Education in India

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Education in India  (1870) 
by Keshub Chunder Sen

Delivered 24th May 1870.
Portions of a speech delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington Butts, London.

(Keshub Chandra Sen spoke on England’s Duties to India at London on 24th May 1870. The meeting was presided over by Lord Lawrence, Governor-General and Viceroy of India (1864-1869). Among those on the platform were Pollard Urquhart, MP, J. Howard, MP, H.W.Freeland, former MP, Dr. Underhill and Sir Syed Ahmed. Given below are portions of the speech relating to education in India.)

My lord, ladies, and gentlemen, - If you turn your eyes for a moment to yonder East, you will see a great country, rising from the death-like slumber of ages, and exerting its best powers to move onward in the path of true enlightenment and reform. That country is India. You behold a spectacle there which you cannot but rivet your interest, which cannot but excite your pity and compassion. In that country the great work of reform has commenced; in that country there is a struggle going on between old institutions and new ideas, between ancestral notions and prejudices, and modern civilization. The flood of Western education has burst upon India, has made its way into the citadels of idolatry and prejudice, and is sweeping away in its resistless current all the accumulated errors and iniquities of centuries…


The first great duty which the British nation owes to India is to promote education far and wide. It is desirable that you should establish railways and telegraphs, that you should open up works of irrigation, and that you should try in all possible ways to promote the material prosperity of the country. All these certainly are desirable; but, after all, these are only external refinements of civilisation, for unless the heart of the nation is reformed and purified, there cannot be anything like true and lasting reformation. If you desire o make the people loyal, you must educate them. A school or college is a better and stronger safeguard of the power and prosperity of the British nation than a citadel or fortress. If you give the people true education, if you teach them what their duties are, as citizens, to themselves and to the Government, they will certainly be loyal; they will find it to be their duty and their interest to advance the cause of truth and education, to promote their own welfare, and at the same time promote the welfare of those around them. The true appreciation of duty is certainly the best way of securing the interest of the nation, and if you, therefore, educate all the millions of the population of India, give them good ideas, sound instruction, the literature and science of the West, you will have entitled yourselves to the lasting gratitude of the people.

Education is the chief remedy for all those great evils which afflict the country. Education will not only cultivate and improve the intellect of the nation, but will also purify its character. There are many social evils, and there are many prejudices; but all these would be removed, and the nation, as it moves intellectually onward, will at the same time move onward in social, political, and material reformation.

I am glad to bear testimony to the fact that the British have never been slow to acknowledge the importance of national education in India. As soon as the necessity of this work was rendered apparent, the British government set to work at once. The true intellectual emancipation of the country, on something like a national scale, dates from 1854, when the grand charter of India’s intellectual liberty was granted. Since that time, schools and colleges have multiplied on all sides. In that year there were only 40,000 students in different parts of the country, receiving education in public schools; but in 1866, there were 50,000 schools, and 623,000 pupils.

Under the provisions of the charter to which I have referred, universities were established in the three presidency towns, and they have since flourished most rapidly and gloriously. If we refer to the records of Calcutta University, for instance, we find that in 1857 there were only 244 candidates for the entrance examination, and in the next year there were only 13 candidates for the B.A. degree, but in 1868-9 there were 1,700 candidates for the entrance examination, and 174 for the B.A. degree. Every year Bengal sends up no fewer than 1,000 young men for matriculation, and this is certainly a gratifying fact, showing as it does that the efforts of the Government have been appreciated, and that the nation, has not been slow to understand and to realise the fruits of true education. In all these matters Bengal has always stood foremost. Of the 638 who matriculated in the session 1866-7, there were 561 Bengalees, and of the 60 successful candidates who received the B.A. degree, 58 were from Bengal. Thus, you see, Bengal has always contributed the largest proportion among the recipients of University honours. The Bengalees have always been remarkable as an intellectual people, and we see that the best and richest honours which it is possible for the Indian universities to confer have always been readily seized by the youth of Bengal.

