Vidyasagar and Mass education : A critique on his Bi-centennial Birth Anniversary



Curtain on era of patronage of Arabic and Sanskrit learning

The role of Lord William Bentinck (14 September 1774 – 17 June 1839) for restructuring the socio-cultural foundation of the Hindus “debased by three thousand years of despotism and priestcraft” [1] can rarely be exaggerated. His bold move to ban and abolish the cruel practice of suttee, which implied burning of a Hindu widow alive with the dead body on her husband’s funeral pyre. Even scripture authorized consigning her in flames with sandal, slipper, shoes or discarded clothes used by her husband, in absence dead body, in case of his death in far off land from where convenience did not allow fetching the corpse back to his native place. [2] Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s (25 October 1800 – 28 December 1859) Education Minute approved by Lord Bentick replaced Arabic and Sanskrit by English as sole official language to replace. This measure exerted far-reaching repercussions on Indian polity.

Ram Mohan Roy had articulated in a memorandum to Governor-General Lord Amherst the aspirations of new India, urging incorporation of “a more liberal and enlightened system of instruction, embracing mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry and anatomy and learning educated in Europe, and providing a college furnished with the necessary books, instruments and other apparatus.” [3] Sadly, the country always boasted of people gifted with exclusivist mindset and puerile culture of grabbing everything for self-aggrandisement to the detriment of wellbeing of the rest, though vast in size and strength. They were Hindu intelligentsia, dangerously myopic and self-centred, to whom only their own kith and kin only were fit for the boon flowing from the alien rulers. They took initiative to suppress, distort or whitewash their darkest deeds, mischief, and immorality. No misfortune visited or befell millions in Bengal without blessings the tiny privileged section. A look at what went wrong in education of Bengal seems relevant in our discourse while the country celebrates Iswarchandra Vidyasagar’s bi-centennial birth anniversary.

The so-called elite and intelligentsia of colonial Bengal were hell bent in opposing education for the masses. History stands witness that any authority whosoever attempted to promote education for the masses belonging particularly to the lowest caste hierarchy, had to contend with unrestrained ferocity of public condemnation and vilification. Their malefic opposition was eulogized as patriotism.

William Bentinck’s Education Policy was preceded by acrimonious public debates between the Orientalists and Anglicists—the former advocating Arabic and Sanskrit as the medium of instruction for India whereas the latter favoured English only. Lord Macaulay, an outstanding essayist, historian, poet, orator, and statesman as the captain of the Anglicists had vanquished the Orientalists. [4] He marshalled startling facts about Sanskrit and Arabic education to silence the Orientalists. A provision a lakh for rupees was annually made by the Government Committee of Instruction in printing Arabic and Sanskrit book. But what followed was heart-wrenching.

“These books find no purchasers” observed Macaulay. “It is very rarely that a single copy is disposed of. Twenty-three thousand volumes, most of the folios and quarto, fill the libraries or rather the lumber-rooms, of this body.  The Committee continue to get rid of some portion of this vast stock of Oriental literature by giving books away…. About twenty thousand rupees a year are spent in adding fresh masses of wastepaper to a hoard…. During the last three years, sixty thousand rupees have been expended in this manner.” [5]

His Minute made a mention to the effect that in the meantime, “the School Book Society is selling seven or eight thousand English volumes every year, and not only pays the expenses of printing but realizes a profit of twenty per cent. on its outlay.” [6]

William Adam, Special Education Commissioner of Bengal found that pupils “averse to learning Sanskrit and Arabic pupils were bribed into these studies by stipends, tenable for twelve or fifteen year.” He, on the other hand, noted that the “…doors of the English schools were crowded with boys begging for admission.” [7]  Decades later while reviewing state of Sanskrit learning in Bengal, Lieutenant Governor Campbell was struck by lack of interest of undergraduate students in Sanskrit College, Calcutta. Their strength declined from 26 in 1871 to 23 in 1872. And most of them “in some sense were bribed to go there by some special scholarships….in Calcutta there is so little desire for real oriental learning.” Their desire instead was so much to learn English. [8]

“As the people were averse to learning Sanskrit and Arabic pupils were bribed into  these studies by stipends, tenable for twelve or fifteen year…. Large sums were spent in the reprinting of Sanskrit and Arabic works, containing, for the most part, an  unhealthy literature,    questionable ethics, and false science into Arabic…. the doors of the English schools were crowded with boys begging  for admission.” [9]

 Macaulay’s Education policy and his chocked Filter

Law Member of the Supreme Government, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was appointed by Governor-General Bentinck the President of the Committee of Public Instruction. His model aimed at involvement of the upper social strata in implementing his scheme for educating the countrymen.

