Fake news? Just part of our complicated modern lives.
And fake history too, for the computer age has not made us safe from historical deceit. In some ways we may actually be more vulnerable to it, because HTML code runs round the world much faster than the printed page ever could, and it convinces more easily than verbal rumour, because neatly arranged words on a screen easily take on the kind of authority customarily accorded to books, and thus carry more weight than the whispers that they really are.
Exactly this authority has been granted to a bogus quotation, supposedly culled from a speech by Thomas Macaulay in the House of Commons, which has now become a fixture of popular Indian history, accepted at face value by non-experts, and even on occasion used by very senior Indian politicians, including President A. P. J. Kalam.
For those of you who think this might be an academic issue, or some rarefied debate from another era, the quote has a current life in serious politics.
It appears, in full, on the BJP’s website, here.
And Imran Khan has quoted the same fictional speech as part of his protest campaign against the Nawaz Sharif government.
Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), was intimately involved with the policies of the British regime in India as it moved from ad hoc conquest to permanent dominion. He made his influence felt at a crucial point in the creation of the British Raj, as it was developing from a regime of pure subjection with no other ends but self-perpetuation, to a regime that betrayed some awareness of the responsibilities that ‘good’ government (in liberal terms) should take on. The job be went out to do, in 1834, was to draft a new unified ‘rational’ penal code for India. This new code was to replace the criminal law that came into force under Lord Cornwallis’ reforms of the early 1790s. This in its turn had replaced the Shari’a law enforced by the Mughals. Macaulay’s task was accomplished in two years, from 1836-8, and after much discussion, and some revision, was finally introduced in 1861.
He also, by the by, drafted a famous Minute on Education for Governor-General Lord William Bentinck in 1835, as the latter was reviewing how to spend the education fund set aside by the Charter Act of 1813, and deciding whether to forge ahead with a new style of education in English, or to stay with the more conservative, existing policy of providing (higher) education in Sanskrit, Persian and other oriental languages. Macaulay was decidedly in favour of adopting the new approach, and set out his arguments with typical eloquence. He felt that modern science could never come to India if Indians were not acquainted with English, and he felt that an education in English ‘humanities’ would accelerate the development of the country intellectually, as well as providing a steady local supply of amenable government servants.
It is principally on this second count that so many nationalist Indians have come to loathe Macaulay, and their general desire to discredit the man has led to the widespread dissemination of a damaging, highly illiberal quotation, allegedly from a speech made by him in Parliament. This quotation is a demonstrable fake, but a generation of internet cut-and-pasters, raised on facile conspiracy theories. have turned it into ‘truth’ by sheer multiplication. It is familiar to an Indian audience but it is almost entirely unknown in Britain. Here it is in full:
“I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and 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, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”
This text has no place as a trump card in any argument. It is clearly bogus, and can be shown to be such under any of three headings: its alleged date (usually given as February 2 1835), its political content, and its language.
- Macaulay was not in Britain in February 1835. He spent the years 1834-38 in India, as Law Member on the Governor General’s Council.
- Indian education was not a matter for discussion in Parliament, but for the Governor General’s Council in Calcutta. It was to this body that Macaulay delivered his famous Education Minute, which actually was dated 2nd February 1835.
- The views expressed in the quote do not correspond with Macaulay’s stated opinions about India and Indian culture. Like most of his contemporaries Macaulay believed India to be a land full of ignorant and dishonest people. The root causes of their degraded condition were despotic rulers and heathen religion. He wanted English language education specifically to ennoble and enlighten Indians, not to break, crush or destroy them. He also believed, from personal observation, that India was a poor country, and said so in a Minute proposing reform of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in Calcutta.
- The alleged quote also contradicts Macaulay’s stated position about India in general. He emphasised, in 1833, in a (real) speech in Parliament how chaotic India was before the British came. That too was a standard attitude. If he had seen any orderliness in India, then he would not have considered it a natural condition of the natives, but a result of the arrival of British rule.
So, we can see that the date 2nd February 1835 cannot possibly be correct, nor can the quote be credible given any date anyone might possibly dream up for it. Macaulay could not have spoken these words before 1834, because they contain references to what he says he has seen in India, which he had not then visited. So he could not have talked of travelling the length and breadth of the country at that time. Therefore the quote could only be delivered after his return. But he could not possibly have said them upon his return either, because by then his policy had been adopted, so he wouldn’t need to ‘propose’ anything. Thus, from purely internal evidence, the quote cannot be a report of anything ever said by Macaulay, in the House of Commons or anywhere else, before or after visiting India. He could not have come back from India and yet still be proposing reforms in London.
Furthermore, the language is terse and crude and does not read in the least like Macaulay’s style. His speeches were balanced in their construction and felicitous in their vocabulary, following the classical models used by contemporary Englishmen. In the quote, the expression ‘self-culture’ is an anachronism, borrowed from later writings on self-improvement, and “I do not think we would ever conquer” does not make sense. In grammatical terms, at least half of it must be in the wrong tense. Nor could Macaulay have applied such language even with congruent tenses, because there was nothing future or conditional about the reality of the British conquest of most of India in 1835. By then the only major part of the Indian nation that had not already had its backbone broken was the Sikh part. Macaulay must have forgotten that to have sounded so gloomy.
