Book Review

Parimala V. Rao. Beyond Macaulay: Education in India, 1780-1860. ,
Reviewed by Kashish Gupta, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Symbiosis International (Deemed University)

Over the years, various arguments with reference to the colonial education policy in India have been made and discussed in academic and intellectual circles. Various historians and scholars have argued that the colonial educational policy established in India under Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was inclined towards fulfilling the interests of the colonisers.  They believe that Indians were introduced to a British system of education in order to aid the colonisers in running their government in India. They were of the opinion that the colonisers wanted literate Indians to partake in furthering the agenda of expansion and control in the country by assisting the British with documentation and on-ground work. Parimala Rao attempts to provide a novel analysis and an alternative perspective on the history of colonial education in India.  She aims to contribute to the historiographical methodology that has thus far been utilised to understand the trajectory of educational policies and their consequent implementation. Rao limits her research and study to the period between 1780 and 1860 when the East India Company (EIC) dominated the social, political and religious sphere in the country. She has covered a gamut of political and social debates, policies and reports right from the establishment of a Madrasa in the Bengal Presidency in 1780 up till the transfer of power from the EIC to the British Crown in 1860. The book focuses on restructuring the analysis of Macaulay’s stance on Indian education during that period, which according to the author has been misrepresented by various scholars who have studied the history of education in India.  Macaulay is often credited with the introduction of English and Western culture into the Indian education system and is known to have encouraged the use of the English language as the medium of instruction in educational institutions in India.

Her book, as stated earlier, offers an alternative perspective to the discourse around Macaulay’s minutes. It provides an understanding of the ideological disposition behind the educational policies of that period and its association with the larger social debates. The author has drawn upon colonial archives, private archives, selected writings, contemporary publications as well as secondary literature to build her stance. According to her, Macaulay’s role has been misstated by various historians and scholars who have studied and continue to study the history of education in India during this period (1780-1860). She has made an effort to deconstruct certain positions taken by academicians with regard to the educational atmosphere and policies in early nineteenth-century India. The main argument of the author revolves around bifurcating the stance taken by the Orientalists and Anglicists with regards to education in India and rejecting the notion that English education in India was a forced colonial and post-colonial imposition. The Orientalists believed that the main focus should be the reading of classic Indian texts and scriptures in the Persian and Hindi language, whereas the Anglicist school of thought was of the opinion that education in India should be conducted in the English language with Western education at the centre of their study. 

Parimala  provides statistics and reports of indigenous schools in Bengal, Madras, the Bombay Presidency and that of North India and argues that the study of the English language and Western learning was not imposed by the EIC administration. She states that it was a majority of the Indian population that expressed their desire to be imparted Western and English education primarily to fuel their intellectual desire and curiosity and not to attain jobs within the EIC administration.  In order to fulfil this demand, a few Anglicists, that is, some Liberal British officers (and certain Scottish officials) who were part of the EIC administration helped establish Western learning in the country. She also dismantles the notion that the EIC administration put an end to classic Indian learning in the country. Rather she argues that the Orientalist section of the administration played a pivotal role in trying to consolidate the traditional method of learning as a part of formal schooling in the country. She also highlights the Orientalist resolve to Brahmanise education in India with special reference to the Bombay Presidency (Chapter 5). Brahmanisation of education implies the incorporation of caste hierarchy and favouritism towards upper-class Hindus (and also some Muslims) with regards to the educational policies implemented at the time. This is with reference to restricting education and the control of educational instruction to upper-class students and teachers respectively. 

Throughout the book, Rao sheds light on the interconnectedness between the history of education with the caste, religious and gender debates and policies of the time.  Furthering her inquiry, she analyses the interwoven network of decisions taken by the Anglicists, Orientalists and the Scottish officials and the manner in which it shaped the reality of that period. She is of the opinion that the Scottish officials supported the Anglicist cause since they had been raised in an egalitarian society (Chapter 3). Further, she also elucidates upon the impact of the Enlightenment and the growth of radical ideas on the ideology of the Anglicists, the Scottish officials, the Liberal British officers and the majority of the Indians who demanded Western learning and the incorporation of the English language (Chapters 4, 5 and 6). 

The author speculates the reason behind the Orientalist stance and believes that the Orientalists wanted to ensure that the Indians remained intellectually backward.  They believed that Indians were only well-suited to the classic Indian learning because they were intellectually inferior to the British. She specifically mentions Mountstuart Elphinstone (the Governor of Bombay in the 1850s) in this regard who played a pivotal role in the racialisation of the educational policies in India during that period. She systematically provides information regarding the funding and underfunding of the various traditional and modern educational institutions in India and the different positions that were taken by the Anglicists and Orientalists (of the company) on financial matters and the company’s expenditure on education (Chapters 4, 5, and 6) (Rao, 2019). 

Chapters 7 and 8 of the book discuss the correlation between the education imparted to Indians with Macaulay’s ideological position towards education in India. She describes his efforts towards modernising education in India not just by promoting Western learning and the use of the English language but also by promoting the study of the vernaculars. Furthermore, she argues that it was Macaulay’s desire to appoint Indians in various capacities within the EIC administration to ensure ease of dialogue between various communities around the country and the spread of education in both urban and rural settlements. Towards the end of the book, the author critically analyses the last ten years of the EIC administration in India (1850-1860) and Wood’s Despatch of 1854. 

Parimala V. Rao concludes the book by reasserting her argument that most of the EIC administrators and the members of the Court of Directors (24 directors in London who controlled the functioning of the EIC around the world) from 1780 to 1860 did not intend to modernise Indian education in the first place. They had no desire to chart India’s way towards Western learning and the use of English language as a method of instruction. Instead, they intended to formalise classical Indian learning as part of formal schooling so as to ensure stagnation of the intellectual development of men (whom they also considered incapable of intellectual learning and dialogue) so that they do not learn the methods and ways to revolt against the actions of the Company. In summary, Rao points out the role of the social and political reformers of India along with a few Anglicists in trying to establish modern education and learning in India, the racialisation of the Indian education system and policies by a section of the EIC administration, and the methodology and historiography that should be used to study the history of education in India. She thereby provides an altogether different way of analysing and critiquing the debates and positions taken with respect to education by the various Company bodies and communities in India from 1780 to 1860. 

Through this book, Parimala V. Rao has contributed significantly to the understanding of the history of education in India during the initial years of the colonial period. The author’s methodology and use of empirical data to substantiate her argument makes the book a rather simple and comprehensible read. The book focuses extensively on colonial archives and on the empirical data of about 16,000 indigenous schools, which helps the reader form a well-rounded understanding of the reality of the time (1780-1860) and the various debates that sprung up among the Orientalists, Anglicists, the EIC administrators and the Court of Directors. In order to understand the genealogy of educational policies in India, it becomes rather important to gain an elaborate insight into the policies that were formulated during the British rule. To this end, Rao’s work is a comprehensive and rich source of information that provides a detailed analysis of the colonial archives and Macaulay’s Minutes on Indian Education of 1835. 


Rao, P. V. (2019). Beyond Macaulay: Education in India, 1780-1860. Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group.