Did Western education really uplift the colonised Bengalis?
Muslims in colonial Bengal and western education is a topic much discussed, but few scholars have attempted to delve deeper into the issues and problems surrounding the topic. Bengal Muslims and Colonial Education, 1854-1947: A Study of Curriculum, Educational Institutions and Communal Politics (Routledge, 2022) is a slim volume by Professor Nilanjuna Paul that ventures to fill a void in terms of closing the gap on the effects of colonial rule and education policies on colonised people.
Macaulay, the first Director of Public Instruction of British India, envisioned western education through conservative values: the manufacture of a subordinate urban class of subjects as the defender of social order. Such policies adversely affected Bengali Muslims in the rural Bengal Delta. They lacked access to English-language schools or resources to send their children to urban areas for education. In the 1850s, the introduction of jute as a commercial crop changed their fortunes. 'Jotedars', surplus Muslim farmers, began to show an increasing interest in western education.
Amidst this changing colonial economy, the Wood's Dispatch in 1854 encouraged the Raj to provide education to the colonised at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, but no action was taken. Accordingly, English education has often been portrayed as a modernising agent to reorient class and caste structures. Through her five chapters, Paul argues that colonial education rather sowed discord and contributed to unequal divisions of labour between Hindus and Muslims.
As Paul asserts, it was not only about the lack of resources and the urban-rural dichotomy but also about formulating an appropriate curriculum that addressed the specific needs of aspiring Muslim scholars who were very different from their Hindu peers. Despite the importance of these issues, as Paul points out, the Muslim community itself was divided as to how to implement the changes in the curriculum so that Muslim learners would be benefited. Ashraf Muslims favoured Urdu over vernacular education and Muslim women were prohibited from participating in western education for fear of brining disrespect for Islamic ethos. Likewise, they were also concerned that Islamic learning and culture should be prioritised over secular education. Due to the absence of free primary education in rural areas, maktabs and madrasas became the preferred sites for mass education. However, as meticulously recorded by Paul, reading the Quran and memorising verses did not improve Muslim students' abilities to compete with students educated in the western educational system.
The appearance of Fazlul Haq on the political scene is described in the book as the "High time of Muslim hope". Indeed, Haq provided a glimpse of hope for the Muslim community. Haq's inclination for positive discrimination enabled him to be an indefatigable promoter of English education for Muslims across gender lines. A major achievement of Haq's was founding Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta, the first Muslim women's college in Bengal, and passing the Primary Education Bill, which made elementary education free and compulsory for all. Finally, Haq managed to remove the barrier to Muslim women's education and mass education with a bold action.
In her book, Paul provides a fascinating description of the communal tension surrounding the foundation of the Dacca University, which "became a symbol of Muslim higher education without any prejudices or biases against Islam, as they were in the Calcutta University curriculum". Hindu Bhadraloks badmouthed the University's founding in 1920, saying it would be an Islamic propagation centre rather than a learning site, calling it the "Mecca University of the East."
Paul's observation corroborates Hunter's observation that the absence of Muslim instructors and an appropriate curriculum impeded Muslim education. Paul could have added that the lack of Muslim student hostels in subdivisional and district towns also deterred rural Muslim parents from sending their children to urban centres, where they faced difficulties obtaining housing due to discrimination from Hindu landlords. Disproving the innuendo, the Dacca University became a premier learning centre in the Indian subcontinent for faculty and students of different ethnicities. However, sectarian politics harmed communal harmony, while colonisers continued to play the communal card, implying that colonised people had a natural tendency to return to their primordial instincts no matter how well educated they were.
Despite Paul's painstaking research, the book contains a few shortcomings. Lack of detail in discussing the curriculum obscures its content and pedagogies and, in turn, the dehumanising effects of rote learning on colonised populations. With fewer than 104 pages, the reader gets an authoritative view of colonial education in the dying days of the Raj.
Aminur Rahim, PhD is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, University of Rajshahi.