Modernists – Then & Now

Early Indian modernists
Early Indian modernists

This morning a discussion on life, work and legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan led to a question on why did they call for ‘modern’ education in India of the mid 19th century (around 1840-1890 period)? How different was the Indian education system before the onset of colonial period and post? What did Indian education lack that the ‘modern’ British system have?

One perspective stems from Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree, an important work on the history of Indian education system. He argues that much of the British education system of the British India (and consequently today’s education system) is based on the ancient Indian structure. By this he probably means that the instruction method, spread of schools (as in a school in every village) and curriculum all appear to have been adopted and modified to the needs of the British administration and presented as their own. I do not doubt the claims of the book nor the scholar’s study. In fact, I find the process only too natural.

I have two observations on the current discourse on origins of modern education system in India and its effects:

1. Allegation that British education system is essentially Indian, with a sense that it is noting new but our own system shown to us as new is not true.

2. ‘Modernists’ of 19th century are not much different in their approach to the new crop of Indian academicians and professors who have returned to India (or visit periodically) after being trained abroad or worked abroad. The ideas they propagate back in India are pretty much the same like what the modernists of 19th century did!

Saying that the British system of education is only a derivative of traditional Indian system is one thing. But implying that the British system has in some way borrowed and been deceitful in doing that would be flawed. Here is my reason for believing so. If the invaders in any geography are powerful enough and have long term ambitions to rule the place and not just plunder it then it is quite a natural progression that the dominating power would manipulate the processes of this new land and its people. Like if they want Indians to work in the new order of production (and industry) in British India then they would also have to be oriented and trained likewise. If the British empire brought in railways, elaborate administrative processes and newer technologies (post industrial revolution) to India then they also wanted to condition Indians to be able to work in that new environment. This is easier when one takes in an existing mode of learning of the natives themselves and modify it by incorporating all that you would also want to ensure that the natives learn in order to serve you better (remember this is a colonial power-colony relationship) The ‘modernists’ like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy saw how out of tune a native Indian is, in this new order of things in British India. They probably felt that it would hinder the growth of the native Indian as he wouldn’t be able to better his lot if he doesn’t ‘learn’ the ways of the new India. Also, we know that Syed Ahmed Khan held British empire to be way too powerful and that Indians didn’t stand a chance if they were to revolt against it, as they did in the uprising of 1857. Now this was one group of people who thought that Indians should modernize – learn English language and train in newer fields of science and industry. Those who pushed for such ideas are termed ‘modernists’ of the late 19th century.

There is another set of modernists that I see – Indian academicians and professors who are trained abroad. I find that they do not see themselves as agents propagating certain ideas which do not necessarily hold the same importance as they think it should or are simply irrelevant. To my understanding they aren’t any different from what our 19th century modernists were doing. These I call modernists of now. Except the subaltern studies initiative, I do not recall anything as original as this in its concern and rigour. We have some of the major works on Indian society, culture and politics from western thinkers. Also in many instances divergent from what the native sociologists would see it like.

These are some first thoughts on a discussion on some of the early modernists in India and which was in some way imagined as something that happened in the past. In spirit, I think it still happens and will keep happening. Being conscious of it can be a better position to be in than always looking at it in retrospect.

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