“We aim at raising up an educated class who will hereafter, as we hope, be the means of diffusing among their countrymen some portion of the knowledge we have imparted to them.”  [10]

His robust confidence in the upper social castes for translating his scheme of education led to his major failure. The blessed men were interested in cream which they skimmed out by the filtration model. The upper castes were deadly opposed to any idea of enlightenment for the hierarchically lower strata. It was a surprise that a  man of transcendental intelligence and wisdom Macaulay did not notice or anticipate the serious snag in the filter.  He belief about the educated youth to “be conductors of knowledge to the people” [11]  proved a hallucination.

Rev. Lal Behari Day pinpointed where Macaulay went wrong in formulating the laudable policy with upper caste occupying the central position to carry education and knowledge down to the lower social orders.

“The theory of ‘the down filtration of education,” however, fluttering to the pride of the higher classes, has never been verified in history.” He stressed that in India, “the higher classes, or rather the Brahmans, were an educated class a thousand years before the Christian era, and yet during the last hundred generations, not a drop of knowledge has descended to the millions…In this country knowledge never filtered from higher classes. The fact is, the upper classes filter, in India at any rate, is not a filter, but a jar hermetically sealed.” [12]

The so-called conductors of knowledge turned out to be insulators and rendered the scheme sterile or derelict. With the departure of the British, the ungrateful beneficiaries of English education, displayed their true colours by launching vilification campaign against Macaulay, portraying him as a rank imperialist.

In India the question of educating the masses irrespective of caste, creed and faith is a contentious issue. That a tiny section of Indians, nay, Hindus, should indulge in discrimination in an issue as important as this embracing human progress, prosperity and civilisation in every sphere and clime is deplorable. From Manu, Parashar, Annamalai to Vidyasagar, Surendra Nath Banerjea and above all the most celebrated Hindu Gandhiji, to note a few, advocated entitlement of education strictly on caste lines. India for centuries continues to travel under their pernicious shadows. Universalization of education has been opposed by talented and meritorious Indians.

Addressing the Indian National Congress session, Calcutta in 1911, as President, Bishan Narayan Dhar, had observed: –

“…. there are some who object to it (compulsory education) on social and political grounds. To those who are opposed to it because they dread the loss of their menial servants, and desire that millions of poor men may remain steeped in ignorance so that few wealthy magnets may live in luxury.” [13]

Rabindra Nath Tagore too had bemoaned that a section of Bengalis opposed education of          the lower social order because that could deprive them of their menial servants.


Vidyasagar’s penance for sin over his village school

A look at what Vidyasagar told Nabin Chandra Sen, a poet, and Deputy Magistrate  of  Bengal Government may be revealing. The Deputy Magistrate recorded his autobiography:

“এই পোড়া শিক্ষা এই দেশ হইতে উঠিয়া গেলেই ভাল হয়। আমি আমার গ্রামে একটি স্কুল খুলিয়াছি। আর তাহার ফলে আমি দেশত্যাগী হইয়াছি। চাষাভূষার ছেলেরা পর্যন্ত যেই দু’পাতা ইংরাজি পড়িতে আরম্ভ করিল, আর তার পৈতৃক ব্যবসা ছাড়িল। তাহাদের ভাল কাপড় চাহি, জুতা চাহি, মোজা চাহি, মাথায় টেরিটি পর্যন্ত চাহি। এখন আমার বাড়ি যাইবার জো নাই। গেলেই কেহ বলে, “দাদাঠাকুর! তুমি কি করিলে? ছেলেটা খেতের দিকে ফিরিয়াও চাহেনা। আমার আধা বিঘা জমির চাষ হইল না। খাইব কি? ইহার বাবুয়ানার খরচই কোথা হইতে যোগাইব? “কেহ বলে—-‘আমার গরুগুলি মারা গেল। ছেলেটি তাহাদের কাছে একবারও যায় না। চরান দূরে থাকুক। আমার উপায় কি হইবে?’ আমি যেমন পাপ করিয়াছি, আমার তেমন প্রায়শ্চিত্ত হইতেছে। আমি আর পাড়াগাঁয়ে স্কুলের নাম মাত্র করিব না। এ দেশ তেমন নহে যে, লেখা পড়া শিখিয়া আপন আপন ভাল করিয়া  ব্যবসা করিবে। এ লক্ষ্মীছাড়া ছেলেগুলা দু পাতা ইংরাজি পড়িলেই আপনার পৈতৃক ব্যবসা ছাড়িয়া দেয়; আপনার পিতামাতাকে পর্যন্ত ঘৃণা করে।” [14]

নবীন চন্দ্র সেন আরও সংযোজন করে বলেছেন, “ কথাগুলি শুনিয়াছি আজ কত বৎসর। কিন্তু এখনও সে কন্ঠস্বর আমার কানে জাগিতেছে। তিনি এই শিক্ষাবিভ্রাটের আরম্ভে যাহা দিব্যচক্ষে দেখিয়াছিলেন, আজ তাহা অক্ষরে অক্ষরে ফলিয়াছে। আজ চাষা,  ধোপা, নাপিত, জেলে, হাড়ি, সকলের ছেলেই লেখাপড়া শিখিতেছে। লক্ষ্য—-পেয়াদাগিরি ও কনস্টেবলি। এই শিক্ষার পরিনাম কি, ভগবানই জানেন।” [15]