If you turn your attention from the schools to the press, you will find that the latter has already commenced to develop itself in a most satisfactory manner; not only in the larger cities, but in the smaller towns in the provinces, the press is at work, sending out, month after month, new book on literature and science, calculated to improve the mind and heart of the nation; books not only in the English language, but what is more needed at present, in the vernacular. There are many newspapers which have an extensive circulation, and are being read with great avidity by thousands of educated young men, and on all sides there is growing taste for English literature.

Upon this matter I may say that I have often been amused by being asked by my English friends here – “Do you speak English?” we not only speak English, we love English literature and English science. If you happen to be travelling in a railway carriage in India, you will find scores of Bengali gentlemen reading English books as a matter of recreation, some perusing the Times newspaper, others, Good Words, and others the Waverly novels. All these are well known there; and I must say that things have been carried somewhat too far, for some of your bad novels have found their way into India, and have a large number of readers. It is striking, but it is a fact which cannot be disputed, that native gentlemen in Bengal, Bombay and Madras, carry on correspondence among themselves in English, which shows that any rate they feel no difficulty in communicating their thoughts and wishes through a foreign tongue. They feel quite at home when they have to give out their sentiments to others in English. They talk English not because they are forced to do so, but as a matter of pleasure and choice. Many prefer the English to their own vernacular. I hope this state of things will not be allowed to exist much longer, and that the national language will be vindicated in time to come. It shows however that the English language is valued. There are thousands of admirers of Shakespeare, and Milton, and Newton, in my country.

The work of education has been carried on to a great extent, and the inevitable result is India has been brought to something like an educational crisis. Have the Government carried out fully the spirit of that famous despatch to which I have referred? Has education spread among all classes of the people, or are the blessings of true knowledge confined only to the upper ten thousand? Those are great questions which demand an answer from all who are interested in the country. Have we succeeded in bringing the light of knowledge to the homes of the poorer people, or is it only the richer class who enjoy the benefits of European science and literature? Are the educated people of India endeavouring to constitute a new caste among themselves – a new race of Brahmins? Do they try to perpetuate the great gulf which has so long divided the upper and lower classes, or do the educated natives, as a rule, try to give their poorer fellow-countrymen those sound ideas and purer aspirations which they have received in English schools and colleges?

Referring to facts and figures, we find that not even two thirds of a million of the population has received true education; that is not what we should desire to see, for there are still one hundred and fifty million of the Indian population who have not received a ray of enlightenment. What is to become of the vast masses of the people? – who will have pity and compassion upon them? Are they to remain fettered by ignorance and superstition, and will you continue to give education and enlightenment only to those who boast about riches and wealth, and high status in society? Is there none in England or India who will look compassionately upon these poor people?

There is a theory in our country known as the filtration of education. Education is said to filter downwards, and I do believe in my heart that does, and that if you impart education to the higher classes it necessarily and inevitably descends into the lower strata of society. This education, permeating the highest stratum of society, gradually goes downwards till it reaches those whom it was never intended to reach; still eventually it does reach them. Nevertheless, however powerfully you may advocate this theory, there is a boundary line beyond which the influence of education does not and cannot go. Even in England we find that though many of the lower classes have been reached or influenced by education originally imparted to the higher classes, still the lowest strata of society can never be reached by that means. The poorest, the most ragged people are still destitute of the blessings of education, even in this enlightened country – England.

How then is it possible for us, how can we for a moment hope, to influence the poor ryots and low-caste people of India by conferring the blessings of education upon the upper classes alone? Some, certainly, will receive by a sort of blessed contagion the spirit and influence of true science and literature, but there will be millions of men that it will be impossible to get at. Hence, therefore, the question has been seriously discussed, both by the Government of India and the Indian Council here, whether the time has not come for closing the higher schools and colleges, and diverting the funds which have been appropriated to them to the expansion of education amongst the poor and helpless members of the Indian population.

