One remarkable contradiction meets us at every turn in considering the record of British rule in India. The British became dominant in India, and the foremost power in the world, because they were the heralds of the new big-machine industrial civilization. They represented a new historic force which was going to change the world, and were thus, unknown to themselves, the forerunners and representatives of change and revolution; and yet they deliberately tried to prevent change, except in so far as this was necessary to consolidate their position and help them in exploiting the country and its people to their own advantage. Their outlook and objectives were reactionary, partly because of the background of the social class that came here, but chiefly because of a deliberate desire to check changes in a progressive direction, as these might strengthen the Indian people and thus ultimately weaken the British hold on India. The fear of the people runs through all their thought and policy, for’ they did not want to and could not merge with them, and were destined to remain an isolated foreign ruling group, surrounded by an entirely different and hostile humanity. Changes, and some in a progressive direction, did came, but they came in spite of British policy, although their impetus was the impact of the new west through the British.
Individual Englishmen, educationists, orientalists, journalists, missionaries, and others played an important part in bringing western culture to India, and in their attempts to do so often came into conflict with their own Government. That Government feared the effects of the spread of modern education and put many obstacles in its way, and yet it was due to the pioneering efforts of able and earnest Englishmen, who gathered enthusiastic groups of Indian students around them, that English thought and literature and political tradition were introduced to India. (When I say Englishmen I include, of course, people from the whole of Great Britain and Ireland, though I know this is improper and incorrect. But I dislike the word Britisher, and even that probably does not include the Irish. My apologies to the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh. In India they have all functioned alike and have been looked upon as one indistinguishable group.) Even the British Government, in spite of its dislike of education, was compelled by circumstances to arrange for the training and production of clerks for its growing establishment. It could not afford to bring out from England large numbers of people to serve in this subordinate capacity. So education grew slowly and, though it was a limited and perverted education, it opened the doors and windows of the mind to new ideas and dynamic thoughts.
The printing press and indeed all machinery were also considered dangerous and explosive for the Indian mind, not to be encouraged in any way lest they led to the spread of sedition and industrial growth. There is a story that the Nizam of Hyderabad once expressed a desire to see European machinery and thereupon the British Resident procured for him an air pump and a printing press. The Nizam’s momentary curiosity having been satisfied, these were stored away with other gifts and curiosities. But when the Government in Calcutta heard of this they expressed their displeasure to their Resident and rebuked him especially for introducing a printing press in an Indian state. The Resident offered to get it broken up secretly if the Government so desired.
But while private printing presses were not encouraged, Government could not carry on its work without printing, and official presses were therefore started in Calcutta and Madras and elsewhere.
The first private printing press was started by the Baptist missionaries in Serampore, and the first newspaper was started by an Englishman in Calcutta in 1780.
All these and other like changes crept in gradually, influencing the Indian mind and giving rise to the ‘modern’ consciousness. Only a small group was directly influenced by the thought of Europe, for India clung to her own philosophic background, considering it superior to that of the west. The real impact and influence of the west were on the practical side of life which was obviously superior to the eastern. The new techniques—the railway train, the printing press, other machinery, more efficient ways of warfare—could not be ignored, and these came up against old methods of thought almost unawares, by indirect approaches, creating a conflict in the mind of India. The most obvious and far-reaching change was the break-up of the agrarian system and the introduction of conceptions of private property and landlordism. Money economy had crept in and ‘land became a marketable commodity. What had once been held rigid by custom was dissolved by money.’
Bengal witnessed and experienced all these agrarian, technical, educational, and intellectual changes long before any other considerable part of India, for Bengal had a clear half-century of British rule before it spread over wider areas. During the second half of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, Bengal therefore played a dominant role in British Indian life. Not only was Bengal the centre and heart of the British administration, but it also produced the first groups of English-educated Indians who spread out to other parts of India under the shadow of the British power. A number of very remarkable men rose in Bengal in the nineteenth century, who gave the lead to the rest of India in cultural and political matters, and out of whose efforts the new nationalist movement ultimately took shape. Bengal not only had a much longer acquaintance with British rule but it experienced it in its earliest phases when it was both harsher and more exuberant, more fluid and less set in rigid frames. It had accepted that rule, adapted itself to it, long before northern and central India submitted. The great Revolt of 1857 had little effect on Bengal, although the first spark appeared accidentally at Barrackpore near Calcutta.
