Did Western education really uplift colonized Bengalis?

Muslims in Colonial Bengal and Western education is a much discussed subject, but few scholars have attempted to delve into the questions and issues surrounding the subject. Bengal Muslims and Colonial Education, 1854-1947: A Study of School 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 educational policies on colonized peoples.

Macaulay, British India’s first Director of Public Instruction, viewed Western education through conservative values: the making of a subordinate urban class of subjects as defenders of social order. Such policies have had negative effects on Bengali Muslims in the rural delta of Bengal. They had no access to English-language schools or the resources to send their children to urban areas for schooling. In the 1850s, the introduction of jute as a cash crop changed their fortunes. The ‘Jotedars’, surplus Muslim farmers, began to show a growing interest in Western education.

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Amid this changing colonial economy, Wood’s dispatch in 1854 encouraged the Raj to provide education for the colonized at primary, secondary and higher levels, but no action was taken. Accordingly, education in English has often been portrayed as a modernizing agent for reorienting class and caste structures. Through its five chapters, Paul argues that colonial education instead sowed discord and contributed to an unequal division of labor 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 on how to implement changes in the curriculum so that Muslim learners would benefit. Ashraf Muslims preferred Urdu over vernacular education and Muslim women were not allowed to participate in Western education for fear of disrespecting the Islamic ethos. Likewise, they also feared that Islamic learning and culture would take priority over secular education. Due to the lack of free primary education in rural areas, maktabs and madrasas have become the favored sites of mass education. However, as Paul meticulously noted, reading the Quran and memorizing the verses did not improve Muslim students’ abilities to compete with students educated in the Western educational system.

Fazlul Haq’s appearance on the political scene is described in the book as the “Great time of Muslim hope”. Indeed, Haq provided a glimpse of hope for the Muslim community. Haq’s penchant for affirmative action has enabled him to be a tireless promoter of English education for Muslims of all genders. One of Haq’s major achievements was the founding of Lady Brabourne College in Calcutta, the first Muslim women’s college in Bengal, and the passing of the Primary Education Bill, which made primary education free. and compulsory for all. Finally, Haq succeeded in removing the barrier to Muslim women’s education and mass education through bold action.

In his book, Paul provides a fascinating description of the communal tension surrounding the founding of Dhaka University, which “became a symbol of Muslim higher education without any prejudice or bias against Islam, as they were in the program of the University of Calcutta”. Hindu Bhadraloks spoke ill of the founding of the University in 1920, saying it would be a center of Islamic propagation rather than a site of learning, calling it “the University of Mecca of the East”.

Paul’s observation corroborates Hunter’s observation that the absence of Muslim instructors and a proper curriculum hampered Muslim education. Paul might have added that the lack of Muslim student hostels in subdivision and district towns also deterred rural Muslim parents from sending their children to urban centers, where they faced difficulties in securing accommodation due to the discrimination of Hindu landlords. To refute the insinuations, Dhaka University has become a leading center of learning in the Indian subcontinent for faculty and students of different ethnicities. However, sectarian politics damaged community harmony, while the colonizers continued to play the community card, implying that the colonized had a natural tendency to revert to their primal instincts, regardless of their level of education. .

Despite Paul’s painstaking research, the book contains some shortcomings. The lack of detail in the discussion of the curriculum obscures its content and pedagogies and, in turn, the dehumanizing effects of rote learning on colonized populations. With less than 104 pages, the reader gets an authoritative view of colonial education in the later days of the Raj.

Aminur Rahim, PhD is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Bangladesh Studies, Rajshahi University.

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