The utter generosity of the poor humbles us. They give rice to every mendicant even when their rice is getting over. That is what needs to be understood - their greatnes and their richness. That is what they are defined by. That they are impoverished is what defines us.
We are the cause of that poverty - and the onus is on us to share deeply and completely. (email@example.com)
TEN TALES OF FREEDOM – 3: The little settlement in Odisha that earned the name ‘Freedom Village’ The last living fighters in Panimara at their daily prayers
There were battles on other fronts, too, that Panimara's freedom
fighters had to wage. Some of these were right at home.
Inspired by Gandhiji's call against untouchability, they acted.
"One day, we marched into our Jagannath temple in this village with
400 Dalits," says Chamaru. The Brahmins did not like it. But some of them
supported us. Maybe they felt compelled to. Such was the mood of the times. The
(village chief) was managing trustee of the temple. He was outraged and
left the village in protest. Yet, his own son joined us, supporting us and
denouncing his father's action.
"The campaign against British goods was serious. We wore only khadi. We wove it ourselves. Ideology was a
part of it. We actually were very poor, so it was good for us."
All the freedom fighters stuck to this practice for decades afterwards.
Until their fingers could no longer spin or weave. "At 90, last
year," says Chamaru, “I thought it was time to stop."
all started with a Congress-inspired "training" camp held in
Sambalpur in the 1930s. "This training was called `sewa' [service]
but instead we were taught about life in jail. About cleaning toilets there,
about the miserable food. We all knew what the training was really for. Nine of
us went from the village to this camp.
"We were seen off by the entire village, with garlands and sindhur and
fruit. There was that kind of sense of ferment and significance."
There was also, in the background, the magic of the Mahatma. "His
letter calling people to satyagraha
electrified us. Here we were, being told that us poor, illiterate people, could
act in defiance, to change our world. But we were also pledged to non-violence,
to a code of conduct." A code most of the freedom fighters of Panimara
lived by for the rest of their lives.
They had never seen Gandhiji then. But like millions of others, were
moved by his call. "We were inspired here by Congress leaders like
Manmohan Choudhary and Dayanand Satpathy." Panimara's fighters made their
first trip to jail even before August 1942. “We had taken a vow. Any kind of
cooperation with the war [World War II] in money or in person, was a betrayal.
A sin. War had to be protested by all non-violent means. Everybody in this
village supported this.
"We went to jail in Cuttack for six weeks. The British were not
keeping people imprisoned for long. Mainly because there were thousands
cramming into their jails. There were just too many people willing to be
The anti-untouchability campaign threw up the first internal pressures.
But these were overcome. "Even today," says Dayanidhi, "we don't
use Brahmins for most of our rituals. That `temple entry' upset some of them.
Though, of course, most felt compelled to join us in the Quit India
Caste exerted other pressures, too. "Each time we came out of
jail," says Madan Bhoi, "relatives in nearby villages wanted us to be
`purified'. This was because we had been in prison with untouchables." (This
"purification" of caste prisoners goes on in rural Orissa, even
"When I returned from jail once," says Bhoi, "it was the
11th day ceremony for my maternal grandmother. She had died while I was inside
jail. My uncle asked me, `Madan, have you been purified?' I said no, we purify
others by our actions as satyagrahis.
I was then seated separately from the rest of the family. I was isolated and
"My marriage had been fixed before I went to jail. When I came out,
it was cancelled. The girl's father did not want a jailbird for a son-in-law.
Finally, though, I found a bride from Sarandapalli, a village where the
Congress had great influence."
Chamaru, Jitendra and Purnachandra had no problems of purity at all during
their prison stay in August 1942.
"They sent us to a prison for criminals. We made the most of
it," says Jitendra. "In those days, the British were trying to
recruit soldiers to die in their war against Germany. So they held out promises
to those who were serving long sentences as criminals. Those who signed up for
the war would be given Rs. 100. Each of their families would get Rs. 500. And
they would be free after the war.
"We campaigned with the criminal prisoners. Is it worth dying for
Rs. 500 for these people and their wars? You will surely be amongst the first
to die, we told them. You are not important for them. Why should you be their
"After a while, they began to listen to us. [They used to call us
Gandhi, or simply, Congress]. Many of
them dropped out of the scheme. They rebelled and refused to go. The warden was
most unhappy. `Why have you dissuaded them?' he asked. `They were ready to go till
now’. We told him that, in retrospect, we were happy to have been placed
amongst the criminals. We were able to make them see the truth of what was
"The next day we were transferred to a jail for political
prisoners. Our sentence was changed to six months of simple imprisonment.”
What was the injustice of the British Raj that provoked them to confront
so mighty an empire?
"Ask me what was the justice in the British Raj," says Chamaru
with gentle derision. That was not a smart question to have put to him.
"Everything about it was injustice.
"We were the slaves of the British. They destroyed our economy. Our
people had no rights. Our agriculture was ruined. People were reduced to
terrible poverty. Between July and September 1942 only five or seven of the 400
families here had enough to eat. The rest braved hunger and humiliation.
"The present rulers too, are pretty shameless. They loot the poor as
well. Mind you, I won't equate anything to the British Raj, though. But our
present lot are also awful.”
Panimara’s freedom fighters still go to the Jagannath temple every
morning. Where they beat the nissan (drum) as
they have since 1942. At an early hour, it can be heard for a couple of
kilometres around, they say.
But on Fridays, the freedom fighters try to gather at 5.17 p.m. Because
"it was Friday that the Mahatma was murdered." At 5.17 p.m. It's a
tradition this village has kept alive for 54 years.
It's a Friday today, and we accompany them to the temple. Four of the
seven living freedom fighters are present. Chamaru, Dayanidhi, Madan and
Jitendra. Three others, Chaitanya, Chandrashekar Sahu and Chandrashekar Parida,
are out of the village just now.
The foyer of the temple is packed with people, who sing a bhajan favoured by Gandhi. "In
1948," says Chamaru, "many in this village shaved their heads when
the news of the Mahatma's murder came. They felt they had lost their father.
And to this day, many fast on Fridays."
Jitendra Pradhan, 81, and others singing one of Gandhi's favourite bhajans
May be some of the children are here in the little temple out of
curiosity. But this is a village with a sense of its history. With a sense of
its own heroism. One that feels a duty to keep the flame of freedom alive.
