Dharampal: How the Beautiful Tree was Uprooted

Extracts from: The Beautiful Tree

Excerpts are italicized and we have emphasized key passages in bold. In some cases, we have additionally underlined these key passages that have special significance.

Dharampal quoting Gandhiji, 1931: “I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully, that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, 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.

State of English education during those times.

School education, especially elementary education at the people’s level, remained an uncommon commodity till around 1800.

Colonialist agenda: mass conversion

The task according to William Wilberforce, called for ‘the circulation of the holy scriptures in the native languages’ with a view to the general diffusion of Christianity, so that the Indians “would, in short become Christians, if I may so express myself, without knowing it.’

Watering Holes of Dharmic Culture

A key point here made by Dharampal is that Shiksha (a Sanskrit non-translatable) is not the same as English ‘Education’.

It is important to emphasize that indigenous education was carried out through pathshalas, madrassahs and gurukulas. Education in these traditional institutions—which were actually kept alive by revenue contributions by the community including illiterate peasants—was called prajna, shil and samadhi(and included the ideas of prajna, shil and samadhi. These institutions were, in fact, the watering holes of the culture of traditional communities. Therefore, the term ‘school’ is a weak translation of the roles these institutions really played in Indian society.

Men like Thomas Munro, had observed that ‘every village had a school.’ For areas of the newly extended Presidency of Bombay around 1820, senior officials like G.L. Prendergast noted ‘that there is hardly a village, great or small, throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, and in larger villages more.’

…the situation in India in 1800 is certainly not inferior to what obtained in England then; and in many respects Indian schooling seems to have been much more extensive (and, it should be remembered, that it is a greatly damaged and disorganised India that one is referring to).

…in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamil-speaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them  who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

substantial proportions of revenue had long been assigned for the performance of a multiplicity of public purposes. These seem to have stayed more or less intact through all the previous political turmoils and made such education possible. The collapse of this arrangement through a total centralisation of revenue, as well as politics led to decay in the economy, social life, education, etc.

The number of scholars, male as well as female were further to be provided under the following categories:…The category ‘all other castes’, … included most such groupings which today are listed among the scheduled castes.

It has generally been assumed that the education of any kind in India, whether in the ancient period, or just at the beginning of British rule was mainly concerned with the higher and middle strata of society; and, in case of the Hindoos (who in the Madras Presidency accounted for over 95% of the whole population), it was more or less limited to the twice-born. However, as will be seen from Table 2, the data of 1822-25 indicate more or less an opposite position.… Soodras and the other castes ranged from about 70% in Salem and Tinnevelly to over 84% in South Arcot.

In most areas, the Brahmin scholars formed a very small proportion of those studying in schools.

Astronomy and Medical Science seem to have been studied by scholars from a variety of backgrounds and castes… According to other Madras Presidency surveys, of those practising Medicine and Surgery, it was found that such persons belonged to a variety of castes. Amongst them, the barbers, according to British medical men, were the best in Surgery.

The Malabar data also shows 194 persons studying medicine. As indigenous medical practitioners existed in every other district and perhaps in every village

Adam himself was no great admirer of the Indian teacher … W. Adam initially had come to Bengal in 1818 as a Baptist Missionary…. Adam’s first report is a general statement of the situation and a presentation of the data which he could derive from post-1800 official and other sources. His conclusions: first, every village had at least one school and in all probability in Bengal and Bihar with 1,50,748 villages, ‘there will still be 1,00,000’ villages that have these schools…. 485 villages nonetheless had 123 native general medical practitioners, 205 village doctors, 21 mostly Brahmin smallpox inoculators practising according to the old Indian method, 60 297 women-midwives, and 722 snake conjurors.

Adam divided the period spent in elementary schools into four stages. According to him these were: the first stage, seldom exceeding ten days, during which the young scholar was taught ‘to form the letters of the alphabet on the ground with a small stick or slip of bamboo’, 

It has been noted that the world famous Montessori method of education is essentially derived from this indigenous Indian approach. Montessori school kids today are taught to write on the ground the same way.

Elementary Education for All Sections:

The first striking point from this broader survey is the wide social strata to which both the taught and the teachers in the elementary schools belonged. .. it seems as if every caste group is represented in the student population, the Brahmins and the Kayasthas nowhere forming more than 40% of the total. In the two Bihar districts, together they formed no more than 15 to 16%. The more surprising figure is of 61 Dom, and 61 Chandal school students in the district of Burdwan, nearly equal to the number of Vaidya students, 126, in that district. While Burdwan had 13 missionary schools, the number of Dom and Chandal scholars in them were only four; and, as Adam mentioned, only 86 of the ‘scholars belonging to 16 of the lowest castes’ were in these missionary schools, while 674 scholars from them were in the ‘native schools’.

Destroying the Beautiful Tree

There is a sense of widespread neglect and decay in the field of indigenous education within a few decades after the onset of British rule.

