As the various Muslim dynasties got entrenched within India, education with the aim of imparting Islamic teachings became the norm. Muktabs and madrasas attached to mosques began to impart training in Islamic traditions. Says M.A. Khan in “Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery”:

Muslim rulers in India built only Islamic schools, namely muktabs and madrasas, often linked to mosques, solely for training Muslim students in their religion and other crafts for administrative and military duty, useful for the Muslim state. Learning Arabic and Persian language and memorizing the Quran, prophetic tradition and Islamic laws were the major subjects of study. Limited training was also given in agriculture, accountancy, astrology, astronomy, history, geography and mathematics, needed for running the state.

2°WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR PADASALAS AND PARAMPARA GURUKULA BASED SCHOOLS WHEN THE WHITE MEN FROM SNOW-CLAD REGIONS  STEPPED IN AFTER THE HOT SOIL DESERT MEN  ? (common to both is the lack of fruits , vegetables, trees , spices and grains in their country ..note this important point..they have lack of food in common) 

Meanwhile, the Europeans who had been coming to India via the sea route from the 15th century onwards were battling amongst themselves for cornering the trade with India. The British East India Company emerged victorious after pushing the Portuguese, French and Dutch to the periphery and began spreading its tentacles within India. At first, the British did not bother themselves with education of the “natives” and focused on playing politics with different rulers and enriching themselves. Over time, they realised that “their dominion in India could not last long unless education – especially western – was diffused among the inhabitants of the land” (Basu, 1922).

Many of us are familiar with Macaulay’s memorandum or “minute” on Indian Education, which was circulated by him prior to the passing of the English Education Act of 1835. That act gave effect to Governor-General William Bentinck’s decision of reallocating of funds towards a western curriculum with English as the language of instruction.

Thomas Babington Macaulay’s minute is a classic that needs to be read by every “educated” Indian:

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

It must be noted that spreading Christianity was a desirable goal for most Anglicists, Orientalists as well as Vernacularists. Dr Alexander Duff, an Anglicist, who opened a popular school in Calcutta was against “heathen” institutions. Macaulay himself wrote in a letter to his father, “No Hindoo who has received an English education ever remains sincerely attached to his religion.” He expressed his “firm belief” that if his plans of education were followed up, “there will not be a single idolator amongst the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence.” (Basu, 1922)

An important argument made by Anglicists in favour of standardising English-medium education was that the Indian natives themselves were eager to learn English. “A taste for English has been widely disseminated,” said Trevelyan. He happily noted that a “loud call” arose from the natives themselves to be instructed in English. Schools teaching in English were extremely popular and English books were selling far more rapidly than books in Sanskrit and Arabic (Trevelyan, 1838). This is not surprising, since a good knowledge of English opened opportunities for government jobs all over the country. Besides, the vacuum in science and disconnect with Sanskrit works on science and mathematics caused by the Muslim rule made many Indians feel backward in comparison to the Europeans. Raja Rammohan Roy is one of the most notable Indian Anglicists, who petitioned for the teaching of the “arts and sciences of modern Europe” and argued against establishing a new Sanskrit college in Calcutta in his letter to Lord Amherst. “The Sanskrit language, so difficult that almost a lifetime is necessary for its acquisition, is well known to have been for ages a lamentable check on the diffusion of knowledge; and the learning concealed under this almost impervious veil is far from sufficient to reward the labour of acquiring it,” he wrote.

3) Dharampal’s revelations of astounding data on India’s popular schooling system

When India was embroiled in the education debate, England was itself languishing in illiteracy. A minuscule fraction of the children in England went to school, and the only book most literate people had read was the Bible. In the 1960s, Dharampal, a Gandhian thinker came across archival material of extreme significance in London. He discovered documents related to a series of surveys commissioned by the British government in the 19th century to assess the level of indigenous education in India. This set him on the path of pioneering research, which brought up startling data. He discovered Thomas Munro’s statement that almost every village in India had a pathshala (school). There were 100,000 village schools reported in Bengal and Bihar alone in the 1830s. Reading, writing, arithmetic, epics and more were being taught. William Adams, one of the surveyors has written that he could not recollect studying in his village school in Scotland anything that had more “direct bearing” upon daily life than what was taught in the “humbler village schools of Bengal”. (Dharampal, 2000)

From different parts of India came reports of dedicated teachers, superior methods of teaching and high school attendance. But what simply challenged every stereotype was that in a large number of schools, “Soodras” were in majority while the Brahmins and “Vysees” were in minority. In Tamil-speaking areas, the Shudras ranged from 70% in Salem and Tinnevelly to over 84% in South Arcot. In Malayalam-speaking Malabar, Brahmin students constituted only 20% of schools, while Shudras were 54% and Muslims were 27%. The same trend was reported in Kannada-speaking Bellary and Oriya-speaking Ganjam. Only in the Telegu-speaking districts, the dwija castes formed the majority of students. Some collectors who furnished data spoke about poor Brahmins who taught children with no expectation of compensation. Girls were mostly home-schooled. However, in the Malabar district as well as “Jeypoor Zamindari of Vizagapatam district”, the percentage of girls was close to 30%, a very high number.  (Dharampal, 2000)

It must be remembered that schooling was not the only way of transmitting basic education. Artisans, craftsmen and agriculturalists taught their skills to apprentices via a separate system of education.