The landowners constitute a powerful section of the Indian community, and they are always anxious, as all sections are anxious, to see justice done to themselves. I should certainly regret to se injustice done to any section of the Indian population, whether it be rich or poor. The great document known as the Permanent Settlement, contains a promise and an engagement made by the British Government that there should nothing like a tax levied upon the landholders, but that the arrangements which had been made were to be considered permanent. That settlement was final, and was never to be modified. This document is now urged as an argument against those who would levy taxes upon that class for the purpose of raising funds to promote the primary education of the masses. I think they are justified so far as they go, for I do believe that a document is sacred one, and it is my humble opinion that the British that the British Government would lay itself open to a charge of breach of faith if anything were done in the way of subjecting those people to an additional tax.

How then, it may be asked, are the masses to be educated? Are we to despair of getting special funds, and to close the present high schools and colleges? Some are of the opinion that we should, but I think it would be a great calamity – for it is not the richest people who flock to these institutions, but the children and youth of the middle-class. If we close these institutions, we turn away thousands who have no means of educating themselves, and you ought to remember that the soundest kind of education is as a rule, imparted in those high schools and colleges, and that to close them would inflict a serious injury on India.

These schools constitute the great and powerful machinery which has been wielded all this time to bring a higher kind of English education to the people of India. There are small schools here and there which are multiplying rapidly in all parts of the country; but it is to these higher educational establishments that the people resort to receive first-class English education. The Government will, therefore, be bound for many years to keep up these high educational institutions, if it is anxious to give the people the highest truths of modern science and the purest principles of English literature.

It has been said that the present school rates are by no means low, compared with the corresponding rates in all civilised countries; in fact they are as high as can be reasonably fixed with reference to the actual circumstances of the people of Bengal. This shows that we cannot raise schooling fees that are now charged in these high schools. They are adapted to the students of the country, and if you increase the amount, you shut out a large number of the alumni. Thus we are driven to the necessity of some new means of raising fees for promoting the education of the masses. If we cannot levy a tax upon landowners, and cannot raise the schooling fees in the present institutions, where are we to get the money from? There are some who would compromise the matter, and bring all these questions to something like an amicable solution by suggesting that there shall be general taxation for the purpose of enriching and cultivating the intellect of the lower classes.

We cannot any longer deny these poorer classes the light of education. We have too long confined that light to the higher classes, and the time has come for opening our educational establishments, and our institutions and schools, to the poor, as well as to the rich. If this is admitted, as it appears generally to be, a serious responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Government to devise some means for carrying out that great object. I do not speak as statesman or politician; I do not pretend to dive into politics; but I look to the ethics of the question. For the sake of the moral elevation of the masses of India, for the sake of truth and good, those millions of poorer people must be blessed with the light of knowledge and wisdom.

This is the question which is now before the Indian Council, and thousands are anxiously waiting to see the result. Upon the decision of that question depends the welfare of millions of my countrymen. If the order is sent forth to close these high schools. I say a large number of young men will be driven away from them, will be denied the means of continuing that education which they have just commenced, and they will se no way whatever of prosecuting their studies. If the question be decided against the masses of people, then perhaps for many centuries to come, the policy of confining education to the upper classes will be confirmed and strengthened; and no statesman, no Indian ruler, no official in the larger cities, no magistrate or judge, no official in the smaller towns, will ever take any interest in the education of lower classes of people. The principle initiated by the Government will be adopted by all subordinate officers. I hope, therefore, that attempts will be made to make the two end meet somehow; I hope funds will be raised, and that one hundred and fifty million of my fellow-countrymen will not be suffered to remain in ignorance. If you do not save them, you will perpetuate idolatry and superstition. The education that you give to the upper classes will not uproot idolatry and prejudice, for it is amongst the masses that the error and prejudice will always maintain their power, and while you do not uproot those prejudices from the hearts of the masses, a handful of educated Hindus will never be able successfully to reform the country.