Panimara is a village of small cultivators. "There were around 100
Kulta (cultivator caste) families. About
80 Oriya (also cultivators). Close to 50 Saura Adivasi households, 10 goldsmith
caste families. Some Goud (Yadav) families and so on," says Dayanidhi.
That, broadly, remains the village’s . Most of the freedom fighters were
members of the cultivator castes. "True, we have not had too many
inter-caste marriages. But relations between the groups have always been fine
since the days of the freedom struggle. The temple is still open to all. The
rights of all are respected."
There are a few who feel some of their rights have not been recognised.
Dibitya Bhoi is one of them. "I was very young and I was badly thrashed by
the British," he says. Bhoi was then 13. But since he was not sent to
prison, his name did not make it to the official list of freedom fighters. Some
others were also badly beaten up by the British but ignored in the official
record because they did not go to prison.
That colours the names on the stambh
or pillar to commemorate the freedom fighters. Only the names of those who
went to jail in 1942 are there. But no one disputes their right to be there.
Just sadly, the way the official recording of "freedom fighters"
went, it left out others who also deserved recognition.
Showing a visitor the full list of Panimara's fighters
August 2002, 60 years later, and Panimara's freedom fighters are at it
This time Madan Bhoi – the poorest of the seven, owning just over half
an acre of land – and his friends are sitting on a dharna.
This is just outside the Sohela telephone office. "Imagine," says
Bhoi, "after all these decades, this village of ours does not have a
So on that demand, “we sat on a dharna.
The SDO [sub-divisional officer] said he had never heard of our village,"
he laughs. "This is blasphemy if you live in Bargarh. This time, funnily,
the police intervened."
The police, who knew these men as living legends, marvelled at the SDO's
ignorance. And were quite worried about the condition of the 80-year-olds.
"In fact, after hours of the dharna,
the police, a doctor, medical staff and others intervened. Then the telephone
people promised us an instrument by September 15. Let us see."
Once again, Panimara's fighters were struggling for others. Not for
themselves. What did they ever get out of their struggles for themselves?
by Gandhi’s genius, Toofan Rafai journeyed from poverty to worldwide
acclaim as a painter and master of vegetable dyes. To mark a year of his
passing, we bring you a rare, unpublished interview of the guru marked
by his infectious cheer
Credit: Carmen Artigas
Some days ago, while excavating my cassette collection as an artifact
of an age that seems long gone, I found one tape that had been eluding
me for the past eight years. It contained my interview of an
extraordinary man in Ahmedabad whose name – Toofan Rafai – had
captivated me the first time it was mentioned 22 years ago by the arts
editor of The Economic Times, Sadanand Menon. Born in 1921 in
Amreli (Gujarat) in a fakir’s family, Toofan went on to become an
acclaimed artist and internationally renowned master of vegetable dyes
and printing techniques that he was called upon to popularise through
workshops in India and abroad. The 300 shades that he created, many out
of waste like onion or pomegranate peel, were, in his own telling, the
reflection of a great man’s influence on his life: Gandhi.
Toofan Rafai. Credit: Pinki Godiawala
A memorable childhood meeting with ‘Bapu’ and the discovery,
post-retirement, of a book Gandhi wrote on natural dyes, were
significant turning points in Toofan bhai’s life. He said he had lived
by the mantra Gandhi gave him: do not drive a vehicle, dress plainly,
and wash your own clothes. It was his life’s mission to share his
knowledge with as many institutions, people and students as possible.
Toofan bhai passed away in September last year. He was touching 92.
When I heard the news of his death, I remembered our meeting – how his
eyes had smiled when he told me about the dirty topi (cap) on
his head which drew ‘Bapu’s’ ire, the young nurse who helped him when he
was injured at work, the ‘robots’ (commandoes) of Raisa Gorbachev who
attended one of his vegetable dye workshops during the Festival of India
in Moscow, and the Americans who were stunned by his lecture on feeding
virgin cows mango leaves to get a deep yellow urine for dyeing. I also
remembered the cassette that I had misplaced and felt miserable. (More
so when I learnt that the reason why Toofan bhai had spent the last
years of his life in the Muslim locality of Juhapura was because some
Hindus in his old city neighbourhood, in the aftermath of the 2002
riots, disapproved of him giving drawing lessons to local girls and
being a non-vegetarian.)
This year again, on October 2, my thoughts veered to Toofan bhai and
his creativity that had been sparked by Gandhi’s genius in spinning
threads for a new canvas – creativity anchored in a convergence of
aesthetics, politics and solidarity that stands in stark contrast to the
intolerance being witnessed in the country today. That I should find
the recording of Toofan bhai’s interview around the time of Gandhi
Jayanti seemed fitting, for his life did reflect the luminous hues that
Gandhi had hoped to see in the Indians who would be born in freedom.
Excerpts from the interview: Q: In depth and breadth of experience you have had a most unusual life.
A: That is true. I come from a family of fakirs. No one in our
family, in seven generations, had been associated with any work or
labour. We lived on alms. My earliest memories are of asking for
provisions like aata from Hindu families in the morning, from Muslim families in the afternoon, and for rotis in the evening.
Then at Bapu’s bidding a school for farmers – khedut shala–
was set up in Amreli. I started going there. Studies also included
helping farmers in the cotton fields, making the thread for baati (cotton
wick), and dramas. I was a very good monitor and student. I remember
the time when Bapu came to give away prizes. I was about nine years old
and very excited that I would receive my prize from him.
Bapu came. A gaddi and takiya was ready for him. As
my name was called out I started walking towards him. He was holding a
big box. I looked at it and thought, that’s my prize. After bowing to
him as I stretched out my hands for the prize, Bapu drew back. He said,
you will not get this award. I was stunned. The conversation went like
Bapu: What are you wearing?
Toofan: khadi half-shirt, chaddi (shorts).
Bapu: No, what are you wearing on your head?
Toofan: Gandhi topi.
Bapu: That’s not a Gandhi topi.
Toofan: What you are wearing is a Gandhi topi, and what I am wearing is also a Gandhi topi.
Bapu: Your cap is frayed. It’s dirty
around the edges, and there is dust and oil sticking on it. (It had not
been washed for two years.) Where do you stay?
Toofan: Near the graveyard.
Bapu said, run to your mother this instant and tell her that I am
angry that my topi has not been washed. So I raced to my mother and
said, Ma, what have you done? Because you did not wash my topi I can’t
get my prize. It is such a big dabba (box). My mother told me
not to argue with Bapu if he did not give me the prize “because he is a
great man”. Then she asked me to tell Bapu that while there was plenty
of river water, poverty prevented her from buying soap to wash the topi.
