Macaulay | Zareer Masani

A minute for modernity

Few people can claim the dubious honour of having lent their names to slurs, unless they be traitors like Mir Jafar, Benedict Arnold, or Vidkun Quisling. Thomas Babington Macaulay, however, has lent his name to the “children of Macaulay", the pejorative term given to English-speaking Indians who stand alienated from the heritage of their native culture and languages, merely by drafting a higher education policy. Notorious for his “Minute on Indian Education" that recommended the creation of a class of Indians who would be “English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect", Macaulay is now seen as the figurehead of cultural imperialism. Zareer Masani’s biography, Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization, goes beyond the Minute, and looks at Macaulay’s larger career as a Whig politician and public servant.

The Whigs were liberals who believed in expanding suffrage, abolishing slavery, and encouraging industry and free markets. But they were not radicals, refusing to reform any more than their electorate (which at the time consisted of landed gentlemen) would accept. The Whig agenda is intertwined with Masani’s own life: His father, Minoo Masani, whom he wrote about in early 2012s’ And All is Said, was the leader of India’s Swatantra Party, which itself had a Whiggish agenda.

Masani does not say so explicitly, but his book left me with the impression that Macaulay was not merely a Whig, but also an ambassador of the Scottish enlightenment’s philosophers: Adam Smith, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham. The Whigs had got their start with England’s Glorious Revolution and its opposition to absolute monarchy. Macaulay added to this liberal foundation the values of the Scottish enlightenment: free trade, universal human rights, and an emphasis on rationalism.

Macaulay—Pioneer of India’s Modernisation: Random House, 448 pages, Rs450.
Macaulay—Pioneer of India’s Modernisation: Random House, 448 pages, Rs450.

This attempt to impose Scottish values on a foreign country may seem at odds with the Whiggish belief in gradualism, but it is worth remembering that Western education was initially meant only for the existing landowning and middle class, to seep down slowly and gradually over decades—as “Macaulay’s Minute" itself makes clear. As for its contribution to creating a class of deracinated Indians, Masani does not address this issue directly, but brings out a countervailing example: The belief of Dalit intellectuals (most visibly Chandra Bhan Prasad) that Macaulay’s promotion of English language education and denigration of traditional education helped Dalits to break free of caste structures.

It’s notable that the complaints about “Macaulayputras" are usually loudest when they come from Brahmins fighting a culture war. Western education may have marginalized a set of traditions, but it is hard to shake the suspicion that complaining about this marginalization is a luxury reserved for only those who can benefit from these traditions.

The biography’s weaknesses, then, lie in three areas. First, Masani’s sympathy for Macaulay’s liberalizing spirit gets out of hand, so that in certain chapters he claims things about Macaulay that later chapters will contradict. Macaulay is held up as superior to his racist English peers because his Whig values prevent him from patronizing anybody, including Indians. A few chapters later, Masani blithely talks about Macaulay patronizing the voters of Edinburgh.

Second, Masani seems a little too preoccupied with drawing parallels between the events and ideas of Macaulay’s time and the present day. For a popular history it makes sense to explain how a historical event is similar to a current event; alas, Masani often forgets the important part of clarifying the ways in which it isn’t.

And finally, Masani shies away from exploring the unintended negative consequences of Macaulay’s ideas and works. Whiggish universalism may have sired liberal interventionism and the Responsibility to Protect, but it then also bears a part in giving birth to neoconservatism and the Middle Eastern crises. Similarly, the IPC’s provision against spreading religious hatred may have been intended by Macaulay to prevent English missionaries from inciting riots, but has since been used by “Hindutvawadis" to harass M.F. Husain, and Indian Catholics to harass rationalist Sanal Edamaruku.

For lay readers whose exposure to history ended with school textbooks and their monolithic view of the British government, the insight that British policy towards its Indian empire was influenced by British party politics may come as a surprise. The subject matter of this book is fascinating, but its reverent tone would have benefited from a healthy shot of scepticism. A reader who brings that along will find this biography thoroughly worth reading.

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