Previous to British rule Bengal had been an outlying province of the Mughal Empire, important but still rather cut off from the centre. During the early medieval period many debased forms of worship and of Tantric philosophy and practices had flourished among the Hindus there. Then came many Hindu reform movements affecting social customs and laws and even changing somewhat the well-recognized rules of inheritance elsewhere. Chaitanya, a great scholar who became a man of faith and emotion, established a form of Vaishnavism, based on faith, and influenced greatly the people of Bengal. The Bengalis developed a curious mixture of high intellectual attainments and equally strong emotionalism. This tradition of loving faith and service of humanity was represented in Bengal in the second half of the nineteenth century by another remarkable man of saintly character, Ramakrishna Paramahansa; in his name an order of service was established which has an unequalled record in humanitarian relief and social work. Full of the ideal of the patient loving service of the Franciscans of old, and quiet unostentatious, efficient, rather like the Quakers, the members of the Ramakrishna Mission carry on their hospitals and educational establishments and engage in relief work, whenever any calamity occurs, all over India and even outside.
Ramakrishna represented the old Indian tradition. Before him,in the eighteenth century, another towering personality had risen in Bengal, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who was a new type combining in himself the old learning and the new. Deeply versed in Indian thought and philosophy, a scholar in Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic, he was a product of the mixed Hindu-Muslim culture that was then dominant among the cultured classes of India. The coming of the British to India and their superiority in many ways led his curious and adventurous mind to find out what their cultural roots were. He learnt English but this was not enough; he learnt Greek, Latin, and Hebrew also to discover the sources of the religion and culture of the west. He was also attracted by science and the technical aspects of western civilization, though at that time these technical changes were not so obvious as they subsequently became. Being of a philosophical and scholarly bent, Ram Mohan Roy inevitably went to the older literatures. Describing him, Monier-Williams, the Orientalist, has said that he was ‘perhaps the first earnest-minded investigator of the science of Comparative Religion that the world has produced’; and yet, at the same time, he was anxious to modernize education and take it out of the grip of the old scholasticism. Even in those early days he was in favour of the scientific method, and he wrote to the Governor-General emphasizing the need for education in ‘mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, and other useful sciences.’
He was more than a scholar and an investigator; he was a reformer above all. Influenced in his early days by Islam and later, to some extent, by Christianity, he stuck nevertheless to the foundations of his own faith. But he tried to reform that faith and rid it of abuses and the evil practices that had become associated with it. It was largely because of his agitation for the abolition of suttee that the British Government prohibited it. This suttee, or the immolation of women on the funeral pyre of their husbands, was never widespread. But rare instances continued to occur among the upper classes. Probably the practice was brought to India originally by the Scytho-Tartars, among whom the custom prevailed of vassals and liegemen killing themselves on the death of their lord. In early Sanskrit literature the suttee custom is denounced. Akbar tried hard to stop it, and the Marathas also were opposed to it.
Ram Mohan Roy was one of the founders of the Indian press. From 1780 onwards a number of newspapers had been published by Englishmen in India. These were usually very critical of the Government and led to conflict and the establishment of a strict censorship. Among the earliest champions of the freedom of the press in India were Englishmen and one of them, James Silk Buckingham, who is still remembered, was deported from the country. The first Indian owned and edited newspaper was issued (in English) in 1818, and in the same year the Baptist missionaries of Serampore brought out a Bengali monthly and a weekly, the first periodicals published in an Indian language. Newspapers and periodicals in English and the Indian languages followed in quick succession in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay.
Meanwhile the struggle for a free press had already begun, to continue with many ups and downs till today. The year 1818 also saw the birth of the famous Regulation III, which provided for the first time for detention without trial. This regulation is still in force today, and a number of people are kept in prison under this 126-year-old decree.
Ram Mohan Roy was associated with several newspapers. He brought out a bi-lingual, Bengali-English magazine, and later, desiring an all-India circulation, he published a weekly in Persian, which was recognized then as the language of the cultured classes all over India. But this came to grief soon after the enactment in 1823 of new measures for the control of the press. Ram Mohan and others protested vigorously against these measures and even addressed a petition to the King-in-Council in England.