But she would use the local ‘khar’ to wash the topi regularly.
I ran all the way back and conveyed this to Bapu. He said theek hai (ok) and gave me the prize. I was tip-toeing back to my seat when he called me and said: ‘Mera jaan jalane ko yeh topi pahan ke kyon aaya’
(Why, by wearing this topi, are you trying to give me heartburn)? He
asked me why I couldn’t wear another clean topi. So I said, kisi ke paas do topi hota hai kya? (Whoever heard of anyone having two caps?). Stunned, he asked the school to issue us new sets.
Bapu wanted to give us a lesson in hygiene. Because he was standing,
everyone, including the collector, was standing respectfully. That was
fun to watch. Then Bapu asked me if I went for the prabhat pheris
(early morning rounds) with other children to spread the message that
people should not drink tea. He was aghast to know that I had tea for
breakfast even as I spread the message faithfully. We simply could not
afford to buy milk. On Gandhi’s insistence, some rich farmers of the
area agreed to give us milk daily for free. To this day I don’t drink
tea or coffee, nor do I touch paan, supari or beedi. What were your growing-up years like?
They were difficult. For instance, when I was about 15, a friend
called me for his wedding saying he would be sitting on a horse, but I
had togo for work in the evening. To support my parents, I sometimes
worked for a wedding band, carrying a gaslight. As I walked with the
gaslight that evening I realised that our band had been hired for my
friend’s wedding. What a way to attend a friend’s marriage! The next
day, seeing me doze in class, a student pointed me out to the teacher
who slapped me and dismissed me from class. I told my mother that I
would no longer beg for alms; I would work. I started doing odd jobs and
later was employed in a seth’s household for which my family was promised Rs 40 after a period of two years! Happy with my work the sethani secretly gave me food to eat. But the seth was zalim (merciless); he would wear me out.
Later, when the family shifted to Mumbai, they took me along and gave me work as head mistri
in their sawmill. That was the time when I met Husain (M.F. Husain) who
painted cinema posters for a living. We both stayed near the red light
area for that’s where the rooms were cheap.
On occasion when I travelled by local train I would see youngsters
laughing, joking or playing cards and I would feel sad that my life was
so hard. Once, seeing a boy cheating in a game of rummy I started
helping the girl who was losing, and she started winning. The boy was so
furious that he threw a banana peel on my face. I got off at the next
station, crying and cursing God for the disparities he had created in
society. I couldn’t concentrate on work that day and my hand came in the
machine. I lost two fingers and was rushed to JJ Hospital. When did things take a turn for the better?
In the hospital. I told the 19-year-old nurse who was looking after
me that even though I was living by Gandhi’s mantra, boys my age could
humiliate me so easily. It wasn’t fair. After telling me that in my
profession people lose arms, not just two fingers, she brought me Sarat
Chandra’s novels to read. When she got to know that painting was my
passion she got me colours, paper and brushes. I should have been
discharged after eight or ten days but she somehow kept me there for 40
days, giving me milk and fruits so that I could recuperate.
When I was discharged, she sent me to her brother, Prof. Fernandes at
the JJ School of Arts. To cut a long story short, I finally became a
student of fine arts and got my diploma in 1955 and also did a
post-graduate course in mural decoration. After classes I worked at the
Around that time the chief minister of undivided Maharashtra (Gujarat
included), Jivraj Mehta, who was from my native place got to know that I
was simultaneously studying and working. He offered to send me to
France for two years. I refused for I could not leave my family in the
lurch. Then the chief minister spoke to Pupul Jayakar who was largely
responsible for handicraft revival post-independence and asked her to
give me a government job in textile design so that I could get out of
the factory job. In 1960, I started working at the Weaver Service Centre
which was affiliated to the All India Handloom Board, doing research in
dyeing and printing using natural dyes. After retiring in 1979, I was
wondering what to do next when Bapu came to my aid once again. How?
One day as I was walking in Ahmedabad I passed a pavement shop
selling old books. Something made me stop. The book that had caught my
eye was Gandhi’s rare text on natural dyes, Vanaspatiyon nu rang, which
had originally been priced at six annas. I bought it there and then.
For me the book is like the Koran and the Gita. I don’t allow anyone to
make photostat copies of it also. Gandhi was far ahead of everybody in
this respect. He felt that khadi and chemical dyes were a mismatch. (In
fact he asked Prafulla Chandra Roy, who started Bengal Chemicals, to
compile information on natural dyes.)
Pages from Gandhi’s book on natural dyes and khadi. Credit: Carmen Artigas
I knew there and then that my mission was to develop a palette of
vegetable dyes from flower, leaf, bark, root, and ‘waste’ like
pomegranate seed and onion peel. I started developing shades and dyeing.
Then I got wooden blocks and printed a sari. I showed it to Pupul
Jayakar who gifted it to Indira Gandhi. Rukmini Arundale of Kalakshetra,
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Mrinalini Sarabhai all asked for such
saris printed in natural dyes. Ela behn (Ela Bhatt of SEWA) asked me to
teach her girls. No one had worked like this on developing natural dyes.
I developed 300 shades. In Bangladesh alone I found 80 shades. Because
of the lush plant life made possible by Ganga ji, I found shades there
that one cannot find in a sookha pradesh (arid place). Developing 300 shades of vegetable dyes must be some sort of feat.
There haven’t been more than seven or eight colours in natural dyes,
among them black, red, maroon, and yellow. Because of my training as a
painter I knew how to blend, reduce, deepen and mix ingredients. Soon I
was being called for workshops all over India; from the National
Institute of Design to Santniketan to Banaras Hindu University to the
Spastic Society of North India…you name it. I also started painting in
In 1987 Dashrath bhai [the renowned painter, photographer and
designer] asked me to accompany him and the Indian contingent to the
Festival of India at Moscow to conduct a workshop on vegetable dyes and
printing techniques. Is tarah sansar main naam phailne laga hamara (My name started spreading in the world).
