The East India Company initially did not dabble into educational and social aspects of the lives of the people of the subcontinent and though it held full sway in Bengal after 1857 yet the responsibility of imparting education remained only in Indian hands. The study of ancient texts written in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit still continued and was given a fillip in 1781 when Warren Hastings established a Madrasa in Calcutta to encourage the study of Muslim laws along with Arabic and Persian languages.
During the first three decades of the 19th century, the development of education took place only through the traditional institutions. It is apparent from the government records that the state of oriental learning at the time of the establishment of the Company’s rule in Bengal, there were about 80,000 traditional institutions of learning in Bengal alone, which means that there was at least one institution for every four hundred people in that province. Different educational surveys of Madras, Bombay and Punjab also demonstrate similar facts. There was at least one school in every village of India at that time.
It was however observed that with the passage of time the East India Company began to adopt a dual policy in the sphere of education. It discouraged the prevalent system of oriental education and gave importance to western education and English language. In a historic development, the Charter Act of 1813 adopted a provision to spend one lakh rupees per annum for the spread of education in India and it became the first effort of its kind undertaken by the state. Although there was a prolonged debate pertaining to education during the course of a general discussion on the Act of 1813 in the British Parliament yet the matter continued to generate debate for the next 20 years.
As the consolidation of British rule took place the contemporary British scholars were divided into two groups on the issue of development of education in India. One group, called the Orientalists, advocated the promotion of oriental subjects through Indian languages. The other group, called the Anglicists, argued the cause of western sciences and literature in the medium of English language. In 1829 after becoming Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck emphasised on the medium of English language in Indian education. In the beginning of 1835, the 10 members of the General Committee of Public Instruction were clearly divided into two equal groups. Five members including the Chairman of the committee Lord Macaulay were in favour of adopting English as medium of public instruction whereas the other five were in favour of oriental languages.
The stalemate continued till 2 February 1835 when the Chairman of the committee, Lord Macaulay announced his famous Minute advocating the Anglicists’ point of view. Consequently, despite fierce opposition from all quarters, Bentinck got the resolution passed on 7 March 1835 which declared that henceforth, government funds would be utilised for the promotion of western literature and science through the medium of English language.
In 1854, Sir Charles Wood sent a comprehensive dispatch as a grand plan on education. The establishment of departments of public instructions in five provinces and introduction of the pattern of grants in aid to encourage private participation in the field of education were recommended. Besides, the dispatch also laid emphasis on the establishment of schools for technical education, teacher and women education. Over and above all these, the dispatch recommended the establishment of one University each in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, on the model of the London University. Consequently, within the next few years, the Indian education became rapidly westernised.
In matters of social policies and legislation, the beginning of the British interest remained limited to trade and earning profits from economic activities, therefore, they did not evince any interest in taking the issue of social or religious reforms. They were apprehensive of interfering with the social and religious customs and institutions of the Indians because of the fear that they might lose trade advantage. The result was that they adopted the policy of extreme precaution and indifference towards social issues in India. However, in the mid-19th century the social and religious movements, launched in India, attracted the attention of the Company’s administration towards the country’s social evils. The propaganda carried out by the Christian missionaries also stirred the minds of the educated Indians. Western thought and education and views expressed in different newspapers and magazines had their own impact. Some of the British administrators like Lord William Bentinck had shown personal interest in the matter. There were primarily two areas in which laws were enacted: laws pertaining to women emancipation and the caste system.
The condition of women, by the time the British established their rule, was not encouraging. Several evil practices such as the practice of Sati, the Purdah system, child marriage, female infanticide, bride price and polygamy had made their life quite miserable. The place of women had come to be confined to the four walls of her home. The doors of education had been shut for them. From economic point of view also her status was miserable. There was no social and economic equality between a man and woman. A woman was not entitled to inherit any property and, by and large, she was completely dependent on men. During the 19th and 20th centuries some laws were enacted with the sincere efforts of social reformers, humanists and some British administrators to improve the condition of women in Indian society. The first effort in this direction was the enactment of law against the practice of Sati during the administration of Lord William Bentinck.
Female infanticide was another inhuman practice afflicting the 19th century of the society of the subcontinent. It was particularly in vogue in Rajputana, Punjab and the North Western Provinces. Colonel Todd, Johnson Duncan, Malcolm and other British administrators discussed this evil custom in detail. It was noted that factors such as family pride, fear of not finding a suitable match for the girl child and hesitation to bend before the prospective in-laws, were some of the major reasons responsible for this practice. Therefore, immediately after birth, the female infants were being killed either by feeding them with opium or by strangulating or by purposely neglecting them. Some laws were enacted against this practice in 1795, 1802 and 1804 and then in 1870. However, the pra
ctice could not be completely eradicated only through legal measures. Gradually, this evil practice came to be done away through education and public opinion.
There are many historical evidences to suggest that widow remarriage enjoyed social sanction during ancient period in the subcontinent. In course of time the practice ceased to prevail increasing the number of widows to virtually millions during the 19th century. Therefore, it became incumbent on the part of the social reformers to make sincere efforts to popularise widow remarriage by writing in newspapers and contemporary journals. In July 1856, J.P. Grant, a member of the Governor-General’s Council finally tabled a bill in support of the widow remarriage, which was passed on 13 July 1856 and came to be called the Widow Remarriage Act, 1856. The practice of child marriage was another social stigma for the women. In 1891, through the enactment of the Age of Consent Act, this was raised to 12 years. In 1930, through the Sharda Act, the minimum age was raised to 14 years. These reforms brought about profound change in the societal structure of the subcontinent. TW