Ram Mohan Roy’s journalist activities were intimately connected with his reform movements. His synthetic and universalist points of view were resented by orthodox sections who also opposed many of the reforms he advocated. But he also had staunch supporters, among them the Tagore family which played an outstanding part later in the renaissance in Bengal. Ram Mohan went to England on behalf of the Delhi Emperor and died in Bristol in the early thirties of the nineteenth century.
Ram Mohan Roy and others studied English privately. There were no English schools or colleges outside Calcutta and the Government’s policy was definitely opposed to the teaching of English to Indians. In 1781, the Calcutta Madrasa was started by the Government in Calcutta for Arabic studies. In 1817, a group of Indians and Europeans started the Hindu College in Calcutta, now called the Presidency College. In 1791, a Sanskrit College was started in Benares. Probably in the second decade of the nineteenth century some missionary schools were teaching English. During the twenties a school of thought arose in government circles in favour of the teaching of English, but this was opposed. However, as an experimental measure some English classes were attached to the Arabic school in Delhi and to some institutions in Calcutta. The final decision in favour of the teaching of English was embodied in Macaulay’s Minute on Education of February, 1835. In 1857, the Universities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay began their career.
If the British Government in India was reluctant to teach English to Indians, Brahmin scholars objected even more, but for different reasons, to teach Sanskrit to Englishmen. When Sir William Jones, already a linguist and a scholar, came to India as a judge of the Supreme Court, he expressed his desire to learn Sanskrit. But no Brahmin would agree to teach the sacred language to a foreigner and an intruder, even though handsome rewards were offered. Jones ultimately, with considerable difficulty, got hold of a non- Brahmin Vaidya or medical practitioner who agreed to teach, but on his own peculiar and stringent conditions. Jones agreed to every stipulation, so great was his eagerness to learn the ancient language of India. Sanskrit fascinated him and especially the discovery of the old Indian drama. It was through his writings and translations that Europe first had a glimpse of some of the treasures of Sanskrit literature. In 1784 Sir William Jones established the Bengal Asiatic Society which later became the Royal Asiatic Society. To Jones, and to the many other European scholars, India owes a deep debt of gratitude for the rediscovery of her past literature. Much of it was known of course throughout every age, but the knowledge had become more and more confined to select and exclusive groups, and the dominance of Persian, as the language of culture, had diverted people’s minds from it. The search for manuscripts brought out many a little-known work and the application of modern critical methods of scholarship gave a new background to the vast literature that was revealed.
The advent and use of the printing press gave a great stimulus to the development of the popular Indian languages. Some of these languages—Hindi, Bengali, Gujrati, Marathi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu—had not only long been in use, but had also developed literatures. Many of the books in them were widely known among the masses. Almost always these books were epic in form, poems, or collection of songs and verses, which could easily be memorized. There was practically no prose literature in them at the time. Serious writing was almost confined to Sanskrit and Persian, and every cultured person was supposed to know one of them. These two classical languages played a dominating role and prevented the growth of the popular provincial languages. The printing of books and newspapers broke the hold of the classics and immediately prose literatures in the provincial languages began to develop. The early Christian missionaries, especially of the Baptist mission at Serampore, helped in this process greatly. The first private printing presses were set up by them and their efforts to translate the Bible into prose versions of the Indian languages met with considerable success.
There was no difficulty in dealing with the well-known and established languages, but the missionaries went further and tackled some of the minor and undeveloped languages and gave them shape and form, compiling grammars and dictionaries for them. They even laboured at the dialects of the primitive hill and forest tribes and reduced them to writing. The desire of the Christian missionaries to translate the Bible into every possible language thus resulted in the development of many Indian languages. Christian mission work in India has not always been admirable or praiseworthy, but in this respect, as well as in the collection of folklore, it has undoubtedly been of great service to India.
The reluctance of the East India Company to spread education was justified, for as early as 1830 a batch of students of the Hindu College of Calcutta (where Sanskrit and English were taught) demanded certain reforms. They asked for restrictions on the political power of the company and provision for free and compulsory education. Free education was well-known in India from the most ancient times. That education was traditional, not very good or profitable, but it was available to poor students without any payment, except some personal service to the teacher. In this respect both the Hindu and Muslim traditions were similar.
