Pre-colonial India is well known for its system of indigenous education.

There existed Gurukulas and Patashalas to promote education of the caste Hindus and Madarasas and Maktabs to promote the education of the Muslim community in India.

This indigenous education gave more stress to scholarship of languages rather than science and technology and by the time the British came to India as traders, Persian was the court language and irrespective of religious faith, both Hindus and Muslims learnt Persian to obtain jobs under the rulers of pre-colonial India.

Besides Madarsas and Patashalas, there too existed advanced centres of learning in languages along with ordinary schools teaching language proficiency based on oral tradition and memorization of the texts. The British who acquired territorial control and became political masters did not interfere in the educational field till 1813. After 1813, with the cooperation or a limited number of Indians, the British colonial rulers introduced the western system of education in India.


There was a great debate among Indians and the British, known as ‘Orientalists’ and ‘Anglicists’ about the type of education needed by the Indians. For nearly more than half a century, the British followed a policy of neutrality or non-intervention in the matters of religion and culture of the indigenous people.

But due to constant pressure from different sections – the Christian missionaries, the liberals, the utilitarians, and the Anglicists – the British yielded and agreed to take up the responsibility of promoting Western education. There is also a view that the educational policy was designed to legit­imize the domination of the British colonial needs.

No doubt, there also existed certain people among the British, who were genuinely interested in the promotion of oriental learning, like Warren Hastings who started Calcutta Madarasa in 1781, Jonathan Duncan who founded the Beneras Sanskrit College in 1791 and William James, who founded The Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. In this great debate, finally Anglicists, succeeded in introducing the western system of education in India. A general committee of public instruction was set up in 1823 to look after the development of education in India.

Macaulay, the president of the General Committee of Public Instruction and Lord Bentinck overrode the orientalist view point and declared, “the great object of the British government in India is henceforth to be the promotion of European literature and science among natives of India and that all the funds appropriated for the purpose of education would be best employed on English education alone”. Besides Macaulay and William Bentin, the efforts of Charles Grant and William Wilberforce deserve to be remembered in this aspect.


William Bentinck announced in 1835 that English replaced Persian as the court language, books in English were made available at low prices and more funds were allotted to support the English education, and fund for the support of oriental learning was curtailed. Lord Auckland, who succeeded Bentnick as the Governor General also continued encouragement for the promotion of English learning by opening English colleges in Dacca, Patna, Benaras, Allahabad, Agra, Delhi and Barielly.

In 1841, the General Committee of Public Instruction was abolished and in its place a council of education was established. Another landmark in the development of Western education was Wood’s Despatch of 1854. The Despatch categorically states “the education that we desire to see extended in India is that which has for its object the diffusion of the improved arts, science, and philosophy and literature of Europe, in short, of European knowledge.

Charles Wood also recommended for the starting of universities at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, for the establishment of a network of graded schools, high schools, middle schools and the elementary schools, promotion of vernacular schools and the establishment of teacher training institutions and the introduction of grant-in-aid system to non-government schools opened by charitable bodies and individuals. As per the recommendation of Wood, in 1857 three univer­sities were established at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta.

The Woods Despatch acted as a model for further development of education in India. Besides government support for Western learning in India, Christian missionaries and others took keen interest. The founding of Hindu College, which in later times was called Presidency College in Calcutta by David Hare and others helped the promotion of secular learning among the Hindus. Along with Western learning, woman’s education also received wide patronage. The same pattern of promotion of education can be witnessed in Bombay and Madras presidencies too.


We notice a slow and gradual promotion of Western learning in India which ultimately led to a new spirit of rationalism and a new critical outlook in the Indians which finally led to the emergence of a spirit of nationalism; championing of self-rule and self-reliance. It does not mean that Western learning was primarily responsible for the above narrated process, but it acted as a catalyst in fostering the awareness of the colonial economic exploitation.

As the consequence of the spread of Western educational system, new notions of reason, justice and utilitarian concerns of welfare began to mould the minds of the educated Indians in search of an answer to the problems of poverty and impoverishment that plagued Indian society of the later 19th century. An inter­esting offshoot of the spread of Western education and transformation of British East India Company from that of trader-conqueror to that of rulers was the emergence of a middle class professional group to serve the interests of the British colonial and imperial interests.