And if you educate the people, will you not also encourage them by rewarding them with higher appointments, and throwing open to them posts which are at present exclusively enjoyed by Europeans? You may talk of pursuing truth for truth’s sake, or of acquiring wisdom for wisdom’s sake, but people of the world are not always influenced by these high and transcendental considerations; they must have something tangible placed before them. While you may make an appeal to their sense of duty, you should at the same time try to put before them tangible encouragement and reward, which should act as an incentive to their exertions.

I must thankfully acknowledge that much has been done in this way, but a great deal remains to be done. You will find that it is you own interest to encourage the natives in this way; you will have a cheaper machinery of administration if you employ more of native agency, superseding to a large extent the expensive machinery at present employed. If you admit into the higher and more responsible departments of service a larger amount of native agency, you will certainly be able to effect a wholesome retrenchment, and at the same time give the natives an abiding interest in the work of their own education and reformation. They will see that the Government really appreciates their endeavours after knowledge and truth, and the Government is really a paternal Government trying to reward merit. If merit is not recognised, still it is merit, and it ought to be honoured as such; but if it is rewarded, it becomes valuable in the eyes of all, and everybody is encouraged to pursue that course in which merit obtains its due reward.

You give our people education in schools and colleges; but our people demand a practical training also, and if you put them in those higher posts of responsibility and emolument, you give them that practical training and discipline which is so essential to integrity, honesty, and probity, and a successful discharge of high duty. Let me ask you – are not my countrymen fit for these high posts? Let those who have spent time in India bear testimony to the fact, if it is established by experience, that people of India are not unworthy of the high posts which it is impossible for the Government to confer upon them. Some of my educated countrymen have been promoted, and if you only look at the way in which they have done their duty, and reflect on the conscientious manner in which it has been discharged, taking into account the labour they have undergone, and the firmness and strictness with which they have acted towards those who were placed in their care, and the moral influence they have exercised over their subordinates, you will agree with me in saying that the natives, if properly trained, are not unfit to hold the highest offices in the State.

Give them a further trial. If there are dishonest men amongst them, certainly cast them away, let them have no part in the administration of the country, let them not be allowed to make their way into the judicial or executive service; but if there are really educated and learned men, honest and truthful men, it is your duty to give them all possible encouragement by opening to them higher departments of the Government. I will not say a single word for those who clamour to get high posts, but have not the ability to fill them worthily, but I plead for those of my countrymen, and they may be counted by scores, who are worthy of all the honour that a paternal government can give them.

There is another thing which distresses me very much, and that is the order lately issued (I believe by the Indian Council here) abolishing those State scholarships which my countrymen were allowed to enjoy for two years. These scholarships were instituted by the Government to enable educated natives to go to England and receive their training. A more honourable object it is difficult to conceive, and when it was carried into execution the whole Indian public welcomed it as an inestimable boon to them and to their country. If it is advisable to give the most distinguished of my fellow-countrymen a sound education, it is desirable they should now and then come to England to study English life, and English literature and science, and it is for that reason, I believe, the noble lord in the chair sanctioned this measure after due deliberation and I am glad to say that it is to him that India owes this precious boon. But scarcely had my people begun to enjoy the blessings when it was suddenly taken away from them. And why? Because it was ruled at the time that the Governor-General of India was to be invested with full power to confer upon the natives of the country positions of high honour and emolument without making it incumbent upon them to pass through any severe examination or ordeal in England. But this does not in the least tend to supersede the great object which the other measure had in view. The one measure had for its object the sending away from India, year after year, a good number of educated and earnest-minded men, for the purpose of giving them a sound education in England; but the other measure has for its object to five to the natives of the country positions of honour, lucrative appointments, without making it compulsory for them to undergo any examination in England. Certainly our people ought to be allowed to enjoy these high posts, and if the Government will allow them to fill them, they will avail themselves of the honour most joyfully.

