The Rise Of Brown Sahibs

Influence of Colonial Modernity on Indian Intelligentsia

Aloke Mukherjee

Even by 1853 Marx observed the differences in objectives of the British rulers. According to him, "The ruling classes of Great Britain have had, till now, but an accidental, transitory and exceptional interest in the progress of India. The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it. But now the tables are turned. The millocracy have discovered that the transformation of India into a reproductive country has become of vital importance to them, and that, to that end, it is necessary, above all, to gift her with means of irrigation and of internal communication. "[The Future Results of the British Rule in India, Karl Marx, The First Indian War of Independence 1857-1859, Progress Publishers, Moscow, p 30-31]

That was how Marx envisaged India to step into modernity. At the same time he was also doubtful that the colonial rule would not allow India to achieve it.

So Marx did warn: "The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus (Marx meant the Indians–author) themselves shall have been grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke all together.”

Colonialists all over the world also were afraid of such revolutionary development, so as a counter- move they developed an elite section replicating the European elite.

Marx's observation was in1853. But much before that East India Company created their social props by using the traders and fortune seekers of upper crust of the upper caste Hindu society. Those people became close with the British traders to establish themselves as banians and compradors (mut-suddis), while most of the Muslim traders and landlords were opposing the British rule and British rulers were also trying to utilise the policy of divide et impera. They amassed huge property which they had to accumulate, even after living luxurious lives, except a meagre few, their origin kept them away from developing industries. The Permanent Settlement lured them to invest that idle money when the land tenure became secured.

Although the Permanent Settlement was introduced by Cornwallis it "was a predetermined plan of the Court of Directors with a cautious delay "(WW Hunter ).The British rulers gained through this in two ways : the capital accumulated in the hand of native Indians changed hands to the British and they extended their social prop to the rural areas. It further extended its root since the Permanent Settlement landlords in their turn started collecting taxes through number of intermediaries whom they distributed the land under their control. So a new class of landlords appeared who amassed huge wealth through exorbitant taxes collected by bleeding the direct producers white.

Question may arise how does it connect with colonial modernity. The answer is very simple. As social props these people had close relationship with the rulers and became acquainted with their culture. Often the Europeans were treated by them at different occasions. So a section of them were attracted towards English education as fortune seekers. Moreover, the British needed a large number of native youth for the extension and expansion of the arms of the state around the country. From the beginning they wanted to divide the Indians based on religion and caste. They readily found their allies (to be true, servitors) among the upper caste elites in India.

Victor Jacquemont,a famous French botanist, received a letter in 1828 from an Indian elite saying: "Indians are fortunately placed by Providence under the protection of the whole British nation". In that letter he thanked "the Supreme Disposer of the Universe for having unexpectedly delivered this country from long continued tyranny of the former rulers and placed it under the Government of Englishmen, a nation who not only are blessed with enjoyment of civil and political liberty, but also interest themselves in promoting liberty and social happiness as well as free inquiry into literary and religious subjects among those nations to which that influence extends". (Leaders of Nationalist Movement, Vidya Dhar Mahajan, p-4). Elsewhere the same person published his Second appeal to the Native Indians in 1821 describing him "labouring in the promulgation of Christianity".

This clarifies how deep was the epistemological influence of the colonial modernity in the early days of nineteenth century. It is a well-known fact that from the beginning the British did everything to drive wedge between the large religious communities as their policy of divide et impera. Ironically the person was none other than Raja Rammohan Roy.

Before the above statements British rulers founded Hindu College in Kolkata in 1817, which according to Gopal Halder well-known as a Marxist intellectual, "brought into existence a new and dynamic force, the urban middle-class intelligentsia..." But this was not enough for the proponents of colonial modernity. So when the British started the Sanskrit College to further education Raja Rammohan wrote to Amherst in 1823 :"When this seminary of learning was proposed...we were filled with sanguine hopes that [it would employ] European gentlemen(sic) of talent and education to instruct the natives of India in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, Anatomy and other useful sciences,... "This was written 6 years after the establishment of Hindu College.

Rammohan Roy's opinions were not accidental. It was part of an ongoing debate in India and Britain after the Act of Parliament, 1813, which had not only established the Crown's sovereignty over India cutting to a large degree the power of the East India Company but also had changed the policy on missionaries and education in India. It allotted funds and permitted Christian missionaries to preach religion and propagate English language. At the same time financial provisions were also made to encourage revival of Indian literature and for promotion of sciences.

The Orientalists supporting the need for revival of Indian literature Sanskrit, Arabic/Persian etc along with promotion of sciences lost to the class of elites like Rammohan Roy. Finally Thomas Babington Macaulay had his way. He was clear to declare : "I feel that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of people. We must at present to do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect." (Macaulay Minute on Education, 1885).

Thus the British developed a class of elite intelligentsia which will be at its service to govern the people being epistemologically imbibed with the ideas, morals and intellect as taught by the colonialist masters.