Something very interesting happened in Moscow. My stall was always
crowded with people wanting to learn. One day – it was a Sunday – a
group of Russian commandoes with guns and bayonets, who looked as if
they ate a crane each for breakfast, burst into the stall and elbowed
everyone out. I stood there quaking. Then four escort vehicles with
flashing lights screeched to a halt at my stall. From the last car
emerged Raisa Gorbachev, the First lady of the then USSR! I want to
learn from you, she said. I told her to send the robots (commandoes)
home but she said that was not possible. Seeing that she was holding the
brush in the Chinese style I told her she did not know how to hold the
brush. One of the robots told me I could not speak to her in that
fashion. I told him she was my student and I could do so! Raisa was a
very intelligent woman. Because of her I got to see the Czar’s treasure.
I have never seen anything like it – what diamonds, dresses… In which countries did you see a great curiosity for vegetable dyes?
example of Rafai’s work in natural colours, painted on the back of a
greeting card and presented to the author. Credit: Chitra Padmanabhan
There was considerable enthusiasm in America, Japan and Germany. In
fact during the 1990s I was being called to the US almost every year for
workshops and lectures by various institutions, such as the Rhode
Island School of Design, College of Art, Philadelphia and many other
I still remember one lecture that I gave at Edison in the US in the
early 1990s. I don’t think they had ever heard this kind of a talk!I
told them that they needed to come to India to see the real laboratory
in which natural dyes are made — that is, nature. I gave them an
example: feed a virgin cow tender mango leaves in spring and the deep
yellow of its urine would be a sight to see. Boil it, dip the cloth and
you have it! That is my laboratory.
The colours that God has created in this world, our eyes have not
even glimpsed them. There was a time when natural colours were used all
over the world, and India led the way. It makes me sad to think that we
can’t see the wealth we can create from what nature discards or what we
discard. For instance, the amount of onion peel that is thrown away can
be used by dyers to create a rich tint. Pomegranate peel, too, can be
used to create a rich shade. Similarly, while the seed of the dholu
flower in the Himalayan foothills is used for medicinal purposes, the
flower itself, a very good colouring agent, is thrown away. Gandhi
understood the link between colour, nature and culture.
As countries like Japan and Germany, having seen the cycle of
chemical dyes, accelerate their efforts to build up a knowledge bank
pertaining to natural dyes, it is possible someone from India may be
influenced by them to start looking at the in-house wealth of knowledge.
India has a bright future if someone looks at this aspect seriously. It
is possible that I may not be alive to see this transformation. But I
am confident that it will happen.
THE COUNTRY’S SEVENTIETH INDEPENDENCE DAY is a fitting occasion to ask a simple question: which single individual in modern Indian history can be said to have had the greatest impact on our destiny? It is facile, and perhaps a sop to national vanity, to answer Mohandas Gandhi, for had Gandhi had such impact, then we would scarcely be in our current state. Gandhi did not decide the lingua franca of independent India’s public life. Nor did he conceive our education system, write the laws by which we live, or design the administrative services which run India. Gandhi wanted swaraj, or self-rule, not representative democracy, which, as he wrote in Hind Swaraj, he detested.
A more reasonable answer to the question would be Jawaharlal Nehru. He certainly had a big role in deciding independent India’s lingua franca, its education policy and its administrative and legal setup. And he surely stood for the system of representative democracy that continues into the present, categorically dismissing Gandhi’s idea of swaraj.
However, in all the above respects, Nehru was actually following in the footsteps of a longstanding modern British liberal tradition, whose imperial roots in the British Raj can be traced back to the 1830s. The man who actually had the profoundest impact on these critical matters was the early nineteenth-century Scottish legislator Thomas Babington Macaulay, who spent an eventful four years in India between 1834 and 1838.
Many Indians would argue that as large as his influence might have been in the past, now, in the twenty-first century, we are quite done with his legacy. We have moved on. This judgment is premature. We still know all too little about Macaulay, especially from an Indian perspective. Is there a good biography of the man? Yes, there are a few, but they are written by British writers, and are very dated. The last comprehensive biography, by Macaulay’s nephew GO Trevelyan, was published in 1876. In the 500-page book, there is one chapter on Macaulay’s years in India, which says little about the India that his actions and policies overlooked altogether.
Up until 2012, when Zareer Masani published his Macaulay, there was not a single biography of the man by an Indian—an astonishing fact given the vast galaxy of Indian historians and intellectuals. What this shows is that if the imperial gaze is returned at all, it does not look closely enough at the other as the other. This oversight leads to inevitable misunderstandings about not only the other, but about one’s own self.
Masani’s account of Macaulay, while not quite hagiographic, presents the man as a far-sighted pioneer whose unwavering commitment to administrative and legislative liberalism not only built and consolidated the British imperial reputation for “fair-play,” but was also pivotal, by enabling the spread of the English language, in uniting India. The advantage that the language afforded, Masani claims, has extended well into the global digital era, where it has given millions a “passport out of poverty.”
These claims are seriously exaggerated, especially given that we know that speedy automation and robotisation threaten jobs everywhere, and that a knowledge of English is hardly an insurance anywhere against the peril. Nor, as we also know, has ignorance of the English language inhibited places such as China, Taiwan and South Korea from taking advantage of the opportunities of the global age.
What remains unexplored is how Macaulay laid the foundations of what we might call the cognitive paradigm for modern India, which we follow to this day. He played a key role in the making of a future class of mediators and middlemen for the Empire. Along with imperial rulers before and after him, he was instrumental in creating many of the institutional frameworks and psychological conditions that, 70 years after the end of colonialism, still reproduce generation after generation of middlemen who serve empires. This is as true today, in the so-called global era of American domination, as it was during the nineteenth-century British Raj.
When the Raj was still a fresh memory, the imperial historian Philip Mason, in his 1953 book The Men who Ruled India, described Macaulay and his ilk as a “new caste of ‘English Guardians,’” added at the top of a structure occupied by the “four original castes of the Hindus.” These guardians were reared on the history of Greece and Rome, in a very regimented manner, to be the sort of rulers—austere, disinterested, authoritarian—that Plato had wanted in The Republic. This corps of carefully selected men was brought up on all the great “masculine” virtues, as a race apart and superior to those they ruled. They were discouraged from marriage and family life. So strict was their breeding that they were not allowed to trade or own property in India. It is this sort of preparation that made Mason claim that “no other people in history can equal their record of disinterested guardianship.”
Given the long shadow that he continues to cast on modern India, and especially on its educated elites, a detailed study of Macaulay’s cognitive world—of his Anglo-Saxon imperial imagination—would tell us no less about us than about him. What we need is a critical psychological portrait of the man who, more than anyone else, can be said to have designed modern India. Such a biography could tell us what is hidden to us about our own selves—so that we might one day step out of his lengthening shadow, now that we have celebrated seven decades of formal liberation from colonial rule.
