In 1885, when the Indian National Congress met for its inaugural session in Mumbai, the scene was striking for more reasons than one. Not only was this the first pan-Indian gathering of upwardly mobile men of political convictions, the picture their combined presence painted was captivating even in a visual sense. As the Bombay Gazette noted (throwing political correctness to the wind), there were delegates from the south “the blackness of whose complexion seemed to be made blacker by spotless white turbans". By their side stood “bearded, bulky and large-limbed" Pathans, along with “Banyas from Gujarat" and “Sindhees from Kurrachee". Then there were Bengalis dressed like Englishmen, just as there were others with feet uninhibited by shoes. Turbans competed for attention, the Maharashtrian pagdi against the Parsi’s ancestral headdress. In all, “these men assembled in the same hall", concluded the Gazette, “presented such a variety of costumes and complexions, that a similar scene can scarcely be witnessed anywhere". Except, perhaps, “at a fancy (dress) ball".
The half-condescending gaze of the Gazette might be forgiven, for in 1885 these men did seem less like representatives of one nation and more like exhibits from bewilderingly different cultures. There was, however, one invigorating sentiment that united them all, closely wedded to which was a common skill set. The sentiment, of course, was the prototype of Indian nationalism, and the circular announcing the Congress consciously described it as a “Conference of the Indian National Union". The skill set, however, was not something that sat comfortably with national pride, for it was entirely of foreign make, soaked in Western cultural influences. As that circular also announced, “The Conference will be composed of Delegates…from all parts of (India)", but these attendees needed to be “well acquainted with the English language". In other words, to create a new mood of Indianness, what was sought was not only a shared patriotism, but also one of the most potent instruments of imperial rule: the colonizer’s grammar book.
Only the historically blind would deny the role English inadvertently played in the story of India. It is true that nationalism in this phase was about securing a greater share of the pie of official employment and lobbying for influence in the corridors of power—nobody had designs to unseat the British in 1885. Nor, as The Bengalee put it a little later, was this about the masses. “Who," it snorted, “has ever asked that the peasantry should participate in the government…? Not even the most dreamy of our politicians have ever sought…this outrage upon common sense." But despite its narrow objectives, what emerged from our anglicized elite’s grievances kick-started something vastly bigger. They gave speeches, published op-eds, and submitted memorandums, and soon this heterogeneous top layer of colonial society was welded close together, their resentments and aspirations voiced in a single language. The arrival of Mahatma Gandhi opened doors and transformed nationalism into a mass affair, but without an English prologue, no subsequent chapter would have made much sense—not to linguistically diverse Indians, nor to the British against whom they now openly railed.
It was in the language of the king-emperor that the Gujarati Mahatma mentored an Allahabadi called Jawaharlal Nehru, quarrelled with a Bengali named Subhas Chandra Bose, and won the allegiance of a Tamilian called Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Indeed, it was in English, to a great extent, that Gandhi communicated his own message, through letters and publications. It was in this alien tongue that he debated India’s economy with the Telugu technocrat Sir M. Visvesvaraya, and it was also this language that enabled him to negotiate social concessions with a maharani in Thiruvananthapuram. A firebrand like Bal Gangadhar Tilak earlier recognized this value of English—though his nationalism was inflected with Hindu pride, when he set up an institution in Pune in 1880, it was the New English School and not a Vedic gurukul. Indeed, even V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar published in English, without which large sections of their target audience would have been oblivious to their very existence.
Lord Macaulay, a notorious advocate of Western education in India, had hoped in 1835 to manufacture a class of English-speaking clerks to help sustain the Raj. What he had not quite anticipated, however, was that these agents would turn around and demand (in English) rights that Macaulay’s peers had little intention of bestowing. They included, to be clear, those who had concerns above government jobs and power—it was English schooling that first enabled Jyotirao Phule to smash the shackles of caste with such breathtaking effect. It was in English that he read Thomas Paine, whose work inspired his own writings like Gulamgiri, which he dedicated to the people of the US. In an earlier period, it was through English, among other Western languages, that the Maratha raja Serfoji imported modern science to Thanjavur—this he vernacularized for his subjects, but English served as a vehicle for new knowledge, through which he hoped to fashion an Indian modernity.
The irony that a foreign language helped “make" modern India was not lost on our leaders. “So far as English is concerned," declared Nehru, “I am all in favour of (its) study…being continued…. But it seems to me rather humiliating for us to adopt a foreign language as the official all-Indian language." The conundrum Nehru faced has not yet been resolved, and replacing a language uniformly alien to everybody (English) with a language that privileges some parts over others (Hindi) has little appeal. But whatever the future may hold, one thing must be acknowledged—English helped mould India as we know it. And mould us it did, not in the servile image Maucaulay or his heirs had envisioned, but in quite a different style, with flaws, strengths and endless other contradictions, cemented, however, by a boisterous, singular sense of resilience.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018). He tweets at @UnamPillai