Within a few years Macaulay was proved to be correct. These elites rejoice when in the 1830s, the Reforms bills were introduced in the House of Commons in England as if the victory of middle classes in England was their own. But when Santals along with the lower caste people rose in Revolt in1855, they stood by the side of the British. The Zemindar of Hetampur in Birbhum raised a private army to help the British soldiers fighting the rebels. On 2nd October, 1955 A W Rupen acknowledged "the public spirit evinced by Babu Bipracharan Chukerborty, in raising a force at his own expense, from among his dependents to aid the military with suppression of the Sonthal insurrection. (Letter to I Richardson, Collector of Birbhum). Not a single voice was heard in support of the rebels from those who rejoiced on the Reforms Bill.

Within two years, the First War of Independence, which the British tried to pass as Sepoy Mutiny, broke out in 1857. Karl Marx quoting extensively from Disrraeli's speech on 27 July, 1857 night agreed with his "conclusion that the present Indian disturbance is not a military mutiny, but a national revolt, of which the Sepoys are acting instruments only" [The Indian Question, Karl Marx The First Indian War of Independence, 1857-1859, p 47]. Again the educated middle-class intelligentsia along with the Permanent Settlement Landlords stood steadfast by the side of the colonial rulers opposing what by the argument of Disraeli "a national revolt".

They rejoiced calling the prajahs to dance holding both hands high to celebrate the capture of Delhi Fort. (Sangbad Bhaskar) Almost 2500 Rajahs, big and small landlords of the undivided Bengal province (Bengal-Bihar-Orissa and certain parts of Assam) wrote a letter on December 1857, to the then Governor General : "We, the undersigned Rajahs, Zeminders, Talook-ders, Merchants and other natives of the province of Bengal take the earliest opportunity on the retaking of Delhi, to offer your Lordship in council our warmest congratulation on the signal success which has attended the British arms, under circumstances unparalleled in the annals of British India..."

After the suppression of the revolt at Gopal Mullik's garden in Calcutta (Kolkata) under the leadership of Radhakanta Dev, a gathering of 'Indians' declared their loyalty to the Queen.

The epistemological influence was eloquently put forward by Lt-Governor Halliday in his speech at the distribution of diplomas to students of Medical College Calcutta, on April 1, 1858: "Those who have imbibed the greatest share of English ideas and knowledge have taken the least part in the recent troubles and atrocities...I know scarcely one authenticated instance of a really educated native—I will not say joining but even sympathizing with the rebels." [Benoy Ghose, The Bengali Intelligentsia and the Revolt, in REBELLION 1857, edited by P C Joshi, p.125]

There are abundant examples of the British as a policy of maintaining their rule had been utilising all opportunities to keep the social divisions among Hindus intact and spread and extend divisions between religious communities as much as possible. Examples have already been given how Rammohan Roy or Ishwarchandra Gupta, the poet, and others' actions helped the British. It was mostly a part of administrative method to keep the people away from the erstwhile rulers and divide the people to rule them. But what was covert, yet widely understood affair became open policy to inject in the minds of the young educated persons after 1857 when divisions based on religion and caste disappeared amongst the fighters for independence to a large extent. Official British records show that a well-planned policy of education was undertaken after 1857. In1863, Charles Wood, famous for his educational dispatch, wrote to Lord Elgin on March 1862 : "We have maintained our power in India when by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so. Do all you can, therefore, to prevent all having a common feeling".

It started with Marshman's colonialist and anti-Islamic tirade in his book on history of Bengal. Interestingly Vidysagar in his book in Bengali Banglar Itihas "just translated" the last nine sections of Marshman's book. Some feel that British education was scientific and modern search for knowledge. For them George Francis Hamilton's letter to Curzon would be an eye-opener. On 26 March 1888, the Secretary of State for India, Hamilton wrote to Curzon: "I think the real danger to our rule in India not now but say 50 years hence is the gradual adoption and extension of Western ideas of agitation, and, if we could break educated Indians into two sections holding widely different views, we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government. We should so plan the educational text books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened. [Quoted in Islam and Indian Culture, B N Pande, Khuda Bakhsh, Oriental Public Library, Patna p.31]

 Epistemology, like morality, is not value neutral. Epistemology as the theory of knowledge based on reality. But what is reality to the weavers of Bengal was just opposite to that of the British traders. On the other hand, modernism develops with a concrete development of productive forces and production relations. But if the development is mitigated by some external influence, modernism also becomes influenced by that external force. That is colonial modernity. It has its effect on the knowledge and understanding of reality. This is what happened in case of two of the stalwarts of Indian intelligentsia from Bengal on the plight and ruination of weavers of Bengal after large-scale import of cotton textiles from England. But Vidyasagar's reaction was that muslins used to be 'sold at high price in Europe', the weavers lost that market because of their 'lack of knowledge and initiative'. Another stalwart's reaction was that even if the weavers lost their age-old occupation why did they not start cultivation. Both were burdened with the knowledge and understanding of reality as propagated by their colonial educators.

Even today epistemological influence of colonial modernity burdens the thought process of the Indian intelligentsia to a large extent, if not the majority.

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022