WHO WAS MACAULAY and what is his significance to our history and destiny? The standard colonial histories tell us that he was a liberal historian and statesman who held a number of key positions in government in Britain between the 1820s and the 1850s. In 1834, he was appointed the very first Law Member on the Council of the Governor-General of India—then the highest administrative body in the country. A year earlier, the 1833 Government of India Act had effectively nationalised the East India Company, thereby creating, for the first time, a centralised government of British India accountable only to the British Crown.
On his voyage to India, Macaulay read not Indian but Greek classics—indeed, his knowledge of the country whose future he would legislate rested on that infamous “classic,” James Mill’s six-volume History of British India. Written by a man who had neither visited India nor learnt even one Indian language, Mill’s History was the standard Empire 101 primer that all India-bound imperial cadres had to read as preparation to rule.
Macaulay became one of the key architects of the British Raj. As per the Government of India Act of 1833, he was charged with the establishment of the rule of law in the country, which had been plundered at the hands of East India Company officials. From Robert Clive to Warren Hastings, and beyond, they had used their power to personally enrich themselves. The mere four years Macaulay stayed in India left behind a legacy which long outlasted not merely his death, in 1859, but also the end of the British Raj, in 1947. His three key achievements were the establishment of the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Civil Service and an English-based system of education.
First, Macaulay drafted his comprehensive penal code for the whole of British India. As president of the law commission in Calcutta, he was tasked with reforming and codifying Indian law after the legal chaos of the preceding decades.
Macaulay put into practice “two great principles, the principle of suppressing crime with the smallest possible amount of suffering, and the principle of ascertaining truth at the smallest possible cost of time and money.” He insisted that only a comprehensive new code, rather than partial reform, would create the necessary stability in law and order. Delayed by various objections and consequent amendments, the Indian Penal Code did not come into legal force till 1862. It remains largely in place as the cornerstone of the Indian judicial system more than a century and a half later.
“It is the genius of this man,” the historian KM Panikkar wrote in his 1954 book A Survey of Indian History, “narrow in his Europeanism, self-satisfied in his sense of English greatness, that gives life to modern India as we know it. He was India’s new Manu, the spirit of modern law incarnate.”
Second, Macaulay created a system which culminated in the Indian Civil Service after 1861, following the provision for it in the Government of India Act, 1853. After returning to Britain in 1854, he chaired a committee tasked with the creation of a new system of competitive examinations through which young officers would be recruited in Britain to administer the top imperial bureaucracy in India. Till then, such appointments were made through patronage. (After 1862, a limited number of Indians were also eligible to sit for the examinations. Rabindranath Tagore’s eldest brother, Satyendranath Tagore, was the first Indian to become an ICS officer.) The ICS became a model for Britain’s domestic civil service later on, a marked departure from its own past practices of patronage and nepotism. The much-coveted Indian Administrative Service, or the IAS, the backbone of independent India’s bureaucracy, is what the ICS was called after 1947.
But the transformation of education was Macaulay’s most decisive accomplishment. Through his famous ‘Minute on Education,’ produced in 1835, he settled the fate of the main language of instruction in the country. In it, Macaulay pushed aggressively and successfully for an education policy that would adopt English over Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, which were the languages used for instruction in the schools supported by the East India Company up until then.
Macaulay argued that English was “better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic.” He felt that Indians wished to be taught English. “Neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have Sanskrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement.” Finally, he felt that it was “possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars.”
Despite not knowing Sanskrit, Macaulay had the bombastic imperial solipsism to claim:
It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England.
In many places Macaulay resorted to hyperbolic rhetoric to mask his enormous ignorance of the languages he was rejecting. His racist views become apparent in infamous claims such as this:
I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues … 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.
As the iconoclastic historian Dharampal has astutely noted:
the Westerners themselves obtained knowledge of India and the East in their own languages; but India was to learn the knowledge of the West only through the language of the West. Surely, behind such a view, was a deep contempt for the Indian languages, the Indian intellect, and the Indian people.
Macaulay realised the limitations of resources at the disposal of the Raj, and so, keeping an eye on the imperial administrative needs of the future, he focused on generating a class of Indians who would enable the few—the British—to rule the many in the imperial interest. He wrote:
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.
It was this class of “good English scholars” (colloquially identified as “brown sahibs” or “babus”) who mediated between the few British rulers and the vast sea of Indian humanity for over the century of colonial rule which followed, a point that has been well-grasped by Indian scholars such as Amartya Sen, who writes of the phenomenon in The Argumentative Indian. We may not have to exert our imagination much further to find Macaulay’s children in independent India. The writer of this essay has certainly fit the description on many an occasion. For that matter, many readers of an article such as this would also qualify. Any Anglophone Indian who has ever felt like a foreigner in his own country is part of that cadre. We are indispensable today as well-paid and loyal mediators between the new ruler of the world—the American empire, with its ever-expanding multinational corporations—and the vast Indian citizenry.
IT IS CRUCIAL TO NOTE that during the period when India was transitioning from Company to Crown rule, much existed that ceased to exist soon thereafter. Macaulay was not writing imperial history on a blank slate. The existing biographies of him do not tell us about the state of education in India before his intervention. Even Macaulay’s critics seem to assume that there were no arrangements for education in India before he arrived. To understand the violence that Macaulay did, it is necessary to consider the forms of education that did exist in many parts of India at the time of his large-scale intervention. Building significantly upon Pandit Sundarlal’s voluminous Bharat mein Angrezi Raj(first published in 1929, then republished across 1,780 pages in 1939, and promptly banned by the British), Dharampal did pioneering work in documenting systematically “the reality of the India of this period: its society, its infrastructure, its manners and institutions, their strengths and weaknesses.” While his work stretches over half a dozen volumes, the one most relevant for the present discussion is The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, first published in 1983. Here we find gathered in one place facts relating to school education and higher learning before Macaulay’s ‘Minute,’ taken from surprisingly extensive surveys and reports by district collectors and other British administrators.
British administrators carried out surveys of the status of indigenous education in Bengal and Bihar during the 1830s. A report filed by William Adam, a former missionary, observed that there were an estimated 100,000 village schools across the 150,000 villages in this region—although recent research has shown that the number of these schools was closer to 16,000, still a significant number. These schools had varying languages of instruction, from Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic to English, Hindi, Bengali and Oriya. Adam also found at least 100 institutions of higher learning in each of the 18 districts of Bengal, in which over 10,000 scholars were enrolled. The subjects taught at these institutions ranged from grammar, logic, law and medicine to mythology, rhetoric, vedanta, mimansa and sankhya philosophy.