But is it not necessary that some of them should come to England? You do not complete their education although you give them loaves and fishes; you give them lucrative appointments, but you do not give them a good sound education in England. There are at this moment a large number of intelligent young men anxious to come to England, and if the British government will only give them the means to carry out their object, they will come here immediately at tremendous risk, at the risk of their lives and health, and will subject themselves to all manner of social obloquy and penalty, even excommunication. They are willing to undergo the highest intellectual training in a college or school in England. Why should not the British Government give them the means – why should the means be withheld when the people are just beginning to appreciate the blessing? I hope and trust that this question will be seriously taken into consideration, and that the State scholarship, which have been prematurely withheld will be restored to the people.

As it is the duty of every Government to promote general education, it is the special duty of the British Government to educate the females in India. Unless the women are educated, the education of India will be partial, and at best superficial, for the women of the country conserve all the traditions, all the errors and prejudices, and all the injurious institutions that exist in the country. If you don’t endeavour to give India good mothers, you will not be able to save the rising generations from the evils which have always acted as a curse in India; if you educate the females, you give my country good mothers, who will train up their children in the fear and in the love of God, and in the appreciation and enjoyment of truth, and in that way our people will not only become intelligent men but will have intelligent and happy homes.

By giving education to one sex only, you are creating a broad gulf between it and the opposite sex, for the wives of intelligent young men in India cannot possibly sympathise with them, either in matters of politics, literature, science and religion, or in the great questions that affect their social life and their domestic duties. The husband and the wife cannot possibly sympathize with each other if one is educated and the other not. The views and aspirations of one must be entirely different from the views and aspirations of the other, and how is it possible to realize happy homes while this is the case? And does it not demand your serious consideration – and ought it not to receive from you the best attention it is possible for you to bestow upon the subject – that in educating one section of the community you add to the suffering of the nation? – for education has made the people of India miserable in some measure, by tending to separate the sexes. But if you educate both the sexes, you will certainly bring them together in the path of enlightenment and reform, and make them both happy. They will then cooperate most harmoniously in all matters calculated not only to purify the household but to purify and regenerate the nation. The husband and wife will sit together, and try to regulate their family, and uproot all those prejudices and iniquitious institutions which have found lodgement within the sacred walls of the family-house for many centuries. In that case they will, with all their enlightenment and reformed ideas, try to bring their influence to bear on the work of purifying all the domestic and social customs and institutions of the country. I am glad to say that with regard to this something has been done by Government. There are at present in India two thousand public schools for the education of girls, and there are fifty thousand pupils who are receiving sympathetic education in these schools. Thus already we are beginning to have a new generation of reformed Indian women.

There are many here who are anxious to understand what is the actual position of women in India. Some exaggerate all that is miserable, all that is sad in the condition of Indian women, while others think too lightly of the matter, and try to make themselves believe that everything is going on well in that direction. It has been said by some that women in India have no power whatever, and do not exercise any influence on the domestic and social life of the people. This is not true. Women in India have always exercised great influence, if not directly on the destinies of the nation, at least on household affairs, and indirectly on several social matters of great importance and interest. The women of India are certainly powerful, and in many cases we have seen that power has been properly used. But alas! in a great many instances it has also been abused.

Some people say that Indian women are not at all lively, that they always feel uncomfortable and miserable, as they are immured in the prison of the zenana, that they cannot breathe the pure air or enjoy the light of heaven, and that they feel that they are in a prison house and cannot move about comfortably. This is far from being true. They are quite as lively as their sisters in England – and as many English husbands oftentimes complain that instead of being able to govern their wives, their wives govern them, so in India there are many husbands who complain similarly that they are governed by their wives. The effects of such government are already apparent. Many would come to England, many would break through caste distinctions, many would stand forward as heroes in matters of social and religious reformation, but they cannot do so simply because they are kept down by their wives. Their wives will not allow them to be daring enough in these matters; and thus we see that, if not for good, husbands are oftentimes indirectly influenced for evil by their wives.