Translated by this writer, Vidyasagar’s statement conveyed: –

It will be a good riddance, should the accursed policy of education get  a burial. I have established a school in my village in consequence of which I’ve deserted native place. As soon as children of farmers and labourers learn muttering few English words, they shun their ancestral occupations. Their run amuck for fashionable dresses, shoes, socks, hats, etc. For them only I am unable to go home. As soon as I reach home (Birsingha), I am invaded by parents of those boys. They start pestering me, “Oh! My venerable, Sir, what have you done? My ward is totally unconcerned about my farm. Half a bigha of my land remained untilled in the current season. How shall I meet the requirement of food for the family? Over and above, I have to foot bills for his fashionable dress, hats, etc. Someone says my cattle have died but my son does not care to graze them. I have committed sin for which I am undergoing penance. I have solemnly sworn that I shall never ever establish any other schools in countryside. In this land, nobody, after receiving education, engages himself in pursuit of his ancestral occupation. No sooner than one starts muttering few English words, he shuns profession of his forefathers, nay, even hates his parents.”

Nabin Chandra Sen synthesized what Vidyasagar told him: “even though I had heard him utter this prophetic warning long ago, it continues to ring in my ears still. The legendary educationist foresaw the disaster education was capable of inflicting on the society. Today, the farmer, washerman, barber, fisherman, Hari (recruited as “scavenger, palki-bearer, chowkidar, musician, pig-rarer, cultivator” [16]) have been enrolling themselves in school with sole or solitary ambition for seeking an employment as piyada, (guards) or police constables. Nobody knows how such education would benefit the country.” [17]

Repeating the same pungent observation quoted in Bengali statement above, may we guess,   what did educationist Vidyasagar convey thereby? Considered most dispassionately, there       can be little doubt, he was the staunchest opponent of universalization of education to benefit the low castes. To many the mindset of Vidyasagar, as reflected in the above statement, may appear altogether novel and at variance with the public image assiduously built by relentless propaganda! 

A speech delivered at Calcutta on 1st June 1878 to mark 35th death Anniversary David Hare, the “Father of English Education Bengal,” Surendra Nath Banerjea invited the attention of his audience to remarks of Sir Robert Anstruther made in the House Commons in 1811 in connection with the question of native education. In surprise and astonishment, he asked, “whether it was intended to educate the people of India, and if it was so intended, whether it was really advisable to educate them?” Banerjea disclosed that the said “worthy” Sir Robert            Anstruther was “no other than a late Chief Justice of Bengal.” [18] Surendra Nath            pungently observed “whether he (the former Chief Justice) was standing on his head or his feet.” [19]

S. N. Banerjea told his audience that “great authority (the former Chief Justice), was of  opinion that it was unsafe, perilous to the maintenance of British supremacy that natives of India should receive the benefit of education.” [20] Some of the Hindu scriptures prescribed  cutting off tongue, or slitting body should any Shudra read, uttered or memorised some   or any part of the scriptures. There were other more relevant mischief Banerjea had  committed for blocking education of the masses. Barbarism of this kind did not invite condemnation of these enlightened souls, though richly or eminently deserving in national    interest. Two instances of Banerjea’s complicity drawn from unchallengeable authority are   cited.

The Times, London and UNESCO focus on Primary Education in Bengal

The Times, London, 13, November 1926 published an Educational Supplement on Primary Education in Bengal wherein the deplorable state of education was highlighted. Miss Katherine Mayo, an American journalist, who was pilloried by hurling abuses by elites, nationalist and friends of India alike, had quoted the state of primary education from the aforesaid source in her Mother India thus:

“The Bengal Legislature…. passed an Act introducing the principle of compulsory primary education in May 1919; but it does not appear that a single local authority in the province has availed itself of the option which the Act provides.” [21]

The powerful London Times’ appreciation of the role of the Department concerned shows that nothing was achieved to merit notice as such. In 1952, United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conducted a study of Compulsory Primary Education in India and its findings are neither palatable for Bengal. UNESCO observed that “…. the local bodies are not taking adequate measures to enforce compulsory attendance.”  [22] The blame for not doing anything worthwhile in compulsory attendance must be put at the doorstep of Banerjea, the minister in charge of Local Bodies. Banerjea, we have noted, adored the office of Local Self Government. The Department of Local Self-Government was charged with the task of implementing the compulsion of primary education in the country. The Department concerned subjected the issue of spreading primary education through compulsory attendance to calculated negligence and blissful apathy.   

The UNESCO report also pointed out that

“The results (of compulsory education) obtained naturally vary from area to area and there is a world of difference between a State like Bengal where compulsion exists only on paper and a State of Baroda where some remarkable results were obtained.” [23]

In the hands of an inveterate enemy of primary education nothing else was expected than what UNESCO documented.  

