History of Democracy and Education (and how British colonialism dismantled it)

This article is about the history of democratic culture in India and how it has shaped our present system of education and therefore our lives. It talks about how traditional education system before and during the time of the East India Company, how the school system changed during British rule with the introduction of the English language and its far reaching consequences.

Traditional schools

The British Parliament in 1813, required the Company to apply 1,00,000 rupees per year “for the encouragement of the learned natives of India, and this had gone to support traditional forms of education, which (like their contemporary equivalents in England) were firmly non-utilitarian. William Adam in his first report stated that there were 1 lakh village schools in Bengal and Bihar in the 1830s.

According to his computations, there were 10,800 scholars studying in 1800 institutions of higher learning in Bengal alone. School attendance, in the districts of Madras Presidency, in the period 1822-25 was proportionately higher than the numbers in all varietites of schools in England in 1800. Similar observations were made by Leitner in 1882 who noted that there were 1,90,000 students studying in the schools of Punjab.

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions, were actually kept alive by revenue contributions from the community. Even illiterate peasants contributed and their contribution was called shiksha.

These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. The geography and social patterns of the region strongly influenced education. The aims of this education were to provide good training to young men and women in the performance of their social, economic and religious duties. This included preservation and enrichment of culture and character. Therefore the term school is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

In these schools, all the castes including the lower castes were very well represented. The schools in the district of North Arcot had different languages of instruction: Grantham, Hindvee (a dialect of Hindi), Marathi, Tamil, and Telugu.

In Sanskritic schools the predominant subjects taught were; grammar, logic, law, literature, astrology, lexicology, rhetoric, medicine, Vedanta, Tantra, Mimansa, and Sankhya. Some of the different methods of learning were memorization, critical analysis, introspection, seminars and hands on learning by doing. It was presumed that music and dance were taught by the large temple organizations, and that technology and crafts were learnt from the parents at home.

G. L. Prendergast, a member of the council in the Bombay Presidency had nothing but praise for the Indian education system:

…“there is hardly a village, in which there is not at least one school; many in every town; where young natives are taught reading, writing and arithmetic,
…the system is so economical, that from a handful or two of grain, to perhaps a rupee a month is given to the school master according to the ability of the parents,
…and at the same time the system is so simple and effectual, that there is hardly a cultivator or petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy, beyond what we meet with amongst the lower orders in our own country; whilst the more splendid dealers and bankers keep their books with a degree of ease and conciseness I rather think fully equal to any British merchants.”

Organization and Maintenance

And how were all these institutions, ‘school in every village’ organized and maintained?

The answer may lie partially in Charles Metcalfe’s observation that India ‘has mostly been a happy land of village republics.’ This implied that the village, to an extent, had all the semblance of the State. The basic element of this ‘village republic’ was the authority it wielded, the resources it controlled and dispensed, and the manner of such resource utilization.

About a quarter to one third of the revenue paying sources (land and sea ports) were, according to traditional practices assigned for the requirements of the social and cultural infrastructure, (including educational institutions) until the British overturned it all.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, according to James Mill, ‘in the ordinary state of things in India, the princes stood in awe of their subjects.’ According to some the very word “Raja” meant “one who pleases” and therefore any right of the king was subject to the fulfillment of duties and was forfeited if such duties were not performed.

Passive Resistance

Elaborating on the idea of passive resistance Gandhi stated:

In India, the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us. For example, in a small principality, the villagers were offended by some command issued by the Prince. The former immediately started vacating the village. The prince became nervous, apologized to his subjects and withdrew his command.

Thus civil disobedience and non-cooperation were traditionally the key method used by the Indian people against oppressive and unjust actions of the government.

It is beyond any doubt that throughout its history, Indian society and polity has basically been organized according to non-centralist concepts.

Panchayats have been the backbone of Indian villages since the beginning of recorded history. Karnataka passed the Gram Panchayat and local governments Act in 1959, Gram and Taluk Panchayat laws were passed in 1960 and by 1983 the Panchayati Raj system was adopted. The passage of the 73rd Amendment Act in 1992, provided constitutional status to the Panchayati Raj institutions. The act ensured a 3 tiered system of Panchayati Raj for all states with a population of over 20 lakhs. The Panchayat was responsible for the planning and implementation of plans for economic development and social justice. This system has 3 levels, the Gram Panchayat at the village level, the Block Samiti at the Block level and the Zilla Parishad at the district level.

Today, the Gram Panchayat forms the cornerstone of local self-government in India at the village level and has a sarpanch as its elected head. It takes care of health, sanitation, education and general welfare of the people as well as collection of taxes and settlement of disputes.

A Part of the British Empire

In 1858, India was made a part of the British empire and this act had a huge impact on Indian education.
When James Mill took the view that the aim of the company should have been to further, not Oriental learning, but “useful learning,” the indigenous system was allowed to deteriorate and in its place following T. B. Macaulay’s famous Minute on Instruction, the colonialists installed a system that was designed to provide clerks for the administration of the empire.