So at the very least the quote is adulterated, if not misattributed, or at worst, completely made up. It does not exist in the sources and it is riddled with damning internal inconsistencies. If these words were spoken by someone else, in some other place, then we need to be told by whom and where. They have nothing whatsoever to do with Macaulay, nor do they accurately represent British education policy of 1835.
The best investigation of the original source appears, to his credit, on the website of Hindutva sympathiser, Koenraad Elst, who has traced its provenance to an on-line magazine-periodical named The Awakening Ray, Vol. 4 No. 5, (2000). Whereas the original quote opens there with a disclaimer that reads: ‘His words were to this effect…’ this subtle warning of impending paraphrase, précis or invention has been persistently overlooked by the enthusiasts who have copied the paragraphs that follow.
This chain of (mis-)attribution has now even found its way onto the Wikipedia page for Macaulay. The quote lives stubbornly on. Enquiries (by me) to The Gnostic Centre, publishers of The Awakening Ray, asking what their original source was, remain unanswered.
But this piece of mischievous myth-making is not the only attack on Macaulay, who has suffered repeatedly from assaults on his integrity.
Despite the fact that Macaulay was rather frowned upon in British politics for his intellectual independence, and was even attacked for his lack of Christian principles, he has regularly been turned into a front-rank missionary by some Indian writers, who are either incapable or unwilling to make accurate distinctions within British culture. To depict Macaulay as a militant Christian is incorrect. His brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan was a committed Christian, but Macaulay was not. His father certainly was, and the best evidence his detractors can produce for Macaulay’s alleged Christian enthusiasm is one sentence from one letter he wrote to his father, from India, expressing the hope that idolatry in India would fade away within thirty years. But the means he expected to accomplish this was the arrival of Western science and English literature, not deliberate attempts at conversion. Those who select this one passage and extrapolate a fanatical missionary zeal in Macaulay have clearly never taken the trouble to read his Education Minute, which is widely available on-line.
It contains this sentence: ‘We abstain, and I trust shall always abstain, from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting the natives to Christianity.’ This, in plain authoritative black and white, was Macaulay’s opinion.
Macaulay’s intention was to educate Indians into liberalism, but not necessarily Christianity. What he was doing he supposed was useful, in the broad tradition of Benthamite Utilitarianism, though in another twist, Macaulay was not himself a Benthamite, and once had a public spat with Bentham’s greatest disciple, James Mill. There is no mention of Christianisation in the Minute of 1835. Macaulay personally thought archaic Hinduism to be absurd and irrational, and took it at face value, like most of his contemporaries. He was a rationalist and he took exception to the mythical elements in Hindu history. He was not impressed by the subtleties of Upanishadic philosophy, and remained happy to throw it out en bloc.
He was working for the British government of India and his aims were to improve that government, and to secure it by the creation and recruitment of suitable clerks. He did not, as is sometimes suggested, wish to abolish education in Indian languages. What he wanted to do was to conduct higher education in India in English, in order to give the best Indian minds access to modern science and liberal political philosophy, about which nothing was written in the ancient ‘classical’ languages of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic. He actually wanted the more highly educated Indians to translate suitable texts into vernacular languages, in order that the wider population could become more conversant with general western concepts. He wanted to pacify, educate and advance Indian society, not to retard or destroy it, or to dominate it at a micro-managerial level. He was a sincere liberal, and he expected that Indians would sort out their own affairs, take on responsibilities, advance intellectually, and then eventually, of their own accord, abandon the archaic and oppressive superstitions that he, and most of his contemporaries, thought were perpetuating Indian poverty and backwardness.
Macaulay was in favour of a civilising, modernising, uplifting mission, not an explicitly evangelising one. As we have seen, he did not approve of missionary work. He was certainly prepared to dismiss and denigrate Indian culture, literature and philosophy, and was quite bigoted on the subject. He had nothing but contempt for ancient, oriental wisdom, which he considered to be obscurantist poppycock.
But he could not bear the thought that young, potentially loyal Indians, who might benefit from a western style education in English, could be left to rot with their old, discredited, priestly scriptures. He was not bothered about salvation. He was concerned with the administration of the Empire. There was no hidden agenda. He wrote it all in the Minute himself. If he was anything, Macaulay was expansively articulate, and perfectly straightforward within the liberal English tradition. He was culturally arrogant, and a great partisan of causes, but he did not wish India and Indians any ill; his speech on the Charter Bill in 1833 contains a long explication of the idea that, in terms of India, the British would be better off trading with wealthy equals than ruling a nation of impoverished slaves. He wanted Indians to improve and flourish, and to his way of thinking, that involved making them into brown Englishmen.
If that thought is still offensive, and to many it will be, then so be it. But it is actually what he wanted to do. Condemn or forgive him as necessary, but it is not possible to understand him, or Indian history, by distorting his views, or inventing views he never had.
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