In western India, Thomas Munro, a champion of elitist education in the English language, had to admit, in his own ‘Minute on Education,’ produced in 1826, that the general standard of schooling in the Bombay region was “higher than most European countries at no very distant period.” He counted 12,498 schools providing education in Marathi and Gujarati. He advised against “any interference whatever in the native school.”
In 1820, GL Pendergast, a member of the council of Bombay Presidency, the highest administrative body of the region, noted:
I need hardly mention what every member of the Board knows as well as I do, that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more; many in every town, and in large cities in every division; where young natives are taught reading, writing and arithmetic, upon a system so economical, from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a rupee per month to the school master, according to the ability of the parents, and at the same time so simple and effectual, that there is hardly a cultivator or petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy, in my opinion, beyond what we meet with amongst the lower orders in our own country; whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease, conciseness, and clearness I rather think fully equal to those of any British merchants.
In 1823, the collector of Bellary in Madras Presidency, AD Campbell, reported:
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 deserved the imitation it has received in England.
In 1814, Munro, then the governor of Madras, observed that “every village had a school.” When a full formal survey of indigenous education in Madras Presidency was done between 1822 and 1823, it found 11,575 schools with 157,195 students, for a total population of 12.85 million. Dharampal notes that England, with a population of 9.5 million people, had only 75,000 enrolled in schools, half of whom attended school just for a few hours every Sunday. In Madras Presidency, the survey also found 1,094 colleges with 5,431 students. The high ratio of schools and colleges to students was in keeping with the prescriptions of the traditional Indian education systems they followed, embodied in such institutions as gurukuls, pathshalas, madrasas and agraharams. The other striking aspect of the evidence gathered was that “soodras” constituted, depending on the region, between 35 and 85 percent of all male students enrolled in schools. Instruction was given in languages that varied from Sanskrit, Persian, Hindavi and Grantham to Oriya, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. Among the subjects taught in higher learning were theology, law, metaphysics, ethics, astronomy and medicine. Dharampal’s collation of British documents lists dozens of texts which were being used in the schools and colleges.
Dharampal also quotes British records that give extensive statistical data on higher learning through private tutors in various regions of Madras Presidency. Additional subjects such as poetry, literature, music and dance appear in these reports. A very small number of girls were reported as enrolled in formal schooling, while many others were being educated at home by tutors.
The British annexed Punjab in the late 1840s. In 1882, a former principal of Government College in Lahore, GW Leitner, prepared an extensive official survey of indigenous education. It showed a drastic decline in enrolment in schools of varying denominations between 1849 and 1882: from 330,000 to 190,000 in a little over a generation. Leitner wrote of
how in spite of the best intentions, the most public-spirited officers, and a generous Government that had the benefit of the traditions of other provinces, the true education of the Panjab was crippled, checked, and is nearly destroyed; how opportunities for its healthy revival and development were either neglected or perverted; and how, far beyond the blame attaching to individuals, our system stands convicted of worse than official failure.
Based on the extensive evidence assembled by him, Dharampal inferred:
According to this hard data, in terms of the content, and the proportion of those attending institutional school education, the situation in India in 1800 is certainly not inferior to what obtained in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to). The content of studies was better than what was then studied in England. The duration of study was more prolonged. The method of school teaching was superior and it is this very method which is said to have greatly helped the introduction of popular education in England but which had prevailed in India for centuries.
Gandhi was not on weak ground when he claimed at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London in 1931, “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago … because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished.”
MACAULAY SUCCEEDED in his goal of generating a class of babus who would mediate between the rulers of the empire and their subjects. By the time he left India in 1838, some 40 English-medium schools had been established in Bengal. As the writer Nirad C Chaudhuri noted of his, and previous, generations of Bengali elites, “the whole class was hardened by more than a hundred years of successful self-seeking under British rule.”
The originality of Gandhi’s critique of colonialism was that he saw colonial rule as more than just a form of political domination or economic exploitation. His critique of British rule was fundamentally a critique of Macaulay’s legacy, of the British system of education that kept the Raj alive and of the cognitive control that the colonial powers exercised over the Indian elite. As he wrote in Hind Swaraj: “The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them.”
It is worth remembering that at no point over two centuries of the Raj did the British population in India ever much exceed 100,000 people, the majority of whom were army personnel. The British could rule such a vast subcontinent with so few of their own soldiers and civilians by projecting a hyper-masculine image, wherein the colony was always governed by a military mentality, as if it was a war camp, as the scholar Ganesh Devy has noted in his book After Amnesia. Youth and masculinity were the reigning symbols of colonial power. The eighteenth-century English statesman Edmund Burke had said, as Devy quotes: “there was one sight never seen in India, and that was the grey head of an Englishman.”
Colonial coercion was military theatre renewed cognitively on a daily basis in order to firmly establish imperial control of public consciousness. The rise of the anti-colonial consciousness that Gandhi inspired was a cognitive as much as a political awakening. However, the post-colonial period showed more continuity than change, as old habits of thought and practice remained entrenched.
At the purely formal level, 1947 did change a few things. Sovereign India had its own constitution, and its own elected leaders in government. But the past persisted with respect to the fundamentals—of language, law and administration—with which independent India began its journey. The IPC and IAS remain in place, as does the English-based system of education. Most importantly, the decolonisation of the ruling elite mind never happened. If one thinks only of the place of the English language, its role in education, administration, media, business and public life in general, one would have to acknowledge Macaulay as the man whose India, more than anyone else’s, we continue to live in. At the governmental level, neither Nehru, nor any of his successors, down to Narendra Modi, have found the courage to take up the key challenge of decolonising public consciousness along the lines that men such as Gandhi and Tagore had hoped for.
When, in the early 1960s, Nehru said to the then US ambassador in India, John Kenneth Galbraith, “I am the last Englishman to rule in India,” he was not merely joking. Even British observers such as the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge lamented the continuity between the colonial and post-colonial eras. Muggeridge wrote in hisChronicles of Wasted Time:
As I dimly realised, a people can be laid waste culturally as well as physically; not their lands but their inner life, as it were, sewn with salt. This is what happened to India. An alien culture, itself exhausted, become trivial and shallow, was imposed upon them; when we went, we left behind railways, schools and universities, statues of Queen Victoria and other of our worthies, industries, an administration, a legal system; all that and much more, but set in a spiritual wasteland. We had drained the country of its true life and creativity, making of it a place of echoes and mimicry.
