In Praise of Lord Macaulay – 1

If there is one figure from Indian Sub-continental history who is uniformly hated by Hindu nationalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Muslim nationalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, that would be Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, famous British historian and politician of 19th century. Macaulay embodies in person all the insecurities the various Indian cultures and traditions harbors vis-à-vis the western civilization. Macaulay is seen as the one figure who deracinated India from its civilization of thousands of years and emasculated the Indian culture by making English language the determinant of power and privilege. So visceral is the hatred of Macaulay among Indians that still the synonym for ‘Brown Shahib’ is “Macaulay’s children”.

When the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan in October, 2012 gained worldwide infamy, the Taliban in Pakistan attempted to justify its act by penning a long letter detailing the motive. In the letter the Taliban directly accused Malala for being a follower of “Sir TB Macaulay”. (1)  Such is the ignominy of the Macaulay expletive till this date.

So what did Macaulay do to earn such lasting infamy? Macaulay came to India in 1834 and served on the Supreme Council of India until 1838. He is widely credited (vilified) for launching English-medium education for native Indians through a famous Minute on Indian Education of February 1835. Actually Macaulay just provided justification for a policy developed years earlier by Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general.  Macaulay also was instrumental in developing the legal system of British Raj called the Indian Penal Code, progenitor of the legal system of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. To add to the list of dirty deeds, A committee headed by Macaulay gave India its first modern civil service in 1854 called Imperial Civil Service.

English education, Penal Code, Civil Service, they don’t sound supreme acts of evil! Actually they were far reaching steps. With English as the official language of all affairs of state, Persian, Arabic and Sankskrit overnight became useless for career advancement in the British Raj. The situation remains the same till this date nearly two hundred years later. Also by adopting Indian Penal Code, the British discarded the thousands year old tradition of different Hindu laws and Muslim Shariah jurisprudence in one fell swoop. The consequences of that also reverberate till today. Nothing need to be added about Imperial Civil Service, the direct model of Indian Civil Service (ICS), Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS).   No wonder that Macaulay’s detractors feel that he single-handedly negated the Indian civilization!

The most famous quote that people in the subcontinent remember to remind themselves why Macaulay deserves a special place in hell is the following sentences from the Minute on Indian Education, 2 Feb. 1935.

“it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters
between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it 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.” (4)

These are sentences that created the famous army of ‘Brown Shahibs’ who formed class of their own to lord over the general masses and serve the imperial masters till today. Another quote from the same education minute is even more blood-boiling in its clear cultural supremacist message,

“I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education.”

I will discuss in detail about these famous quotes later on try to show that Macaulay’s intentions were not altogether imperial and his expressions much be judged in the context of his time.

In this two part essay, I will try to show different aspects of Macaulay’s opinion and actions towards India. In the first part, I will try to show that contrary to the popular perception, Macaulay had a very progressive and liberal attitude towards India when judged against the context of his time. In the second part, I will try to paint a more nuanced picture of his ideas and opinions. I will try to show that Macaulay was neither an imperial ogre nor an enlightened Übermensch.



In the last ten years, another famous ‘quote’ of Macaulay has been making rounds in the internet, magazines, speeches, etc. The quote is shown in the above picture. Readers may have come across this quote in Facebook links or chain e-mails. This quote purportedly shows how Macaulay sought to break the backbone of Indians and destroy their self-esteem by replacing their traditional education system with English.

The first and the only thing readers need to know about this quote is that this is FALSE, a blatant fabrication. Indeed, the forgery is so crude and stupid that it’s surprising that the falsehood needs to be pointed out.

Anyone with good knowledge in English would notice that this quotation doesn’t look like a master of English prose from the 19th century. This looks like a crude fabrication by someone from late 20th century who isn’t very good at grammar or expression. Secondly the words that leap out of the quotation are, “ I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre,”.  Oh god! Not a single beggar in India! From time immemorial beggars have been an Indian institution. From Vedic times to Mahabharata age, from Mauryan Empire to the Mughal Imperium, was there ever a time when there were no beggars in India? And no thieves either!

For a supposed supreme racist who is such disdainful of Indian people and culture, Macaulay seemed to be very admiring of high moral values of Indians and its people of such caliber! This quotation is clearly a hoax. If you Google ‘Macaulay Quotation Hoax’ we will find many webpages chronicling this fabrication. There are many other clear evidences of this being a made up quote. Macaulay was not even in Britain in February 1835. He spent the years 1834-38 in India.

So who made this hoax quote? A few people tried to investigate the source of this quote. Some of them traced it to an on-line magazine named The Awakening Ray, Vol. 4 No. 5, (2000).(2)  There the original quote  had a disclaimer that said: ‘His words were to this effect…’ which meant that the next words are an interpretation or invention rather than direct quote.  But this disclaimer was overlooked by enthusiasts who have copied and embellished if further. Since then, the false quote has been a staple in chain e-mails, Facebook shares and many articles.

The Awakening Ray is published by The Gnostic Center ( a Hindu spiritual organization. Hindu nationalists and Indian patriots have been the most enthusiastic circulator of this quote. It has been found in BJP chief L.K Advani’s website, Bollywood Star Amitabh Bachchan’s personal blog, Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam’s speech etc. In recent years, it is, of course being circulated by Hindu and Muslim and Secular nationalists with equal zeal. No doubt it is being shared or hosted somewhere in the world right now.