Banerjea was knighted in 1921. He was appointed a minister under dyarchy in the same year. Prior to joining as minister, he met the Governor of Bengal and demanded the portfolio of “Education and Local Self-government.” A foresighted Sir Ronaldshay (Governor between 26 March, 1917-March 28, 1922), offered him the portfolio of Local Self-Government. [24] If we think in the hindsight, we must admit that the Governor’s deft decision proved a saving grace for the people because he protected the mass education against disaster in Bengal. Let me explain the reasons behind such view which may be criticized as unfair by many.

S. N. Banerjea’s negligence with respect to giving primary education to masses grew of out of conflict with his personal interests. After his dismissal from the ICS in 1874, Surendra Nath Banerjea was the earliest to launch nationalist movement. But, unfortunately, the same leader opposed the Compulsory Education Bill Gopal Krishna Gokhale had tabled in the Central Legislative Council in 1911. The Bill of Gokhale has been overrated. But his vested interest drove Banerjea against the Bill. Indian history is replete with the pugnacious accusation that Gokhale’s Education Bill met with the opposition of the arrogant colonial masters, leading to its defeat in the Council. This is not true. The fact is that those who vigorously campaigned against Gokhale’s Bill included the political giants like Surendra Nath Banerjea. Gokhale’s biographer says that “Surendra Nath Banerjea opposed it (Compulsory Education Bill), fearing that it would divert funds for elementary education from higher education.” Historians do not take into account this truth in assessing Banerjea’s political role. Madan Mohan Malaviya and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to note some prominent few, besides many municipalities had supported the Bill. [25] The reputed scientist and founder of Bengal Chemicals, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy, had long later bemoaned that Gokhale died not because his Bill was thrown out by the Central Legislative Council on account of bureaucratic opposition, as it is often was made out, but because he could not bear the shock of betrayal of his close friends who had back-stabbed him on this Bill. Nobody called the bluff of Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea. [26]

In no way, Gokhale’s Compulsory Education scheme was a panacea. Its cardinal   criterion reads: “In any area, where 33 per cent of the male population is already at   school, there this principle of compulsion should be applied.” [27] On this    yardstick alone the entire rural India would stand disqualified for compulsion. Few towns of   the vast subcontinent, at the best, could benefit.  The tallest of Hindu leaders, M. K. Gandhi did not feel ashamed for attitudinal hostility  against lower castes over the three R’s. In1909, he proclaimed,

   “What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an          inch to his happiness?.it is not necessary to make this education compulsory?”  [28]

He professed his blind faith in ‘ancient school system.’ for education. The ancient      lawgiver Manu must have felt overwhelmed for such a blind admirer. Nobody asked whether all these popular Hindu public leaders including Banerjea and patrons of    education stood on their “head or his feet?”

Mayo Era in Indian Education

The tenure (1869 to 1872) of Lord Mayo, the Fourth Viceroy of India. He     created a spectacular space in the annals of education in this country. The policy he pursued was unique and so without parallel.  His perception and    philosophy of education   is perhaps little known to the common man. The    works of William Wilson Hunter, ICS include two separate sets on Viceroy Earl of Mayo—one comprising two volumes published in 1876 and the other in 1892. The objectives of the Viceroy to educate the masses, highlighted Hunter, how he had invited strongest objections, if not condemnation from     the elite and orthodox element in Bengal. And Vidyasagar, incidentally, was   in the frontline of his uncompromising critics.

Soon after his arrival, Mayo noticed the differences between various Provinces of      India in this respect. In Bombay, for example, he found schools sown    broadcast over the    country, and public instruction planted on a wide and   popular basis.

   “In Lower Bengal, he found quite a different system pursued. High-class  education   flourished.  The Calcutta University, with its central knot of able and distinguished professors, set the fashion to the whole schools of Bengal, and practically prescribed the teaching in a large proportion of them. The wealthier section of the community had educational facilities lavished upon them such as no other Province of India enjoyed, and such as few market (I had almost said county) towns in England at that time possessed.     The State tried zealously to  discharge its duty in instructing the people, and it interpreted this     duty to mean a high-class education for a small section of them. It devoted a very large   proportion of  its Education Grant to this object, and it obtained a striking and brilliant success.   The ‘ Bengali Babu’ has become the recognised type of the educated native of Northern India. [29]

 (Italicized by this writer).

What were the practical implications and ramifications of the Macaulay model  on  the ground? The masses no more were in the focus of his model. The upper castes discovered the benefits of discrimination in education on hierarchical lines of caste.  The higher castes opposed the necessity of educating the masses. And   when denial of education as a policy became impossible or impracticable, they  grudgingly provided imperfect education, if  at all with an aim to leave the lower social orders at a disadvantage in struggle of their life.   The future prospect of educational development in Bengal always was subjected to two  tier system. A small section hailing from the higher echelons of caste ensconced themselves in management and control of education and they became the arbiters of entitlement   of the common man.