Nehru, too, Muggeridge felt, “partook of the same hollowness. A man of echoes and mimicry; the last Viceroy rather than the first leader of a liberated India.”
After Independence, Indian elites were led by a spirit of optimism in reimagining the economic and political frameworks which they inherited. They were familiar with the ills of colonialism, and had gained confidence by having fought and defeated perhaps the greatest superpower of the day. Moreover, following the Second World War, a bipolar global geopolitical arena opened up space for imagining other futures. This resulted in experiments with Soviet-inspired economic planning by the Indian state, as well as in the emergence of the non-aligned movement, which sought a coalition of sovereign nation states unbeholden to the United States or the Soviet Union in international relations. But, by the 1970s, cracks began to emerge in both the mixed model of the economy and the non-aligned model of international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union finally put an end to these struggling experiments, by realigning Indian economic and political structures with the lone remaining imperial power, the United States.
The global age, seduced by the American dream, arrived in India too, and the country’s elites lost no time in embracing the “American way of life.” In the years that have followed, social and cultural changes of tectonic dimensions have unfolded with the outbreak of digital mass media. Recent governments have gone well out of their way to make military alignments with Washington. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Israel—the first by an Indian leader—India’s geopolitical loyalties have clearly done a somersault since the Soviet era. Under such conditions of a loss of effective military and economic sovereignty (in spite of the appearances), what view is one to take of India’s independence?
In retrospect, what is clear is that a great opportunity was lost in the immediate aftermath of Independence. Visionaries such as Gandhi and Tagore had argued for a creative renewal of the best there was in Indian traditions, instead of a blind embrace of the ways of the modern world. But their visions were not even debated seriously in the portals of power after the British departure. How is one to judge the years from 1947 to the 1980s? This period after formal independence now stands out as a time of experimentation in self-rule—which arguably reveals itself, in hindsight, to have been based on an illusory sovereignty. The illusion held up as long as the Soviet Union was alive and India could pillion-ride behind it, but with the end of the Cold War it was quietly shattered. India was simply unprepared to steer a properly sovereign, independent course—militarily, economically, politically or culturally—thereafter.
In sum, it is quite clear what the years after 1991 have meant for India. Its past from the days before 1947 has returned to tempt (some would say haunt) it. Our elites could easily adapt to the radically changed world after 1991 since the inner cognitive software for this adaptation was not only in place, but was always in active use underneath the surface of publicly purveyed illusions. Since the 1960s, Indians had been going to the United States to study and work. Our elites, already Westernised from the days of the Raj, were increasingly Americanised in the decades that followed 1947, even if the official positions of the state did not change till much later.
Discussions of “post-colonial” India may seem embarrassingly premature in light of the loss of effective sovereignty in multiple dimensions, and the vulnerable terms on which globalising India has been wilfully roped into the dynamics of a New York- and London-dominated system of global finance. The Indian state lacks its Chinese counterpart’s confidence in capital controls, allowing vast sums of capital to leave the country at will in moments of volatility. A certain kind of voluntary colonialism has come into being in India, which operates under a deceiving veneer of hyper-nationalism, especially under the present regime. The needs of all of rural India, implying over 850 million people dependent on agriculture and traditional livelihoods, are very low down on the cognitive priorities of the policy elites, whose faith in the globally integrated economy cannot tackle the question of how to include excluded aspirants in their vision of the future. It would be appropriate to describe what we have in India now as corporate nationalism defined by a heroic belief in India Inc.
ONE WAY TO PREDICT THE FUTURE is to control and create it. In the introduction to his biography, Masani writes that Macaulay was “the first Western thinker to predict that the future of global modernity, science and capitalism lay with an Anglo-Saxon model of development, based on the English language, liberal political/economic ideas and representative government.” In the book’s epilogue, Masani reflects on the contemporary era of “liberalisation” in India and finds retrospective foresight in Macaulay’s vision, since he “correctly predicted that the English language would be the key to success in a globalised knowledge economy.” He quotes the historian Ramachandra Guha: “The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay’s Minute.”
Masani’s claims are obviously unsubstantiated—after all, technological development in Japan or South Korea did not require Macaulay’s ‘Minute’ nor two centuries of colonial devastation. Scientific inquiry has not been inhibited in countries across Europe that do not use English. And the glaring instance of China’s enormous success, in fact, shows that capitalist modernity works smoothest without an “Anglo-Saxon model” of representative democracy. Such analyses reveal a larger poverty of the contemporary Indian elite imagination, which cannot envision an independent India outside the framework of colonial cognition even 70 years after the end of colonial rule. The newfound prosperity of our class, the educated Indian elite, has brought a kind of cognitive surrender.
Serving the new empire of global capital has meant a resumption of old colonial cognitive habits that many of us born in the earlier era of independent India had taken for dead. We find in the global era an immense cultural violence in the vast vulgarity of imitation. It takes the invasive form of a consumer pathology fed by the sales blitz of metropolitan mass media.
This violence has many facets to it. At one level, it leads to rejection of one’s own customs and traditions in an indiscriminate manner, without much reflection or discussion. Desires are stoked and pre-emptively decide questions that ought to be debated. The language of aspirations has been invented by marketing wizards over the last generation to foreclose any serious reckoning with what is imposed invisibly by a corporate state in the name of development.
Mass culture in the Western world has long been controlled, and continues to be produced, by giant corporations that wield enormous power. The West has been living in a supermarket for a very long time. Corporate rule in the Western world has meant a thorough devastation of human society, putting relationships from the most intimate to the most public in jeopardy. Presumably, this is the vision of consumer modernity that India’s rulers wish to see realised, a vision in which the global market is the sole arbiter of all values. India’s cultural heritage and traditions are part of the collateral damage of this aspiration—as they were in Macaulay’s time—and there are many who are happy to see it all go. What will remain afterward?