The British education system evolved from the needs that arose at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Children needed to be trained to listen, understand and do what was told in order to be able to work in factories and workshops. Classes were started for children where moral instruction(to obey and to listen) and some basic language were taught everyday. This was the beginning and the philosophy of the present day mainstream school system.

In some ways, most educated Indians today are a product of an old, complex, traditional culture and westernized modernity, with the English language having a predominant role.

When Salman Rushdie wrote that he reads no Indian language well enough to read its literature but, it didn’t matter, because he knew that nothing worthwhile had been written in any of these languages in recent times, he was exposing a familiar feature of the public school students personality. The regional media has virtually no place in the institutions serving the English educated elite who depend on English both for receiving news and responding to it. They have no access to the articulation of the public mind which takes place in the local media and literature. This calls to mind the suggestions of the ‘All India Banish English Conference’ spearheaded by Rammanohar Lohia and mentioned in his book “Language” written in 1965 at the time of the Language rioting in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal. The following quotations are from this book:

All India Banish India Conference

The first ‘All India Banish English Conference’ wholly opposed the central government’s decision to keep English indefinitely as an associate language because this decision went against the language policy declared in the Indian constitution.

That English is a foreign language and hurts national self-respect is a minor point compared to its effect in depressing economy and causing inequality. The use of English as a medium in economy depresses work output, in education reduces learning and almost nullifies research, in administration weakens efficiency and adds to inequality.

If the entire administrative work of the government and its intellectual activities continue to be carried on in the language of the minority, then whose interests will such a government defend? People’s rule is impossible without people’s language.

English does harm to India not so much because it is foreign but because it is in the Indian context hierarchical. Only a tiny minority of the population achieves such efficiency in the language as to be able to use it for power or profit.

Effects on Education: An Indian child is driven mad right from the age of five because he is overburdened with the learning of a foreign language and hardly reaches the core of a subject. If acquisition of knowledge is your ultimate aim, do not fritter away your time and energy on learning a foreign language. Use them to acquire a deep knowledge of subject.

Suggestions of the Banish English Conference

The All India Banish English Conference is of the opinion that English should be banished as the medium of education from all levels of instruction. It may of course be retained as an optional subject. This conference is of the opinion that the regional language should be the medium of education upto graduation and Hindi for post graduate studies. The vocabulary and terminology of any language cannot be enriched by government committees but through words getting rooted into a language by coinage and usage by people in their day to day life.

The Beautiful Tree

In his 1931 speech at Chatham House, Gandhiji’s observations on education emphasized two main points:

(i) India today is more illiterate than it was more than 100 years ago.
(ii) The ‘British administrators,’ instead of looking after education and other matters which had existed, ‘began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that and the beautiful tree perished. ( the beautiful tree is a metaphor for the indigenous Indian education system)

Indians React to English Schooling

Tagore reacted to “English schooling“ by denouncing the British Raj in 1878 and by establishing many years later in 1921, Viswa Bharati. He believed that freedom of mind, sensitivity to nature, involvement with the community were all more important than the rigid formal curriculum followed in the schools of the British regime.

Tagore has ridiculed the schools of Calcutta Presidency in his skit “the parrot’s training” The parrot is deprived of its natural freedom and with its wings clipped made to sit in a cage where it is fed on copies of textbooks. Finally all its natural spontaneity drains away and the bird is dead, only the paper stuffing rustles when it is poked and the pandits are satisfied that its education is complete.

Tagore in 1925

After forming governments in many provinces of British India in 1937, the Congress was called upon to expand and revitalize the country’s education system. Financial resources were limited and did not permit any increase in expenditure on education. Gandhi offered a radical solution:

That primary education include a craft, chosen from among the main occupations of the people and that such education should be productive and self-supporting.

He claimed that the highest development of the mind and soul maybe attained through the commonest activities of productive manual work, provided the child learns the why and wherefore of every process.

To Gandhi, “education is that which gives true freedom” and he felt that local crafts immediately connected the youth to the regeneration of local economy, society and culture. He felt that the teacher who teaches from textbooks has no opportunity or occasion to be original.

Education represents a space where society can regenerate itself if it uses the space judiciously. It is a well-established fact that India’s education system has remained moribund partly because of the colonial legacies of administration and financial management but mainly because of older cultural legacies which divide literacy and intellectual learning from manual work and dexterity. Gandhi’s proposal for a new kind of basic education aimed at bridging that gap.

The Anand Niketan Nai Talim school at Sevagram together with the Teachers Training Institute and various levels of learning activities from pre-primary to rural university was a unique path breaking experiment.