So why are nationalists in India so eager to fabricate and broadcast such a crude hoax? As I mentioned before, nationalists believe that Macaulay singlehandedly repudiated the Indian civilization by imposing English-based modern education, uniform penal code and a civil service. The superiority of these institutions over the systems they replaced has been evidenced by their indispensability in the independent, modern era. The nationalists cannot admit this, they myth of superiority of traditional India is integral to their ideology. To recover the self-esteem that is essential for any nationalist ideal, they need to show that Macaulay was especially malevolent in seeking to destroy something great and good by his nefarious reforms. What better way than to put that idea directly in his mouth?

From here on, we will discuss things that Macaulay actually said and done rather than made-up quotes. But before discussing Macaulay, we need to understand a concept in History study called Presentism. Presentism is a way of studying history where current day ideas, values, morals and perspectives are anachronistically projected into interpreting or analyzing past historical era. Put simply, its judging the past from the lens of present.  Presentism is a common fallacy in study of history, literature, religion etc. The opposite approach to Presentism is historicism; historicism seeks to understand history within its own context.

px5d10 (1)Presentism is a fallacy because, like it or not, our values, ideals and worldviews are constantly evolving with social change. Our values are not the same of our grandfathers, let alone somebody from 200 years ago. Values and ideals must be placed in their context to analyze and compare. We cannot comprehend today how a 25 year old Rabindranath Tagore could marry a 11 year old girl-child. But this was the norm 100 years ago even among the most refined strata of Bengali society. When we discuss Macaulay, we must keep in mind the times he inhabited. Ironically, we shall see later that Macaulay was accused of presentism for his own scholarly works on history.

 What was Macaulay trying to do in India? What was his mission? I think we get the best look at his mindset in a lengthy speech that he delivered in the British Parliament on July 10th, 1833; just before he came to India (3). This is a very long speech where he detailed his view on British Policy towards India. The most interesting quotable parts are in the concluding section. Let me illustrate some of these quotes,

The mere extent of empire is not necessarily an advantage. To many governments it has been cumbersome; to some it has been fatal. It will be allowed by every statesman of our time that the prosperity of a community is made up of the prosperity of those who compose the community, and that it is the most childish ambition to covet dominion which adds to no man’s comfort or security. ………….It is scarcely possible to calculate the benefits which we might derive from the diffusion of European civilisation among the vast population of the East. It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.”

And the concluding lines say,

Are we to keep the people of India ignorant in order that we may keep them submissive? Or do we think that we can give them knowledge without awakening ambition?  . …….. It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own. The sceptre may pass away from us.”

It is clear from these words that Macaulay thought British Empire in India as a civilizing mission that will uplift the Indian masses and bring them up to European level in life and thoughts. That he was a cultural chauvinist, cannot be doubted an iota. But what is remarkable in these lines that time after time he expresses a scenario where the Indian people may become independent of Britain. He clearly foresees the days when the empire is not needed. This is an extraordinary view to be help in the heydays of European colonialism in 1830s. Even at the late 19th century or early 20th century, most people in Europe thought it was laughable that their worldwide empire over less-civilized people will ever end. Not only he held these kinds of views but he expressed them in the Parliament, the heart of the empire. Macaulay was not just a cultural missionary, be was also a liberal democrat who wanted democracy to expand. From democracy, independence is just few elections away.

Macaulay’s ringing endorsement for eventual political freedom of Indian people proved to be a very consequential statement. In the late 19th century, when educated Indians were trying to form political associations for participating in democratic politics, Macaulay’s were very inspiring to the new Indian elite. Dadabhai Naorji, the Persi who founded the Indian National Congress party, wrote about this speech of Macaulay in his famous book, ‘Poverty and UnBritish Rule in India’, (5)

“   …I would only say, that had these pledges and policy been faithfully followed, now, after forty years, great blessing would have been the result both to England and India. Once more I appeal to the British to revive the memory of those noble sentiments, follow the “ plain path of duty that is before you.” That unfortunate plea—unfortunate both for England and India—of political danger was fully considered and deliberately cast aside by the statesmen who enacted “that wise, that benevolent, that noble clause,” as unworthy of the British nation, and they as deliberately adopted the policy of plain duty and true glory. In such language and with such noble declaration was this clause proclaimed to the world.”

Macaulay was a great visionary liberal who also harbored cultural supremacist views very typical of his times. In the next part, we will discuss  Macaulay with a more nuanced view to evaluate his accomplishments and failings.






3 thoughts on “In Praise of Lord Macaulay – 1

  1. Laughable apologism for a run of the mill Imperial thug. Funny how Imperialists have to be judged by the “Standards of their time” and with plenty of “nuance”, something not afforded to plenty of “native” personalities past and present. Nothing new or novel about what you are doing; This has been the time honoured practice used to sanitize every Eurosupremacist bigot from slave raping Thomas Jefferson to laughing-at-famine Winston Churchill. Why the need to pen a hagiographic paean to the likes of him, is something I don’t get, unless it’s probably just to take an indirect shot at the damn “Muslim fundamentalists” who don’t appreciate how he liberated the ungrateful, backward masses with his gift of advanced, European, liberal, secular education. Silly “fundamentalists”, don’t they know “West rules, Dumb Muzzies drool”? When will they ever get over their backwardness and embrace the advanced Western culture like our “esteemed” intellectuals?

    1. While I do not agree with Shafiq’s analysis of Macaulay, or that “presentism is a fallacy,” I also don’t agree with you that the author’s indirect focus is “Muslim fundamentalists.” You’ll note that he focused on the Hindu revivalist response to Macaulay.

  2. we entirely agree and though i hold no brief for macaulay
    the standard of english in india is still lamentable

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s