But though the Indian woman is powerful and lively, her position is sad – her position is not what it ought to be. Look at the Indian koolin, with his fifty wives, who never thinks himself responsible to God or man for the maintenance or education of these fifty women. When he dies, they all become widows, and are doomed to perpetual widowhood. There is none to relieve them – it is altogether impossible for Indian society as it is to help them in any way. These fifty women, who become widows in a moment, become subject to all those mortifications which a crafty priesthood enjoins upon them. Look at the thousands of helpless poor widows all over the country, going through the severities of an almost ascetic life, and day after day cursing their stars and the society in which they live. Their position is really lamentable and sad. They excite the pity and commiseration of all civilised nations.

Reflect also upon the civilised upon the injurious custom of early marriage – how it impoverishes the nation and weakens the Indian race. It is one of those frightful customs which are keeping the nation down, and will not allow it to go forward in the path of progress. Again, you see ten thousand superstitious women going on pilgrimage to Benares and other places, exposed to all kinds of inconvenience, and in many cases imposed upon by interested priests. Look at the priests called Maharajas in Bombay, whose atrocities have been lately exposed, as they should be, and execrated by all the intelligent men of India.

Reflect on all these circumstances, and tell me, is not the condition of the Indian woman exceedingly painful and sad? And if you wish to rescue her from ignorance and to give her all the blessings of true civilization, you must educate her properly. But what is the process by which you propose to enlighten Indian women? There are some not only in India but in England, who think if native women do not wear crinoline, speak French, and play on the piano, they are pat redemption, and that the best way to educate and regenerate them is to make them go through all that process of training which is considered essential to civilised life in England. I for one protest against the foolish ideas and projects of denationalising Indian women. At least spare us the crinoline. There is not room enough in the small houses of India for that huge thing with a huge circumference.

I hope and trust that if you desire at all to enlighten and alleviate the condition of Indian women, you will give them a solid education, not external refinements, not mere outward improvements in dress and diet, but solid education, which enables and purifies the heart. In most cases you must use the vernacular as the medium of instruction, communicating to our women sound ideas of religion, morality, science and literature. In that way you will have given them a solid and substantial education. In order to do so effectually, you must adopt those means whereby their feminine nature may be properly developed. This is a great want and I am glad that the attention of Government has been directed to it, and that measures are being adopted to train up female teachers. I must beg that my lady friends in England, who are now present, will write to their friends and relations residing in India, and say that if they are really anxious to have a noble occupation, if the wish to keep themselves engaged in a sacred work during the day, they should make it a point to visit their Indian sisters in their own family houses. That is the sort of education I wish to see spread amongst my countrymen. If the English ladies will only go about visiting their native sisters day after day, they will do a great deal towards exercising a high intellectual and moral influence upon them. It will help them to attain not merely knowledge, but also that discipline of life, that softness of disposition, and that righteousness of outward character and inward life, which are essential to true refinement…

(Keshub Chunder Sen received loud and prolonged cheering, as he resumed his seat after completion of his speech.)

Lord Lawrence said, “I am sure we are very much indebted to my friend Keshub Chunder Sen for his admirable address this evening. I feel certain that whatever may be the shortcomings of my countrymen in India, what English education can do and has done among the natives of India has been most satisfactorily exemplified in his own case. When we reflect that it is not more than thirty years ago since first the Government began to educate and train the natives of India, I say that it is a remarkable and wonderful thing to think of that, according to Keshub Chunder Sen’s own account – an account which I can fully substantiate – there many hundreds, many thousands of natives of India who have received, and are receiving, such an education as he himself possesses…But when we think of what the education of 150,000,000 of people entails, it becomes a serious matter how the work is to be done…”

(Source: Presented above are portions of a speech, which were published with the title England’s Duties to India in The Brahmo Samaj: Keshub Chunder Sen in England by Brahmo Tract Society, 78 Upper Circular Road, Kolkata in 1915.)

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