliament, and a highly regarded writer. His prospects in his native land were terrific; why then did he leave for an uncertain life overseas? Apparently, his father had incurred several bad debts, and "in an attempt to help [him] pay off his creditors, Thomas Macaulay accepted a lucrative post on the Supreme Council of India".

Now that is a man Indians can appreciate — a son who takes on a difficult job to save the honour and reputation of his father.

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