While the new education was deliberately prevented from spreading, the old education had been largely liquidated in Bengal. When the British seized power in Bengal there were a very large number of muafis, that is tax-free grants of land. Many of these were personal, but most were in the shape of endowments for educational institutions. A vast number of elementary schools of the old type subsisted on them, as well as some institutions for higher education, which was chiefly imparted in Persian. The East India Company was anxious to make money rapidly in order to pay dividends to its shareholders in England, and the demands of its directors were continuous and pressing. A deliberate policy was therefore adopted to resume and confiscate these muafi lands. Strict proof was demanded of the original grant, but the old sanads and papers had long been lost or eaten up by termites; so the muafis were resumed and the old holders were ejected, and the schools and colleges lost their endowments. Huge areas were involved in this way and many old families were ruined. The educational establishments, which had been supported by these muafis, ceased to function, and a vast number of teachers and others connected with them were thrown out of employment. This process helped in ruining the old feudal classes in Bengal, both Muslim and Hindu, as well as those classes who were dependent on them. Muslims were especially affected as they were, as a group, more feudal than the Hindus and were also the chief beneficiaries of the muafis. Among the Hindus there were far larger numbers of middle class people engaged in trade and commerce and the professions. These people were more adaptable and took to English education more readily. They were also more useful to the British for their subordinate services. Muslims avoided English education and, in Bengal, they were not looked upon with favour by the British rulers, who were afraid that the remnants of the old ruling class might give trouble. Bengali Hindus thus acquired almost a monopoly in the beginning in the subordinate government service and were sent to the northern provinces. A few Muslims, relics of the old families, were later taken into this service.
English education brought a widening of the Indian horizon, an admiration for English literature and institutions, a revolt against some customs and aspects of Indian life, and a growing demand for political reform, The new professional classes took the lead in political agitation, which consisted chiefly in sending representations to Government. English-educated people in the professions and the services formed in effect a new class, which was to grow all over India, a class influenced by western thought and ways and rather cut off from the mass of the population. In 1852 the British Indian Association was started in Calcutta. This was one of the forerunners of the Indian National Congress, and yet a whole generation was to pass before the Congress was started in 1885. This gap represents the period of the Revolt of 1857-58, its suppression and its consequences. The great difference between the state of Bengal and that of northern and central India in the middle of the century is brought out by the fact that while in Bengal the new intelligentsia (chiefly Hindu) had been influenced by English thought and literature and looked to England for political constitutional reform, the other areas were seething with the spirit of revolt.
In Bengal one can see more clearly than elsewhere the early effects of British rule and western influence. The break-up of the agrarian economy was complete and the old feudal classes had almost been eliminated. In their place had come new landowners whose organic and traditional contacts with the land were far less, and who had few of the virtues and most of the failings of the old feudal landlords. The peasantry suffered famine and spoliation in many ways and were reduced to extreme poverty. The artisan class was almost wiped-out. Over these disjointed and broken-up foundations rose new groups and classes, the products of British rule and connected with it in many ways. There were the merchants who were really middlemen of British trade and industry, profiting by the leavings of that industry. There were also the English-educated classes in the subordinate services and the learned professions, both looking to the British power for advancement and both influenced in varying degrees by western thought. Among these grew up a spirit of revolt against the rigid conventions and social framework of Hindu society. They looked to English liberalism and institutions for inspiration.
This was the effect on the upper fringe of the Hindus of Bengal. The mass of the Hindus there were not directly affected and even the Hindu leaders probably seldom thought of the masses. The Muslims were not affected at all, some individuals apart, and they kept deliberately aloof from the new education. They had been previously backward economically and they became even more so. The nineteenth century produced a galaxy of brilliant Hindus in Bengal, and yet there is hardly a single Muslim Bengali leader of any note who stands out there during this period. So far as the masses were concerned there was hardly any appreciable difference between the Hindus and Muslims; they were indistinguishable in habits, ways of living, language, and in their common poverty and misery. Indeed, nowhere in India were the religious and other differences between Hindus , and Muslims of all classes so little marked as in Bengal. Probably 98 per cent of the Muslims were converts from Hinduism, usually from the lowest strata of society. In population figures there was probably a slight majority of Muslims over Hindus. (Today the proportions in Bengal are: 53 per cent Muslims, 46 per cent Hindus, 1 per cent others.)
