British rule in India left lots of legacies behind but the most resilient and enduring in its moral, social and political effects was the implementation of the policy of using English as the medium of instruction in 1835.
In the 1800s, the British were successful tradesmen with superior trading skills and technical knowledge to the native Indian population. The Indians were impressed and intrigued by the Englishmen’s knowledge and regarded them as the inventors of modernity. The fall of the Mughal Empire allowed the East India Company to take over India, which added an allure to the English and the local elite tried to foster good relations with their rulers. The control of India granted the British not only political, technical and economic superiority, but also cultural superiority over the Indians. Mastery over the English language became important for Indians seeking economic and social progress.
The indigenous population was instrumental in the implementation of English as the medium of instruction in British India. The Indians believed that fluency in English would allow them to take advantage of the opportunities of the modernity represented by the British.
A good example is the Bengali elite’s (specifically Raja Ram Mohan Roy) initiative of setting up a college, which adopted English as the medium of instruction, serving the purpose of imparting English education to the eager Indians. Research into colonial literature provides evidence that English became a powerful agent of change at the initiative of the Bengali middle class in Calcutta.
While Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan saw in English and Western education an opportunity to set free their countrymen from obscurantism and barbarous superstitions, the Indian middle class saw employment opportunities for themselves and hence their eagerness to learn the new language. According to an 1882 British report on India, the demand for English grew in the early 1800s as the learning of the language started to be recognised as an assured means of earning a respectable livelihood.
The belief that English and Western education is superior to Urdu still dominates our mindset, with the centuries-old belief that it leads to ‘progress’ still prevailing. Learning English was the need of the hour for our forefathers to survive through the British occupation. We, however, should ensure that our political and territorial freedom should also translate into an intellectual one. Modernity should be defined as independence of thought, free from the constraints of language, and not otherwise.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2016.