On the other hand, the descriptions of life and society provided by earlier European accounts (i.e. accounts written prior to the onset of European dominance) of different parts of India, and the data on Indian exports relating to this earlier period (notwithstanding the political turmoil in certain parts of India), on the whole leaves an impression of a society which seems relatively prosperous and lively. The conclusion that the decay noticed in the early 19th century and more so in subsequent decades originated with European supremacy in India, therefore, seems inescapable. The 1769-70 famine in Bengal (when, according to British record, one-third of the population actually perished), may be taken as a mere forerunner of what was to come.

Karl Marx, as such no friend of imperialism or capitalism, writing in 1853 was of the view, that, ‘England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundation of Western society in Asia.’

By 1900, it had become general Indian belief that the country had been decimated by British rule in all possible ways; that not only had it become impoverished, but it had been degraded to the furthest possible extent; that the people of India had been cheated of most of what they had; that their customs and manners were ridiculed, and that the infrastructure of their society mostly eroded.

By 1930, much had been written on this point in the same manner as had been written on the deliberate destruction of Indian crafts and industry, and the impoverishment of the Indian countryside. However, to many within the expanding strata of westernised Indians—whether Marxists, Fabians, or capitalist-roaders, their views on India and their contempt for it almost equalled that of William Wilberforce, James Mill, or Karl Marx—such charges seemed farfetched, and even if true, irrelevant.

it is only after 1890 that the new system begins to equal the 1822-25 officially calculated proportions of males in schools quantitatively. Its quality, in comparison to the indigenous system, is another matter altogether.

the critical issue that was seldom touched upon and about which in their various ways, the Madras Presidency collectors, the reports of Adam, and the work of Leitner provided a variety of clues, was how all these educational institutions—the 1,00,000 schools in Bengal and Bihar, and a ‘school in every village’ according to Munro and others—were actually organised and maintained.

One school of thought uses all such foreign backing to show India’s primitiveness, the barbaric, uncouth and what is termed ‘parochial’ nature of the customs and manners of its people, and the ignorance, oppressions and poverty which Indians are said to have always suffered from. To them India for most of its past had lived at what is termed, the ‘feudal’ stage or what in more recent Marxist terminology is called the ‘system of Asiatic social organisms’.

Decentralized indigenous system

‘the Village’ (it is immaterial how they defined it), to an extent, had all the semblance of the State: it controlled revenue and exercised authority within its sphere… The basic element of this Village republic’ was the authority it wielded, the resources it controlled and dispensed, and the manner of such resource utilisation. Notwithstanding all that has been written about empires— Ashokan, Vijayanagar, Mughal, etc., and of ‘oriental despotism’ it is beyond any doubt that throughout its history, Indian society and polity has basically been organised according to non-centralist concepts.

…there is voluminous data scattered in the British records themselves which confirm the view—that in terms of the basic expenses, both education and medical care, like the expenses of the local police, and the maintenance of irrigation facilities, had primary claims on revenue.

The report of the collector of Bellary… ‘of the 533 institutions for education now existing in this district, I am ashamed to say not one now derives any support from the State’; but that ‘there is no doubt, that in former times, especially under the Hindoo Governments very large grants, both in money and in land, were issued for the support of learning’;

Cheerleaders of India’s Educational Genocide

While the limitless British hunger for revenue—so forcefully described by Campbell—starved the Indian system of the very resources which it required to survive, its cultural and religious content and structure provoked deliberate attempts aimed at its total extermination. It was imperative to somehow uproot the Indian indigenous system for the relatively undisturbed maintenance and continuance of British rule. It is the same imperative which decided Macaulay, Bentinck, etc., to deliberately neglect large-scale school education—proposed by men like Adam—till a viable system of Anglicised higher education had first been established in the country.

Karl Marx concluded: Whatever may have been the crimes of England’ in India, ‘she was the unconscious tool of history’ in bringing about—what Marx so anxiously looked forward to—India’s westernisation.

As to James Mill, so also to Wilberforce, Macaulay, and Karl Marx and the thought and approaches they represented (for it is more as spokesmen of such thinking and approaches that they are important in the context of India rather than as outstanding individuals), the manners, customs and civilisation of India were intrinsically barbarous. And to each of them, India could become civilised only by discarding its Indianness, and by adopting ‘utility as the object of every pursuit” according to Mill; by embracing his peculiar brand of Christianity for Wilberforce; by becoming anglicised, according to Macaulay; and for Marx by becoming western.

The Indian Education Holocaust

it led to an obliteration of literacy and knowledge of such dimensions amongst the Indian people that recent attempts at universal literacy and education have so far been unable to make an appreciable dent in it. Next, it destroyed the Indian social balance in which, traditionally, persons from all sections of society appear to have been able to receive fairly competent schooling. The pathshalas and madrassahs had enabled them to participate openly and appropriately and with dignity not only in the social and cultural life of their locality but, if they wished, ensured participation at the more extended levels. It is this destruction along with similar damage in the economic sphere which led to great deterioration in the status and socio-economic conditions and personal dignity of those who are now known as the scheduled castes; and to only a slightly lesser extent to that of the vast peasant majority encompassed by the term ‘backward castes’. The recent movements embracing these sections, to a great extent, seem to be aimed at restoring this basic Indian social balance.