The scenario seems like predator among his prey.    So, the Governor-General broke away from the course charted by Macaulay to consider the upper social strata as the vehicle for translating his educational mission for the masses into reality. In a letter to his friend, the Viceroy gave vent to his anguish: –

“I dislike the filtration theory. In Bengal, we are educating few hundred Baboos at great cost to the State…Many…. have no other object in learning than to qualify for government employ. In the meanwhile, we have done nothing towards extending knowledge to the millions.” [30]

This was an unambiguous admission of the state of education in Bengal. The model, eulogised as the down filtration of education, did not benefit the masses. What were the aspirations the Viceroy held for the millions? Mayo’s observations were unpalatable for the wealthy and advanced class of Babus of Bengal and thereby made him unpopular among them. The Babus’ attitudinal hostility against education of the masses came out nakedly in the public domain in the words of Viceroy.

“The baboos will never do it. The more education you give them, the more they will keep to themselves, and make their increased knowledge a means of their tyranny. Let the baboos learn English by all means. But let us also try to do something towards teaching the three R’s to “Rural Bengal”. [31]

Nobody ever noted or highlighted the diabolical traits of the babus. Tyrannical traits of the bhadralok were shaped and sharpened under the privilege Macaulay had ordained for them. Sadly, it was they who were vocal and trenchant critics of their ungrateful benefactors in post-colonial era. However, no impartial analyst and appraiser, save and except the beneficiaries and their camp followers, of the education might find Mayo’s views and appreciation objectionable. The tyrannical attitude made the bhadralok fraternity believe that they represent the entire Bengalis including those they opposed, resulting in deplorable ramifications in social and political terms, if not cultural as well. At the cost of state exchequer, the Babus were pampered to the extent of becoming mass destruction weapons with no parallel in educational and civilization elsewhere. It is indeed true that their “increased knowledge” made them inveterate enemies not only of the unfortunate illiterate Bengalis but also people in the neighbourhood—by which I mean, Bihar, Orissa, or Assam and above all East Bengal. Today descendants of those unfortunate tyrannized Bengalis have been paying price for the Baboos’ past.

In India, no Viceroy or Provincial Governor ever changed the policy of his predecessor; he only ‘develops’ it. Lord George Campbell was the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, who was a perfect counterpart of Lord Mayo’s dynamism for education for the masses. In these circumstances, education underwent radical transformation—masses occupying the central position in administrative attention. In Hunter’s words,

“in 1870-71 the Department of Public Instruction was educating 163,854 children in Lower Bengal at a cost of £186,598 to the State. In 1874, when Sir George Campbell laid down the Lieutenant-Governorship, he left 400,721 children being educated at a cost to the Government of £228,151.” [32]

The emphasis by Lord Campbell towards education for the masses invited virulent condemnation of the pampered section of the Bengali Hindus, who were very powerful and vocal. But the Lieutenant Governor Campbell had discovered the unique ground realities. With uprightness and candour, he recorded: –

“…the Bengal Education Department may be said to be a Hindoo institution. Hindoos have monopolized all the places below the highest, and all the executive management. This undoubtedly places the Muhammadans at some real disadvantage. It is very difficult, almost impossible, to remedy it.” [33]

A cursory look at the field officers of education, e. g., inspector, deputy inspector etc. would shock anybody how the bhadralok exploited the machinery to their own advantages to the detriment of education of all others. That actually is the actual and factual import of “Hindoo institution.”  Space constraints prevent me from demonstrating names of dozens of themes who manned those offices in Bihar, Orissa, Assam besides Bengal.

The department of education virtually became a grazing ground   of the Hindus, by the Hindus and for the Hindus—none beyond them had any opportunity to benefit thereby. So, Mayo reversed diametrically the Hindu centric aims and objectives of the Department much to their chagrin. The credit of turning these aspirations into administrative facts, wrote William Hunter, “belongs to Sir George Campbell, the Lieutenant-Governor who ruled Bengal during the chief part of Lord Mayo’s Viceroyalty.” [34] They together formed a grand combination and ushered a lease of administration, unknown to Bengal.  The beneficiaries of higher education, who, hitherto grabbed the entire attention of the official machineries held a large meeting in Calcutta Town Hall to condemn George Campbell. The meeting, called Rakshashi Sabha (রাক্ষসী সভা), [35] abused and assailed Lieutenant Governor carpingly alleging that he laid axe to the roots of higher education!

            George Campbell revised the scholarship rules and arranged a system of scholarships, so as, to enable clever and deserving boys to climb from the lowest to the highest stage.

