Macaulay: Pioneer of India’s Modernization by Zareer Masani (Random House India, 269 pages)
Of the many Britons who either served the Raj or had a deep India connection, three names stand out for their creative contributions: Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling. In their lifetime, all three were celebrated and honoured throughout the world. Macaulay’s reputation as a historian was second only to Edward Gibbon; Curzon, who became Viceroy of India at the age of 40, missed becoming Prime Minister of Britain by a whisker; and Kipling was an early recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It is a commentary on the fickleness of political fashion that all three, apart from being largely forgotten at home, have been disavowed by post-Independence India, despite the endurance of their legacies. All three are reviled for being unflinching upholders of an imperial system that was crafted on domination of the few and the subordination of the many. But while Kipling is mocked for invoking the “White man’s burden” and Curzon despised for his ‘superior’ arrogance, visceral hatred has been reserved for Macaulay and his forthright note on Indian education in 1835.
In the realms of nationalist folk wisdom, Macaulay, the Law Member of Lord Bentinck and Lord Auckland, is personally held responsible for the cultural emasculation of India by making English the language of power and esteem. In the India-Bharat polarisation invoked by imagined communities of the authentic, Macaulay is seen to be the presiding deity of a deracinated India.
In view of the demonology over Macaulay, Zareer Masani’s lucid and uncluttered biography of Macaulay—the first since Arthur Bryant’s study in 1932—must fall into the category of revisionist history on two counts.
First, Masani does not proceed on the assumption that the imperial system was a blot on the history of mankind and that its functionaries were little better than precursors of Hitler’s SS. He treats Macaulay as a noble example of a gifted, if somewhat precocious, English Whig who, like many of his contemporaries, saw British rule in India as a mission. Masani has tried to evaluate Macaulay in the context of the value system of the early and mid-19th century, and not through the prism of the early-21st century’s political correctness.
Secondly, Masani has resisted the macabre temptation of hunting for an economic rationale to every policy initiative of the British Empire. Instead, he has stressed the autonomy of ideas in shaping Macaulay’s major contributions to the Raj.
Macaulay’s disavowal of traditional Sanskrit and Persian education, for example, was based on two counts: curriculum content—“Does it matter in what grammar a man talks nonsense?”—and the belief that the best of western civilisation could be imbibed through the English which, helpfully, happened to be the language of the ruler. It is extremely interesting that Macaulay was enthused by the hope that progressive (by which he meant European) ideas would soon percolate into the vernacular languages and thereby enrich India culturally.
His draft of the Indian Penal Code, enacted in 1860 and still on the statute books, was, on the other hand, driven solely by the need to cut through the tangled web of conflicting laws and traditions. It was also, in the context of the times, an extremely progressive measure which served administrator, merchant and citizen equally. Despite Macaulay’s fierce abhorrence of Hinduism, the IPC was explicit in its disapproval of missionary propaganda that offended indigenous faiths.
For long, Macaulay has existed in the Indian imagination as a symbol of everything India was expected to repudiate. In portraying Macaulay the man, the intellectual stalwart of his times, his passions and his deep prejudices, Masani has done a great service to a generation that has been force fed a flawed history. This slim biography may actually help edging history a little away from the world of slogans and polemics.
Maybe it will help in Indians celebrating Curzon and Kipling as well.