Imperialism and Indigenous Education, The News, 20 April, 2016

Published in the News:

by Shahid Siddiqui

In The Prison Notebooks, Gramsci builds his argument that hegemony can be attained through political or civil society. The political society uses a coercive approach through army, police and/or bureaucracy. The civil society, on the other hand, makes use of social institutions. The hegemony in this approach is attained with the help of education, language, literature and culture, etc.

In other words, the political society uses a coercive approach whereas the civil society employs a discursive approach. The discursive approach, linked with discourse, is more effective. Through this approach, powerful groups can control others’ minds and thought processes. Education is a significant tool of the discursive approach.

The history of imperialism tells us that imperialist powers used education indiscriminately as a tool to take control of colonised nations. This is done in a two-pronged way. First, by stigmatising the local way of life, education, language and culture, and then imposing their own (imperialist) educational system and language.

In my write up, ‘Development: The imperialist way’, published in these pages on March 7, 2016, the major argument put forward was that how the British converted the local development into ‘undevelopment’ and then glossed over it their own version of development. This argument can also be applied to the education realm in British India. Pre-British India had a comprehensive educational network which was affordable and accessible to the masses. (Please see my columns in these pages, ‘Indigenous Indian Education’ March 21, 2016 and ‘Education in Pre-British India’ April 4, 2016).

The ultimate result of this neglect was that India, whose educational system was equivalent to some of the Western countries in the 18th century, was left far behind them after the prolonged colonial period.

What happened to this robust indigenous educational system of India? This article is an attempt to explore the answer to this question. There are several reasons for the decline of indigenous educational system in India after the arrival of the East India Company. The first was the colonisers’ negative view of the culture, education, and language of the colonised. Because of their positional superiority the colonisers tended to look down on the social, economic, educational, and cultural practices of the colonised.

The second reason was the lack of patronage by the British for indigenous education. Before the arrival of the British this patronage was being provided at the state level by the princely states but after annexation the local states were weakened and the central British Empire either reduced or stopped this patronage.

The third reason for the decline of indigenous education was the introduction of a new educational system by the British. Since it was a system introduced by the rulers, people would prefer it for two obvious reasons: to get a job and to get a better social status.

The fourth reason behind the decline was an ill-planned reform agenda which led to the introduction of a new educational system which was limited and thus less accessible and divorced from indigenous values and culture. The fifth reason was the turbulent times followed by 1857 which led to a decline in number of pupils – for example, Leitner, in his ‘History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab’, relates that in 1857 the number of pupils in Punjab was 330,000 which fell down to 190,000 by 1880. The sixth reason was the impoverished condition of the local people after the imposition of enhanced taxes by the East India Company.

The decline of indigenous education resulted in the decline of literacy in India. In his speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1931, Gandhi observed that, “today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or hundred years ago.” He also gave his explanation for this decline in literacy by suggesting that, “The British administration instead of looking after education and other matters which had existed 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.”

Another outcome of the decline in indigenous education was the imbalance that was created in society since the new educational system was limited to few areas and less accessible. All this could have been avoided had the British taken a different course of action. Adam, in his report, recommended to the British government that, “…existing native institutions from the highest to the lowest, of all kinds and classes were the fittest means to be employed for raising and improving the character of the people, that to employ those institutions for such a purpose would be the simplest, the safest, the most popular, the most economical, and the most effective plan for giving the stimulus to the native mind which it needs on the subject of education, and for eliciting the exertion of the natives themselves for their improvement, without which all other means must be unavailing.”

Similar plans were proposed by Munro, Elphinstone, Thomason, and Leitner but these plans were ignored by the British Empire and the indigenous education kept on declining. Nurrulah and Naik in their book, ‘A History of Education in India’ concluded that “…indigenous elementary schools were either killed by ill-planned attempts at reform, or destroyed by deliberate competition, or allowed to die of sheer neglect.” The ultimate result of this neglect was that India, whose educational system was equivalent to some of the Western countries in the 18th century, was left far behind them after the prolonged colonial period.

Who should be held responsible for this ‘educational undevelopment’? There could be many conjectures but the great confession came through Leitner who admitted that “…the true education of the Punjab 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.”

The writer is an educationist.


One Response to Imperialism and Indigenous Education, The News, 20 April, 2016

  1. Talib says:

    Well researched and thoughtful

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