“Scholarships were for the first time awarded to primary schools. The various stages of schools were established so that ”the gifted son of a raiyat or labourer may become a distinguished engineer or physician; or agriculturist, or administrator of high degree, or a Judge of the Highest Court,” being educated thereto at the public expense, through scholarships… By the end of 1873, the total grant for primary education had increased to nearly 8 lakh and 10,787 village schools, old and new, with 355,728 scholars had been brought under the Government scheme.    By the 31st March 1874, there were 12,229  primary schools and 303,437 pupils.” [36]  

In Maharashtra, patriot Bal Gangadhar Tilak paraded his copious concerns for losses to be sustained by parents of low caste by attending classes. “You take away a farmer’s boy from the plough, the blacksmith’s boy from the bellows and the cobbler’s boy from his awl with the object of giving him education….and the boy learns to condemn the profession of his father, not to speak of the loss to which the latter is put by being deprived of the son’s assistance at the old trade.”  [37] That was indeed the proverbial crocodile’s tears!

Rules of Poona Hindu Plague Hospital with establishment of which Tilak was associated, mandated that it was “opened to all Hindus except members of the low   castes.”  [38]   ( By 1920, the plague claimed over 10,000,000      lives of Indian. The grave national catastrophe notwithstanding, the celebrated nationalist        leader was unshaken in his caste-line!

Lord Curzon too encountered vehement opposition from the same entrenched upper castes. In educational policy, he focused on mass education for which he made larger provision of resources of the state. UNESCO focused his policy:

“…the old policies in primary education were soon abandoned and more vigorous attempts were began to be made to educate the masses. Lord Curzon took the lead in this matter and sanctioned large recurring and non-recurring grants for primary education during his tenure of office (1898-1905)” [39]

The agitation against partition of Bengal on pure administrative convenience was unmerited because the actual reasons of the agitating bhadralok was different which they were shy to admit in public domain.

Educational destitute Namasudras And self-help for the light

Generations and centuries of educational destitution of Namasudras, who were the largest untouchable community of colonial East Bengal, posed an insurmountable crisis with educationists, nationalists and patriots fanatically prejudiced as well as avowedly arrayed against them. They had no patron to extend a helping hand in their deplorable existence. An official report by a high-ranking police officer described them in 1873 as “only little better than animals.”  In 1872 the Chandals of Barisal, Faridpur and Jessore launched a “general strike” against the upper caste Hindus demanding recognition of higher social status. The normal life of 5.5 million people of these districts covering an area of over 10,000 sq. miles was completely   paralyzed and deranged for four months. The Superintendent of Police of Faridpur district, W. L. Owen, documented in his report to the Faridpur District Magistrate how the Hindus regarded the agitating Chandals, who in 1911 were rechristened officially as Namasudra. According to the District Police Chief, “the Hindus of upper castes… consider them only little better than beasts.” [40]

However, twelve decades—precisely 112 years—ago fortunately, they charted out a unique course involving the community for self-help to access education. They adopted a pioneering lead in compliance to certain solutions in a meeting in Khulna in March, 1908. Referring to the deliberations of the aforementioned Namasudra conference, attended by Namasudras from various districts, e. g. Khulna, the adjoining district and districts of Eastern Bengal,  J. H. F. Garrett, ICS recorded in the Nadia District Gazetteers  stated that

“as a community, the Chandals or Namasudras shew considerable aptitude for organization and that the ideals pursued by the better classes among them seem praiseworthy…. From   the published reports it appears that its objects were the spread of education, the establishment of a permanent fund, and the removal of social evils.” In pursuance of those objects, the following resolutions were passed: —

“(1) That the Namasudra conference be made permanent by yearly meetings to be held in  the different districts for the discussion of social matters and the spread of education;

(2) that a village committee be formed in every Namasudra village, and unions of 15 such villages, and a district committee in every district;

(3) that for acquiring funds for a Namasudra contribution fund, village committees, unions   and district committees be authorised to collect subscriptions. A handful of rice should be set apart before meals in every family, and collected weekly by the village committee. Every member of village committee will pay a monthly subscription of one anna, of unions two annas, and district committees four annas. Three per cent, of the expenses incurred in sraddha, marriages and other occasions must be reserved for this fund; and

 (4) that as some active measure should be adopted towards social reform, it is resolved that any Namasudra marrying his son under 20 or daughter under 10 will be excommunicated.  The committees and unions must be especially careful about strict compliance with these resolutions.” [41]

These resolutions were adopted under the guidance of Guruchand Thakur who was advised and aided by Dr. Cecil Silas Mead, an Australian Missionary working among the Namasudas in East Bengal. According a historian, as many as 3,952 schools were established in all over Bengal under the inspiring guidance and leadership of Guruchand Thakur, who was an influential social reformer and guru of his populous community like his illustrious father Harichand Thakur. [42]

They adopted procedure for their own education while how the Hindus decades ago, we have seen, lavishly. The wealthier section of the community had educational facilities lavished upon them by the State authorities such as no other Province of India enjoyed. They not only fatten themselves by state resources but looked dazzling and glamorous.  So, those unfortunate people whose the fate was considered “little better than animals” they had hard luck in the given circumstances.

The case study below shows the typical roadblocks the untouchables encountered from Bengali upper caste Hindus in every sphere for establishing schools for emancipation of their children.

