Andre Beteille : Macaulay, Marx and Madrasas

There is nothing new in the proposal to create an educational system and a cultural environment that will be given an authentically Indian character by being purged of foreign elements and other impurities. What is new is the determination of the party in power and in the government in New Delhi to promote such a project. Xenophobia existed in the past, but it was not officially encouraged. Today there are cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and highly placed educationists who are prepared to give it their open support.

The advocates of an educational system attuned to India’s cultural heritage have picked upon Macaulay, Marx and madrasas as the targets of their attack. The selection of targets show a facility of alliteration more than any capacity for deep or serious thoughts. Neither Macaulay nor Marx would have shown much sympathy for the revival of madrsas or for that mater Vedic schools or institute of astrology. However, in a secular democracy which values the plurality of traditions, it would be wrong to ban either madrasas of Vedic school, although neither should be favored with state patronage.

The idea of Macaulay and Marx have contributed to the formation of the educational system and the intellectual climate of India. Each of them stood for modernity in his own time and advocated modernization in his own way, although this is not to say that all their ideas are relevant or useful today. The current attack on Macaulay and Marx is an attack on modern ideals, although those who engage in it are not always aware of the roots of implications of their resentment of the modern world.

Both Macaulay and Marx had powerful minds which produced many seminal ideas. But they belonged to the nineteenth century and neither of them was fully free from the prejudices common to Europeans of their age. Their views would today be considered Eurocentric by the standards of fair-minded intellectuals even in West, not to speak of India.

Nothing would be more thoughtless that to accept their views on India — or any other subject — in toto or uncritically. But a wholesale and uncritical rejection of they stood for or sought to promote would be a step in the wrong direction.

Marx’s ideas became very influential after his death and Marxism acquired a life of its own in the twentieth century. It took different forms in different parts of the world and it also changed over time, becoming very rigid in some places at certain times and quite flexible in other places at other times. Marxism influenced all intellectual disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences, and it came to be called the Latin of twentieth century. Even those who were resolutely opposed to it could not help escape its influence so long as they kept their mind open and active.

From the very beginning Marxism has had a liberal as well as a dogmatic tendency, and the interplay of these two tendencies may be seen in Marx’s own life and work. Apologists for Marxism have argued that its dogmatic tendencies were aberration, but that has carried little conviction with those who have been victims of Marxists sectarianism and partisanship. Marxism dogmatism has not always been confined to matter of mind, and it has not always been inoffensive. Marxists have used state power to protect ideological purity, and official patronage to promote intellectual mediocrity. But they have not been in power everywhere or always, and not all of them have sought power or patronage. In any case, it will be safe to say that one need not be a Marxist in order to draw from the storehouse of Marxian ideas.

The political fortunes of Marxism have varied between countries and fluctuated over time. In India, as in most parts of the world, it is now in a phase of decline rather than ascendancy. but that does not mean it can be written off intellectually. Indeed, intellectually Marxism has generally fared better when Marxists were out of power. And in India at least, they are better equipped intellectually than their adversaries in the present political and academic establishment at the center.

Today while there are many, including some very able intellectuals, who will stand up for Marx, there are few, if any, who will stand up for Macaulay. This is remarkable because the modern Indian intelligentsia as a whole has been shaped by an education and legal system in whose creation Macaulay had played some part. If it be said that he had made uninformed and ill-judged statements about Indian intellectual tradition, it can hardly be maintained that Marx had painted a very flattering picture of Indian society and culture. Left intellectuals are unwilling to give Macaulay the benefit of doubt that they are only too eager to give to Marx. Yet we may well ask what kind of left intellectuals we would have today without the reforms introduced by Macaulay and others into India in nineteenth century.

When it comes to assessing the part played by colonial rule in the reordering of Indian society and culture, there appears to be little to choose between left and right intellectuals. Giving colonial rule its due share of praise in the making of modern Indian is not politically correct for the one any more than it is for the other. Here left intellectuals are similar to their counterparts on the right and different from Marx. For all the vitriol that he poured on individual members of British ruling class, Marx had the discernment to recognize that that class was the historical agent of a change for the better in Indian society, and also that no major change comes without a price tag.

The making of modern India which began under colonial rule was not a painless process. Indians who participated in it from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century had to swallow many bitter pills. But on the whole they acted with dignity and restraint. They did not strike unnecessary postures and they owned responsibility for the many evils that had accumulated in their society. Above all, they were willing to learn from their colonial masters even when the later might appear odious and reprehensible as persons. It is this that makes the best among the nationalist leaders stand out superior, intellectually and morally, to the custodians of imperial rule.

More the fifty years ago after independence, out attitudes towards the changes introduced under colonial rule have altered. Marxists, subalternists, feminists, nationalists and revivalists vie with each other to bring out the horrors of colonial rule. All the social evils with which we are still grappling, including the excess of caste and patriarchy, are traced back to that period in our history. In this kind of intellectual climate Macaulay becomes the soft target in comparison with Marx, or even madrasas. Whatever we might think of Macaulay, we should never forget that in the nineteenth century he opened a window for us on to the modern world, and if we shut that window now, it will be at our cost and not his.

  • Andre Beteille
    The Telegraph, April 6, 2002

About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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