The institution of Gandhigram started in 1947 with a Basic School, This school was for children up to the age of 10, i.e., till about present 5th standard. The basic principles were that the child will learn from his natural environment, social environment and craft. Accordingly, the school primarily pursues craft, agriculture, weaving and spinning.
Power in the Hands of the State

After Independence, there was a constitutional mandate for the state to assume responsibility for all citizens. With the exponential growth in population, while the family considered the birth of a child as an asset, the state considered it a problem. Commerce dictated terms and there was a sharper focus on children’s potential for affluence in the future through the choices they made in education.

There was a very real fear of power being wielded by the State.

The Need for Educational Reform

As Marjorie Sykes wrote, the mark of a fully mature human community is that it looks upon the men and women of its own society, not primarily as tools who may be used to serve the material interests of the state, but as ends in themselves, to be respected and valued for their own sake.

Tagore’s Letter From Russia states, “We must win over our country from our own inertia. Boons from the government only make our inertia more intense…..our aim must be to restore to the villagers the power to meet their own requirements, where the appointed headman may hear and settle local disputes.

When Vinoba Bhave said that freedom of thought can only stem from freedom of education he meant that as long as the direction of education was in the hands of the government there could be no independent public opinion.

Many innovative thinkers in education set up path breaking institutions, sharing an enlightened approach to children’s schooling.

Sri Aurobindo suggested that the mother tongue was best as the medium of education and stressed the role of the teacher as a guide. Swami Vivekananda spoke about the inward goal and the Ramakrishna mission schools focus on a service orientation. J. Krishnamurti spoke about how education must concern itself with goodness and help the child to become a total human being, with a focus on inter-relatedness.

Christopher Winch in his Mahatma Gandhi memorial lecture in 2007 emphasized that educational reform has to

-Address the big question of what education is for
-consider all important aspects of our humanity and their relationships with each other
-That educational reform is unlikely to succeed if it is conceived of as solely a matter of making the existing mechanisms for teaching and learning more effective

Learning of course does not take place only in schools. Several communities of forest dwellers for instance do not require schools as we know them. In such societies, living the life of the community, working in the fields, listening to the tribal elders, playing one’s part in group ceremonies…that is self-education.

People in such societies acquire tools for work, values and modes of behavior are absorbed, and the environment as a whole provides a permanent framework for learning. Unschooled people are as intelligent, creative and competent as those who have gone to school. A tribal may be able to categorize hundreds of plants with greater facility than a botany professor in a university.
Education in India Today

The purpose of education is to prepare new generations for adult life. What is learnt also very much depends on the requirement of the system and modes of production. For example, in modern day industrial societies there is a separation of intellectual design and management functions on the one hand and pure and simple tasks, on the other. Thus in our hierarchical and unequal society, the output of school failures is as important as the output of graduates. Here the graduates take on the intellectual design and management functions and the school failures take on the simple tasks and manual work.

Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) shows that 13 out of every 100 Indians between 5-29 years did not attend school or dropped out because they did not consider education “necessary.”

This proportion is significantly higher for school going kids between 10-14 years. In this category, one out of every three persons who is not attending school said they considered education unnecessary.

This trend is more marked among rural students with 34.8% of drop outs (including those who have never attended school) indifferent to studies. A far lower proportion of urban students—about 22.8%—showed a lack of interest in education

In an attempt to introduce mass education and reach out to all the children in the country, the nation went on a rampage from the late fifties to sixties starting schools. Some of these had no teacher and some had only a blackboard and chalk. With this spread, came the classic divide between quantity and quality in the education system , which continues till today, perpetuating a chasm between life and learning; life and schooling; life and education…

So this brings us back to some of the questions raised in this paper:
What does preparation for adult life mean?
Can it mean different things for different people? How do we ensure a variety of purposes are met?

Practical issues

Medium or media of instruction– English and ‘home language(s)’ The implications??? What about people moving to different states?
Teacher education and training ?
How can we be inclusive? Of purposes? Of various kinds of diversity?
How can we be democratic in figuring out pathways to solutions?
How can we make the best use of our cultural practices and what the British left us with? Should we?


1. Dharampal: Collected Writings, Volume 2, Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition
2. Dharampal: Collected Writings, Volume 3, The Beautiful Tree: indigenous Indian education in the18th century
3. Rammanohar Lohia: Language
4. Krishna Kumar: A Pedagogue’s Romance, Reflections on Schooling
5. Marjorie Sykes: Education in Search of a Philosophy
6. Christopher Winch: First Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Lecture 2007
7. IDAC Team: Danger School
8. http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/2000/12/17/stories/13170371.htm
9. https://ithihas.wordpress.com/2013/08/28/ancient-indian-education-system-from-the-beginning-to-10th-c-a-d/
10. http://www.concernedforworkingchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/History-of-Panchayati-Raj-in-Karnataka.docx
11. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Why-children-drop-out-from-primary-school/article16792949.ece
12. http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/h9bmbiINg0iH0BcrbZ7ggO/Why-students-in-India-drop-out.html

Original Article : http://indec.net.in/2017/07/07/history-of-democratic-culture-in-india/ by Nivedita Ram