Part III

An illiterate villager in Barisal turned torchbearer

A Case Study of a village a High School [43]

Bhegai Halder, an illiterate Namasudra of village Agailjhara of Barisal district of colonial East Bengal (now Bangladesh) was a man of saintly character and sterling qualities. Illiteracy of this man did not militate against his association with contemporary political stalwarts, e. g., Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Surendranath Banerjea, A. K. Fazlul Haq, Aswini Kumar Datta, etc. Experience of his life persuaded him to found a high school in his native village to emancipate his succeeding generations from the curse of discrimination and injustice. This noble mission drove him all over Bengal to collect donations from all and sundry. His Collection Book shows that Barisal District Magistrate, J. R. Blackwood donated a sum of Rs. 450 [July 4, 1919]. Bhegai succeeded in receiving donation even from the Governor of Bengal. His co-villagers—Ramcharan Barai, Durgacharan, Abhaycharan and Gangacharan—all siblings— gifted 4.6 acres of land on which began odyssey for chasing his mission for educating rural children.

On May 31 1930, Madan Mohan Malavya, the founder of Benares Hindu University, discloses the Collection Book, had appealed to all liberal people  for extending “support to the Agailjhara High School.” He also hoped that “the school will be subscribed by generous people who desire to see the youth of the Namasudra Community educated.”

Founded on 26 January 1919 as a Middle School, which ultimately metamorphosed into Agailjhara H. E. School in 1926 with affiliation of Calcutta University. The Bhegai’s High School functioned smoothly till 1933 when a local conspiracy led the Calcutta University to disaffiliate Agailjhara High School.

The High School was the epitome of his dream which the Calcutta University shattered. The illiterate founder could not bear the shock any longer. Heartbroken, Bhegai Halder breathed his last within a year after the fatal blow.

The reason of Bhegai’s School losing affiliation was attributable to a local conspiracy, if not caste hatred which, in any case, was all-pervading in Bengal.  Behari Lal Chakraborty founded a High School in village Bakal within a mile of Agailjhara.  Chakraborty and Professor (Dr.) Dinesh Chandra Sen, a don of Calcutta University were classmates. As a member of Syndicate of Calcutta University Dr. Sen’s recommendation was responsible for disaffiliation of Agailjhara school. Besides close proximity of two High Schools, financial unsoundness, among others, led the Calcutta University to cancel Agailjhara High School’s affiliation. Jogendra Nath Mandal, secretary of the school and A. K. Fazlul Haq threw their weight behind Agailjhara School. The School received, in the end, permanent affiliation of Calcutta University in its Syndicate Meeting [Agenda item no. 46 of January 25, 1946]. Both were luminous stars of political horizon of contemporary Bengal. Alas! Bhegai Halder did not survive to see the school which bloomed renamed as Agailjhara Bhegai Halder Public Academy in full glory. As a co-education institution, it occupies now a pride of Barisal.

Education does not necessarily endow compassion or respect in any man towards the underprivileged and disadvantaged for education. Knowledge turned Vidyasagar and many others shinning and meritorious ‘tyrannical.’  Vidyasagar had written to the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal in 1859 that government should “in my humble opinion, confine itself to the education of the higher classes on a comprehensive scale.”[44] The great educationist was, in all fairness we must assert, unambiguously exclusionary in his educational philosophy.

American journalist Miss Katherine Mayo was prophetic when she underlined boldly that

“…if Indian self-government were established tomorrow, and if wealth rushed in, succeeding poverty in the land, India, unless she reversed her own     views as to her “Untouchables” and   as to her women, must       still continue   in the front line of the    earth’s   illiterates.”  [45]

The minority tyranny has kept tens of millions of the nation in abyss of darkness, no enemy could have achieved this impossible task. The rate of average literacy census of India 2011 returned was 73.8%—male literacy 84.13% and female, 65.47%. [46]

We must distinguish between literacy and education. And India has yet a long way to go.

Dr. Atulkrishna Biswas is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Bihar University, Muzaffarpur, the writer is an analyst and commentator of social anthropological issues.


[1] Bengal Administration Report, 1871-72, p. 156.

[2] Charles Edward Buckland, ICS, quoted the eye-witness account of widow burning on the banks of the Hooghly of District Magistrate, Hooghly Sir James Frederick Halliday, who rose to be the first Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal.  “It was one of those frequent cases in which the husband’s death has occurred too far off for the body to be brought to the pile, and instead of it a part of his clothing had been laid thereon by the widow’s side.” C. E. Buckland, Bengal under the Lieutenant-Governors, vol. I, Calcutta, 1902 second edition, pp.160-161. Parliamentary Papers presented by Government of India disclose that “…a turban, a dagger, a pair of sandals, a portion of wearing apparel, a roll of beads, a stick, a fiddle..” would suffice for an unfortunate widow for consigning to the flames. Parliamentary Paper, p. 254.