Corporate nationalism in the global era denies these psychological realities. There is the commercial aggression of globally agile digital and media corporations, ever keen to expand their markets around the world. But there is also a pliant state at the receiving end, which allows them unrestricted access. Alongside them, now we are offered fantasies of an ancient past, when Vedic science and technology supposedly flourished, to mitigate the internal shame and humiliation of a class of elites who have enriched themselves materially while remaining cognitively enslaved in the mental world set in motion by Macaulay. Devy, in After Amnesia, has argued that
in India, Westernization has brought with it a regressive tendency … of reviving a distant past and repressing the immediate past. This fantasization of the past … and the uneasy relationship with recent history … are consequences of the cultural amnesia into which Indian culture has regressed during the colonial period. The worst part of the colonial impact was that it snatched away India’s living cultural heritage and replaced it with a fantasy of the past. This amnesia, which has affected our awareness of native traditions which are still alive, is perhaps the central factor of the crisis.
Quite contrary to what Masani argues in his biography, vernacular languages have suffered under the onslaught of English. Devy led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, launched in 2010, which revealed that 250 languages have been lost in post-colonial India—causing a drop in the number of languages spoken in the country from 1,100 to approximately 850 since 1961. If India after globalisation is becoming the “graveyard of languages,” as Devy says, it has much to do with the longstanding legacy of choices against vernaculars dating back to the days of Macaulay, reinforced by state decisions taken in independent India along similar lines. In his latest book, The Crisis Within, Devy has expressed alarm at the cognitive condition of India in the post-liberalisation era. “The cumulative effect of the rise of English schools in India on Indian languages is going to be negative,” he writes. “That would lead us into difficulties while conceptualising our cultural history. When a large number of such children get into positions of authority, their collective amnesia about cultural history can pave an easy way for false historical narratives and a fascist political environment.”
Masani’s biography, as well as the writings of some Dalit intellectuals, celebrate Macaulay today as a great liberator in good measure precisely because of his introduction of English into Indian education. Should we not, however, seriously reflect on the consequences for the fate of our languages as a result of the national triumph of English? Even more seriously, as Devy points out, the cultural discontinuity and false narratives that emerge from this enormous phenomenon endanger our society in ways which are already becoming rudely manifest.
More than three-quarters of a century ago, when the situation was not nearly so dire, Tagore had warned that “the entire East” was “attempting to take into itself a history which is not the outcome of its own living.” He felt that if Asia was to play the role destiny had assigned to it, it could not afford to allow itself to become a vulgar simulacra of the Western world. He wrote about the continent:
If she thus loses her individuality and her specific power to exist, will it in the least help the rest of the world? Will not her terrible bankruptcy involve also the Western mind? If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an illimitable parody of the modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity.
If the only biography of Macaulay written by an Indian in the twenty-first century sees him as “a pioneer of India’s modernization,” then we must be on our way to this absurd end. Nirad C Chaudhuri was prophetic in 1948, only a year after Indian independence, when he wrote, “I expect either the United States singly or a combination of the United States and the British Commonwealth to re-establish and rejuvenate the foreign domination of India.”
In an era which has come to see itself as somehow free, empires need ever subtler masks to perpetuate their projects of domination, ever more insidiously, so that power continues to be misunderstood as freedom. But modern history teaches that freedom is not a gift that the conquerors of history bestow upon their subjects from innate graciousness. It has had to be fought for, with great sacrifices, and even when it has been effectively won, it has had a pronounced tendency to be subtly overtaken by the inertia of earlier imperial domination. In an age in which knowledge and information confer unprecedented power, this amounts to the colonisation of cognition. As we know, cognition precedes not only analysis, but discourse itself.
Nobody was more aware of this than Tagore. When he proposed his own university a hundred years ago, he dwelt a while on the legacy of Macaulay’s education system, explaining in the process what made him drop out of school in the sixth standard, when he was just 14 years old:
The Western education which we have chanced to know is impersonal. Its complexion is also white, but it is the whiteness of the white-washed classroom walls. It dwells in the cold-storage compartments of lessons and the ice-packed minds of the schoolmasters. … The effect which it had on my mind when, as a boy, I was compelled to go to school, I have described elsewhere. My feeling was very much the same as a tree might have, which was not allowed to live its full life, but was cut down to be made into packing-cases.
Tagore also observed, “Our educated community is not a cultured community, but a community of qualified candidates.” Recalling Macaulay’s legacy, he wrote, “The most pathetic feature of the tragedy is that the bird itself has learnt to use its chain for its ornament, simply because the chain jingles in fairly respectable English.” Tagore correctly identified the root of our cognitive ailment. “The main source of all forms of voluntary slavery,” he underscored, “is the desire of gain. It is difficult to fight against this when modern civilization is tainted with such a universal contamination of avarice.”
Tagore decried those who, in their impatience to become “modern,” refused to draw from our own history:
The unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of these disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure-trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people’s dustbins.
In Tagore’s vision, the way to our future lay through a wise, discriminating recovery of the past:
Our ancient tapovanas, or forest schools, which were our natural universities, were not shut off from the daily life of the people. Masters and students gathered fruit and fuel, and took their cattle out to graze, supporting themselves by the work of their own hands. Spiritual education was a part of the spiritual life itself, which comprehended all life. Our centre of culture should not only be the centre of the intellectual life of India, but the centre of her economic life also. It must co-operate with the villages round it, cultivate land, breed cattle, spin cloths, press oil from oil-seeds; it must produce all the necessaries, devising the best means, using the best materials, and calling science to its aid. Its very existence should depend upon the success of its industrial activities carried out on the co-operative principle, which will unite the teachers and students and villagers of the neighbourhood in a living and active bond of necessity. This will give us also a practical industrial training, whose motive force is not the greed of profit.
Tagore envisioned another kind of education premised on another kind of cognition. As was the case with Gandhi, Tagore communicated as much of a message through his life as through his words. He was a middle-school dropout. He personally bid good-bye to Macaulay’s system in 1875. But he did not just quit.
In finding the courage to start Santiniketan, Sriniketan and Visva-Bharati University, he attempted to renew the idea of the tapovana. Even in dark times, Tagore’s example is an inspiration that shows that other futures can be imagined and brought into being. Few today seem to have the strength to be so bold. The first step may be to realise all the ways in which we are still under the long shadow of Macaulay. A critical biography which draws a full picture of the now lengthening shadow as much as of the man himself, may lead us to eventually step out of it, and into the light towards true freedom.
Aseem Shrivastava is a Delhi-based writer and ecological economist. He is the author (with Ashish Kothari) of the book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India (Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2012). He has spoken and written extensively on ecological issues connected with development and globalisation.