Religion & politics in colonial India


How initiatives in vernacular education made an early difference in the Indian public sphere and civil society

This is a fascinating study of the role of vernacular education in the making of the political and social consciousness in Bengal in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is an exercise in intellectual history, and therefore primarily a discussion about the ideas that shaped educational policy and practice.

In this effort, the author sidesteps the earlier interest in English education, and demonstrates “the centrality of vernacular education as a space in which missionaries and native leaders could theorise and ultimately propagate the practices and norms required of a properly modern society.” Consequently, this study marks a shift from the “conventional reliance on conversion, sacred text, or ritual practice as the primary means to understand religion and religious change.”

That ‘Western rule secularised the non-West’, according to the author, is one of the most compelling historical fictions. The colonial state, its ideologues and their disciples advanced this argument in order to highlight their civilising mission of colonialism. The author challenges this idea by “demonstrating how the sustained involvement of missionaries in the expansion of education ultimately reinforced, rather than weakened, the place of religion and religious identity in the development of Indian modernity.”

The pursuit and adaptation of modern educational techniques and institutions, mainly exported to the colonies by Protestant missionaries, opened up new ways for Hindu and Muslim leaders and the colonial state to reformulate ideas of community along religious lines. In the formation of community consciousness, missionary education had a pivotal role.

Pre-colonial scene

Before the intervention of colonial rule, vernacular education was quite widespread in Bengal. William Adam, who prepared an exhaustive report for Bengal for 1835-38, estimated one elementary school for every 4,000 people, or for every 73 children of school-going age, which compared favourably with most countries in the world. The scene was not different in the Madras and Bombay presidencies. The vernacular system imparted elementary education sufficient to meet the demands of the time in trading and accounting. The institutions which made this possible were the missionary schools, tolls, madrassas, patasalas and domestic tutoring.

The Indian initiatives in vernacular education through patasalas, tolls and domestic tutoring were sustained by contributions from the public, particularly the landowning classes. The East India Company’s revenue policy impoverished a large section of the landed aristocracy, which led to the drying up of the main source of income of indigenous schools. It was in this context that missionary education gained ground. By the second half of the 19th century, missionaries were well entrenched in vernacular education.

The study begins with the passage of Charles Wood’s Despatch of 1854, which formed a landmark in colonial education, as it acknowledged its responsibility of educating its colonial subjects. It heralded a serious discussion, since the Orientalist-Anglicist controversy, about the nature of education the colonial state should provide to the ‘natives’. This was partly a result of the influence of missionaries, as they believed that literacy would lay the foundation for conversion and conversion in turn to loyalty. That was the reason why the missionaries became the dominant player in the field of vernacular education, which, the author argues, was not a handmaiden of the Raj or a vehicle for Christian proselytising; it was a “dense nexus of state, missionary and local demands and desire.”

Separate space

Vernacular education contributed to the development of a public sphere and civil society. As the author has observed, “Within the dominating and coercive regime, vernacular education became a space in which missionaries and the emerging class of urban educated Bhadralok were given some autonomy to imagine and plot a different kind of society.”

The interest in vernacular education was focussed on religious and social reform, and educational policy came to be ‘seen as a proxy’ for political policy. As a result, the author argues, modern education became a crucial part of the debates leading up to Partition in 1947.

In this context, the textbook production assumed very great importance. Several textbook committees came into existence to produce reading material. The missionaries had an upper hand in it. For instance, the Christian Vernacular Education Society of India produced 730,000 books and pamphlets. They were imbued with religious bias and were not acceptable to all.

Of all attempts to prepare a widely acceptable text book, the most acceptable was Barnaparichay, a primer written by Vidyasagar in 1855. This was written in sadhu bhasha, a sanskritised version of the Bengali vernacular. The remedy was to employ chalitbhasha, which was closer to spoken vernacular. During the course of the 19th century, attempts were made to simplify the language in order to make it a vehicle appropriate for mass education.

In a nutshell, this is an important contribution to the intellectual history of colonial India.

( K. N. Panikkar is an eminent historian and academic)

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