[3] An Advanced History of India by R C Majumdar, H C Raychaudhuri & Kalikrishna Datta, Fourth edition, Macmillan & Company, 1991, p. 811.

[4] Rev. Lal Behari Day, Recollections of Alexander Duff, London, 1879, p. 53.

[5] Ibid., pp. 54-55.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p. 55.

[8] Bengal Administration Report, 1871-72, p. 228.

[9] Ibid. p. 55.

[10] Herbert Alick Stark, Vernacular Education in Bengal from 1813 to 1912, Calcutta General Publishing Co., 1916, p. 55.

[11] Ibid. p. 89.

[12] Rev Lal Behari Day, quoted by Herbert Alick Stark, Vernacular Education in Bengal, Calcutta General Publishing Company, 1916, p. 89.

[13] Address at Calcutta Session in 1911 of Bishan Narayan Dhar, President, Indian National Congress compiled by A. M. Zaidi, Vol. I, 1986, p. 499.

[14] Nabin Chandra Sen, Amar Jeevan (Bengali), Memoirs, Vol. I, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Calcutta, 1966, p. 282.

15 Ibid.

[16] The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, Vol I, Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1892, H. H. Risley, ICS, pp. 314-315.

[17] Nabin Chandra Sen, op. cit.

[18] Speeches Babu Surendra Nath Banerjee 1876-80, Vol. 1, ed. 3rd, by Ram Chandra Palit, Calcutta, S. K. Lahiri & Co., 1894, p. 86.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Primary Education in Bengal in Educational Supplement, The Times, London, November 13, 1926, p. 484 quoted by   Katherine Mayo, Mother India, 1928, New York, p. 189.

[22] UNESCO, Compulsory Education in India, Paris, 1952, p. 70.

[23] UNESCO, op. cit, p. 80-81.

[24] A Nation in Making by Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea, Second Impression, Oxford University Press, 1925, p. 337.

[25] A. K. Biswas, Universalisation of Education: India in a Trap—Bane of Negligence Portends National Disaster, Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] A Life of Earl Mayo, Fourth Viceroy of India, by W. W. Hunter, Second Edition, Volume II, Smith Elder & Co.,               1876, pp. 300-301.

[30]  W. W. Hunter, A Life of The Earl of Mayo, Fourth Viceroy of India, Volume II, Second Edition, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1876, p. 303. file:///C:/Users/AK%20Biswas/Downloads/ALifeoftheEarlofMayoFourthViceroyofIndia_10646697.pdf

[31] Ibid.

[32] Report by the Director of Public Instruction, LP for 1870-71, pp. 2-3. Administrative Report of Bengal for 1873-74; Statistical Returns cxi-cxiii quoted by W. W. Hunter, W. W. Hunter, A Life of The Earl of Mayo, Fourth Viceroy of India, Volume II, Second Edition, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1876, pp.304-305.

[33] Bengal Administration Report, 1871-72, p. 255.

[34] W. W. Hunter, A Life of The Earl of Mayo, Fourth Viceroy of India, Volume II, Second Edition, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1876, p. 303.

[35] Nabin Chandra Sen, op cit. p. p. 282.

[36] Bengal Under the Lieutenant-Governors, by Charles Edward Buckland, S K Lahiri & Co, Calcutta, 1901, p.  530.

[37] Mahratta, May 15, 1881, pp. 3-4, “Our System of Education-A defect and a cure, quoted by Parimala V Rao in Education & Lose Nationality-Reading Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Critical Quest, New Delhi, 2008, p. 8.

[38] Dr. Atulkrishna Biswas, Coronavirus from Wuhan in 2019 Reminds catastrophe plague from Manchuria in 1896 wrought in India: Lessons of history, Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020.

[39] UNESCO, Compulsory Education in India, Paris, 1952, p. 24.

[40] W. L. Owen, District Superintendent of Police, Faridpur, no. 66 dated Bhanga, March 18, 1873 to The District Magistrate, Faridpur, quoted in The 1873 Movement for Dignity and Equality before Law, Government of West Bengal, Department of Backward Classes Welfare, June, 2015, Kolkata, para. 3, p. 17.

[41] Nadia District Gazetteer, by J. H. F. Garrett, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1910, p. 46-47; Khulna District Gazetteers by O’Malley, L. S. S., Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, Calcutta, 1908, p. 66. Bengal District Gazetteers—Jessore, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, Calcutta, 1912, pp. 61-62.

[42] Jiban Mukherjee,  Swadesh Parichay O poribesh, Nababharat Prakashani in Bengali, Kolkata,  2015, p. 116.

[43] Source materials of the case study are drawn from [a Bengali booklet] Alor Dishari Mahatma Bhegai Halder by Binod Behari Jaydhar, Bandhab Palli, Bira, North 24-Parganas, West Bengal, June 10, 1995 and

[44] A. K. Biswas, op. cit. › article1615.

[45] Katherine Mayo, Mother India, Blue Ribbon Books, New York, Thirty-Third Printing, March, 1931, p. 202.




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