A.D.Campbell, the collector for Bellary applauded the “economical” teaching methods in Indian schools and the system of “more advanced scholars” teaching the “less advanced” thereby confirming their own knowledge. He mentioned that this method “well deserved the imitation it had received in England”. He was referring to the “Madras Method” of teaching, which was introduced by Reverend Andrew Bell in England. Dr Bell had been impressed by little children in Madras writing with their fingers on sand, which “after the fashion of such schools had been strewn before them for that purpose”. He saw a system of children learning from peers. After Dr Bell published his paper on Madras Method, he was in great demand to introduce this in British schools. By 1821, 300,000 children were reportedly being educated under Dr Bell’s principles and his ideas were adopted in Europe, West Indies and even Bogota, Colombia. (Tooley, 2009)


As the British rule progressed in India, villages got increasingly impoverished. For example, when the British with the Nawab of Arcot attacked Thanjavur in 1771 and imposed taxes as high as 59% of gross produce, they created mass poverty overnight! The entire British administrative apparatus was geared towards fleecing the citizens and even the designations of officers such as “District Collectors” indicated that the only aim of the government was to collect taxes. One collector of Bellary was so moved by the plight of the people that he wrote a letter to the authorities that the degeneration of education was attributable to the “transfer of capital of the country from the native government…to the Europeans, restricting it by law from employing it even temporarily in India and daily draining it from the land.” Further, he wrote, “The means of the manufacturing classes have been greatly diminished by the introduction of our own European manufactures.”(Dharampal, 2000)

The British educational policies also sounded the death knell for regional languages as the rush for English-medium education intensified. With every subject being taught in English and mother-tongues being relegated to “second language” the quality of literature in regional languages began sinking. Illiteracy and low self-confidence began to be associated with absence of English proficiency. M.K.Gandhi said in 1931 that the British had left India more illiterate than it was a hundred years ago. Today, India has the largest number of illiterate in the world.

Disturbingly, India’s self-gaze is still through alien eyes. The past heritage lies buried in regional and Sanskrit literature, awaiting illumination. When India became independent from the British in 1947, there was a fresh opportunity to write a new chapter of decolonization.

India is still waiting.

The author would like to acknowledge the critical inputs of the members of Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR). She would also like to express gratitude to Rare Book Society of India and Nikhil Dureja for generously sharing books that provided key references for writing this article.

Works Cited

A.L.Srivastava. (1964). The Sultanate of Delhi 711 to 1526 AD. Shiva Lal Agarwala.

A.S.Altekar. (1944). Education in Ancient India. Nand Kishore and Bros.

Apte, D. Universities in Ancient India.

Basu, B. D. (1922). History of Education in India Under the Rule of the East India Company. The Modern Review Office.

Bose, M. (1990). A Social and Cultural History of Ancient India. Concept Publishing Company.

Clive, J. (1971). The debate on Indian education: Anglicists, Orientalists and the ideology of Empire.

Dharampal. (2000). The Beautiful Tree. Other India Press.

Dwivedi, B. L. (1994). Evolution of Educational Thought in India. Nothern Book Centre.

Figueira, D. M. (1955). Translating the Orient- The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth Century Europe.State University of New York Press.

Habib, I. (2008). Technology in Medieval India. Tulika Books.

Kumar, D., & Desai, M. (1982). The Cambridge Economic History of India Vol 2. Cambridge University Press.

Mehta, J. (1984). Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India. Sterling Publishers Pvt Ltd.

Mookerjee, R. K. (1960). Ancient Indian Education – Brahminical and Buddhist. Motilal Banarsidass.

Mukhia, H. (2004). The Mughals of India. Blackwell Publishing.

Qaisar, A. (1982). Indian Responses to European Technology and Culture. Oxford Universoty Press.

Riaz, A. (2008). Faithful Education: Madrassahs in South Asia. Rutgers University Press.

Sarma, N. (1994). Panditaraja Jagannatha – The Renowned Sanskrit Poet of Medieval India. Mittal Publications.

Sharma, R. N. (2000). History of Education in India. Atlantic Publishers.

Sharma, R. N. (2012). Libraries in the early 21st century, volume 2: An international perspective. De Gruyter Saur.


Tooley, J. (2009). The Beautiful Tree – A personal journey into how the world’s poorest people are educating themselves. Cato Institute.

Trevelyan, C. E. (1838). On the Education of the People of India.

Feature Image Credit: Erik Törner

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Sahana Singh

Sahana Singh is a writer/editor who specializes in environmental issues, current affairs and Indian history. She is a member of Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR), a think tank headquartered in Houston.

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