Adnan Rasheed and Macaulay: A likely pair

Adnan Rasheed and TB Macaulay had more in common than you might think, says Catriona Luke


Uh-oh, here comes Macaulay and his Minute and Rasheed has just bowled a googly, I thought when I read his open letter to one of Pakistan’s heroic and brave 16-year-olds.

Adnan Rasheed’s attack by pen on Malala Yousafzai admits that the Taliban shot her but what is upsetting is that he quotes arch-colonialist TB Macaulay (1800-1859) in justification of the Taliban’s actions. It’s upsetting because it is true, even if it is nearly 180 years out of date.

Macaulay wrote in his Minute on Education of 1835 to the English Language Board: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern — a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

Arguably – because Macaulay came to frame the mindset of colonialism – there were worst excesses of colonial autocracy than Macaulay’s Minutes on education and Rasheed could have picked any number of them: the famines that began at the end of the eighteenth century and didn’t stop until Bengal in 1943 and the atrocities committed by the British in the 1857 Mutiny against the Indian population superficially would have made a better point.

It’s difficult to ignore the fact that colonialism, Macaulay and Taliban ideology have things in common.

But in both the righteous violence that spilled from them and their intolerance grounded in religion it’s difficult to ignore the fact that colonialism, Macaulay and Taliban ideology have things in common.

Colonialism alas too was an ideology, shored up by financial gain through the eighteenth century and then on the back of moral righteousness and religious proselytising from the early nineteenth century. By 1857, the year of the Mutiny, it justified the use of violence and force. Quoted by Ahmed Ali in Twilight in Delhi is a poem by Bahadur Shah, the last Moghul emperor, which recalled the sack of Delhi and copious shootings by British troops in September 1857 includes these lines about the British (for ‘British’ you could now read ‘Taliban’):

“They suspect every Muslim who says
Even a word against them
And with his life he penalty pays”

Macaulay made a surprise journey from being a Whig MP who supported the Reform Bill of 1832 – and a writer of dramatic history that he acknowledged owed a great debt to Walter Scott – to a bigoted and autocratic imperialist when he went to India in 1834 to sit on the Supreme Council.

Most likely the answer lies in an authoritarian character. Not unlike the Taliban, Macaulay’s long list of dislikes included:

  • Anyone who didn’t agree with him.
  • Women.
  • Any book not in his own language (English). Here is the famous ‘shelf of literature’ quote from Macaulay’s Minute: “all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England”. Facts. Lord Acton was of the opinion that Macaulay “knew nothing of foreign history, of religion, philosophy, science, or art” and Marx called him a “systematic falsifier of history”.
  • Educated women.
  • Thought and tolerance: C S Lewis of Narnia fame described him as “vulgar, shallow, self-satisfied”.
  • Anyone not of his particular religious background.
  • Poetry (“as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines” and “no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind”) although Macaulay – the Taliban also write poetry – wrote sleep-inducing heroic couplets about Horatius holding the bridge leading to Rome singlehandedly against the Etruscans.
  • Hindus (“no Hindoo, who has received an English education, ever remains sincerely attached to his religion … It is my firm belief that, if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence”)

I haven’t read Zareer Masani’s recent biography of Macaulay, but I’ve read Masani’s Indian Tales of the Raj which was published in 1988. It is a series of accounts of the Indian experience of living under British rule – and with quite a large input from Khushwant Singh, who was practising as a lawyer in Lahore in the 1940s.

Macaulay’s authoritarian scheme – (there is always hope) – didn’t quite come off: “The law was a pragmatic compromise between the secular principles of British justice and the Indian religious law that continued to rule marriage, inheritance and many other civil matters,” writes Masani, under dictation from K Singh.

I happen to think that the shelf-load of English literature from the 1830s was pretty awful 

In the end Macaulay phutted out like a tired balloon, to be quoted only by members of the Pakistan Taliban some two centuries later. His shelf-load of literature quote is nonsense. Anyway I happen to think that the shelf-load of English literature from the 1830s was pretty awful too: the Romantic poets, the Brontes, Dickens, Trollope, Kipling, DH Lawrence, Galsworthy right up to Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis is ghastly and without merit. The west sold the rest of the world a whole series of donkeys but none more so than in the written literary word.

But when it comes to the English language I have different views. Esperanto, the concocted language of the twentieth century that was designed to be the world’s second language that everyone could learn and communicate by failed to take off. English has become the world’s most widely spoken second language. It’s the language of trade, communications, aviation, diplomacy in some instances, technological advance, the internet. If you have English you can join the world conversation and be part of it.

Pakistan and India are multi-lingual societies. I’m thinking of the flexibility this affords. A British Pakistani I was chatting to says her three-year-old niece mixes English, Punjabi and Urdu words to get just the mix of meaning she’s after. If you’re into self-expression it can never get much cooler, or useful, than that.

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