Education in India before the English arrived
Gandhian and freedom fighter Pandit Sunderlal’s four-volume ‘bharat Mein Angrezi raj’ was banned in 1929. After independence, the government republished it, and this year a new edition has come out in two volumes. An excerpt throws light on schooling befo
At the end of the 18th century and for sometime afterwards, the percentage of literates in the population of India was higher than that in the population of any European country.
There were four kinds of institutions which imparted education to the people; namely,
(i) Lacs of Brahmin families who took
in resident students,
(ii) Tols or Vidya-peeths for imparting education in Sanskrit existed in all the principal towns,
(iii) Hundreds of thousands of Hindoos and Mussalmans were educated in Urdu and Persian in the Maktabs and Madrassas which covered the whole country, and (iv) The village schools or Pathshalas, of which even the smallest village had at least one, to impart education to all the children of the village. The maintenance of the village Pathshala was considered by the village Panchayat to be its bounden duty, which it never failed to discharge. The advent of the East India Company’s rule over India ended the ancient institution of the village Panchayat, which inevitably led to the extinction of the village Pathshala too.
Keir Herdie, the well-known Member of the British Parliament, has stated in his book India:
“Max Mueller, on the strength of official documents and a missionary report concerning education in Bengal prior to the British occupation, asserts that there were then 80,000 native schools in Bengal, or one for every 400 of the population. Ludlow, in his History of British India, says that ‘in National Education Under British Rule 163 every Hindoo village which has retained its old form,’ I am assured that the children generally are able to read, write, and cipher, but where we have swept away the village system as in Bengal, there the village school has also disappeared.”
It will be noted that, according to Ludlow, what Max Mueller said about Bengal was equally true of the other regions of India too.
About the rural population, we quote from the “Report of the Select Committee on the affairs of the East India Company”:
“. . . the peasantry of few other countries would bear a comparison as to their state of education with those of many parts of India”. (Vol. I, p. 409, published 1832)
Indian system of education
The Western countries learned from India what is now termed “mutual tuition” in the Western educational systems. This is borne out by the following quotations:
(i) From the Letter from the Court of Directors to the Governorgeneral-in-council of Bengal, dated 3rd June, 1814:
“The mode of instruction that from time immemorial has been practised under these masters has received the highest tribute of praise by its adoption in this country, under the direction of the Reverend Dr. Bell, formerly chaplain in Madras; and it is now become the mode by which education is conducted in our national establishments, from a conviction of the facility it affords in the acquisition of language by simplifying the process of instruction.”
“This venerable and benevolent institution of the Hindoos is represented
to have withstood the shock of revolutions . . .”
(ii) From “The Report of A. D. Campbell, Collector of Bellary, dated 17th August 1823”, as quoted in the above-mentioned “Report of the Select Committee”, Vol. I:
“The economy with which children are taught to write in the native schools and the system by which the more advanced scholars are caused to teach the less advanced, and at the same time to confirm their own knowledge, is certainly admirable, and well deserves the imitation it has received in England . . .”
But even so it could not long survive the economic calamity which overtook the people and eventually there were “multitudes who could not even avail themselves of the advantages of the system” D. Campbell, ibid.).
Economic causes of the extinction of the Indian people’s educational system
The process of extinction in each Indian Province set in with the establishment of the Company’s rule over it. A. D. Campbell describes it as follows:
“I am sorry to state, this is ascribable to the gradual but general impoverishment of the country. The means of the manufacturing classes have been of late years greatly diminished by the introduction of our own English manufactures in lieu of the Indian cotton fabrics. The removal of many of our troops from our own territories to the distant frontiers of our newly-subsidized allies has also of late years affected the demand for grain; the transfer of the capital of the country from the native government and their officers, who liberally expended it in India, to Europeans, restricted by law from employing it even temporarily in India, and the daily draining it from the land, has likewise tended to this effect, which has not been alleviated by a less rigid enforcement of the revenue due to the State. The greater of the middling and lower classes of the people are now unable to defray the expenses incident upon the education of their offspring, while their necessities require the assistance of their children as soon as their tender limbs are capable of the smallest labour . . . Of nearly a million of souls in this district, not 7,000 are now at school, a proportion which exhibits but too strongly the result above stated. In many villages where formerly there were large schools, there are now none, and in many others where there were any schools, now only a few children of the most opulent are taught, others being unable from poverty to attend . . . Such is the state in this district of the various schools in which reading, writing and arithmetic are taught in various dialects of the country, as has been always usual in India . . . Learning . . . has never flourished in any country except under the encouragement of the ruling power, and the countenance and support once given to science in this part of India has long been withheld. Of the 533 institutions for education . . . in this district, I am ashamed to say, not one now derives any support from the State . . .”
“There is no doubt, that in former times, especially under the Hindoo Governments, very large grants, both in money and in land, were issued for the support of learning . . .”
“Considerable alienations of revenue, which formerly did honour to the State by upholding and encouraging learning, have deteriorated under our rule into the means of supporting ignorance; whilst science, deserted by the powerful aid she formerly received from Government, has often been reduced to beg her scanty and uncertain meal from the chance benevolence of charitable individuals; and it would be difficult to point out any period in the history of India when she stood more in need . . .” (ibid.).
Causes of extinction of ancient educational institutions
Four principal causes can be enumerated, namely:
(i) The ruin of the country’s industries and handicrafts added to the drain of its wealth by the Company, (ii) The disappearance of the ancient village Panchayats, with which lacs of village Pathshalas also became extinct,
(iii) The resumption by the Company of the Jagirs, lands, etc., which the old Hindu and Mussalman rulers had granted to educational institutions as financial help, and
(iv) The systematic opposition by the new English rulers to any effort to make the people knowledgeable. It appears necessary to deal more fully with the last-mentioned cause. The controversy about the benefit or the contrary, resulting from the education of Indians, lasted for about a century from 1757 onwards. In the beginning almost all the Englishmen ruling the country opposed their education. J. C. Marshman, in his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Lords appointed to enquire into the affairs of the East India Company, has stated (15th June, 1853):
“For a considerable time after the British Government had been established in India, there was great opposition to any system of instruction for the natives.”
Marshman also stated that when the Charter Act of 1792 was under discussion in the Parliament, a Member, Wilberforce, moved the addition of a new clause which purported to provide for the education of a small number of Indians but the other Members and the Company’s shareholders strongly opposed the addition and Wilberforce had to withdraw his motion.
“On that occasion, one of the Directors stated that we had just lost America from our folly, in having allowed the establishment of schools and colleges, and that it would not do for us to repeat the same act of folly in regard to India; . . . For twenty years after that period down to the year 1813, the same feeling of opposition to the education of the natives continued to prevail among the ruling authorities of this country.” (Marshman, ibid.)
From Chapter 10 of ‘British Rule in India’ by Pandit Sunderlal. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
British rule in india By Pandit Sunderlal 2018/ SAGE Select 584 pages, ₹395