All these early consequences of the British connection, and the various economic, social, intellectual, and political movements that they gave rise to in Bengal, are noticeable elsewhere in India, but in lesser and varying degrees. The break-up of the old feudal order and economy was less complete and more gradual elsewhere. In fact that order rose in rebellion and even when crushed, survived to some extent. The Muslims in upper India were culturally and economically far superior to their co-religionists of Bengal, but even they kept aloof from western education.
The Hindus took to this education more easily and were more influenced by western ideas. The subordinate Government services and the professions had far more Hindus than Muslims. Only in the Punjab this difference was less marked.
The Revolt of 1857-58 flared up and was crushed, but Bengal was hardly touched by it. Throughout the nineteenth century the new English-educated class, mainly Hindu, looked up with admiration towards England and hoped to advance with her help and in co-operation with her. There was a cultural renaissance and a remarkable growth of the Bengali language, and the leaders of Bengal stood out as the leaders of political India.
Some glimpse of that faith in England which filled the mind of Bengal in those days, as well as of the revolt against old-established social codes, may be had from that moving message of Rabindranath Tagore, which he gave on his eightieth birthday (May, 1941), a few months before his death. ‘As I look back,’ he says,
on the vast stretch of years that lie behind me and see in clear perspective the history of my early development, I am struck by the change that has taken place both in my own attitude and in the psychology of my countrymen—a change that carries within it a cause of profound tragedy.
Our direct contact with the larger world of men was linked up with the contemporary history of the English people whom we came to know in those earlier days. It was mainly through their mighty literature that we formed our ideas with regard to these newcomers to our Indian shores. In those days the type of learning that was served out to us was neither plentiful nor diverse, nor was the spirit of scientific inquiry very much in evidence. Thus their scope being strictly limited, the educated of those days had recourse to English language and literature. Their days and nights were eloquent with the stately declamations of Burke, with Macaulay’s long-rolling sentences; discussions centred upon Shakespeare’s drama and Byron’s poetry and above all upon the large-hearted liberalism of the nineteenth century English politics.
At the time though tentative attempts were being made to gain our national independence, at heart we had not lost faith in the generosity of the English race. This belief was so firmly rooted in the sentiments of our leaders as to lead them to hope that the victor would of his own grace pave the path to freedom for the vanquished. This belief was based upon the fact that England at the time provided a shelter to all those who had to flee from persecution in their own country. Political martyrs who had suffered for the honour of their people were accorded unreserved welcome at the hands of the English. I was impressed by this evidence of liberal humanity in the character of the English and thus I was led to set them on the pedestal of my highest respect. This generosity in their national character had not yet been vitiated by imperialist pride. About this time, as a boy in England, I had the opportunity of listening to the speeches of John Bright, both in and outside Parliament. The large-hearted radical liberalism of those speeches, overflowing all narrow national bounds, had made so deep an impression on my mind that something of it lingers even today, even in these days of graceless disillusionment.
Certainly that spirit of abject dependence upon the charity of our rulers was no matter of pride. What was remarkable, however, was the whole-hearted way in which we gave our recognition to human greatness even when it revealed itself in the foreigner. The best and noblest gifts of humanity cannot be the monopoly of a particular race or country; its scope may not be limited nor may it be regarded as the miser’s hoard buried underground. That is why English literature which nourished our minds in the past, does even now convey its deep resonance to the recesses of our heart.
Tagore proceeds to refer to the Indian ideal of proper conduct prescribed by the tradition of the race.
Narrow in them selves these time-honoured social conventions originated an held good in a circumscribed geographical area, in that strip o land, Brahmavarta by name, bound on either side by the rivers Saraswati and Drisadvati. That is how a pharisaic formalism gradually got the upper hand of free thought and the idea “proper conduct” which Manu found established in Brahmavarta steadily degenerated into socialized tyranny.
During my boyhood days the attitude of the cultured and educated section of Bengal, nurtured on English learning, was charged with a feeling of revolt against these rigid regulations of society. . . .In place of these set codes of conduct we accepted the ideal of “civilization” as represented by the English term.
In our own family this change of spirit was welcomed for the sake of its sheer rational and moral force and its influence was felt in every sphere of our life. Born in that atmosphere, which was moreover coloured by our intuitive bias for literature, I naturally set the English on the throne of my heart. Thus passed the first chapters of my life. Then came the parting of ways, accompanied with a painful feeling of disillusion, when I began increasingly to discover how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilization disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved.